I came across a book titled “Nazi Spies in America”, written by Leon Turrou, and published by Random House in 1938. I knew nothing about Nazi spies in America, so the book intrigued me – not only because of the subject matter itself, but because of the publication date. 1938 was five years after Hitler’s achieving power, but prior to both his 1939 invasion of Poland that started the war, and his 1941 declaration of war against the United States. Why were there Nazi spies in America, and what were they doing here? Was this a serious book, or mere over the top speculation?
Serious, indeed, as it turned out. Turrou was the FBI agent in charge of ferreting out the spy ring. I later learned that the publication of this book, which had not been presented to FBI officials or vetted by the agency, got him fired by J. Edgar Hoover. And (thank you once again, Wikipedia) that Mr. Turrou led quite a fascinating life.
According to the book, the last thing that America was worried about in the 1930s was infiltration by Nazi spies. So no one was looking for them, or talking about the possibility – in fact, Turrou says, the United States had not yet developed any sort of counterintelligence capacity. But the Germans were in fact spying, and doing so extensively, largely looking at American weapons systems and troop strength, as if they were preparing for a war which we assumed would not erupt.
How did Nazi espionage activity come to our attention? In a round about way. The British did have counter intelligence operations in their country, and were concerned about German activity. Obviously, they were much closer to the scene. They learned, through an astute postman, who noted that a lot of mail from abroad (and especially from Germany) was coming to a house in Dundee, Scotland, where a middle aged, single woman (a hairdresser) lived. Examining this correspondence, they learned that the house was an intermediary. In the days before extensive electronic communication, when mail was a major means of contact, the Germans would send letters to Dundee, letters not meant for the Scottish hairdresser. Her job was to repackage the letters and send them on their way. Some of the correspondence so rerouted started in Germany and ended up the US, and vice versa.
The British alerted US officials, who brought the FBI, and Leon Turrou onto the scene. It turned out that a number of Germans resident in the United States, some American citizens, some not, some active Nazi supporters, some simply supporting their homeland, some working voluntarily, and some working in response to threats to their families at home in Germany, some for pay, and some not, were actively engaged in espionage activity on behalf of the German government. And they were going after big game – everything from information on American troop sizes in various parts of the world, to looking for plans for American ships and American weapons, to trying to obtain blank governmental forms and documents (particularly to allow them to create fake American passports). The spies included prominent individuals (such as a very well known and successful physician in New York) to beautiful (even if they weren’t that pretty in the book’s pictures) women, to drifters otherwise unable to find employment.
In addition to corresponding by mail through Dundee, the Germans used various German owned ocean liners (passenger boats) to transport people and documents. Installing German espionage agents on board ship (on one recurring ship, as a steward and a hairdresser), they were able to move in and out of the country at will, contacting and meeting with their agents in New York, bringing them pay, and taking back documents. In addition, the American based agents themselves also traveled back and forth to Germany on these ships, sometimes under false identification.
The first contact that the FBI made was with a young man, German by descent, who had had trouble getting and keeping jobs, had trouble copying with Army discipline, who had gone AWOL and was living under a false name, and who had a wife and young child to support. He had been asked to procure some documentation by his handler, and did so in a clumsy way that raised suspicion at a federal installation in New York. His apartment was searched, and German correspondence was noted. After questioning by the FBI, he confessed to everything, and agreed to become a double agent, under the supervision of the Americans. He was able to help the FBI officials identify others (everyone had been referred to by code names in the German communications) and this led to the unraveling of the entire operation, step by step by step.
As I was reading this, I said: boy, would this make a good movie. Then I learned that in fact it had made a good movie, the first anti-Nazi movie released by a Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers), “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”, a somewhat fictionalized version, I think, starring Edward G. Robinson, with Turrou acting as an adviser. Have not seen it yet.
Reading on its website, I see that there is no love lost between the FBI and Turrou – he is described on the site as having bungled the investigation, since only four people were convicted and many others escaped the country during the time a grand jury was studying the cases. The FBI maintains that Turrou was over his head, and that today’s counter intelligence operations were based on a model designed to corrected Turrou’s errors – but is that so? After he left the FBI and published this book, he joined the US Army where he served on Eisenhower’s staff in intelligence, and won several decorations.`After the war, he went to work for John Paul Getty, and later retired to Paris where he lived for many years, dying in his early 90s.
A book worth reading, if you can find it.
I have read several other books recently that I should mention: James Reston Jr’s, “Sherman’s March and Vietnam”, a unique and interesting, if somewhat opinionated book, whose thesis, as best as I understand it, is (a) that Sherman, even in his march to the sea, was not the vicious amoral military leader that he has grown to be in myth, but (b) that the myth has taken on a life of itself and helped lead to great changes in thoughts about warfare and military ethics, changing how wars are fought, and (c) that General Wm. Westmoreland’s approach to battle in Vietnam was too much based on the myth of Sherman’s tactics, resulting in a collapse of American military ethical conduct. An interesting thesis – but I don’t know what to do with it. Clearly, an opinionated book. “From Science to Diplomacy” by Jan Dowgiallo, a geologist who became non-Communist Poland’s first ambassador to Israel. It’s a short book, done in the form of an interview. Dowgiallo comes across as a good guy, a non-politician, as someone who spent a lot of time trying to defend Poland from anti-Polish Israeli survivors while at the same time sympathizing with his detractors. His entire family was killed during the war, so much of his sympathy was natural. But his feeling was that, although there were clearly some Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, this was a German-induced problem, and Poland should not be blamed for what happened. Considering what happened, however, it’s hard not to spread that blame around. Finally, “Heretic”, a memoir, sort of a coming of age memoir, by biographer Jerome Tuccille (whom I had never heard of) – an Italian boy from Newark who wants to escape from his dysfunctional family, goes from dysfunctional situation to dysfunctional situation (until he finally gets married, where he has apparently stayed almost 40 years). Interesting because this type of book always is interesting – but not for any other reason.