Reynolds, Nicholas. 2022. Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence. Mariner Books: New York and Boston.

Nicholas Reynolds is a historian. Need to Know traces the rise of what ultimately has become known as the CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, perhaps the most famous intelligence body among the eighteen spy institutions in the U.S.

Given the lure and stature the CIA enjoys today, readers may easily think that the process promulgated in creating the spying structure had been smooth or problem-free. After all, why the fuzz as the country needed a professional spy agency like no other and similar to similar agencies in the rest of the world? But the story about the CIA creation is radically different from this perceived wisdom for reasons Reynolds specifically outlines in this exceptional 500-plus pages. Indeed, it makes a lot of sense to grasp the hard knocks of the birth that marked the preliminaries of what is now the solid institution without which the U.S. cannot be imagined.

For beginners in intelligence history, Reynolds’s story makes sense only when knowing that before World War II, the U.S. did not have a permanent spy institution for a century and a half of its existence. Strange as it seems now, since its inception, the country’s founding fathers have opposed the spying principle. The Puritans’ bent on starting the City upon a Hill morphed into distancing their polity from disgraceful and cheap practices of the old world, a situation that U.S. elites and insiders of the establishment throughout U.S. history could not easily untangle until the advent of WWII.

In contrast, with WWII and the U.S. general mood dramatically changing in favour of less isolationism and more involvement in world affairs, the U.S. granted permission to eavesdrop on enemies’ communication traffic. All these and more, Reynolds elaborates, showing politicians’ extreme caution and suspicion of this change in state policy, precisely the bias, against spying as the backbone underlying state policy for accessing information. In licensing a spying agency, a free hand could have spurred undesired consequences and turned the promise of the City upon a Hill into yet another corrupt and degenerate polity of the old world. 

With this background in mind, we understand the difficulties, the hesitations, and the half-hearted beginnings of what will become during and particularly after WWII, the U.S. intelligence taking an industrial scale. We read that even when he favoured founding a body that could provide answers and offer policymakers an advantage when negotiating with representatives of foreign governments, President Roosevelt had always resisted replicating British or European intelligence structures.

With the ongoing war in Europe, particularly after the fall of France in June 1940 and certainly, before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, FDR authorized Colonel Willian J. Donovan to form what was for him more or less an amateur spy body, compared to the British MI6 and in parallel to already existing institutions such as Military Intelligence Division (MID), Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and of course the FBI. A key preoccupation for FDR is the management of the massive traffic, literally the tons of sensitive information reaching his office. The administration is ideally carried out through coordination between the already existing structures. In addition to the coordination task, the Colonel has in mind an additional task dear to his heart, the planning and executing undercover operations.

In June 1941, Roosevelts signed the order to create the Coordinator of Information COI amidst opposition and resistance from the FBI and other intelligence bodies (those of the Army and the Navy). Like with all novel experiences, the established bureaucracies did not welcome the newborn arrival for fear it would dwarf their work as COI was placed directly under the White House. The intrigues in the hierarchy will oblige Roosevelt to transform the new baby into OSS (Office of Strategic Service) under the authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Put in charge of the budding institution, Donovan had to work twice as hard as other intelligence organizations to prove to his superiors the usefulness of the new establishment. One must remember that the new establishment was functioning amidst competing and the ever-suspicious Military, Navy, and FBI. Because they could break codes about Japanese diplomatic and military traffic, the Navy and the Army saw little utility in Donovan’s body. Besides, they wanted to protect their code-breaking enterprises. This explains how they were mortally obsessed with safekeeping, a substantial advantage over the enemy, thanks to their code-breaking. Hence why they resisted full cooperation with Denovan’s agency.

Donovan’s tours in Britain gave him the incentive to founding an American equivalent to the deeply entrenched British intelligence services. Ever eager to actively participate in the war, Donovan’s early mission as head of the COI had been in China and India after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion of the far east. His collaboration with the British helped enlist American and local sabotage operations behind enemy lines. His real contribution as head of OSS, for which decision-makers in Washington were thrilled, comes in the context of the landing in Normandy, the liberation of France, and the arrangement of German army defection in northern Italy in the early months of 1945.

Still, with FDR’s death in April 1945 and the end of hostilities in the European war theatre, Donovan and his structure fell out of favour. Again, the fall was not for lack of pertinent reasons. While the new administration seized on the key role of intelligence in shortening the length of the war and with recommendations from the Navy and Army, it still wanted to restructure OSS by distributing its staff among the Navy, Army, and the State Department. President Truman found out that a real restructuring has to begin with relieving Donovan from his duties while awarding him for the achievements that have given an edge to the Allies’ war efforts.

For precision’s sake, Reynolds specifies that Truman bore no ill feelings against Donovan or OSS. That policy can be explained only by the old American bias against intelligence which reemerged after the victory in WWII. Truman was afraid that the exceptional success of intelligence could propagate to make the U.S., just like other European democracies, drift in peaceful times toward dictatorship because intelligence could not control its ambitions.

Reynolds’ writing in this book is conversational, and as such, it is engaging. His chit-chat style delves into what initially looks like secondary bits or extended biographies, all for exploring pertinent backgrounds. The reading of Need to Know flies because its author is careful about providing the right environment. The extensive endnotes and bibliography entries at the end underline the author’s passion, who wanted to translate how a central intelligence structure has never been systematic or planned from the start. Quite the contrary, if anything, Reynolds’ narrative illustrates that the process that was promulgated in 1947 to what had become the CIA has been through trial-and-error, accommodating how policymakers variedly (some slowly; others quickly) registered American victory not only against the axis forces but also against America’s Allies in 1945. Marshalling the mindset to seize on that exceptional victory had to end in a central intelligence agency in which COI and OSS serve as excellent precursors. 

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

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