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US-Nazi spies: cold-war blunder


New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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398 pp. Illustrated. $19.95

BLOWBACK is a term used by intelligence agents for the unforeseen negative consequences back home resulting from covert actions abroad: As in the old proverb, spit in the wind and the wind blows it back at you.

The blowback from America's recruitment of Nazis and their collaborators to serve as spies and operatives after World War II is hard to assess. But thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the path-breaking research of a young investigative reporter who availed himself of its opportunities, this story is no longer vague conjecture.

The aims of this book are fourfold: First, to document that Nazis were indeed recruited. Second, to establish that many were not minor functionaries or opportunists who became Nazis just to get ahead, but men who would otherwise have been condemned as war criminals. Third, to demonstrate that, despite their routine denials, most of the people who recruited Nazis were fully aware of their backgrounds. Fourth, and most difficult, to assess the damage.

Simpson succeeds in establishing the facts beyond any reasonable doubt. From scientists like Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger to spies and agents like Klaus Barbie, Alois Brunner, and Otto von Bolschwing, Simpson details case after case.

The pattern soon becomes depressingly predictable: Nazis recruited in full knowledge of their backgrounds; public denials and cover-ups; intervention by intelligence agencies when the immigration service tried to block the entry of war criminals and when investigative agencies tried to track them down. Simpson shows how recruiting Nazis may well have undermined American intelligence-gathering abilities, contributed to cold-war tensions, strengthened pro-Soviet regimes, and insidiously shaped the US foreign policy debate.

Respected US policymakers like George F. Kennan, Charles Thayer, and Charles Bohlen had deemed it foolish to reject all Nazis and Nazi collaborators as potential allies in the postwar quest for ``containment'' of communism.

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Simpson is not naive - or paranoid - enough to suppose that the cold war itself is attributable to the influence of Naxi intelligence recruits. He realizes that, on the contrary, it was America's anti-Soviet position that opened the door to Nazi collaborators on the old any-enemy-of-theirs-must-be-a-friend-of-ours principle.

CIA director Allen Dulles's comment about the recruitment of Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen sums up the then-prevailing attitude: ```He's on our side and that's all that matters.''' Later, other analysts would reach a very different conclusion, calling the Gehlen hiring ``the biggest mistake the US ever made.'' The Gehlen organization was a major source of US intelligence during the most crucial period of East-West relations. Its most glaring weakness was exposed in the early 1960s, when Heinz Felfe, one of the Nazis whom Gehlen had recruited on the ``old boy'' network, was revealed to have been a Soviet double agent. A more subtle weakness may have been that the intelligence collected by more ``reliable'' Nazis was often distorted by their extremist world views. Worse yet, in inter- and intra-agency rivalries, extremists frequently prevailed over more dispassionate and genuinely reliable sources by purging them through McCarthyite tactics.

Simpson succeeds in making this shocking story all too believable. He is sophisticated and tough-minded in making connections and interpreting evidence, yet refreshingly uncynical in his belief that distinctions between good and evil still matter. There's much more to Simpson's highly detailed, grimly fascinating account than can be summarized here. But even a cursory examination of the evidence is enough to indicate the magnitude of the consequences set in motion by a policy that proved, as the saying goes, worse than a crime, a blunder.

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