There is a retrospective chill in knowing that in December 1944, an American playboy and spy, George Earle, posted in Istanbul, sent Franklin Roosevelt a warning that the Germans, who were already hurling V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets against London, were about to launch another pilotless secret weapon, the V-3, said to be capable of crossing the Atlantic in 40 minutes and hitting New York City. A worried Franklin Roosevelt told his cousin Daisy Suckley, in whom he sometimes confided, that his spy informed him the V-3 could kill everyone within a mile of impact. The Nazis were also experimenting with rockets launched from submarines, the idea being to send wolf packs to surface off New York City and reduce it to rubble. That apocalypse remained on the drawing board, and the Allies pulverized Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and other German cities.
Earle, a former Pennsylvania Governor, former ambassador and sometime spy who tipped off Roosevelt to the V-3, was one of F.D.R.'s occasionally wild-haired espionage operatives. In Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage (Random House; 564 pages; $35), Joseph E. Persico explores--with judicious historical zest and a fine eye for detail--the hallucinatory world of snooping, concealments, betrayals and confidence games played for world-history stakes.
American espionage was a clumsy toddler at first. (Some think it has not improved much with age and astronomical budgets.) F.D.R., magician and dissembler, improvised spy systems formal and informal. In the official line, he had the military's separate intelligence-gathering operations and the help of byzantine J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI. In 1940 the Army's Signal Intelligence Service, quartered at Arlington Hall in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, broke the top-secret Japanese Purple code, meaning, as Persico says, that with the decryptions, dubbed Magic, "the Tokyo foreign office might as well have placed F.D.R. on its distribution list."
Further, Roosevelt hired William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan to assemble the OSS, a large mixed bag of talents that came to include, among others, Julia Child, the actor Sterling Hayden, the poet Archibald MacLeish, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and three future directors of the CIA. Donovan, a Wall Street Republican who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor for combat in World War I, made the OSS hospitable to many communist agents. Much moral confusion flowed from the fact that Stalin, one of history's true monsters, was for the moment an ally. The Germans and Japanese never penetrated the secret of the Manhattan Project's atom bomb, but the Soviets (through Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and others) did.