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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001

Britain and America's struggle for Asia

Staff writer
INTELLIGENCE AND THE WAR AGAINST JAPAN: Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service, by Richard J. Aldrich. Cambridge University Press, April 2000, 500 pp., 22.95 British pounds (cloth).

"Foreign secretary. What do you say? I am lukewarm and therefore looking for guidance. On the whole I incline against another SOE-OSS duel, on grounds too favorable for that dirty Donovan." -- Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden, April 1945

What would drive Winston Churchill to use such disparaging terms to refer to U.S. Gen. William Donovan, a staunch friend of Britain since the early days of World War II? The answer lies in the general's activities as head of the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence organization charged with leading Washington's covert efforts to mold the shape of postwar Asia -- and thwarting British attempts to do the same.

Citing a "special relationship" between the two nations, historians have traditionally portrayed Anglo-American intelligence relations during World War II as an intimate alliance solely dedicated to defeating the Axis powers.

Richard Aldrich says recently declassified government documents paint a more complex picture.

Under a veneer of close cooperation, a latter-day version of the 19th-century Great Game was being waged by Britain and America in Asia, says the British historian.

Both London and Washington had been thinking about the end of the war from its very beginning, Aldrich says.

But after the June 1942 Battle of Midway turned the tide of the Pacific War, and Allied victory became a question of when rather than if, "attention increasingly turned to the issue of who would control the resources of the vast Asia-Pacific region after V-J Day."

With one man presiding over the greatest empire the world had ever known and the other leading a nascent superpower that preached the virtues of democracy and open markets with evangelical zeal, it comes as no surprise that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had drastically different visions of postwar Asia.

Deeply influenced by Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, the American president was convinced that colonialism bore much of the blame for the outbreak of war, and would only cause more trouble in the future if allowed to continue. He envisioned a postwar world in which all European colonial possessions would become trusteeships under the administration of a United Nations structure until their independence could be established.

Willing to settle for nothing less than the full restoration of his country's empire, Britain's pugnacious prime minister even entertained notions of expansion.

Though British and U.S. intelligence services first cooperated closely, the relationship took a turn for the worse when U.S. agents noticed that their British counterparts were increasingly devoting more resources to "long-range issues" -- a euphemism for postwar interests -- than to the Allied war effort, says Aldrich. The U.S. side wasted no time responding in kind.

Intelligence reports of the other side's long-term objectives "adversely influenced" both Roosevelt and Churchill, Aldrich says, prompting their senior officials to "privately condone elements of brinkmanship by special operations elements."

For centuries, nations have spied on the commercial and government activities of their enemies and allies alike. But technologies developed during World War II, in particular machine cryptanalysis, sparked an "intelligence revolution," says Aldrich. For the first time, espionage could be conducted on an industrial scale and in real time.

Naturally, such growth required a vast amount of manpower, a need that was filled by enlisting the services of "amateurs" from academia, industry, law and the media. For the first time in modern history, clandestine activity was no longer the sole domain of professional spies.

The use of computers to break codes "lifted a major burden from the shoulders of (secret) services . . . giving them spare capacity for longer-range political activities." This spare capacity was "absorbed with watching and managing innumerable troublesome neutrals and allies," writes Aldrich.

While U.S. intelligence agencies were first used to "report on the rival plans and ambitions of Allied governments . . ., by 1944 this had translated into a barely disguised 'Great Game' to achieve the upper hand in clandestine pre-occupation activities in Southeast Asia. "At times the war against Japan appeared relegated to a sideshow," Aldrich says.

Washington's long-range activities in Asia led Esler Denning, a senior British Foreign Office official, to lament in December 1944, "It becomes increasingly clear, whatever the policy may be in Washington, American imperialists in the armed forces, backed by ubiquitous businessmen in uniform, are determined to do what they please in the Far East, both during and after the war, without regard to any other interest concerned. By voicing their suspicions of British imperialism they have put us on the defensive, and in the absence of any clearly defined policy of our own, our defense is not a very good one. . . ."

For Denning, says Aldrich, "the cutting edge of this phenomenon in Asia was what he called 'the ever-sinister activities of OSS,' which had become "Washington's operational arm of anti-colonialist fundamentalism in Asia."

The intense competition among the allies to shape postwar Asia in their advantage, which in some cases led to operations against each other's secret services, is reflected in Aldrich's story of how traffic in China came to drive on the right.

After great effort, U.S. Gen. Albert Wedemeyer managed in 1944 to persuade Chiang Kai Shek to switch China to the American traffic system.

Realizing the crippling effect this would have on British car exports to China after the war, London mounted a covert campaign to get the decision rescinded.

Duly informed of London's actions by his agents, the U.S. general launched a counterintelligence effort of his own. In the end, emerging triumphant from the scrap, Wedemeyer had the "thrilling experience" of watching Shanghai's traffic switch sides at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1945.

What ultimately led Washington to reverse itself and support the status quo of its allies' colonial empires in Asia was neither newfound sympathy for their national interests nor the "special relationship" it supposedly shared with London.

By 1945 it was becoming clear that Moscow posed the greatest threat to Washington's postwar world order.

Early that year, Gen. Donovan -- the same man Churchill had spoken of so bitterly -- warned U.S. President Harry Truman: "The United States should realize its interest in the maintenance of the British, French and Dutch colonial empires. We have at present . . . no interest in (alienating) the European states whose help we need to balance the Soviet power."

In this scholarly, yet highly readable work, Aldrich has built a convincing case to support his contention that Anglo-American intelligence operations in the Pacific War were driven as much by conflicting national interests as by the Allied effort to defeat the enemy.

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