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Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage by Joseph E. Persico




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Just about anything you might want to know about spying during World War II is covered in Joseph Persico’s book, Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage. Almost halfway through, at around page 250, I stopped reading once I learned that the long-told story of Churchill knowing about the bombing of Coventry in advance was not true, nor were the stories of Roosevelt having advance notice of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Slowly, the book migrated to “The Shelf of Reproach.” I finally finished it, and conclude that for individuals who want to know a lot about spying, this is a fine book. For most of the rest of us, it’s just too long. Pick up with that caution, and enjoy the parts that interest you.

Here’s an excerpt about Hitler, and what he knew:

High-level eavesdropping did not occur only in one direction. Roosevelt and Churchill had mistakenly come to believe that their transatlantic telephone conversations were inviolable. Bell Telephone System scientists had developed A-3, a technology for scrambling radio-telephone conversations so that an outsider listening in would hear nothing but gibberish. The transmitting frequencies were changed often, further frustrating enemy monitors. Scrambled calls offered other advantages. They did not have to be encoded or decoded and thus saved time. They were, in effect, person-to-person communication, bypassing layers of diplomatic and military bureaucrats and affording the President and Prime Minister near-total privacy.
Democracies, however, are porous institutions. In the fall of 1939, The New York Times had carried a story headlined ROOSEVELT PROTECTED IN TALKS TO ENVOYS BY RADIO SCRAMBLING TO FOIL SPIES ABROAD. The article went on to describe how the scrambling device had been installed in a soundproof room in the White House basement and that it had been used for the first time when FDR received the September 1939 call from his ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, informing him that the Germans had invaded Poland. A German spy in New York, Simon Emil Koedel, clipped the story from the Times and sent it to an Abwehr officer in Bremen. Thereafter, the information made a slow journey through the German bureaucracy. The Abwehr forwarded the story to Wilhelm Ohnesorge, chief of the Deutsche Reichspost, Germany’s state telephone and telegraph system. Ohnesorge, an elderly, grandfatherly Nazi Party member, wondered if these transatlantic conversations might not be unscrambled. Not until the summer of 1941 did he assign his chief engineer, Kurt E. Vetterlein, to investigate the possibility. Vetterlein, with essentially nothing to go on as a model, managed to replicate Bell’s A-3 system. By March 1, 1942, German signalmen, operating from a secluded former youth hostel near Eindhoven in occupied Holland, began rotating a giant antenna across the Atlantic. Within a week, a proud Ognesorge sent a message to Hitler reporting that his staff had ‘completed … an installation for the interception of the telephone traffic between the USA and England.’ His agency, he added, has ‘succeeded in rendering conversations, that had been made unintelligible, intelligible again at the instant of reception.’ Soon the signalmen at Eindhoven were intercepting up to sixty phone calls a day between Allied leaders using the A-3. What they said across the ocean became available to Hitler within hours.”

Persico goes on to describe a specific example of information that Hitler wanted and received. If that’s the level of detail you’d like to know about World War II and the business of spying, Roosevelt’s Secret War is certainly the book for you.

Steve Hopkins, February 1, 2002


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