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 or looking into other people’s windows. Spying bestows on these exercises an aura of justification. But we learn little of serious import. The keyhole does not reveal much of the next room, and in the spy game, the occupants of the room clown for the benefit of the supposedly unobserved observer. In fact the only people really deluded about spying are those who read books on the subject and take them seriously. For anyone who wants some fun, here is a representative batch.

The book by Heinz Höhne is the best of them, or at any rate the book that has the best sense of proportion. The author is a writer for Der Spiegel (the German version of Time), not a historian, and has all the tricks that journalists like and that historians do not. If two people disagree, he puts their arguments into direct speech, as though he, too, were listening through the keyhole. He has never faced the question that worries the historian: how do you know? His is the journalist’s method: it must have been like this, therefore it was like this. However, apart from this taste for the dramatic, Herr Höhne has written a good book, carefully researched and well presented.

The story he tells is quite something even in the history of espionage. The accepted legend is this. During the Second World War a group of informers penetrated into the highest positions of the German military and government. The most crucial secrets of Hitler’s headquarters were relayed in full to Moscow. Thanks to this great operation in espionage, the German invasion of Russia was stemmed. The German armies were defeated. Hitler was overthrown. Russia won the war.

What remains of the achievements of the Red Orchestra (Rote Kappelle) when Herr Höhne has done with it? Nothing at all. Certainly there was a chain of informers on whom the title of Red Orchestra was subsequently bestowed. Certainly some of them occupied fairly high places in the German military system. Certainly they did their best to relay secrets to Moscow. The positive result was virtually nil. These pathetic idealists had nothing serious to reveal. Their information was not of the slightest use to the Soviet high command. Herr Höhne dismisses the idea that the Red Orchestra caused the death of some 100,000 Germans. At best (or worst) it helped toward the death of thirty-six Abwehr agents who were parachuted behind the Russian lines. For the sake of this achievement, devoted idealists risked their lives and those of their friends, and were ultimately tortured and executed.


The interest of the Red Orchestra, if any, is political, not sensational. These idealists, though not themselves Communist, were pro-Soviet, not pro-Ally. They wanted a Soviet victory and not merely the defeat of Nazi Germany. This lands Herr Höhne in trouble. It is now accepted doctrine in Germany that the so-called Resistance—the conservative generals and civil servants who spent the war saying that some time they would get rid of Hitler—was respectable and admirable. The motives of this group were patriotic—to save Germany from defeat, not to help the other side. When faced with the Red Orchestra, Herr Höhne decides that they were traitors. Under no circumstances, it seems, can one work for the defeat of one’s own country.

Of course this is nonsense. It only means that Herr Höhne does not like Soviet Russia. He would have been less emphatic if the Red Orchestra had been working for the victory of the United States. Patriotism is usually the right course and certainly the easiest one. But there are times when one’s own country is in the wrong, and if it is wrong enough, its defeat becomes the only moral objective. Soviet victory was the only way to achieve a better Europe. The price, though high, was worth paying.

Now we move off into the world of pure spying. Sir John Masterman spent his life teaching history and then became head of an Oxford college. He wrote detective stories and other agreeable trivia. He was assiduous in recommending—or, as he thought, appointing—bishops, headmasters, and university professors. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Three times his blessing did not fall on me. As a result I have enjoyed a life of academic ease, free from the professorial burdens of administration. When the Second World War broke out Sir John found a post suited to his gifts. He became the director of British counterespionage. At the end of the war he wrote an account of his work, as neat as his own detective stories. This is an official document and, though it contains nothing that now need remain secret, its publication is rather hard on other more conscientious officials who have adhered to the rules. However readers cannot complain: this is an enjoyable book, though of no great moment.

The essence of the story is simple. All the German agents in England were laid hold of by Sir John’s organization and turned round. They continued to transmit information to Germany, some of them throughout the war, but this information was provided by British intelligence. The Germans had to believe that their agents were still reliable, and therefore most of the information was true. But it was selective. The Germans were told some of the truth but not all, and it was of inestimable value to the British that they knew exactly what the Germans were being told.

As a further bonus, the Germans paid their supposed agents well, and Sir John’s department was one of the few wartime agencies that actually showed a profit. It was a considerable stroke to deceive the Germans at their own expense. Toward the end of the war deception became active. The Germans were fed with information implying that the Allied armies would land east of the Seine, not west of it. This, Sir John claims, contributed to the success of D Day. A little later the Germans were told that their rockets were overshooting London, when they were in fact hitting it, and this led the Germans to shoot short.

Sir John Masterman’s success was perhaps not as great as he thought in 1945. For instance, it appears from the German records that Hitler stationed his forces in France both east and west of the Seine for sound military reasons. There was really nothing else he could do. In war as in other things, the attacker can concentrate on one point; the defender must keep every point covered. In so far as Hitler was misled, this was by the Allied cover operations—sham camps in east England, carboard tanks and aircraft—which German air observers were encouraged to see. But even this counted for less than Hitler’s “hunch,” which on this occasion happened to be wrong.


The Man Who Never Was provides an even more famous case. This operation allegedly misled the Germans into expecting an Allied landing in Sardinia instead of in Sicily. Once again the Germans were misled by their own reasoning, not by intelligence reports which they do not seem to have read. That very distinguished historian, the late Mario Toscano, made the point clear in the most sensible article ever written on espionage. It is not enough, he said, for information to reach the other side; the information must reach and be accepted as valid by those who make the decisions. I doubt whether much of the information manufactured by Sir John Masterman and his associates reached Hitler.

There is another point of doubt. Sir John Masterman “turned round” the German agents in Great Britain. They became double agents, ostensibly working for the Germans, actually working for the British. How can he be so sure? Turning round can become a habit. These double agents after all were smooth operators, who had switched over to avoid being shot as spies. They agreed to deceive the Germans. Did none of them have the idea of deceiving Sir John Masterman? Of course Sir John has a deep understanding of human nature, so much so that he knows exactly who is fitted for exactly which high grade appointment in the British Isles. But understanding bishops is one thing. Understanding the scamps of espionage, even when they have such delightful code names as Garbo, Tricycle, or Zigzag, is quite another.

I’d guess that double cross was only the beginning of the game, though I can’t say that I have much interest in the operation one way or the other. Like other forms of intelligence and all forms of information its main value was to keep those engaged in it from any real contact with the war. Just imagine what disasters those in charge of propaganda or spying would have caused if they had commanded tanks instead of words and fighting men instead of double agents.

That Sir John Masterman, double-cross expert, was himself double-crossed is the only fact of value (and perhaps the only fact) in the bulky, pretentious book by Ladislas Farago. The author claims to have made a sensational discovery. The records of the German secret service were supposed to have been lost. Five years ago Mr. Farago, stumbling around in the National Archives in Washington, fell over a tin box which contained the Abwehr papers from the Bremen and Hamburg centers. It appears also from his somewhat confused account that he has made other lucky finds of the same kind. However it is impossible to evaluate the importance of his discovery. The episodes are presented in a sensational form which provokes more skepticism even than they merit.

No doubt German agents in the United States collected a great deal of industrial information in the years before the Second World War, but this information was not difficult to get. The most successful of the agents, according to Mr. Farago, simply wrote to the trade agency or government department most nearly concerned and received detailed information by return post. I am not qualified to check the stories dealing with American affairs. But there are also British episodes, presumably based on the German records, and these contain large quantities of undiluted nonsense. For instance, Mr. Farago seems to think that the people assembled at Cliveden (the so-called Cliveden set) by Nancy Astor were pro-Nazis on the same level as The Link. This is totally false. The Cliveden set was the invention of Claud Cockburn, a Communist journalist, and a very good invention at that.

Some of the great strokes accomplished by the Abwehr, according to Mr. Farago, puzzle me. For instance, on February 11, 1936, Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, presented to Hitler the secret military clauses of the Franco-Soviet pact (wrongly called by Mr. Farago Franco-Russian). But there were no military clauses to the Franco-Soviet pact. If Canaris revealed anything, it can only have been the military clauses of the Franco-Russian alliance concluded in 1894. Here is another case. The Nazis, it seems, managed to break the scrambler telephone used by Churchill and Roosevelt. On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was overthrown. On July 29, Churchill and Roosevelt chatted about Italy’s plight and looked forward to an armistice. This, Mr. Farago claims, was the tip that led Hitler to occupy Italy before the Allies could land. But no approach had come from Italy by July 29. Churchill and Roosevelt were merely speculating about a situation that was common knowledge. Hitler could make the same speculations and did so without waiting for tips from the scrambler telephone.

Finally another mysterious instance. The Norden bombsight was the most prized possession of the American air force, so much so that it was withheld from the British until the crisis of the war. But a German agent discovered the secret. The Germans manufactured it. In 1945, the American Third Army stumbled on a factory in the Austrian Tyrol which made a super-secret product—the Norden bombsight. Thus the Americans learned for the first time that the Germans had broken the secret. Surely, if the Germans had really possessed the bombsight, they would have fitted it to their bombers. Sooner or later a bomber would have been shot down undamaged, and the Allies would have found the bombsight. Alternatively, if the bombsight was too secret for the Germans to use, their agent’s discovery did not do them any good. Spying as presented by Mr. Farago is certainly a strange business.

With the journals of General Raymond Lee we move into a clearer air. Lee was American military attaché in London from June, 1940, until December, 1941, and actually returned to Washington on the day of Pearl Harbor. His task, too, was a form of intelligence, and though he sometimes looked through the keyhole, this was only because those inside would not open the door. Indeed the main interest of the book on its serious side is to show the instinctive suspicion which even countries closely allied have of each other. Lee, like other Americans, felt that the British were conducting the war in an incompetent muddle, and the British felt that the Americans were dragging their feet. Getting information from the British was like extracting a tooth, and yet the British had everything to gain by keeping Lee fully informed.

As with all diaries, Lee’s book is more interesting on a personal level. One critic has described it as better than the Harold Nicolson diaries (misspelled Nicholson). I prefer to rank it with the diaries of Chips Channon, though it lacks the disarming candor which Chips often displayed. Lee, while a very efficient military observer, was in some ways rather a silly man. He bought fashionable suits from a West End tailor. He lived at Claridge’s, frequented the smartest clubs, and defied the Luftwaffe in a straw boater. When visiting Americans rhapsodized that this was a people’s war, Lee would point round the expensive restaurant and observe, quite truly, that the rich were making sacrifices also.

If the Cliveden set ever existed, Lee belonged to it. At any rate he spent many week-ends at Cliveden, listening to and believing the political gossip, much of it unreliable. For instance he recorded that Churchill was watching Beaverbrook, minister of aircraft production, like a hawk. In fact, as correspondence shows, Churchill was praising Beaverbrook to the skies. Again when Beaverbrook moved to the empty office of minister of state, Lee concluded that Churchill had “put him on ice.” Quite the contrary, Beaver-brook had wanted to resign altogether and Churchill refused to let him go.

When Lee came to England, the battle of Britain was about to start. He lived through the alarms of invasion and took them seriously. In the autumn of 1940, he experienced the Blitz. It seemed to him that London, perhaps England as a whole, could not survive. Later he surveyed the damage and grasped that the bombing had made little impact on British production. From this moment he was convinced that Allied bombing of Germany would also be ineffective, as indeed it proved. This is important testimony, and the more valuable because it was recorded at the time. Reliance on strategic bombing—the Allied obsession of the Second World War—was pursued against the weight of the evidence, as judged by an independent and highly qualified observer.

Lee is also good on the Russian campaign. Here, rather against the evidence, he firmly held that the Russians would not be beaten. There is one odd little point. An unnamed British source told him that Hess had come with the news that Hitler was about to attack Russia. The British warned Stalin, and this is why he was ready for the Germans. But when Hess came to Scotland, he did not know that Hitler was planning to attack Russia and never mentioned the attack until it happened. Moreover Stalin, if warned, took no notice. He did not establish the defense in depth which the British source alleged. What was the point of this? Presumably, as often happens, the British source put two and two together. Hess came to Scotland; soon afterward Hitler attacked Russia; therefore this was why Hess had come. In reality the two and two which were put together did not exist. Similarly, the British remembered from the Blitz only that it was hell. Having exaggerated in recollection the effects on themselves, they assumed that the Germans would suffer even more.

It is always useful to have the immediate impressions of a contemporary, even from one rather remote from ordinary life. But I cannot feel that Lee’s book is “a rare story” or “engrossing reading,” as others have found it. I am not deeply interested in Lee’s moustache or in his family affairs, which were uninterruptedly normal. With this diary we are scraping the barrel. I hope we shall have no more war diaries and certainly no more spy stories from the Second World War. Indeed the time has come when the Second World War can be left to the detached studies of historians.

This Issue

February 10, 1972