Review: Roosevelt’s Secret War–FDR and World War II Espionage

3 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

3.0 out of 5 stars Mish-Mash with Some Raisins,

November 4, 2001
Joseph E. Persico
Intelligence professionals will be very disappointed by this book, citizens interested in Presidential approaches to intelligence, somewhat less so. The author’s brilliant biography of William Casey, OSS Veteran and Director of Central Intelligence under President Ronald Reagan, was a much more satisfying book. What we have here is by and large a mish-mash of the works of others, together with an original composition on FDR’s involvement in intelligence that is uneven–partly because the subject did not put much in writing, and partly because the author chose to rely primarily on secondary published sources.From the perspective of one interested in “Presidential intelligence,” that is, how does a President manage various means of keeping informed, the book is a must read but also a shallow read. We learn that FDR was a master of deception and of running many parallel efforts, balancing them against one another. We learn that FDR was remarkably tolerant of amateurism and incompetence, while good at finding the gems these same loose but prolific intelligence endeavors could offer.

Perhaps most importantly, we gain some insights into how Presidents, even when properly informed by intelligence (e.g. of Pearl Harbor in advance, or of the lack of threat from domestic Americans of Japanese descent) must yet “go along” and provide either inaction pending the public’s “getting it”, or unnecessary action (the internments) to assuage public concern.

There are enough tid-bits to warrant a full reading of the book, but only for those who have not read widely in the literature of intelligence and/or presidential history. The British lied to the President and grossly exaggerated their intelligence capabilities, in one instance presenting a man “just back from behind the lines” when in fact he was simply on staff and lying for effect. We learn that the Department of State was twice offered, and twice declined, the lead on a global structure for collecting and processing intelligence. We learn that FDR himself concluded that Croatia and Serbia would never ever get along and should be separate countries.

On the NATO side, we learn that Eisenhower went with bad weather and the invasion succeeded in part because of a successful deception and in part because of Ike’s courage in going forward in the face of bad weather–fast forward to how weather incapacitates our high-technology today. Most interestingly, we learn that FDR finally approved Eisenhower as leader of Overload, in lieu of his favorite, General Marshall, in part because he recognized that the allied joint environment required a general and a politician in one man.

This book is a hybrid, attempting to mesh presidential history with intelligence history, and perhaps this should gain the author some margin of tolerance. Unfortunately, in focusing on the relationships among the various intelligence principals and the president, he seriously passes over the enormous contributions of military as well as civilian and allied intelligence to the larger undertaking, and one is left with the narrow impression that American intelligence consisted largely of a number of self-serving clowns vying for Presidential favor.

The flaws inherent in a Federal Bureau of Investigation dominated by J. Edgar Hoover, and the lack of cooperation between the FBI and other major intelligence activities that continues today, are noted throughout the book.

Bottom line: worth buying and reading to gain insight into the challenges facing a President who can become isolated from reality by a corporate staff, but nowhere near the quality of Christopher Andrew’s For the President’s Eyes Only, or any of many good histories of espionage in World War II.
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