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Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage Hardcover – October 9, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Joseph E. Persico presents FDR as one of America's great spymasters. "Few leaders were better adapted temperamentally to espionage than Franklin Roosevelt," writes Persico, author of Nuremberg and Colin Powell's autobiographical collaborator. "FDR compartmentalized information, misled associates, manipulated people, conducted intrigues, used private lines of communication, scattered responsibility, duplicated assignments, provoked rivalries, held the cards while showing few, and left few fingerprints." He was a kind of principled Machiavellian who hoped to achieve several clear ends, such as getting the United States into the Second World War, even though most of the public wanted nothing to do with it (before Pearl Harbor). FDR then pursued these goals with the fervor of an opportunist: "the devious route to a desirable goal; inconstant behavior directed toward constant ends; the warship hiding behind a smoke screen but steered by a moral compass."

A good example of this is his relationship with the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh. Roosevelt asked J. Edgar Hoover to keep tabs on Lindbergh because he was a critic of the administration, and FDR suspected he was a closeted Nazi (not true, but perhaps an understandable opinion). Roosevelt's Secret War reveals how FDR created a huge intelligence operation and then ran it--he "built espionage into the structure of American government," says Persico. There were plenty of successes (Roosevelt knew about Hitler's plans to invade Russia before they did it), but also failings: Soviet agents burrowed into FDR's administration at the highest levels. One of the best sections of the book addresses a perennial question: Did FDR know the Japanese were about to bomb Pearl Harbor and let them do it because he believed the sneak attack would propel the public into supporting war against the Axis powers? Persico argues that FDR didn't know: "The clues seem to lead to that conclusion like lights on a well-marked runway." He makes a convincing case that "Pearl Harbor was a catastrophe, not a conspiracy." Roosevelt's Secret War is a unique contribution to our understanding of FDR--no other book treats America's longest-serving president as a spymaster--and it will appeal to readers interested in the Second World War and the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage. --John Miller

From Publishers Weekly

Blending anecdotes, speculations and documented facts into an exciting story of collecting and transmitting information in wartime, Persico (Nuremburg: Infamy on Trial) offers a clear-eyed take on FDR's approach to intelligence. For Persico, Roosevelt was someone to whom dissimulation was second nature, and who enjoyed for their own sake the trappings of secret agentry: clandestine meetings, reports done in invisible ink, codes and ciphers. Roosevelt built espionage into the very structure of American government well before Pearl Harbor, Persico shows. The president preferred human sources over electronic ones and the intuition of field agents to the conclusions of technocrats, but he incorporated electronic intelligence comprehensively into strategic and operational planning. Roosevelt's was the decisive influence in creating the Office of Strategic Services. Under "Wild Bill" Donovan, this initially unstable amalgam of dilettantes, poseurs and experts achieved an enviable record of successes during the war. Roosevelt, however, was by no means dominated by his intelligence services. As we see him here, the president listened, processed and drew his own conclusions. He rejected, for example, repeated OSS recommendations to modify the principle of unconditional surrender rather than risk exacerbating Stalin's distrust of the Western alliance, and he respected the Faustian bargain that kept Russia in the war, even in the face of growing evidence that the U.S. was the target of a major Soviet espionage offensive. Such examples are rife throughout the book, showing how Roosevelt's use of intelligence decisively shaped the war and helped define the peace that followed. (On-sale Oct. 9)Forecast: This book should sell solidly to intelligence enthusiasts, but it doesn't connect clearly to any current issues or make major revelations, and is not quite strong enough to create its own buzz.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (October 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375502467
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375502460
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,914 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joseph E. Persico Historian/Biographer
His latest book is Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II, published by Random House and on sale as of May 28, 1213.
Prior to beginning his career as a historian and biographer, Joseph E. Persico was chief speechwriter for New York governor and later U.S. vice president, Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Of Persico's writing career, Eric Sevaried described his Edward R. Murrow: An American Original as "the definitive" biography of the broadcast pioneer. The New York Times said of Persico's The Imperial Rockefeller, "No one has written a book like this about Nelson Rockefeller before." His Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial was described by the broadcast journalist, Howard K. Smith, as "Simply the best account of the trial." This book was adapted by Turner Network Television as a miniseries that won two Emmy awards. Persico was the collaborator on former Secretary of State Colin Powell's autobiography, My American Journey which remained twenty weeks on the New York Times best seller list. His Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage also reached the best seller list and was chosen as one of the notable books of the year. His, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, on Armistice Day, World War I, has been described by historian, Richard Norton Smith as, "The single finest work I have read on the Great War." The Washington Post's Book World said of his Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, "Persico . . . understands that Lucy Mercer helped FDR awaken his capacity for love and compassion, and thus helped him become the man to whom the nation will be eternally in debt."

His articles have been published in American Heritage Magazine and the Military History Quarterly. He is a frequent reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World and is a commentator on several PBS and History Channel documentaries.

Roosevelt's Centurions has been chosen as the main selection by the History Book Club and the Military book Club.

For more information go to website

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Intelligence professionals will be very disappointed by this book, citizens interested in Presidential approaches to intelligence, somewhat less so. The author's brilliant biography of William Casey, OSS Veteran and Director of Central Intelligence under President Ronald Reagan, was a much more satisfying book. What we have here is by and large a mish-mash of the works of others, together with an original composition on FDR's involvement in intelligence that is uneven--partly because the subject did not put much in writing, and partly because the author chose to rely primarily on secondary published sources.
From the perspective of one interested in "Presidential intelligence," that is, how does a President manage various means of keeping informed, the book is a must read but also a shallow read. We learn that FDR was a master of deception and of running many parallel efforts, balancing them against one another. We learn that FDR was remarkably tolerant of amateurism and incompetence, while good at finding the gems these same loose but prolific intelligence endeavors could offer.
Perhaps most importantly, we gain some insights into how Presidents, even when properly informed by intelligence (e.g. of Pearl Harbor in advance, or of the lack of threat from domestic Americans of Japanese descent) must yet "go along" and provide either inaction pending the public's "getting it", or unnecessary action (the internments) to assuage public concern.
There are enough tid-bits to warrant a full reading of the book, but only for those who have not read widely in the literature of intelligence and/or presidential history.
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61 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Robert Clark on October 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Joe Persico has discovered what many of us World War Two historians never knew: Franklin Delano Roosevelt PERSONALLY ran the war against Hitler and his state sponsored terrorism! Many of the details in this book I was aware of, but what I did not know was FDR's intense and intellectual direction of the war and all of its participants to include Churchill.
The only error I found here was Persico's declaration that the US breaking of the JN 25 Japanese Naval codes was never discovered. Fact is that when the German Raider Thor intercepted the Australian cargo/passenger ship the SS Nakin, the Germans captured several mail sacks with secret documents reveling the fact the we had broken the Japanese codes on 10 May 1942. The Germans did not tell the Japanese until 29 August of that year, which allowed us to win the Battle of Midway. However, the Japanese changed their codes and we did not re-break them until 5 May 1943. Because of this fact we sustained serious naval losses during the naval battles off Guadalcanal.
For those of you who are not students of intelligence matters concerning the WW-II, I suggest you buy "Encyclopedia of the Second World War" by Bryan Perrett & Ian Hogg as a reference when you are reading Persico's book! Another work I recommend is: "The Encyclopedia of Espionage" by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen (which contains a number of details of George Washington's intelligence network that won the Revolutionary War!
There has only been one other person in American history that did what FDR did: George Washington, whose statue is in the entrance of the Headquarters of the CIA. I think they might consider putting FDR's Statue there as well: AFTER ALL HE DID SAVE WESTERN CIVILIZATION. This book is a MUST READ for all Americans!
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
What a read! This book has it all over even the most well crafted spy thriller. Intrigue, Spy rings, Spy masters, Intelligence blunders and break throughs. Nonfiction should always be this fun to read.
In "Roosevelts Secret War", we are given insight into a crucial time in American history. Mr. Persico has shown all angles of a diverse and complicated situation. The country is strongly isolationist, the Nazi regime is slowly crushing Europe under its boot heel, and Britain is tied up in skulldugery, decreasing moral and a war that is looking more bleak by the day.
This is the maelstrom FDR is thrust into. The States lag behind The U.K. in terms of intelligence capabilities and world view. Churchill informs FDR of the realities of the war, and thus the U.S. has its die cast. Mr.Persico sends us on a journey of burgeoning intelligence offices, agency squabbling, jealous department heads, code breaking, conspirices and much more.
During this ride the author debunks long bandied rumors, such as the supposed prior knowledge FDR had of the Pearl Harbor tragedy. The answer is surprisingly complicated. Hindsight offers a pretty clear view of a pending attack, yet all the intel that pointed towards that travesty was divested in so many small nuggets, bungled through many channels and ciphers, that not even a room of Nobel winners in physics could have pieced together an obvious plot.
FDR is shown as a very shrewd, intelligent and devious man. Though generally moral, he will bend rules, cast aides against one another and down right lie if the greater good will be advanced by his many prevarications. Churchill is of a similar character, and the two spark up a healthy working partnership. The book is peppered with so many gold nuggets, that a list of all its finds would be to long to list here.
Rich, complex and very well crafted, this may be the best work of Nonfiction published this year.
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