Tales of Spies, Luck, Pluck and Doom

By Joffe, Josef | International New York Times, May 18, 2016 | Go to article overview

Tales of Spies, Luck, Pluck and Doom


Joffe, Josef, International New York Times


Intelligence gathering shed its early stigma and became a growth industry only with the start of World War II.

The Secret War. Spies, Cyphers and Guerrillas 1939-1945. By Max Hastings. Illustrated. 610 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $35.

Spying is the second-oldest profession, at least according to the Bible. In the Book of Numbers, Moses sends off a dozen sleuths to case out Canaan: "See what the land is like and whether the people there are strong or weak, few or many. Do their cities have walls around them?" Yet for the next 3,500 years or so, the intel business did not grow much. Indeed, as the fabled Henry Stimson story has it, spycraft was both worthless and infra dig. So Stimson, as secretary of state, closed down the department's Cipher Bureau, the "black chamber," in 1929, recalling in his memoirs that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Until 1939, the government stuck to a 1934 law barring interception of messages between the United States and foreign countries.

In his monumental new work, "The Secret War," the British author Max Hastings reminds us that intelligence did not become a "growth industry" until World War II. Above all, Britain and the United States "elevated intelligence, hitherto a little-respected branch of staff work, to an unprecedented importance." Today, the United States has 16 intelligence outfits. Has it been worth it?

"Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful," Mr. Hastings replies. "Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes." Add two more problems. One is the familiar "signal-to-noise ratio": How to unearth that shiny nugget in a mountain of rubbish? Two, even if spies find it, leaders must act on the information.

Examples of failure abound. One day before Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israelis had learned about the imminent attack from a high-placed Egyptian source. Yet Golda Meir, the prime minister, refused to strike pre-emptively for fear of losing American support. Before Pearl Harbor, American intelligence had plenty of advance warning, but Washington remained "supine," Mr. Hastings says. Stalin was worse. Even after Hitler's army had thrust eastward in the summer of 1941, Stalin could not believe that his good Nazi allies would do such a treacherous thing. In the run-up to Operation Barbarossa, he had dismissed the flood of Western intelligence as capitalist dezinformatsiya.

On the other hand, take the naval battle of Midway, with America's Pacific commander, Chester Nimitz, making the right bet on the right tip-off. While his colleagues were expecting a Japanese assault on the Marshall Islands or a second go at Pearl Harbor, Nimitz put his money on American and British decrypts identifying Midway as the next target. That's where he set the trap, wiping out four Japanese carriers and tilting the "balance of the war in the Pacific" in favor of the United States. Make that the beginning of the end for Japan just six months after the day of infamy.

But such tales of luck, pluck and doom are not the best reason for plowing through the 600 pages of "The Secret War." To begin, the book embodies a herculean research effort down to the minutest detail. Fear not. Despite its heft, this tome is a real page turner. Screenwriters might cull a few thrillers from the text -- and populate them with real-life heroes, fools and traitors. Finally, Mr. Hastings provides a welcome reality check for those who draw their spy lore from TV shows or movies like "The Imitation Game."

Hollywood invariably sacrifices accuracy to the demands of the box office -- so the movie "U-571," for instance, depicts American sailors lifting an Enigma coding machine from a captured German U- boat when the real heroes were the British (who justly fumed). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Tales of Spies, Luck, Pluck and Doom
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.