Washington – In peacetime they were cooks and lawyers, bankers and housewives, athletes and teachers. In wartime they were spies in the ferocious espionage battle against Nazism. Sworn to secrecy, few ever divulged the crucial part that they played in winning the war.
Yesterday these members of a wartime intelligence network created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and modelled directly on the British MI6 were revealed when the US Government opened the files on 24,000 people who spied for America during the Second World War. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would later evolve into the CIA, played a key role in the war but the personal details of the men and women, civilian and military, who fought America’s secret war against the Nazis have never been made formally public before.
Officially the OSS employed 13,000 people in various clandestine activities during the war. The personnel files, declassified yesterday and now accessible at the National Archives in Washington, reveal a far larger organisation that recruited from every walk of life. The ranks of America’s spy army included soldiers, academics, historians, geographers, actors, anthropologists, diplomats, scientists, society hostesses, sportsmen and philosophers. There were two Nobel prizewinners, four future directors of CIA and a number of communist sympathisers. A quarter of the force were civilians, and more than 4,500 were women.
Some OSS recruits went on to become household names, such as Julia Child, the television chef, Moe Berg, the baseball player, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the historian. For decades, the CIA resisted pressure to release the OSS records.
“Finally, after all these years, they have gotten the names out,” Elizabeth McIntosh, 93, a one-time OSS agent, said yesterday. “All of these people had been told never to mention they were with the OSS”.
After Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war, Roosevelt concluded that the US needed an intelligence-gathering operation along British lines, and appointed a New York lawyer and First World War veteran, General William J. Donovan, to create it. In June 1942, Donovan, known as “Wild Bill”, set about creating a top-secret organisation to gather military intelligence and wreak havoc on the enemy by any means. He insisted on recruiting the brightest and the best, so much so that the OSS was nicknamed “Oh So Social” by other government agencies, piqued by the exclusivity of the new network.
The work of the OSS was highly effective: intelligence gathering, guerrilla warfare, psychological tactics, propaganda, sabotage, infiltration of enemy organisations, supporting and training resistance movements, codebreaking and subversion. The OSS was bankrolled by Roosevelt’s emergency fund, which meant that it could bypass the usual accounting methods.
In the course of its wartime life, the OSS spent $135 million – more than $1 billion at today’s prices.
The 750,000 pages of documents released yesterday reveal the full extent of the OSS network, which swiftly evolved into a vital element in the US war machine. The new organisation took its cue directly from MI6 and the Special Operations Executive, the group detailed to “set Europe ablaze”, in Churchill’s words. As Michael Warner, a CIA historian, writes: “The British had much to teach their American pupils . . . OSS needed information, training, and experience, all of which the British could provide.”
Among others working in this shadowy world were Herbert Marcuse, the German philosopher, Ralph Bunche, the African-American diplomat, Sterling Hayden, the actor, and Miles Copeland, father of Stewart Copeland, the drummer in the band the Police.
Liaising with MI6, the OSS proved particularly adept at recruiting spies to operate within Germany. Some 200 agents, mostly antiNazi prisoners of war, were dropped into Germany equipped with meticulously prepared clothing and documents.
Other agents linked up with Resistance fighters in France, and partisans in Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Burma, Malaya and China. Many of these were prepared for action behind the lines at the OSS training camp in the Catoctin Mountain Park, which is now the location of Camp David, the presidential retreat. Meanwhile the OSS psychological operations team churned out rafts of information and misinformation designed to mislead, bewilder and demoralise the enemy: rumours about Hitler’s health and sanity, subversive leaflets and fake broadcasts.