A Review of Asian American Spies

The book does highlight many of the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Americans who served their country and does offer some idea of their wartime roles in OSS.” – Reviewer Stephen Mercado

BOOK REVIEW: Asian American Spies: How Asian Americans Helped Win the Allied Victory

By Brian Masaru Hayashi / Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Stephen Mercado

The Reviewer: Stephen C. Mercado is a former all-source analyst and open-source officer for the CIA. He is the author of The Shadow Warriors of Nakano: An Intelligence History of the Imperial Japanese Army. The CIA has twice awarded him its Studies in Intelligence Award for his submissions to the Agency’s journal.

REVIEW – The popular idiom that one cannot judge a book by its cover applies to books in particular as it does to life in general. Asian American Spies is a case in point. The subtitle – How Asian Americans Helped Win the Allied Victory – suggests that the author has undertaken the formidable task of attempting to show how an intelligence agency, in this case the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), contributed to the Allied military victory in the Second World War. Instead, the reader discovers on opening the cover, a rather different book: one on race and loyalty. Indeed, the author on his own website posted some time before publication, that the book’s subtitle would be Race, Loyalty, and the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

The book is less a contribution to intelligence literature than it is an academic’s book on ethnic studies. The author focuses his attention on the area where race and loyalty – both of which he sees as “fluid social constructions” – overlap. The heroes of the story are also its victims, Asian-American intelligence officers with the “right stuff” who must operate in the face of prejudice from European Americans. He also spares some ink for what he perceives as a particular OSS sin of omission against Asian-American women (not hiring enough of them) in addition to the various injustices that he sees committed against the men.

A university professor, the author writes in today’s fashionable academic language, where men are “males,” Asian Americans wear the “correct racial uniform” for OSS operations in Asia, and the issue of Asian-American loyalty to the United States is an issue of “complexity.” The author writes of having conducted research in multiple Asian languages in putting together this book, then mistranslates the title of one of the few Japanese books in the bibliography. He copies from an intelligence report the horribly mangled version of a Korean geographic name without correcting it, perhaps without realizing that it made no sense as written. He writes loosely of attacks against OSS from bureaucratic rivals “inside the Washington Beltway,” perhaps unaware that the Beltway was built after the war. He uses the terms “cooperation” and “compromise” in describing examples of collaboration. A few stray errors, such as referring to Mahatma Gandhi as “Indira” or referring to Colonel Eisaku Sawa, chief of the Macao Special Services Agency, as “Toyo,” also mar the text. Strikingly, for a book whose focus is to a great extent on the issue of loyalty among Japanese Americans in the fight against Japan, the author fails to reference the large body of Japanese writing on the many US citizens of Japanese descent who engaged in such wartime intelligence activities as prisoner interrogation, voice interception, radio monitoring, and propaganda broadcasts in the Imperial Japanese Army, Navy, and civilian organizations against the United States and other Allies. The index is woefully incomplete and oddly organized.

There are better books in the field of intelligence literature for those interested in learning how Asian Americans and women contributed as intelligence officers, and the OSS as an organization, to the Allied victory in the Second World War. Let me suggest three as representative works:

Having begun this review with criticism, let me end with praise. The author clearly carried out a great deal of research in Record Group 226 (OSS records) of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The endnotes, filled with NARA records and other primary sources, are perhaps the most interesting part of the book for readers of intelligence literature. The book does highlight many of the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Americans who served their country and does offer some idea of their wartime roles in OSS. Finally, the extensive bibliography is worth a look.

Asian American Spies earns a mild two out of four trench coats.



(The Cipher Brief taps independent reviewers with experience in national security issues to review books for our undercover readers.  The views expressed represent those of the reviewer and not The Cipher Brief.)

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