World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence

BOOK REVIEW: Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence

By Nicholas Reynolds / Mariner Books

Reviewed by William Nolte

The Reviewer — William Nolte retired in 2006 as chancellor of the National Intelligence University system. Previous assignments include two tours at the National Intelligence Council, head of legislative affairs at NSA, and commandant of the National Cryptologic School. He is now a lecturer in the intelligence studies program at the Catholic University of America.

REVIEW — Let me to begin by acknowledging that I wasn’t sure I should have agreed to review this book. Yet another book on intelligence in the aftermath of the Second World War? Hadn’t this field been fully ploughed?

That concern was ill-founded. Need to Know is a readable, thoughtful book on an important subject. The author states an intention of writing a “crossover” book covering more than one agency and focusing on strategy rather than tactics, the view from “thirty thousand feet rather than from the forward edge of a foxhole.” Those are ambitious objectives, given how few working intelligence professionals ever manage to look past their own agency and how many historical foxholes have been dug deeper and deeper over time. Readers looking for new developments or the exploration of previously neglected primary sources will find little of either in Need to Know. It is, on the other hand, highly successful at achieving the perspective proposed by the author.

A large part of this success flows from the author’s focus on personalities, not just the personalities of individuals but also the personalities and cultures of organizations and services. This emphasis is not without its dangers. Most of the first three chapters of the book focus on the William Stephenson – William Donovan relationship, and some of this could have been edited at little cost. That is the last quibble of this review.

From that point on, even previously covered issues come with new and illustrative information, in many instances noting the intersection of individual and corporate personalities in the development of organizational cultures. As an example, Reynolds provides a crisp review of the conflict dealt with in other works by Stephen Budiansky and others, between Hawaii-based cryptologist Joseph Rochefort and the Washington-based Redman brothers, John and Joseph. Beyond the personalities of the individuals involved, this issue reflected the tendency of headquarters elements, aided by developments in 20th century communications technology, to attempt to extend forward their writ, and the tensions created thereby with deployed personnel and components. Ambassadors, chiefs of station, and others would almost certainly agree that this trend has persisted into the 21st century.

In pursuing the “unifying threads” that produced the American intelligence establishment of the period from 1945 (or perhaps 1947), the author identifies an impressive and complex range. Issues arising from differences between American and allied (especially British) practices and policies and rivalries within the American participants between the uniformed services, uniformed services dealing with civilian organizations, and between civilian agencies figure prominently. Even practices and attitudes imported from prior service outside of government figure among the threads. Reynolds notes the reflection of one former OSS research officer on the composition of his office as so many members from Harvard, so many from Yale, and “someone from a place in the Midwest.” So much for flyover country.

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Beyond the range of such influences, veterans of the agencies built after the Second World War can easily attest to their stamina. Partly because of these antecedents and sometimes despite them, the men and women of the post-1945 intelligence services produced establishments that, warts, rivalries, poor judgments, and all, have served the US, its allies, and the causes of freedom and democracy well. Nevertheless, as an internal NSA study of the 1990s noted, at a time when flattening organizations was in vogue, the agency over the previous forty years had performed its mission “effectively but not efficiently,” while adding layers of bureaucracy that did little to enhance productivity. That judgment might well have been made regarding American intelligence as a whole. (The study in question was never implemented, by the way, largely because it was considered “too hard to do.”) 

Attendees at any number of conferences and meetings of the US Intelligence Community, over many years, have heard speakers declare that closer integration of the agencies has little or nothing to do with technology but is “simply a cultural issue.” Simply in that sense is such an interesting descriptive term, evoking the view of one 20th century management guru that “change costs a fortune and takes forever.” A panel of former directors of central and national intelligence would likely concur with that judgment. It might even be worth suggesting that some technical problems are simpler and more readily resolved than cultural ones the latter often having deeper, stronger roots.

Nicholas Reynolds has done more than replough the ground worked by earlier histories. Some readers, with expertise in precise areas of intelligence history, may find errors or omissions, or a lack of detail or granularity. Others may wish for more emphasis on certain topics, with less on others. Given the book’s focus, for example, more attention is given to the battles over the chain of command in US naval intelligence than on the role of intelligence in supporting combat operations in the Second World War or on whether the conflict between Nimitz and MacArthur filtered down to intelligence interactions between their respective theaters. The author’s intent, after all, was to provide the view from 30,000 feet, and within that focus he delivers.

This is an exceptionally well cited book. It includes a fine bibliography that undersells itself with the label “select;” and it includes a helpful list of principal characters. That list should prove especially useful for readers whose bookshelves are not crowded with the titles in the bibliography. Finally, Need to Know belongs in the required or at least highly recommended readings portions of syllabi in intelligence studies programs, and it would not be out of place in libraries, personal or institutional, containing serious intelligence collections.

Need to Know earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.



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