2019-07-15 22:14:34 UTC
(Regards,,, been mentioned around here,,,)
The Bizarre Ways America’s First Spy Agency Tried to Overthrow Hitler
From undercover heiresses to hormone-injected vegetables, the early
days of the Office of Strategic Services were marked by colorful hires
and wild schemes.
JUL 9, 2019
William "Wild Bill" Donovan (standing) in 1945
William "Wild Bill" Donovan (standing) in 1945 JACK WILKES / THE LIFE
PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY
At the start of World War II the United States had no civilian agency
dedicated to gathering foreign intelligence. Not that Americans never
spied: The Army and Navy both had intelligence branches, and even
private companies like General Electric sponsored corporate espionage.
But the genteel Ivy Leaguers who ruled the federal government tended to
view such activity as immoral, even dirty. As President Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, once said, “Gentlemen don’t
read each other’s mail.” This squeamishness put the United States at a
disadvantage compared with Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, all of
which had sophisticated intelligence bureaus and happily spied on
adversaries and allies alike.
The Atlantic's Daily Idea, on your smart speaker
Listen to a two-minute story every weekday, via your Amazon Echo or
Google Home device.
Pearl Harbor finally forced the U.S. government to admit its
shortcomings and establish the Office of Strategic Services. Most people
know it today as the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, but
OSS’s mandate was broader than that. In addition to espionage, it
carried out paramilitary operations overseas and helped pave the way for
the U.S. military’s Special Forces. In many cases, the espionage and the
extralegal activities went hand in hand.
This post is adapted from Kean’s new book.
OSS was primarily shaped by two men: its director, William “Wild Bill”
Donovan, and its chief scientist, Stanley Lovell. Donovan first won fame
during World War I for leading a spectacularly idiotic assault. He
commanded the 69th Infantry of New York, the famous “Fighting Irish,”
who were trying to conquer a German fortress in the Argonne Forest in
October 1918. During an intense shoot-out one day, Donovan received
orders to fall back. After considering his options, he ordered his men
to charge instead. When the Fighting Irish hesitated, he screamed,
“What’s the matter with you? You want to live forever?” and charged off
alone, confident his men would follow. They did.
How an American Nazi Collaborator Became an Allied Spy
Female Spies and Their Secrets
Washington's Spy Paranoia
Pedestrians walk through Red Square on March 3, 2017 in Moscow, Russia.
Can America's Spies Work With Russia's?
ANDREI SOLDATOV IRINA BOROGAN
The Germans stopped them cold, and a machine-gun bullet shattered
Donovan’s knee. But he once again refused orders to evacuate, and spent
the next five hours hobbling around and preparing his men for the
inevitable German counterassault. When it came, he rallied the Fighting
Irish and drove the Huns back into the fortress in a rout, all but
winning the battle single-handedly. Had the assault failed, Donovan
would have been court-martialed (assuming he even lived). As it was, he
earned the Medal of Honor and returned home one of the most highly
decorated soldiers in American history.
When World War II rolled around, Donovan was working in a New York law
firm. He happened to have attended law school at Columbia with Franklin
D. Roosevelt, and Roosevelt sent his old chum to England in July 1940 to
provide a more accurate picture of events there than Joseph Kennedy Sr.,
the defeatist ambassador to the U.K., could. Although Donovan agreed
that things were grim, he emphasized the grit of the British people and
singled out Winston Churchill—who wasn’t even prime minster yet—as a
stupendous leader. The assessment bucked up FDR’s spirits and
contributed to the Churchill-Roosevelt alliance that would ultimately
help defeat Hitler.
Read: That time the CIA bugged a cat to spy on the Soviets
Donovan parlayed his field trip to England into a job as Roosevelt’s
coordinator of intelligence, and from there he founded OSS and became
its chief. But while the role made sense on paper—Donovan clearly had
the vision and drive to see OSS succeed—Wild Bill also lacked pretty
much every other skill necessary to run a government agency. Even those
who adored him admitted that he had “abysmal” if not “atrocious”
administrative skills, and he simply didn’t have the patience or
fortitude to manage people. As a result OSS became one of the most
poorly run agencies in American history. Employees used to laugh over a
line from Macbeth that perfectly summed up the enterprise: “Confusion
now has made his masterpiece.”
Nowhere were Donovan’s flaws more evident than in his hiring practices.
Needing to throw together an agency quickly, he turned to his circle of
friends in New York and hired blue bloods by the dozen. The OSS roster
was lousy with Mellons, Du Ponts, Morgans, and Vanderbilts. Columnists
joked that the agency’s initials actually stood for “Oh So Social.” In
Donovan’s defense, hiring aristocrats did make sense on some level: They
usually spoke several languages and knew Europe well. But holidays on
the Riviera were a far cry from war. As one reporter noted, “Knowing how
to speak French in a tux didn’t necessarily prepare recruits for
parachuting into enemy territory or blowing up bridges.” More than a few
heirs and heiresses suffered “dramatic mental crackups” in the field.
Even more than aristocrats, however, Donovan loved misfits, and he
staffed OSS with a bizarre array of talent. There were mafia contract
killers and theology professors. There were bartenders, anthropologists,
and pro wrestlers. There were orthodontists, ornithologists, and felons
on leave from federal penitentiaries. Marlene Dietrich, Julia Child,
John Steinbeck, John Wayne, Leo Tolstoy’s grandson, and a Ringling
circus heir all pitched in as well. Observers sometimes referred to OSS
as “St. Elizabeths,” after the well-known Washington, D.C., lunatic
asylum. One top official there admitted that “OSS may indeed have
employed quite a few psychopathic characters.” Donovan once said, “I’d
put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.”
No one knew whether he was kidding.
Donovan did hire some brilliant misfits as well, including the chief
scientist, Stanley Lovell. When Donovan first interviewed Lovell, he
asked him to become the OSS equivalent of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock
Holmes’s nemesis. But it’s more accurate to think of Lovell as Q from
the James Bond franchise: His job basically consisted of puttering
around in a lab and thinking up cool spy tools. He and his labmates
developed bombs that looked like mollusks to attach to ships. They
crafted shoes and buttons and batteries with secret cavities to conceal
documents. They invented pencils and cigarettes that shot bullets. They
devised an explosive powder called Aunt Jemima with the consistency of
flour that could be mixed with water and even baked into biscuits and
nibbled on without any danger; only when ignited with a fuse did Aunt
Read: The tools of espionage are going mainstream
Like overgrown toddlers, Lovell’s team also developed several
feces-based weapons. One, called caccolube, destroyed car engines far
more thoroughly than sugar or sand when dumped into gas tanks. Another
weapon involved creating artificial goat turds to bombard North Africa
with, in the hope of attracting flies that spread diseases. (They called
it Project Capricious.) Yet another project required synthesizing what
was essentially eau de diarrhea, a compound that, as Lovell said,
“duplicated the revolting odor of a very loose bowel movement.” They
then hired small children to dart out and squirt it onto the pants of
Japanese officers in occupied China. Lovell dubbed it the “Who, Me?” bomb.
And those weren’t even the cockamamie ideas. After hearing that Hitler
and Mussolini would be holding a summit at the Brenner Pass between
Austria and Italy, Lovell devised a scheme to dump a vial of caustic
liquid into a vase of flowers in the conference room. Within 20 minutes,
this volatile liquid would evaporate, turning into mustard gas and
frying the corneas of everyone present. To really add some punch, Lovell
suggested contacting the pope ahead of time and having him prophesy that
God would strike the fascists blind for violating the Ten Commandments.
When the mustard gas fulfilled this “prediction,” the citizens of
Germany and Italy would surely revolt, Lovell argued, and take down the
fascists from within. (Alas, the summit location was changed at the last
second, and the plan never went into effect.)
Lovell also developed what he called the “glandular approach” to winning
the war. Drawing on some dubious Freudian theory, Lovell declared that
Hitler straddled the “male/female gender line” and therefore might
easily be pushed toward one sex or the other. Accordingly, Lovell
isolated several feminine hormones to inject into beets and carrots in
Hitler’s personal vegetable garden. He hoped that Hitler’s breasts would
swell, that his mustache would fall out, that his voice would rise to a
humiliating soprano register. The plan got far enough for Lovell to
bribe one of Hitler’s gardeners, but ultimately nothing came of it. As
Lovell later admitted, “I can only assume that the gardener took our
money and threw the syringes and medications into the nearest thicket.”
The stories go on and on. But the craziest, nuttiest, most unbelievable
thing about OSS was this: Often as not, its schemes worked. Whatever his
faults as an administrator, Wild Bill Donovan possessed a rare
combination of physical courage and mental daring. As the film director
John Ford—another OSS recruit—once said, “Bill Donovan ... thought
nothing of parachuting into France, blowing up a bridge, pissing in
Luftwaffe gas tanks, then dancing on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel
with a German spy.” A man like that couldn’t help but inspire people.
And for every 20 of Lovell’s far-fetched ideas, one or two worked
brilliantly, seriously disrupting Axis missions. In fact, given the
chaos of the world then, perhaps only something as haphazard as OSS
could have succeeded.
This post is adapted from Kean’s new book, The Bastard Brigade: The True
Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to
the editor or write to ***@theatlantic.com.
SAM KEAN is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of
Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.