Saturday, March 13, 2021

7. A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson

I found this book among the big dump in my alley.  The guy had a lot of classic fantasy and a lot of WWII including a some hovering a bit too close to Nazi interests.  This one I grabbed, though it was beat-up, as I had heard the name and felt there was a Canadian connection.  It is the story of William Stephenson who was the head of the BCS (British Security Coordination, basically underground intel ops and the precursor to the OSS) during WWII and the main liaison between Churchill and Roosevelt in coordinating intelligence operations in the time before the US got fully into the war.  Stephenson himself preferred to stay in the shadows, he had no title and collected no salary and basically didn't say anything about any of his work until this book came out.  Much of it fell under the Official Secrets Act as well.  When this book came out, it was kind of a big deal.  Supposedly, Hugh Trevor-Roper savaged it and said much of it was untrue.  While there were some pieces that did not bear out under scrutiny, most of it has been confirmed since, as more and more of the truth was allowed to be released.

It's not a great book, technically speaking.  I can understand why a historian would be critical. The first half is kind of sloppy, with timelines not being clear nor arguments.  It gets tighter and more entertaining in the second half, where several major BCS operations are detailed including Operation Jubilee where they sent a fake invasion to Dieppe a year before D-Day to trick the Nazis into thinking that would be the main point of attack and to steal radar equipment; a bombing raid on a gestapo office in Denmark to kill and/or free Danish guerillas about to be interrogated; the spy CYNTHIA who seduced many men working for Vichy France to get codes, convincing deluded and pacific Danish physicist Neils Bohr to escape (and then getting him out in the belly of a plane where he almost suffocated because the comms with the pilot got disconnected and he never put on his oxygen mask). Just a ton of really cool spy and military stories that really happened.  It's crazy the risks and danger and just straight up discomfort these brave men and women put themselves in, many who barely got paid and who still aren't recognized today.  Contrast their real heroism—where you would send one person in to enemy territory who had the knowledge with another who didn't just so the second person could shoot the first if they got captured—to these fake-ass MAGA shitbird "patriots" who have deluded themselves into thinking they know what it means to fight for freedom.

One of Stephenson's biggest goals was to get the US onside to support the British.  Roosevelt was from the beginning, but a large part of America and an even larger part of Congress were against going to war.  On top of that, Nazi spies had infiltrated many parts of American society to further encourage that isolationism.  Likewise, Nazi propaganda at low and high levels was used to convince Americans that Britain was doomed to lose, that their was potentially great economic opportunity with a united Nazi Europe.  It is really interesting to read about how Roosevelt had to tread extremely lightly to not excite the isolationist mood of the country and congress.  The BCS was kept totally hidden because it was illegal for a foreign entity to practice espionage on US soil and knowledge of their existence would have been a huge scandal and strong ammo for the isolationist side.  I would love to read a better analysed history of those issues.  It was a strong reminder that the kind of selfishness that grew under Trump has been around in America for a long time.

It was a bit of a slog for the first half, but got quite exciting at the end.  I don't take away a ton from it historically speaking, but it definitely gave me a nice perspective on the origins of today's intelligence culture.

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