America’s OSS — Part 2

(Continued from Last Week)

IN EUROPE

With the training and assistance of the British Intelligence Service, OSS proved especially useful in providing a global perspective of the German war effort, its strengths, and its weaknesses.  In direct (covert) operations, OSS agents supported major Allied operations, such as Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa in 1942.  Success in Operation Torch included identifying pro-Allied supporters, locating, and mapping amphibious landing sites, and coopting high-ranking Vichy French military officers.

Clandestine operations in Europe also involved the neutral countries: Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland, where information about German technologies was obtained and forwarded to Washington and London.  A network headquartered in Madrid established and maintained control over Free French auxiliaries, which aided the Allied invasion of France in June 1944.

Allen Dulles’ operations from Switzerland provided extensive information about German military strength, air defenses, submarine production, the V-1 and V-2 rocket systems, and Biological/Chemical/Atomic research and development.  Dulles also supported resistance efforts in France, Austria, and Italy.

In addition to intelligence collection activities, OSS operations included infiltration and sabotage operations, propaganda campaigns, and specialized training for nationalist guerrilla groups.  In 1943, the OSS employed as many as 24,000 people, many of whom were serving Army, Navy, and Marine Corps officers.  They were men like Edward Lansdale (Army Air Corps), Jack Taylor (U. S. Navy), Peter Ortiz[1] and Sterling Hayden[2] (U. S. Marine Corps), and thousands more whose names we no longer remember.

IN THE FAR EAST

In late 1943, representatives from OSS descended upon the 442nd Infantry Regiment looking to recruit volunteers for “extremely hazardous assignments.”  There were numerous volunteers, of course, but the OSS only selected Nisei (the children of Japanese immigrants).  OSS assigned these volunteers to Detachments 101 and 202 within the China-Burma-India Theater.  Their duties were to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war, translate documents, monitor radio communications, and participate in covert operations.  All of these covert operations were successful.

Franklin Roosevelt was well-known for his anti-colonial views, particularly concerning French Indochina — a massive territory involving present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Roosevelt made these views crystal clear at the Tehran Conference in 1943.  Both Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin adopted a position against returning Indochina to the French in the post-world war period, but with extensive colonial interests of their own, British, and Dutch diplomats expressed their full intention to re-constitute their colonial empires.  Roosevelt stated, for publication, “Our goal must be to help them [brown people] achieve their independence because 1.1 billion enemies are dangerous.”

In late 1943, Roosevelt instructed Donovan to support national liberation movements in Asia as a means of resisting Japanese occupation.  In France, the OSS worked alongside the Free French to resist Nazi occupation.  In Asia, the OSS worked against the (Vichy) French by setting up guerrilla bases to support anti-Japanese/anti-French colonial covert operations throughout Southeast Asia.  To accomplish this, the OSS advised, supplied, and helped organize nationalist (nee communist) movements, specifically in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.[3]

THE PEOPLE

Colonel Donovan may have had the assistance and guidance of British intelligence in putting together the OSS, but it was entirely up to him to find the right men and women to undertake dangerous missions.  Most of the people he recruited were members of the Armed Forces, but he also sought those from civilian and foreign backgrounds.

What kind of person was Donovan looking for?  In his own words, “I’d rather have a young lieutenant with enough guts to disobey a direct order than a colonel too regimented to think for himself.”  In essence, Donovan was looking for men with PhDs who could win a bar fight.  Within a few months, OSS rivaled MI-6 and the SOE, a feat only possible by carefully screening candidates and training them in the same manner as British commandos.  The primary training facility, then known as Site S, was located where Dulles International Airport now stands.  All successful candidates shared similar characteristics: courageous, determined, independent thinkers, highly intelligent, and fluent in two or more European languages.

SPIES AND SABOTEURS

The most significant accomplishment of the OSS in World War II was its ability to penetrate the Third Reich.  The men and women assigned to this task were either German-Americans fluent in the German language or were German or Austrian exiles (many of whom were communists, former labor activists, Jewish refugees, or escaped prisoners of war).  The OSS also successfully recruited German officials as spies, such as the German diplomat Fritz Kolb.  Through such activities, the United States and Great Britain obtained the plans and technical specifications for Germany’s V-2 rocket, the Tiger Tank, and such advanced aircraft as the Messerschmitt BF-109 and Messerschmitt ME-163.  Through the OSS team serving under Heinrich Maier, the Allied Powers learned about Germany’s “Final Solution” to their Jewish problem — the death camps.

Along with OSS accomplishments were a few failures.  American and British secret operatives were good at what they did, but so were the Germans.  The Gestapo systematically uncovered Maier’s team because one of the team members was a double agent.  Gestapo agents arrested and later executed most of the Maier group.

The major cities of neutral countries became beehives of intelligence-gathering activities and spying operations for both the Allied Powers and Germany — Madrid, Stockholm, and Istanbul among them.  The OSS initiated operations in Istanbul in 1943.  The railroads connecting Central Asia with Europe and Turkey’s proximity to the Balkan states made Istanbul an excellent site for intelligence operations.  OSS operations in Istanbul, code-named Net-1, involved infiltrating and carrying out subversive operations in the Old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

At the head of Net-1 operations was a former Chicago banker named Lanning MacFarland.  “Packy” MacFarland’s cover story was that he was a United States Lend-Lease Program banker.  MacFarland hired a fellow named Alfred Schwartz, a Czechoslovakian engineer, and businessman.  Schwartz’s code name was Dogwood.  Schwartz, employed by the Istanbul Electric Company, hired an assistant named Walter Arndt.  Through their efforts, the OSS was able to infiltrate anti-fascist groups in Austria, Hungary, and Germany.  Additionally, Schwartz persuaded diplomatic couriers from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Germany to smuggle U.S. propaganda information into their home territories and help establish contact with German-Italian antagonists.  Most of this information was conveyed either through memorization or microfilm.

British Intelligence began to suspect the Dogwood operation because it produced far more information than they expected.  Working with the OSS, British and American agents discovered that Dogwood was unreliable and dangerous to the entire MI-6/SOE/OSS effort.  German agents had effectively placed phony information into the OSS system through Dogwood, which at the time was America’s largest intelligence gathering operation in the occupied territory.  Accordingly, Dogwood was promptly shut down.

But the OSS was no “one-trick” pony.  In 1944, OSS agents purchased technical information on the Soviet cipher from disaffected Finnish Army officers.  Donovan, aware that such activities violated Roosevelt’s agreement with Stalin, purchased the materials anyway and, through this “violation of a direct order,” discovered a large-scale Soviet espionage ring in North America.  What Donovan did with this information is unknown, but he channeled it somewhere (possibly to the FBI) because otherwise, we wouldn’t know about it today.

Most of us have watched Hollywood films about OSS airborne teams infiltrating the cold mountainous areas of Norway.  These were undoubtedly highly fictionalized re-creations of actual (or similar) events.  In late March 1945, an OSS team code-named Rype dropped into Norway to carry out sabotage operations behind German lines.  From a base in the Gjefsjøen Mountains, this group successfully disrupted railroad operations, the purpose of which was to prevent the withdrawal of German forces back to Germany.  Contrary to the several Hollywood films depicting such feats, Rype was the only American operation conducted on German-occupied Norwegian soil during World War II.  The infiltration group was mainly composed of Norwegian-Americans recruited as volunteers from the U. S. Army’s 99th Infantry Battalion.  The leader of this group was famed OSS/CIA man William Colby.

Another crack OSS leader was Navy Lieutenant Jack H. Taylor (1909-1950).  Donovan recruited Taylor shortly after he joined the U. S. Navy in 1942 — one of the first to join the clandestine organization.  Donovan assigned Taylor to the maritime unit (a precursor to the U. S. Navy Seals).  Working with famed inventor Christian J. Lambertsen, Taylor helped develop the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit.  The LARU allowed OSS agents to undertake diving missions deemed critical to the OSS and Allied armed forces.  Taylor worked with a highly decorated OSS Marine special operator by the name of Sterling Hayden (who later became a Hollywood actor), dodging German navy vessels in the Aegean Sea. 

Also, in March 1945, the OSS initiated Operation Varsity.  It consisted of four OSS teams of two men under Captain Stephen Vinciguerra (code name Algonquin).  Their mission was also to infiltrate German lines, but none of these were successful.

ENTER HARRY TRUMAN

When President Roosevelt died in office on 12 April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed the mantle of the American presidency.  It was a significant turning point in Washington’s foreign policy simply because Truman didn’t share Roosevelt’s (and Donovan’s) New Deal optimism.  Roosevelt and Donovan saw Western colonialism as an example of imperial tyranny, whereas Truman wanted to put the world back together again the way it was before World War II.  Beyond this, post-war Soviet Union expansionism changed Truman’s concept of the United States’ role in a new global environment.  At the San Francisco Conference in late spring 1945, the Truman administration gave French diplomats his assurances that France could reassert their pre-war sovereignty over French Indochina.  Such warranties placed Donovan’s OSS “out of step” with Washington’s new policymakers — particularly about colonialism and communism.

Besides, Harry Truman was “an Army man” and saw no reason for the existence of the Office of Strategic Services as a separate entity working outside the scope of the Navy and War Departments — even though, at least ostensibly, OSS worked for the Chairman, JCS.  Truman had little patience with anyone questioning his policies or decisions; anyone who did became “an enemy,” which Donovan surely did become, and Truman was determined to dispense with both Donovan and the OSS.

At the time of Truman’s ascension to power, however, Donovan’s OSS agents were heavily involved in collecting intelligence information about the Third Reich and the Soviet Union and laying the groundwork for nationalist movements in Southeast Asia.  Truman didn’t like all that meddling, and neither did many of the Army’s senior field commanders — who believed that counter-intelligence operations if they were going to exist at all, should only exist as a prerogative of senior field commanders.

The problem was that senior army commanders stationed in Europe in the immediate post-war period were utterly oblivious to the machinations of the Soviet Union and its demon-seed, East Germany.  But Intelligence insiders did realize that the information provided to the U.S. government by OSS was too valuable to allow that organization to collapse without replacing it with a structure to continue that practical work.

SERVANT OR MASTER?

On 20 September 1945, President Truman terminated the OSS by Executive Order 9621.  Its dismembered carcass ended up in the State Department (Research and Analysis) and the War Department (Strategic Services Unit).  The War Department assigned Brigadier General John Magruder (formerly Bill Donovan’s deputy) as the Director, SSU.  Magruder supervised the disestablishment of OSS and managed the institutional preservation of its clandestine intelligence capability.

Four months later, President Truman directed the establishment of the Central Intelligence Group (CIG).  Magruder’s SSU was transferred to the CIG in mid-1946, which became the Office of Special Operations (OSO).  The National Security Act of 1947 formally established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an independent agency, which assumed the same functions as OSS.  As to all those spies and saboteurs, the CIA continues to maintain a paramilitary component known as its Special Activities Division.

The CIA did not, unfortunately, get off to a very good start.  Since the heady old days of the Truman administration, the question of whether the CIA would become the servant or master of U.S. intelligence policy has been an ongoing struggle.  Numerous incidents would appear to reflect both institutional overreach and changing attitudes among political executives about what the CIA is doing and how they are doing it.

SOME EXAMPLES

  • Domestic spying (including the data mining and compromise of smart-TVs, search engines, and personal automobiles)
  • Torture by proxy (extraordinary rendition)
  • Internal foreign spies
  • Funding terrorist cells/rightwing dictatorships
  • Illegal influence of elections and media
  • Involvement in drug trafficking/support of drug traffickers
  • Misleading Congress and the American public
  • Covert programs illegally removed from Congressional oversight
  • Infiltration of World Health Organization for clandestine purposes
  • Spying on members of Congress
  • Orchestrating coup d’état (Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba)
  • Patriot Act expansion of third party record searches, secret searches, significant exceptions to Fourth Amendment protections.

The questions not answered by anyone, at least to the general dissatisfaction of many Americans, are:

  • What is the U.S. government entitled to know about its citizens?
  • Under what circumstances are intelligence agencies allowed to know it?
  • What is the U.S. government allowed to do with the information collected on its citizens?

The United States Special Operations Command, established in 1987, adopted the OSS spearhead design as its military branch insignia.

Sources:

  1. Aldrich, R. J.  Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America, and the Politics of Secret Service.  Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  2. Bartholomew-Feis, D. R.  The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan.  University of Kansas Press, 2006.
  3. Brown, A. C.  The Last American Hero:  Wild Bill Donovan.  New York Times Press, 1982.
  4. Chalou, G. C.  The Secrets War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II.  National Archives and Records Administration, 1991.
  5. Dulles, A.  The Secret Surrender.  Harper & Row, 1966.
  6. Dunlop, R.  Donovan: America’s Master Spy.  Rand-McNally, 1982.
  7. Smith, B. F.  The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA.  Basic Press, 1983.
  8. Yu, M.  OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War.  Yale University Press, 1996

Endnotes:

[1] See also: Behind the Lines.  Colonel Ortiz was anything but entirely covert in his OSS activities; his flamboyant and rascally traits brought him (and his team members) to the attention of the German army and Gestapo officials.  Despite being awarded two Navy Cross medals while assigned to the OSS, Ortiz was never invited to join the CIA after 1947 — which one may understand if they have an inkling about what “secret agent” means.  Apparently, Ortiz did not have that understanding.

[2] See also: In Every Climb and Place.  Before his Marine Corps service, Hayden served on a sailing schooner, earning his master’s license in 1940.  It was this skill set that brought him to the attention of William J. Donovan.

[3] One can make the argument that Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the United States the Vietnam War.


Published by

Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “America’s OSS — Part 2”

    1. Thank you for the recommendation, sir. Well, I suppose if you happened to be looking for a hero from the last war to lead the OSS, you’d pick Donovan over Alvin York. And, doesn’t it continue to be that way? Looking back in time, the “movers and shakers” in the American government have always been from the “A” list.

      Like

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I’ve just extended “open comments” to thirty days, rather than ten. I can’t explain the problem with “likes.” I’m a techno-dud.

      Liked by 1 person

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