Review of “The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939 – 1945” by Max Hastings

Historian Max Hastings contends in his preface that the contributions of espionage were not significant in WWII, at least not without factoring in the political will and military prowess to exploit any intelligence. He avers that perhaps only “one-thousandth of 1 per cent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battle field outcomes.” Yet that tiny fraction was of immense value.

Nevertheless, he provocatively suggests: “The record suggests that official secrecy does more to protect intelligence agencies from domestic accountability for their own follies than to shield them from enemy penetration.”


There are a number of barriers to the success of spycraft. One is the large amount of information, misinformation, misdirection, and outright fabrications from which “pearls of revelation” must be extracted. Another is the reluctance of leaders to accept information that runs counter to their own beliefs, and the reluctance of intelligence agents to risk angering them (especially relevant when your boss was Stalin or Hitler). But leaders on all sides, Hastings reports, dismissed information that contradicted their beliefs. Hastings quotes a journalist who noted wittily: “Career officers and politicians have a strong interest in cooking raw intelligence to make their masters’ favourite dishes.” A third is a “failure of will”: even when you get the information, you are unwilling or unable to act upon it. Fourth, there is the problem that intelligence becomes out-of-date as soon as (if not before) it is received. Fifth, there is sometimes a reluctance to act upon information because it would reveal too much about decryption prowess in the case of signals intelligence, or it might compromise sources in the case of human intelligence. And finally, intelligence is often assessed from the worldview of the those who receive the intelligence, without a full understanding that enemies might have radically different value systems.

So if much intelligence is of limited use, and if it doesn’t really matter unless it can be acted upon, what is the purpose of this very long, in-depth study of global intelligence efforts during World War II? The main reason is that it is just interesting. The topic has an undeniable appeal to those of us so long exposed to James Bond movies and Cold War thrillers. There are plenty of amazing and heroic vignettes, and a good look from the side, as it were, of how military and political leaders analyzed what information their agents gleaned.

Evaluation: Who is willing to spy against their own country and why? What sort of people are willing to risk their lives to spy against and inside of other countries in the midst of a very dangerous war? And is all that risk and expense worth it? What purpose does it actually serve? This book provides detailed answers to all these questions and more.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

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