Through the Keyhole

Codeword: “Direktor”

by Heinz Höhne
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 310 pp., $10.00

The Double-Cross System

by J.C. Masterman
Yale, 203 pp., $6.95

The Game of the Foxes

by Ladislas Farago
McKay, 696 pp., $11.95

The London Journals of General Raymond E. Lee 1940-1941

edited by James Lenze
Little, Brown, 489 pp., $12.50

Spying makes news. Captain Dreyfus is the only officer of the French army in the 1890s whose name is still remembered. Mata Hari gets more space than most generals of the First World War. But what did they achieve apart from a sensation? Suppose the activities of which Dreyfus was wrongly suspected had gone on—as indeed they did for some time after he was arrested. Would the Germans have been any nearer winning the battle of the Marne? And what did Mata Hari do except practice her other profession of prostitute? Even when the information received is really important and valuable, it rarely makes any difference. Pearl Harbor is the most famous case of recent times. There has never been an operation more effectively uncovered beforehand and none that came as more of a surprise when it happened. Similarly Stalin was told time and again that the Germans were about to attack. When the attack came he was totally unprepared.

When spies discover something, it can usually be found in the newspapers as well. I remember during the last war President Benes telling me a secret piece of news which would, he said, make an enormous difference to the war. The next morning I read it in a press release by the Czechoslovak information bureau. After the war Soviet scientists learned about nuclear developments from reading British and American scientific journals. The so-called spies who were imprisoned or executed contributed virtually nothing of value.

Or think of those starry-eyed idealists before the Second World War who passed on to Soviet Russia the secrets of the State Department. Even if Alger Hiss did all that he was charged with, what did the Soviets learn of any value? The answer is certain: nothing at all. To anyone tempted to engage in espionage I commend Taylor’s Law (now universally accepted by experts): the Foreign Office knows no secrets. Its rider, too, is noteworthy: the Kremlin is also not richly endowed with them. As for the State Department, it is not even worth postulating a principle. The State Department learns its own secrets only when it reads them in a newspaper.

Still spying goes on, always has, always will. The spies feed on each other. Each side has to make out that its own secrets are of importance so as to justify its chase after secrets on the other side. After all, if spying did not matter, there would be no need for counterespionage, and then what would the FBI do for a living? Espionage is an enormously attractive subject, a field where human ingenuity operates almost free from contact with reality. It resembles mathematics, an intellectual game where the most remarkable results can be achieved by pure ratiocination.

On a more prosaic level, spying is a form of looking through the keyhole. Among the most agreeable of minor pleasures is to observe the other man without his knowing it. Each of us grabs the chance of reading other people’s letters …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Complaint March 23, 1972