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Posted on May 20, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency – Book Review

By Richard N Story

oss.jpgBook Review: OSS: The Secret History of Americas First Central Intelligence Agency
Richard Harris Smith, 2005, paperback

The OSS has had both glamorous and not so glamorous episodes in its short lifespan. Many people thrilled to the stories presented about the OSS such as the agent who was fluent in both German and French and while dressed as a peasant farmer went up to a buttoned up German tank at a vital crossroad. Yelling ‘Mail’ in German; he tossed into the tank hand grenades which destroyed the tank and opened up the crossroad. Other stories abound such as the agent who was kitted up with gear including the dreaded ‘L’ or lethal tablet to use in case he was in danger of being captured. Dropped at night he met up with the Maquis to discover that he had dropped behind Allied lines: C’est le Guerre. Both stories are indicative of the trials and tribulations of a new agency growing up in war. The OSS was founded by President Roosevelt prior to the entry of the United States into World War II to act as the American version of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). William “Wild Bill” Donovan was given the task to create single handedly this new intelligence and action arm of the American Government. Yet creating a new agency is never easy and with turf battles being fought with the Army, Navy and FBI the new agency faced an uphill battle. The book OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency details all the hidden political battles fought by the OSS inside and outside the agency for legitimacy and funding and spheres of influence.

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The OSS faced many challenges and hardships when created. Faced with hostilities from the established agencies, it was also deliberately marginalized by its allies in the SOE. Still the OSS did do some sterling work with some of the greatest successes being in Asia. In fact the OSS made favorable contact and liaison with the Viet Minh. But as the State Department was rife with ‘Pro-China’ hands that had hamstrung the United States in dealing with the Japanese, the OSS had a division within itself. One group was very much in favor of popular independence movements of native peoples and another group that was ‘Pro-France’ who wanted, desired, France to return to her former state of glory as a world power and that meant retaining her status as a colonial power. Naturally this also meant that the ‘Pro-Independence’ group also ran afoul of the British who also wanted France to retain her colonial empire as it would bolster the British right to retain her colonies. The first American to die in Vietnam was Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey, a Francophile OSS Officer, who died as a result of mistaken identity because the returning French forces were dressed identically to the US forces and because he ‘cussed’ (what actually was said remains unknown to this day) the Vietnamese manning a roadblock in French. And from then on; the relationship between the United States and the Vietnamese slowly went sour and America’s history was forever changed by the quagmire that was to be Vietnam; a quagmire that still impacts the United States to this day. These battles, both internal and external, in the OSS happened not only in South East Asia, but over the entire world.

OSS is less a book about the operational history of the OSS but a political one. It tracks the creation and growth of the OSS by examining the role of the OSS in each area of importance to its history. These areas include: Africa, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland & Germany, China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and India and the other British Asiatic colonies. Richard Harris Smith employs not only official government histories of the OSS, but also a secret one never published as well as interviews with various members of the OSS. First published in 1972 this edition is a revised and expanded version. Richard Smith claims for the book was to encourage ‘liberal’ thought and by that he means one who questions authority rather than accepts everything at face value. Because the text travels by region rather than strictly chronological order there is some back and forth movements of a few of the more prominent members of the OSS creates a chronological confusion when trying to place who was where at what time. The text is crisp and free of grammatical mistakes. Included in the book are 8 pages of photographs many not seen before. If you are looking for a strictly operational history of the OSS than this book has only a marginal value, but if you are interested in the untold political war fought by the OSS than the book is highly endorsed and with a list price of $16.95 is well within the budget of every reader.

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