Before World War II, the U.S. government’s intelligence community was “a tiny, tiny thing.”
But the period between 1940 and 1946 saw intelligence activity (military and civilian) grow “from tens of employees . . . to tens of thousands,” noted Nicholas Reynolds, speaking at a recent meeting of the Kiwanis Club of South Arlington.
Reynolds knows of what he speaks. He has penned the new book “Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence,” published by Mariner Books.
The tome was released on Sept. 18, which marked the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The book takes a decidedly 30,000-foot view of intelligence activities during the time frame, attempting to tie together the main themes and personalities “and to see what they meant to one another,” the author said during a 40-minute presentation punctuated by questions.
(Perhaps the most often-asked question to those who study such things: How close did the U.S. come to figuring out the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor before it happened? Not very close, Reynolds concluded; while the Japanese diplomatic codes had been broken by then, the vital military codes had not – and leaders in Tokyo were purposely keeping their diplomats in Washington in the dark.)
How is his book different from others in the genre? Most other works on the subject of World War II intelligence typically take “one slice of the pie,” said Reynolds, who over the past half-century garnered a law degree, earned the equivalent of a doctorate from Oxford University and served in the Marine Corps and CIA, including a stint as historian for the CIA Museum (“the best museum you’ll never see,” chuckled his wife Becky).
He also is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures 1935-61,” published in 2017.
Reynolds was able to use stay-at-home time during the pandemic to conduct research for “Need to Know,” as about 99 percent of the available U.S. archives from the era have been declassified, and much of the material is now digitized for online availability.
His research built on a fascination over World War II that has endured since his childhood.
“My parents, their lives were deeply influenced by World War II. That rubbed off on us kids,” Reynolds said.
(His father worked for the U.S. Department of State, collecting German documents in the aftermath of the war, Reynolds said.)
“Need to Know” also looks at the fruitful, if at times cantankerous, relationship between those gathering intelligence for the U.S. and their counterparts in the United Kingdom. It also looks at the very different approaches to intelligence-gathering oversight by successive presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. And it looks at some figures who played key roles in the formation of the American intelligence-gathering infrastructure:
• Alfred McCormack, a Wall Street lawyer with no love for FDR or the New Deal, who nonetheless left his law practice and populated an effective intelligence-gathering organization with attorneys and academics and moved U.S. intelligence-gathering “from an amateur to a professional stage.”
• Joseph Rochefort, a high-school dropout put in charge of radio intelligence at Pearl Harbor after the attack, and whose brilliance helped enable the key U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway.
• Telford Taylor, a legal scholar whose diplomatic skills helped smooth over sometimes rocky relationships between British code-breakers at the famed Bletchley Park and the Americans.
• Genevieve Grotjan, a 26-year-old mathematician responsible for cracking the main diplomatic code in 1940.
Of all the personalities, “I came to like the code-breakers quite a lot,” Reynolds said. “They emerged as the heroes.”
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“Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence” (Mariner Books; $29.99) is available at bookstores and online retailers like Amazon.