Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, yet again

by John Q on April 14, 2023

There’s been yet another big leak of US secret intelligence. As usual, the main result was embarrassment for the US state, from the (re)confirmation that it routinely spies on its allies, and from the publication of some unflattering comments on those allies. The substantive content was uninteresting, revealing no greater insight (and sometimes) than that available to careful observers with no access to secret information (Daniel Drezner has more on this).

There don’t seem to be any lessons to be learned here that weren’t already evident from the last big leak (Snowden), except that believers in the spy myth never learn any lessons. I’ve been over this again and again, as did Daniel Davies, back in the day.

I’m appending my first post on this, going back to an article published in the Australian Financial Review around the turn of the century.

The spy myth (2003)

If there is an emblematic figure for the 20th century, it is surely the spy. The first decades of that haunted century saw the rise to prominence of the spy novel, with such exemplars as John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands. The final decade saw retired spymasters reach the pinnacle of power in the United States (George Bush Sr.) and Russia (Vladimir Putin).

In espionage, as in so many other cases, life imitated art. The crucial motifs that made up the 20th-century concept of espionage, including the secret plan, the conspiracy and the femme fatale, were all present by the late 19th Century, in Sherlock Holmes stories like The Bruce-Partington plans and A Scandal in Bohemia. Yet actual espionage played an insignificant role in the real international relations of the day.

As late as 1930, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson repudiated the whole dirty business with the observation that ‘gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail’. This statement would, by then, have been regarded as hopelessly naive in most of the European capitals, where gentlemen had cease to play any role in international politics. As we shall see, however, it reflects a more sophisticated view of the world than one based on the idea that the employer of spies can gain access to the secrets of his or enemies and therefore defeat them.

The first test of the literary concept of the spy came with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Popular hysteria about secret weapons bore little relation to the grinding attrition of the Western Front. Although the Germans and Allies achieved surprises with chlorine gas and the tank respectively, the resulting gain of a few miles of mud did nothing to shift the balance of the war.

The dominance of literary concepts over reality was even more evident in the trial and execution of alleged female spies. The Allies tried and shot the notorious exotic dancer Mata Hari. In retrospect, she appears to have been guilty of little more than a taste for self-dramatisation and indiscreet gossip, but the persona she constructed for herself fit perfectly the stereotype of the femme fatale spy. The Germans, with the disastrous sense of PR they displayed throughout the Great War, chose to shoot a British nurse, Edith Cavell, easily represented as a Madonna figure to contrast with the symbolic Whore, Mata Hari.

The gap between myth and reality was similarly great in other theatres. The Russian activities of Sidney Reilly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies’ have formed the basis of a string of books and a TV series starring Sam Neill. A recent study in Intelligence and National Security gave the following more prosaic judgement.

Thus, with the evidence now at hand, the famous ‘Lockhart Plot’ can at last be seen for what it was: on the one hand, a real, if pitiful, anti-Soviet conspiracy concocted (or perhaps deliberately provoked) by the megalomaniacal Sidney Reilly in likely collusion with the eager but inexperienced Bruce Lockhart, and, on the other, a superb example of police provocation brilliantly conceived and expertly executed by the crafty agents of the Cheka.”

Spy hysteria continued to mount after the end of active hostilities in 1918. The totalitarian regimes that rose to power in the aftermath of the Great War made liberal use of spies, and gave rise to the first organized espionage machines, the Gestapo and the various incarnations of the Russian Cheka. These organisations proved ruthlessly effective in suppressing internal opposition, and use both financial and ideological appeals to recruit foreign agents in large numbers. The spy myth, it seemed, had become a reality.

Yet the actual achievements of these shadowy regiments were unimpressive. In most cases, espionage agencies can cloak their failures in secrecy, but the defeat of the Nazis paved the way for a look at the record of one of the most-feared espionage networks in history. The Hitler regime made numerous attempts to infiltrate spies into Britain and to recruit British agents. As far as can be determined from the German records, all were captured and many were ‘turned’, being induced or forced to transmit disinformation to Berlin.

As usual, art makes the spy look better. In the thriller, The Eye of the Needle, the German agent, played by Donald Sutherland, gets within seconds of exposing the subterfuges by which the British simulated preparations for an invasion in the Pas de Calais, thereby diverting German defences from Normandy. In reality, none of Hitler’s spies got anywhere near this.

An even more telling example is that of Pearl Harbour. A variety of intelligence sources gave the US government warnings of an impending attack. These warnings have formed the basis of subsequent conspiracy theories in which Roosevelt deliberately allowed the Japanese to succeed in order to force a reluctant US population into the war. The reality is more prosaic. Most of the warnings were vague inferences from intercepted communications, indicating that the Japanese were up to something, but not when and where. Reports from agents claiming to have inside information on Japanese plans were discounted, on the sensible basis that such claims usually turned out to be either attempts to extract financial rewards, or Japanese misinformation. In the latter case, preparations against a supposed attack would serve to expose security flaws in the Japanese military and perhaps also serve as a casus belli.

Similarly, despite ample warning, Stalin failed to prepare against Hitler’s invasion of Russia. As with Roosevelt he faced the problem that preparation on a serious scale would amount to an overt declaration of hostility against a supposedly friendly power.

It was only in 1944 that the basis was laid for a theoretical understanding of the game of spy and counterspy. In that year, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern published The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, in which they showed how a wide range of phenomena, from wars to markets, could be analysed in terms of games between players with conflicting interests.

The basic lesson of game theory for a game of bluff like that of espionage is that, as long as it is possible for counterspies to generate misleading information most of the time, spies are useless even when their information happens to be correct. If the defence plays optimally, the spymaster can never have any reason to believe one piece of information produced by spies and disbelieve another.

Spying may be worthwhile in cases where it is very hard or very costly to produce misleading information. Two potential cases are those of code-breaking in wartime, where the number of messages an enemy needs to send is so large that their validity can be checked fairly easily, and that of a secret weapon, where the information produced by spies can be checked by actually making the weapon.

In general, code-breaking relies only marginally on traditional spying methods. The most famous success, the British cracking of the German ‘Enigma’ code in World War II, was helped by the Poles who had stolen a machine before the outbreak of war, then smuggled it to England. However, the effort primarily relied on the mathematical analysis of German messages, which was undertaken by a team led by the enigmatic, and ultimately tragic, genius Alan Turing. (He committed suicide after the war, following persecution by the security forces on the basis of his homosexuality).

The secret weapon of all time was, of course, the atomic bomb, and the period after it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the high point of the spy panic, particularly in the English-speaking world. When the Russians exploded their own bomb, it seemed quite likely that the end of world was approaching. The discovery that British scientists such as Fuchs and Nunn, and American Communists like the Rosenbergs, had passed atomic secrets to the Russians, created a panic.

On the face of it, the reaction to the atom spies seemed justified. The atom bomb was a weapon that could destroy the world (and perhaps still will) and the science on which it was based was popularly associated with the genius of Albert Einstein. Surely, the only way the Russians could create such a weapon was to steal the secrets of the West.

It is now clear, however, that the only real secret regarding the atomic bomb was that it could be made to work. This secret was successfully concealed from the Nazis, who focused instead on the other great secret weapon of the century, the guided missile represented by the V2 rocket. But once the existence of the bomb was known, any competent team of physicists, with access to the right resources, could duplicate it. The Russians had competent physicists of their own, and captured some of leading German researchers. The secrets passed by Western spies probably saved them a year or so in their research program but did not fundamentally change anything. The Chinese, French, Israelis and others made their bombs without significant assistance from spies.

But this is the wisdom of hindsight. The exposure of the atom spies set the scene for the 20th-century apogee of spy hysteria, including such sensational episodes as the defection of Burgess and McLean, the exposure and flight of the ‘third man’, Kim Philby, the McCarthy hearings in the United States, and even our own Petrov crisis. Suddenly, it seemed, spies were everywhere, and an all-out response seemed called for.

In literature, the response was represented by the glamorous professional, James Bond, who transformed the spy novel from an ambiguous cross between detective story and thriller into a fully fledged sub-literary genre. Bond himself was a transitional figure between the gentlemanly amateurism of earlier heroes like Buchan’s Richard Hannay and the grubby professionalism celebrated by, for example, Len Deighton.

Belief in spies declined after 1960. The pivotal moment was probably the first significant step towards detente, the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing agreed between Britain, the US and the USSR in 1963. From this point onwards, it became steadily more evident that keeping nuclear secrets was a bad idea and that trying to steal secrets only encouraged those who wanted to keep them.

The exposure of a wide range of misconduct by the CIA and other agencies produced widespread hostility towards, and even more widespread cynicism about, the whole enterprise of espionage and counterespionage. The decline was charted by the novels of John Le Carre. The title and theme of The Looking Glass War, in which bureaucratic infighting in London results in a doomed attempt at infiltrating East Germany, captured, even more than his more famous works, the pointlessness of the entire enterprise.

The spy myth clearly served the interests of intelligence agencies, which prospered during the 20th century more than any set of spies before them. The real beneficiaries, however, were the counterintelligence agencies or, to dispense with euphemisms, the secret police, of both Western and Communist countries. The powers granted to them for their struggle against armies of spies were used primarily against domestic dissidents. Terms such as ‘agent of influence’ were used to stigmatise anyone whose activities, however open and above-board, could be represented as helpful to the other side.

The supposed role of the secret police, to keep secrets from opposing governments, was, as we have seen, futile. Secret police, and the associated panoply of security laws, Official Secrets Acts and so forth, were much more successful in protecting their governments’ secrets from potentially embarrassing public scrutiny in their own countries.

As spies and the associated fears have faded in their public mind, their place has been taken by terrorists. In many ways, this is a reversion to the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a focus of popular fears and the subject of novels by such writers as Chesterton and Conrad.

As the attacks of September 11 showed us, the threat posed by terrorists is real. Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.

If the century of the spy has taught us anything, it is that we need to assess the dangers posed by terrorists coolly and calmly rather than giving way to panic.



William Berry 04.14.23 at 3:48 am

The 2007 piece is awesome, JQ. I generally read all of your stuff but missed that somehow.

As to the substance of the post, I have only one observation, and that is that the American counter-intelligence hotshot, James Jesus [H. Christ?] Angleton*, was the very epitome of the kind of phony (but often very harmful) espionage activity you discuss.

*Second time today (by means of no apparent connection I can think of) I’m led to mention “The Good Shepherd”: I think the Matt Damon character stood for him in the movie. Sort of, anyway.


Thomas P 04.14.23 at 7:21 am

There was another, often forgotten, secret weapon that was important in WW II: the proximity fuse. Having shells that detonated when close to a target rather than after a set time was a decisive advantage.

At first the US only used them in air defence over the ocean to make sure the Axis couldn’t pick up an undetonated shell. It wasn’t until the Battle of the Bulge they were used on land, decimating German forces with shells that detonated just before hitting the ground speading shrapnel over a wide area rather than when they hit the ground producing a smaller impact zone.


Tim Worstall 04.14.23 at 9:04 am

An amusement given the other thread on new industrial policy:

“It was only in 1944 that the basis was laid for a theoretical understanding of the game of spy and counterspy. In that year, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern published The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, in which they showed how a wide range of phenomena, from wars to markets, could be analysed in terms of games between players with conflicting interests.

The basic lesson of game theory for a game of bluff like that of espionage is that, as long as it is possible for counterspies to generate misleading information most of the time, spies are useless even when their information happens to be correct. If the defence plays optimally, the spymaster can never have any reason to believe one piece of information produced by spies and disbelieve another.”

That only requires minor editing to show why industrial planning and political control of the economy has so many problems “if the market insiders play optimally, the politician can never have any reason to believe one piece of information” etc…..

I do see extensive maskirovka in my own specialist industry of weird metals. Politics seems to misunderstand the entire subject.


Trader Joe 04.14.23 at 10:58 am

I’m a bit surprised at this stance particularly coming from an academic. Spying is nothing more than intellectual inquiry about a topic that topic being other nations.

You profile plenty of high profile examples like the enigma code and the Atomic Bomb and no doubt there was plenty of spying associated with that, but I feel like you’re falling for the spy novel version of spying which is all about avoiding doomsday or saving the world. That’s precious little of the actual output as the recent leaks make clear.

Much of the real output of spying is simply providing verification of other readily available data. We do this daily in the securities industry calling it Company Research. Do the the same thing regarding Russia and we’d call it spying. Most of isn’t done by guys with Walther PPKs….its done by nerds with four computer monitors who drink Starbucks.

Their skill set is being able to see connections between things that aren’t obviously connected and having the ability to communicate those judgements. Whether someone acts on the information is called politics or diplomacy. The act of spying relies not at all on what is done with the information which I fear is where your article misses the point.

Would you agree that there is some value in knowledge for the sake of knowledge?


steven t johnson 04.14.23 at 1:19 pm

Intelligence, spies, national security….here’s a problem for game theory: How do you deter an aggressor if you keep your defenses secret? It is not clear to me that espionage is a game of bluff at all.

The most reliable intelligence appears to be what they call “order of battle.” It is not at all clear that covert operations are ever of any value. The TV series The Americans was besotted with the idea that real spies are effective when they torture, kill, extort, seduce and generally are magnificently sexy badasses, but that’s more a kind of pornography in my view. (Yes, I’m aware one of the honchos was a real CIA officer of some sort, but I think that was reflected largely in the ideology of the series.)

The identification of counterintelligence with “secret police” is interesting. Effective counterintelligence appears to be mostly a matter of physical security for the materials containing the secrets. Surveillance of possible foreign agents may be helpful. Keeping track of the spending habits and foreign travel of people holding the secrets might, except for the strong tendency to excuse the higher-ranking ones and ignore (or even abuse) the lower-ranking ones diminishes the effectiveness. It is very common to discover after terrorist events the police had knowledge of the perpetrators, but that appears to be a product of mass surveillance, where the police are massively targeting the entire suspect population.

As ever, the real problem in intelligence is not acquiring information but in intelligently assessing it. Having a license to kill helps that not one bit.


John Q 04.14.23 at 7:25 pm

“I’m a bit surprised at this stance particularly coming from an academic. Spying is nothing more than intellectual inquiry about a topic that topic being other nations.”

The starting point of academic research was the need to get away from secrecy, and work out in the open with free exchange of information. The replacement of alchemy by chemist is the archetypal example.


Sashas 04.14.23 at 8:21 pm

I admit that I don’t understand the OP. I’ve tried reading through the comments anyway, to see if I can go back and understand more.

My primary take-away so far is that a lot of my fellow commenters need to go read the Wikipedia article on the “False Dilemma” fallacy.


CJColucci 04.14.23 at 9:51 pm

steven t. johnson @5

Exactly Dr. Strangelove’s point to the Soviet ambassador.


Peter T 04.15.23 at 2:19 am

steven t johnson is right.

The popular perception of intelligence collection as being about spies and spying is far from the mark. It’s mostly about observation and gathering information quickly enough to react. Disinformation is not a particular problem in these fields – if you wish, for instance, to invade another country you have to position forces, bring units up to readiness and so on – and this requires a lot of communication. Likewise if you wish, on the battlefield, to move a division, you need to send orders – and maintain a flow of information on its state. Rapid reliable accurate transmission of information is key to your own operation. Secrecy is essential, but has a limited life-span – one hopes to conceal long enough that that the opponent cannot react effectively.

So reading one’s enemies internal mail is actually quite useful. It did, after all, sink a lot of u-boats.


LFC 04.15.23 at 3:00 am

Similarly, despite ample warning, Stalin failed to prepare against Hitler’s invasion of Russia. As with Roosevelt he faced the problem that preparation on a serious scale would amount to an overt declaration of hostility against a supposedly friendly power.

I don’t think Stalin and FDR were in very similar positions here. In the first case, Germany and the USSR were, prior to Hitler’s invasion in the summer of 1941, actually allies (since Aug. 1939). In the second case, the U.S. and Japan in the run-up to Pearl Harbor were very far from allies or ostensibly “friendly” powers. The U.S. was putting intense pressure on Japan via an embargo on oil and other vital raw materials, largely because the U.S. wanted to foreclose the possibility of a Japanese attack on the USSR in the latter’s east.

As Paul Schroeder put it (quoted by Mearsheimer), the U.S. began to consider Japan an enemy (or potential one) when, after the German invasion of the USSR, “the Far Eastern war [i.e. Japan’s aggressions in China and SE Asia/Indochina] had become clearly linked with the far greater (and, to the United States, more important) war in Europe.” The U.S. full-scale embargo against Japan, imposed in late July 1941, left Japan, as Mearsheimer notes (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, p. 223) with two bad (from its govt’s standpoint) choices: withdraw from the various territories it occupied, or attack the U.S. “Japan opted to attack the U.S., knowing full well that it would probably lose, but believing that it might be able to hold the U.S. at bay in a long war and eventually force it to quit the conflict.”

So the U.S. and Japan, while not formally at war in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, were very close to it. The U.S. embargo was intended to be coercive and was close to an overt declaration of hostilities, though not quite there yet. Thus FDR would likely not have been put off from taking preparatory measures against a possible Japanese attack by fear that the Japanese would read this as a casus belli. The more likely reason such preparatory measures weren’t taken is that, as the OP’s column suggests, most of the warnings were not very specific, and to the extent that there were specific signals, they tended to get lost in a lot of noise (as Roberta Wohlstetter argued in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision [never really read it but I believe that’s the main takeaway]). However, given the very intense economic pressure the U.S. was putting on Japan via the embargo, and given the record of Japanese foreign-policy actions over the previous decade, it does seem a little strange that the U.S. was as surprised by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as it apparently was. The explanation may be that the key U.S. policymakers simply misread the Japanese decision calculus and wrongly assumed that Japan would accept the U.S. demands.


Tm 04.15.23 at 9:21 am

I’m not exactly sure what the point of this post is. My impression so far has been that US intelligence concerning Russia and the Ukraine war has been highly accurate, and has been used very effectively and responsibly by the Biden administration, in contrast to other administrations in recent history. The leak is embarrassing for the US insofar as it was allowed to happen, but not wrt the content.


Gordon Wadden 04.15.23 at 10:06 am

Interested in real raw intelligence or espionage, Churchill, Monty, Ungentlemanly Warfare, John le Carré, Kim Philby, SAS Rogue Heroes, 22 SAS Regiment (Malaya) and Philby’s interest therein? Do read the epic fact based spy thriller, Bill Fairclough’s Beyond Enkription, the first stand-alone novel of six in TheBurlingtonFiles series. He was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6.

Beyond Enkription is a fact based book which follows the real life of a real spy, Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ) aka Edward Burlington who worked for British Intelligence, the CIA et al. It’s the stuff memorable spy films are made of, raw, realistic yet punchy, pacy and provocative; a super read as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots.

For the synopsis see TheBurlingtonFiles website. This thriller is like nothing we have ever come across before. Indeed, we wonder what The Burlington Files would have been like if David Cornwell aka John le Carré had collaborated with Bill Fairclough. They did consider it and even though they didn’t collaborate, Beyond Enkription is still described as ”up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”.

As for Bill Fairclough, he has even been described as a real life posh Harry Palmer; there are many intriguing bios of him on the web. As for Beyond Enkription, it’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti. To relish in this totally different non-fiction espionage thriller best do some research first. Try reading two brief news articles published on TheBurlingtonFiles website. One is about characters’ identities (September 2021) and the other about Pemberton’s People (October 2022). You’ll soon be immersed in a whole new world! As for TheBurlingtonFiles website, it is like a living espionage museum and as breathtaking as a compelling thriller in its own right.


Gordon Cavener 04.15.23 at 12:08 pm

The truth about David Cornwell aka John le Carré seems to be that despite being a brilliant author and the undisputed emperor of the espionage fiction genre, he was an imperfect spy. He had more Achilles heels than he had toes and was caught out by Kim Philby.

An interesting “news article” dated 31 October 2022 exists about some of his perceived shortcomings in this regard (pardon the unintentional quip). It’s entitled Pemberton’s People, Ungentlemanly Officers & Rogue Heroes and can be found on TheBurlingtonFiles website.

While visiting the site do check out Beyond Enkription. It is an intriguing raw and noir fact-based spy thriller and it’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti but what would it have been like if David Cornwell had collaborated with Bill Fairclough? Even though they didn’t collaborate, Beyond Enkription is still described as ”up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”. Not surprising really – Fairclough was never caught.


John Q 04.16.23 at 3:50 am

TM @11

“My impression so far has been that US intelligence concerning Russia and the Ukraine war has been highly accurate”

Not the impression of the Senate Intelligence Committee

Peter T @9 I covered all this in the OP.


steven t johnson 04.16.23 at 1:17 pm

Going back to the OP for a moment, if I understand correctly, game theory relies on calculating the payoffs. It is not at all clear to me how the costs of generating and disseminating the disinformation can be calculated. Nor is it clear to me how the off-setting benefit of the disinformation being accepted be usefully estimated, given the uncertainties of that probability. But, again, the real problem is the very notion of national security as a game of bluff. I am not so certain Nixon was a genius for his madman theory. Bluffing in national security was once called “saber rattling,” and it is not clear to me this has been historically attested as a prudent tactic/strategy.

LFC@10 prompts me to venture an unacceptable truth, that economic warfare is warfare. Limiting oneself solely to the letter of the law in calling aggression, aggression, is like most legalism, more often an excuse. The means do not justify the ends and being legal doesn’t significantly change the nature of the act.

That said, the Japanese occupation of then French Indochina almost certainly had far more to do with the oil war against Japan. (And, the implicit threat to British colonies in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya, and to the Dutch colonial empire of what is now Indonesia.) Solidarity with the English, French and Dutch before solidarity with the Reds, I think. And: Right-wing revisionism is rampant, but even the most eager student of the “McCarthyites” should be amazed at the proposition the US government within a month of the Nazi invasion of the USSR so quickly moved to defend the Soviet rear…especially given the prevalent beliefs the Nazis would win. Besides, if the Japanese weren’t already interpreting the Anti-Comintern Pact as a military alliance calling for war, when the open hostilities began, why would they change their minds later?

The notion Germany and the USSR were genuinely allies is superficial. The Soviet moves into the Baltics; securing the area around Leningrad against the Nazi-friendly Finns (all anti-Communists are Nazi-friendly in practice, though occasionally not in words,); re-incorporating areas of “Poland” without Polish majority population (see “Curzon Line”); occupying Bessarabia and northern Bukovina (by the way, see “Iron Guard.”) These were not perceived as friendly acts, but as sacrifices to be paid for Soviet neutrality. True, the friendly relations between Germany and England and France were merely an entente, not a written pact. But this tacit understanding served the fascists well in Ethiopia, Spain, China and Siberia.

The simplest explanation I think for “Pearl Harbor” is that the US government never imagined the Japanese could carry out such an attack, because, they were Japanese. Good enough to wreck fellow Asians in China, but… It’s hard to tell but I suspect they even imagined MacArthur was enough to keep them out of the Philippines.


LFC 04.17.23 at 2:11 am

@ steven t johnson

I don’t intend to debate the history of WW2 with you, but will make a few points.

(1) Nazi Germany and the USSR had a treaty, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed before the German invasion of Poland. Hitler invaded Poland from the west in Sept. ’39; Stalin invaded it from the east. There is no reason to put the word “Poland” in quotation marks, as you do in your comment. Re the Curzon Line: during the Soviet-Polish war (1919-21), “[b]oth parties disregarded the line when the military situation lay in their favour, and it did not play a role in establishing the Polish–Soviet border in 1921. Instead, the final Peace of Riga (or Treaty of Riga) provided Poland with almost 135,000 square kilometres (52,000 sq mi) of land that was, on average, about 250 kilometres (160 mi) east of the Curzon Line.” (Wikipedia) So the Curzon Line was not the border of Poland when the USSR invaded it.

(2) The main reason the U.S. was concerned about preventing a Japanese attack on the “Soviet rear” was that the U.S. (i.e., the administration of FDR) was deeply concerned about Hitler taking over all of Europe. As Lend-Lease and destroyers-for-bases and other measures to help Britain showed, the U.S. realized that Hitler threatened, among other things, its own security. So when Hitler invaded the USSR, the USSR perforce became a strategic ally of the U.S. and Britain. It’s well known that the U.S. provided the USSR with materiel. The idea that FDR cared about preserving the British and French and Dutch colonial empires is absurd. He subordinated his anti-colonial views to the goal of prosecuting the war vs. the Axis to a successful conclusion. FDR cared about preserving an independent Britain but not about preserving the British Empire. Churchill cared about that; FDR did not.

(3) You can take up your disagreements with Mearsheimer’s interpretation with the sources he cites (in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, p. 480, n. 139), including: Paul W. Schroeder, The Axis Alliance and Japanese-American Relations, 1941 and Herbert Feis, The Road to Pearl Harbor.


Vagans 04.17.23 at 4:23 am

steven t johnson: of course the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ did not worry about ethnic minorities and majorities when they conquered the three Baltic states and tried to conquer Finland. They just wanted to recover as much of the Romanov empire as they could. So I have trouble believing that they cared about the people who lived there when they partitioned Poland with Germany in 1939.


TM 04.17.23 at 8:16 am

JQ 14: From the article you referenced:

“The intelligence community has been widely praised for the accuracy of its insights into Russian planning leading up to the invasion. But its ability to predict the unknowable – in this case, how the war would play out once Russian and Ukrainian troops began fighting – has historically been spotty. ” “No one, it appears, anticipated how poorly Russia would execute their initial campaign.”

US intelligence correctly predicted that a Russian full scale invasion was likely (a prediction which was widely questioned and mocked, until it came true) but they couldn’t predict how the war would turn out. In other words they don’t have an infallible crystal ball. This criticism seems a bit absurd. In any case, the discussion in the article seems to misunderstand the purpose of intelligence, which is to provide accurate information (including assessing the accuracy and reliability of its sources).
The political interpretation of that information should really not be left to the intelligence agencies. This if anything should be the takeaway. It’s not surprising that (according to the same article) the State Department assessed the chances of ukrainian resistance more accurately than the CIA, presumably based on broadly the same information.

“Critics [who?] say the US might have moved to arm Ukraine sooner and with heavier weaponry if the intelligence community had assessed that it stood a fighting chance against the Russian army.” This seems doubtful to me and it misconstrues the political calculus at the time, which included the important consideration that Russia should not be given any pretext for claiming that it was provoked into war.


TM 04.17.23 at 1:11 pm

stj: “The Soviet moves into the Baltics;… ; re-incorporating areas of “Poland” without Polish majority population; occupying Bessarabia and northern Bukovina”

The wording is telling. It is true that Poland included territories that were not majority ethnic Polish, but they weren’t ethnic Russian either, and of course neither Finland nor the Baltics or Bessarabia (today Moldavia) were ethnic Russian. These territories had been part of the Czarist empire but that empire had ceased existing, so the reference to “re-incorporation” is a telling anachronism (just as a reference to “reincorpoating” Ukraine today would be).

One might suspect that this framing is meant to justify the aggression that the Soviet Union committed in 1939 jointly with Nazi Germany against Poland and the Baltics. Nope, there’s nothing to justify.


TM 04.17.23 at 1:29 pm

I should add, for the record, that already before 1939, Stalin murdered more than a hundred thousand ethnic Polish people that found themselves under Soviet power (, and many more were murdered in the newly occupied territorieas after 1939. Ethnic categories were very relevant to Stalin. His terror could strike everybody but ethnic minorities were far overrepresented among his victims. Given this history, I find the apologetic line about “re-incorporating areas of “Poland” without Polish majority population” all the more disgusting.


steven t johnson 04.17.23 at 6:37 pm

My fault I suppose for not limiting myself to the main point, that economic warfare is warfare. In addition to repeating that, I will add that if you (anyone trying to be objective) accept this, it is the US which for decades is the aggressive power launching war after war. (And contra Trumpists, Trump was not a peaceful president.)

But I slipped up and digressed. As to the Curzon line, yes, the Polish state had seized lands to which it had a dubious national claim…and the corrected borders since are fairly close to said line. As a demarcation, the Curzon line was relatively fair, by the way. LFC’s point here is, lines on the map are sacred, except when the US approves changing them.

The second point is even more incoherent, KFC tacitly concedes the oil war against Japan was the outbreak of hostilities while verbally denying it. Yet it is only the commitment to war against Germany that is supposed to be the motive for attacking Japan. And LFC also claims that FDR simultaneously subordinated his anti-colonialism to victory and denies the FDR wasn’t motivated by US security concerns to preserve the British, French and Dutch colonial empires till a more suitable time. Pick one, please.

The third point is apparently that Mearsheimer relies on secondary sources from the Fifties, rather than more recent literature. If we are going to go full blast from the past, the charges that FDR provoked war with Japan were once defended on the ground that the oil embargo was really only meant to force Japan from French Indochina, which it had recently occupied (a movement that implicitly threatened Hong Kong, by the way.)

The real problem with the digression is that it doesn’t limit itself to 1939 and after. Hence Vagans@17 helpfully reads minds, including mine. I wasn’t aware I was thinking the USSR was motivated by humanitarian concerns for the Balts, White Russians, Great Russians, Ukrainians, Jews of whatever language, et al. I thought I was attributing it implicitly to fear of and hostility to Nazis.

I’m afraid it seems to me that Vagans is projecting backwards semiofficial propaganda reading Putin’s mind backwards at Stalin. But if Vagans really does have supernatural powers it would be a gift to the world to quit messing around here and go to the Pentagon or the White House or the CIA to volunteer these service.


nobody 04.17.23 at 7:33 pm

In the days before the “professionalization” of the spy (arguably WW2) and through the Cold War the spy must be motivated – at least partly – by some form of patriotism and loyalty. You do these dastardly things because you love America and hate communism. In the 20th century spy story this is the actual agony of the fictional spy. Like the mobster with a heart of gold, the spy (or we, their audience) must agonize between their conscience and the dastardly manipulations they must undertake to protect the innocent lambs asleep at home against the even-worse enemy. Even the cynical spy novels are cynical to increase the internal agony of this conflict.

But since the Iraq War, the population of Americans who think that knowledge is how American policymakers make decisions is limited to 50+ year old chumps, who still think that if only we’d tortured the Dixie Chicks to death in Guantanamo, Iraq would be the 51st state. Everyone else knows the country is just a collection of barely-restrained orcs who will massacre and torture as many elderly people and children as they can if they are even slightly inconvenienced; or for no reason at all. So why not leak classified documents to get your high school video game friends to be impressed with you? It benefits you and doesn’t harm America at all, and if it did, who cares?

It’s like taking an extra five minutes on your smoke break at Burger King. You hate your job and your boss and your boss’s boss and your boss’s boss’s boss, so why do what they want? Actually that is a bad example, because at least the Burger King worker knows they’re providing cheap food in exchange for money. What, exactly, is the spy doing? Helping elite American decisionmakers know things? Since 2002 we know that elite American decisionmakers don’t give a crap about knowing things and will throw knowledge in the shredder whenever it pleases them.

Remember the CIA telling the GWB white house that the white house source for Iraq intel was just fabricating stuff? Yeah. Didn’t even pump the brakes on the war. Didn’t slow it down by an hour.

And they’re all still there. We elected an Iraq War guy President, even! It’s crucial to understand that the function of the spy since 2002 is, empirically, in America and perhaps other nations, a complete waste of time and money. Nobody wants to know. They will do what they want anyway.


steven t johnson 04.17.23 at 8:04 pm

TM@19 believes Poland should have re-incorporated lands held by the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The anti-Communist motivations for finding this anachronism pleasing rather than disgusting are obvious to me. And… in this kind of thinking, the great compromise of 1938 at Munich, where the gloriously democratic Poles seized a bit of Czechoslovakia (the Teschen district) is wholly justified. Especially wonderful was the way the Poles nobly kept the Soviets from plausibly threatening to help the Czechs against the Germans. Keeping Stalin out was a great thing. How tragic the Poles were conquered by the exterminating hordes of Stalin. The struggle against fascism did not begin in 1939 and the TMs were on the fascists’ side for years before, and for years after 1945 too.

Comments on Ukraine are pre-emptively censored.


TM 04.18.23 at 7:28 am

stj, don’t you dare tell me what I “think”. Take responsibility for your own thinking, which is quite barbaric.


LFC 04.18.23 at 3:24 pm

Re stj @23

On 22 May [1938], Juliusz ?ukasiewicz, the Polish ambassador to France, told the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet that if France moved against Germany to defend Czechoslovakia, “We shall not move.” ?ukasiewicz also told Bonnet that Poland would oppose any attempt by Soviet forces to defend Czechoslovakia from Germany. Daladier told Jakob Surits, the Soviet ambassador to France, “Not only can we not count on Polish support but we have no faith that Poland will not strike us in the back.”[22] However [emphasis added], the Polish government indicated multiple times (in March 1936 and May, June and August 1938) that it was prepared to fight Germany if the French decided to help Czechoslovakia: “Beck’s proposal to Bonnet, his statements to Ambassador Drexel Biddle, and the statement noted by Vansittart, show that the Polish foreign minister was, indeed, prepared to carry out a radical change of policy if the Western powers decided on war with Germany. However, these proposals and statements did not elicit any reaction from British and French governments….”[3]

from Wikipedia entry on Munich Agreement, last quotation from Goldstein & Lukes, The Munich Crisis, 1938(1999).


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.19.23 at 1:20 am

I think that John Q.’s argument depends on his implicit definition of spying: one state obtaining valuable military or political information from another by subterfuge. If so, I agree with him, with the limited exception of operational military information.

But there is plenty of industrial spying, which can be valuable indeed and is conducted by states as well as competitors. It’s not nearly as sexy as James Bond stuff. It is important.

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