Wartime Spies Get Their Due

New books, movies and the OSS Society pay tribute to our World War Two Secret Agents

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As the waning days of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II play out, the OSS is getting its own curtain call of sorts. 

The Office of Strategic Services plays a leading role in The Quiet Americans, Scott Anderson’s magisterial account of four intrepid young men whose can-do missions in World War helped shape the future CIA (for better or worse).

While the OSS is rightly (and almost always) celebrated for its harrowing, behind-the-lines sabotage operations against the Nazis, especially in German-occupied France, it less famously conducted espionage efforts against the Axis powers from Europe to the Middle East and beyond. And no wonder the discrepancy: Anderson’s captivating account includes stories of astounding spying pratfalls by the fledgling service, such as when it discovered its Istanbul-based network was saturated with Nazi double agents.  

But the numerous acts of personal courage by the young agents—most were barely out of college—deserve not only celebration on this anniversary but reflection. Take just one wartime episode, when one of Anderson’s four colorful protagonists, Michael Burke—debonaire future CIA agent, screenwriter, Ringling Bros circus executive and New York Yankees president—walked out of a forest unarmed and bluffed a German unit into a ceasefire, saving the lives of French resistance fighters. “James Bond before James Bond,” Anderson calls him.

Burke, from a privileged family, could’ve dodged combat. Instead he sought it out. 

“I knew I must go,“ he later wrote, as recounted by Anderson. “This was my generation’s war. Simplistically, subjectively, I could not abide the thought of other people—my own friends perhaps—fighting to defend my wife and child while I sat safely home.“

Burke and the others put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis, now enjoying a twisted regeneration in Germany and the U.S.

"OSS set a standard for innovation, creativity, and risk-taking that has never been equaled,” says Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, which every year since 1961 has bestowed its William J. Donovan award, named for its founder, on “an individual who has rendered distinguished service to the United States of America.”

Last year the OSS Society honored retired Marine Corps General and former Trump administration Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis. In June, Mattis denounced the president as a threat to the Constitution and compared his divisive politics to the Nazis. Peter Sichel, 97, another OSS agent (and later CIA officer) featured in The Quiet Americans, only days ago told author Anderson that he suspected Trump had been targeted for blackmail years ago by the Russians. The old cold warrior readily admitted he had no evidence, “because I think we’re still in the early stages of unlocking all that has gone on,” he said.

“What I can say is that the past four years have been very, very good for Vladimir Putin. And if Trump is reelected, the next four will be even better.”

The OSS Society was forced to cancel its annual Donovan awards gala this month because of the coronavirus. Instead it’s been hosting a month-long, online “Oh So Social Conversation Series” (a self-mocking reference to an old saw about the OSS having so many wealthy, Ivy League-educated spies in its ranks). Moderated by Michael Vickers, the renowned onetime Army Special Forces sergeant who rose to become undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the next “conversation,” on October 15, is dedicated to “National Security challenges for the next Administration.” That should be something. (It’s open to the public.)

The society is also featuring three documentary films on the OSS. One, Operation Overlord: OSS and the Battle for France, was written and directed by Carl Colby, whose father, William, a future CIA director, jumped into Nazi-occupied France as a member of the OSS Jedburghs, predecessor of the Green Berets. Another, Tip of the Spear: from Virginia Hall to Gina Haspel, recounts the history of women in the OSS and CIA. The site features another 200-plus OSS-related books.

I don’t know exactly how many books and articles have been written about Virginia Hall, but it’s a lot

“The spy with the wooden leg,” as she’s been called, was a one-person terror to the Gestapo, which labelled her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Yet her gender and disability long caused her male superiors to underrate her. With the U.S. staying out of the war until December 8, 1941, Hall worked for Britain’s Special Operations Executive until the OSS’s Donovan wisely snatched her up.

Sonia Purnell’s highly praised biography, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, came out in paperback this year. But now her exploits are spotlighted in a new film thriller, A Call to Spy, whose writer/producer, director and stars, including Sarah Megan Thomas as Hall, are all female. It’s available to stream via IFC.

Great filmmaking, it’s not, but as the Los Angeles Times critic Michael Ordoña puts it,  “It’s refreshing to come at the spy genre from a different angle and rewarding to be introduced to these extraordinary women.”

Indeed. See you next week with another edition of spies in the arts.