15 May 2016

Book Review: “The Secret War”

Joseph Joffe
May 11, 2016

‘The Secret War,’ by Max Hastings

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,” 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,” 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. In spite of 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, 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 that their history had been stolen). In “The Imitation Game,” Alan Turing is the lone-wolf genius who invents an Enigma-killer, barely tolerating his colleagues at Bletchley Park, where Britain’s best and brightest were feverishly trying to break German codes. Actually, the Ultra program that cracked Enigma was a vast collaborative effort with a cast of hundreds who drew on the earlier work of Polish mathematicians.

Another myth trumpets that Ultra turned German signal traffic into an open book throughout the war. Not so, Hastings counters. As late as the fall of 1944, Bletchley’s wonder boys and girls managed to read only between 15 percent and 24 percent of Wehrmacht communications. What’s more: “Many decodes of all kinds were achieved too slowly to influence events on the battlefield.”

Still, the patriot in Hastings can’t quite resist waxing lyrical: “Bletchley was one of the most remarkable institutions the world has ever known, and one of the greatest achievements in British history.” The D-Day invasion, he says, “owed much to Ultra,” as did America’s naval triumph in the Pacific.

For all its focus on the Anglo-American brotherhood, “The Secret War” also covers the whole front from the French and Dutch resistance to the German Abwehr and the Soviet NKVD. Like the rest, these chapters blend first-rate reportage, finely chiseled portraits and in-depth research. They brim with true tales of sacrifice and petty-­mindedness, miraculous breakthroughs and cynical betrayal.

The Soviets weren’t as good at the decrypt game, but much better than the Anglos at “humint,” traditional spycraft, especially when Stalin turned on the United States and Britain, his indispensable allies. The chapter on the Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project offers compulsory reading on the beastly ways of power politics.

Lodged in many minds are the Rosenbergs as starring players who would be executed in 1953 for betraying nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Yet at best, Julius Rosenberg was a gofer, “among the less dangerous Soviet agents.” The story actually begins in London in 1940 when Donald Maclean, one of the Cambridge Five, dispatched 60 pages on Britain’s nuclear research to Moscow. At that point, England was far ahead of America.

While Franklin Roosevelt made nice to “Uncle Joe” Stalin, the NKVD launched an epic spy war against their good American friends. By early 1943, a flood of nuclear secrets was reaching Moscow. A Dupont scientist, code-named “Mar,” alerted the Soviets to the potential of a plutonium-based bomb. Twelve days before the first American device was assembled, the Italian-born physicist Bruno Pontecorvo delivered the design to the NKVD rezidentura in Washington. Four years later, Stalin had his own bomb. Pontecorvo, having defected, died peacefully in his Moscow bed in 1993.

“The Russians had triumphed in the intelligence war,” Hastings’s ironic commentary notes. “Not against the fascist enemy, whose defeat was supposedly the common objective of the Second World War, but against their supposed ally, the United States.”

What’s next? “Humint,” the stuff of Benedict Arnold and Mata Hari yarns, is no longer at center stage. Now it is space-based surveillance, algorithms and Big Data — cyberwarfare, in short. The “secret war” of Hastings’s title was but prologue. “Cyberwarfare,” he argues, “is a logical evolution of the process” that began in World War I and “expanded vastly” at Bletchley Park and elsewhere in World War II.

Compared with today’s N.S.A., Bletchley was a cottage industry. So is cyberwar the future? Yes. But Hastings has it right when restating a far older truth. “Knowledge of the enemy’s motions” doesn’t win wars. It takes “soldiers, sailors and airmen to defeat him on the battlefield.” Moses’ spies were very good, but it took Joshua’s army to conquer the Promised Land.

Josef Joffe teaches foreign policy at Stanford, where he is a fellow of the Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution. His latest book is “The Myth of America’s Decline.”

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