There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

OSS on the bus

Finished another book while riding to and from work on the bus: "OSS: The secret history of America's first central intelligence agency," written by R. Harris Smith.

I got on the subject after watching "The Good Shepherd," which covers some of the same ground. The book was in a pile of books I've been meaning to read.

The copy I read was published in 1972, shortly after the Pentagon Papers had been in the news. This book is, in many ways, a tribute to the "liberal" roots of the agency, which included a young Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who worked as a political analyst. A great deal of idealism infused the effort to create the nation's first spy agency.

The organization created by William Joseph "Wild Bill" Donovan was staffed with an amazing pool of talent. When one considers the narrow participation today in the Iraq War -- limited as it is almost exclusively to service members and their families -- it is difficult to imagine a war with genuinely broad support. Here is just one example of the caliber of people recruited to staff the early OSS:

"The Secret Intelligence Branch required special care. The SI Branch chief in London, Princeton political scientist William Maddox, was brought to Caserta to replace a Bank of America official as overseer of espionage operations in the Theater. Dr. Milton Katz, a Harvard law professor, left his post as counsel at the War Production Board in Washington to become Maddox's deputy.

"A special SI division was created for central European operations. An advertising executive of General Foods Corporation, Howard Chapin, was given responsibility for sending intelligence agents to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Germany."
The book provides a wealth of useless but fun trivia. In the category of people who became famous for entirely unrelated things, there is this:
"OSS intelligence files at Chungking (conscientiously maintained by a jolly amateur chef named Julia McWilliams Child) bulged with reports about the incompetence of the Chinese military command."
But the book is serious history and one feature I found the most valuable was the author's efforts to footnote what each of the major players did after their work in the OSS. For instance:
"OSS intelligence was collected from the Arab world by Dr. Stephen Penrose Jr. of the Near East College Association and his 27-year-old assistant, Cal Tech history instructor Kermit Roosevelt (a grandson of the "Rough Rider" Preisdent)."
The footnote for Roosevelt explains:
"Roosevelt engineered the CIA coup against Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, left the CIA to become vice-president for governmental relations of Gulf Oil, 1958-64, and is now a partner in a Washington public relations firm that represents, among other international clients, the government of Iran."
Obviously, not everyone who worked in the OSS and stayed to work with the CIA was a liberal idealist seeking self-determination for the world's people.

No history of "Wild Bill" Donovan's OSS would be complete without an example of the bold, innovative plans developed by these really brainy people as they searched for the means to defeat the evil Axis powers.
"Not to be outdone by London, a group of OSS psychoanalysts proposed an incredible operation based on the premise that the Nazi totalitarian state would disintegrate if only its leader could be demoralized. After conducting a long-range psychological profile of Hitler's personality, this group decided the Fueher could be undone by exposing him to vast quantities of pornography. The OSS men collected the finest library of German smut ever assembled in the United States. The material was to be dropped by plane in the area surrounding Hitler's headquarters on the assumption that the Fuehrer would step outside, pick up some bit of it and immediately be thrown into paroxysms of madness. But the effort was in vain. The Army Air Corps Colonel sent as liason to the pornography-collectors stormed out of his first meeting with them. He cursed Donovan's maniacs and swore he would not risk the life of a single airman for such an insane boondoggle."

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