Review: ‘The Secret War’ by Max Hastings looks at waste in WWII

For the Washington Post
Tuesday, August 09, 2016

In his ambitious new book, The Secret War, veteran historian Max Hastings delves into the intelligence operations of the competing powers of World War II: the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan. Hastings does not set out to be exhaustive but rather to deliver “a study of both sides’ secret war machines and some of the characters who influenced them.” The true value-added of the book is that it provides warnings about the ambiguous role of clandestine activities that remain relevant today.

While Hastings finds faults with the U.S. and British intelligence services, he shows that they were able to overcome rivalries and biases to produce accurate and honest assessments that influenced key decision-makers. Hastings credits Winston Churchill’s leadership for much of the Allied success. More than any other leader, Churchill recognized the value of intelligence and ensured that the British services were properly resourced, apolitical and successfully managed.

The author is highly critical of the German and Soviet intelligence services, which suffered under oppressive regimes that did not tolerate dissenting opinions. Flaws within the German system were ignored as the Nazis marched to rapid victories in the early years of the war and were exacerbated as Hitler became increasingly surrounded by incompetent sycophants who hid or manipulated the truth. By contrast, Soviet intelligence suffered some catastrophic early failures but improved after Stalin ceded much of the control to a more competent cadre of professionals. Still, Soviet intelligence struggled to overcome the legacy of the Stalinist purges, the shock of the Nazi invasion and the perpetual fear of Allied betrayal.

Hastings acknowledges that intelligence and covert action were not responsible for the outcome of the war. Rather, physical dominance was the guarantor of victory. British code-breaking was the most important intelligence activity, but victory came only because the Western Allies had “absolute command of sea and air.”

Despite its many virtues, the book is long – more than 550 pages of text – and jumps rapidly among different theaters, missions and personalities. Nonetheless, in its nuanced and complex portrait of dysfunction, mistrust and waste, The Secret War sets a new benchmark for books on intelligence and covert action in World War II.