Mafia Allies: The True Story of America’s Secret Alliance with the Mob in World War II
By Tim Newark. 256 pp. 32 b&w illustrations. Zenith Press, 2007. $24.95
Did Lucky Luciano save New York harbor from Axis sabotage? Did the Mafia help wrest Sicily from the Germans? Did America resuscitate the monster that Mussolini had slain, reviving a climate of corruption that suffused postwar Italy while the mob went international?
These are among the questions probed by Tim Newark, editor of Britain’s Military Illustrated magazine. He sifts and weighs new and old evidence from archival sources, mobster memoirs, the U.S. Senate’s Kefauver and Herlands organized crime investigations, and a pile of previous work while shaping a detailed, engaging behind-the-scenes narrative in the topic’s best overview.
Newark opens in 1918, when the Sicilian Mafia, swelled by disenchanted veterans, evolved from local bands of romanticized bandits into something between a crime wave and civil war, thus creating an opening for Mussolini’s intervention. He ends with the 1957 Apalachin conference, where top Ameri can Mafiosi were ingloriously busted—thanks partly to tips the cops got from rival bosses like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Frank Costello.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This proverb is shared by Sicilians and Arabs (Muslims were among the triangular island’s many rulers over three millennia). It also encapsulates a major theme of Mafia Allies.
When Mussolini targeted Mafiosi as a competing governing class, many lesser picciotti (bandits) joined the ranks of southern Italians migrating to the United States and replicated the island’s protection rackets. Newark traces the rapid spread and evolution of the American Mafia, including tight links with Jewish gangs unthinkable in Sicily.
Luciano and Lansky were boyhood chums from the Lower East Side of New York City who rose to run the new American underworld. Lansky hated Hitler. When the German American Bund was formed in 1933, two prominent Jewish leaders, Rabbi Stephen Wise and Judge Nathan Perlman, asked the ganglord “to take action against these Nazi sympathizers. We’ll put money and legal assistance at your disposal.”
Lansky nixed the money but took the job. Perlman fed him names and tips; Lansky and Bugsy Siegel’s gangs beat up Bund leaders and broke up meetings.
When Pearl Harbor came, Luciano was running his realm through Lansky from Dannemorra prison while serving an unprecedented thirty-to fifty-year sentence for his involvement with New York prostitution. His sensational 1936 trial later made prosecutor Thomas Dewey New York’s governor and a two time presidential candidate. Lucky’s best shot at getting out, Luciano and Lansky figured, was to offer the U.S. government protection.
In early 1942, mysterious fires plagued New York harbor, exacerbating fears of sabotage and culminating on February 9 when Normandie, the Allies’ newest, largest troopship, was left irrepara ble by a daylong blaze. Lt. Comdr. Charles Radcliffe Haffenden, head of the 3rd Naval District’s Investiga tions Section, said, “I’ll talk to anybody, a priest, a bank manager, a gangster, the devil himself, if I can get the information I need. This is a war. It’s not a college game.” Haffenden was, Newark agrees, being realistic, though he duly notes both Luciano and Lansky later claimed Lucky sent Albert Anastasia to torch the ship.
From then on, the navy and the Mafia were in business together. Shipping flowed smoothly at American docks, which the Mafia controlled. A few U.S. Naval Intelligence ops made contact in Sicily with “friends” of Luciano and Lansky. In 1946 Luciano’s sentence was commuted by Dewey; after a shipboard party, he was deported to Italy— with Copacabana showgirls for company.
Nevertheless Newark, usually convincingly, refutes or rebuffs most Mafia–Allies conspiracy theories. The mob did not help take back the island. British and American military govern ment personnel in Sicily avoided dealing with Mafiosi as best they could. (The OSS in Palermo was a different matter.) Although the American suggestion that the Allies arm the Sicilian Mafia for guerrilla war was approved at a very senior level, it was never imple mented. Even the well known tale of the Mafia taking on the Germans at Cammarata/Villalba is con tradicted by field reports.
As for Italy’s legacy of political corruption, Newark renders a measured verdict: from 1944 to 1947, “the Allies wanted to see an end to Mafia-backed chaos and the restoration of a strong Italian state.” But when left ists swept the 1948 Italian elections, the CIA saw Mafiosi as anti-Communist enforcers for the right-wing Christian Democrats. Thus, Newark rightly notes, the persistent notion that America literally revived the Sicilian Mafia is not true, but neither is America wholly blameless for the Mafia’s long hold over Sicily in the postwar years. “The same problem,” he concludes, “has been a challenge in more recent years to Coalition forces in the Middle East— how to dismantle a corrupt regime and yet still impose law and order.”
Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.