Review: How Espionage Has Helped Win Wars

Historians in the News
tags: Cold War, espionage, Spies

Books about espionage are in a class by themselves, sometimes illuminating but often raising more questions than they answer, as a crop of new works reminds us.

In SPY SWAP: The Humiliation of Russia’s Intelligence Services (Frontline Books, 248 pp., $42.95) the former British Tory M.P. Rupert Allason, writing under the pseudonym Nigel West, contends that one reason Vladimir Putin, a onetime K.G.B. officer, has been so aggressive in killing defectors from the Russian intelligence services is that the Americans tricked him into letting a major defector go, a deed for which he is seeking revenge.

That’s an intriguing hypothesis. Unfortunately, West doesn’t so much prove it as assert it. The major problem I have with this screwy book is that it reads like a transcription of intelligence files, full of meaningless trivia like the code names assigned to minor agents and the home addresses of defectors who were targeted. I put down this volume wondering if West employs such a dense and bureaucratic style in order to boost its credibility.

CHECKMATE IN BERLIN: The Cold War That Shaped the Modern World (Holt, 400 pp., $29.99), by Giles Milton, an old-school narrative historian, takes us back to the emergence of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union as it played out in Germany’s once and future capital. It makes for a lively story. Sometimes shootouts occurred when American patrols encountered Red Army troops out for a night of looting and raping in occupied Berlin. The initial American impression of the Russians proved to be a lasting one: “a baffling combination of childishness, hard realism, irresponsibility, churlishness, amiability, slovenliness and callousness.” When American officials invited Russians to join them on a boar hunt, the guests showed up with submachine guns — and blasted the beasts with lethal effect. At the same time, the Russians knew better than the Americans how to play to the cultural tastes of the city, for example by staging Beethoven’s opera, “Fidelio.”

Milton raises an interesting question that evokes the great film “The Third Man”: Who really ran Berlin in the late 1940s — was it the Americans, Russians, British and French in their sectors, or was it the black marketeers playing the sectors against one another? At any rate, he concludes that Soviet missteps eventually pushed the Western allies into forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 and then, several years later, inviting Germany to join.

Brian Masaru Hayashi, a Kent State University historian, examines the experience of Japanese Americans and Korean Americans who worked for the O.S.S. — the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the C.I.A. — during World War II. In ASIAN AMERICAN SPIES: How Asian Americans Helped Win the Allied Victory (Oxford University, 304 pp., $34.95), he describes the O.S.S. as “racially liberal” and “an ethnically and racially inclusive organization.” Its director, William Donovan, protested directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the internment of West Coast Japanese Americans.

Read entire article at New York Times