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Last time out we talked about spies.  Cloak’n’dagger.  Derring-do.  There is no doubt that the Allies got the better of the espionage battle in World War II, as the stories of Juan Pujol Garcia (code-named “Garbo”), Dusko Popov (“Tricycle”) and Richard Sorge (“Ramsay”) all demonstrate.

You want to talk about “information dominance” over your adversary?  Consider this:  in World War II, the Allies actually cracked the German encoding mechanism, the so-called “Enigma machine.”  They extracted so much information from it (in an operation code-named “Ultra”) that they quite literally had to spend the rest of the war deliberately under-reacting to the intelligence they had gathered, lest the Germans realize they’d been had and move to some new, more secure system.  Even with that self-imposed limitation, the Allies were reading Hitler’s mail for the entire war.  The same thing went for the Pacific, where we had cracked the Japanese “Purple” diplomatic code before the war began (in the operation code-named “Magic”).  It was as complete an intelligence advantage as anyone had ever enjoyed in military history.

Having said that, I would still recommend a healthy dose of skepticism regarding many of those secret missions.  Let’s look a bit more closely at the U.S. espionage network in North Africa, a group of vice consuls whom FDR liked to call his “12 Apostles.”  Technically serving as “food control officers” monitoring the trade agreement between Vichy France and the U.S., they had been as busy as bees In the run-up to Operation Torch:  handing out bags of cash, stealing Italian, French, and Spanish diplomatic codes, and organizing anti-Vichy insurrections in all three Allied landing zones (Algiers, Oran, and Rabat).  All three began  simultaneously with the Allied landings, and all three failed miserably.  It was, as Rick Atkinson puts it in An Army at Dawn, a classic opéra bouffe, replete with struggles for precedence between the Vichy officers, uncertainty amongst their American patrons, and a higher-than-normal level of SNAFU and dissonance. There would come a time in the postwar era when U.S. agents would become expert at sponsoring coups across the globe, but that time was not yet.  As things collapsed around him, the American spymaster in Algiers, diplomat Robert Murphy, actually wondered if he’d gotten the date wrong!  He spent that first night in prison, as did his colleague Kenneth Pendar.  Murphy would note in his memoirs that their Senegalese guard offered the two men a Gitane cigarette–the customary last smoke offered to a condemned man.

Well, it didn’t come to that, thankfully.  The mess was eventually sorted out, and Allied troops soon arrived in Algiers.  The point is that such operations, while they make a stirring spy novel, are much more difficult to carry out smoothly in real life, and are as likely to backfire as they are to succeed.  Indeed, the sum total of our espionage war in North Africa was a mixed-blessing deal with Admiral Darlan, a highly unpopular figure within North Africa whose Vichy (read “Axis) connections also made him anathema to large parts of the U.S. public.  “Are we fighting Nazis or sleeping with them?” asked CBS radio commentator Edward R. Murrow at the time, and it was a good question.

I sometimes wonder if we all watch too many films like Ocean’s 11, in which a small hardy band of roguish good guys carry out an impossibly complex heist with pin-point precision and everyone is happy in the end.  If only real life were more like the movies.

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