Books

Author Nicholas Reynolds: My life inside the CIA war machine

A former CIA man writes of his time at the heart of the American war machine, and his enduring fascination with the Cold War

Need to know - life in the CIA Illustration

Illustrated by Giovanni Simoncelli

What, another spy book on World War II? Library shelves are already groaning under the weight of more than 75 years of histories and memoirs. But, as the reader of this book will discover, there are still untold stories, and stories that need to be reframed.

My book Need to Know takes a fresh look at the main threads of American intelligence and the CIA in World War II, how they developed, how they related to each other and where they were positioned at the end of the war. It’s a crossover book that tackles more than one kind of intelligence work.

I look through the practitioners’ eyes whenever possible – and am still amazed by what I find: the codebreakers in Washington breaking the Japanese diplomatic code with little more than pencil and paper, the naval officer in a dank basement at Pearl Harbor in his smoking jacket and bedroom slippers predicting the movements of the Japanese fleet, the horde of Wall Street lawyers giving up lucrative legal practices to do their patriotic duty in a profession that had not existed a few weeks earlier. Together they created modern American intelligence, almost out of nothing, turning it into the massive, war-winning machine that would continue to grow during the Cold War.

How did I come to write about intelligence in World War II? 

For one thing, the war was almost literally in my blood. It was the defining event in my parents’ lives. When I was growing up, it would surface in conversation at the dinner table from time to time, or during visits with uncles who had fought in the war. My father, who had been in London after D-Day, told a vivid tale of seeing the results of a strike on a crowded butcher shop by a V-2 “revenge weapon”, one of the German missiles that were striking the city hard and at random, each with almost a ton of high explosives.

One thousand miles away in Hungary, my mother endured the months-long siege of Budapest in the basement of a hospital while Nazis and Soviets battled each other above ground. She told a hair-raising tale of venturing out by herself for milk for her twin sister’s newborn son.

After the war, what my parents wanted for their children was a more peaceful existence, one without incoming German bombs or trigger-happy Red Army soldiers on every street corner. My curiosity piqued, what I wanted was to be in the thick of history – whether that meant reading about it or joining in the fray. It was like a challenge. Would I measure up to their generation?

My first big research project was about the German generals who tried to kill Hitler. Dumb luck got me started. While my father was stationed in Berlin, I happened to meet Fabian von Schlabrendorff, an officer who had contrived to smuggle a bomb (that did not go off) onto Hitler’s plane in 1943. I found the story fascinating and wanted to hear more. I reached out to survivors. One contact led to another. 

Even though still in my 20s, I found that war veterans on both sides, no matter how senior, were willing to talk to a young historian. I interviewed German generals as well as the British intelligence officers who had spied on Nazi Germany and tried to understand what they were up to. I spent one memorable afternoon drinking scotch and smoking Marlboros with JC Masterman, the Oxford don who had run the double-cross system, doubling German spies against their masters and feeding misinformation to Berlin. My research led to my first book, Treason Was No Crime, written while I was at Oxford, a wonderful place to study history. 

From Oxford I joined the US Marine Corps, an unusual but not unheard of progression. Like most World War II Americans, I believed – and still believe – in national service. After a few years as an infantry officer, I toyed with the ideas of writing fiction and becoming a lawyer, neither of which was quite right for me. A friend told me I should consider the CIA – he said it was a good choice for people who did not know what else to do. He turned out to be right, and I stayed for a good long time, immersing myself largely in the very human business of espionage – and then had the privilege of serving as the historian for the CIA Museum, styled “the best museum you never saw”.

My first big project was the OSS gallery – telling the story of American spies in World War II. By the time I retired from museum work half a decade later, researching and writing about the war seemed the most natural thing in the world. 

Need To Know book cover

The result – after five years of research and writing, before and during the pandemic – is Need to Know.  

You can buy Need To Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence by Nicholas Reynolds (Mariner, £22) from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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