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Intelligence Throughout History: U.S. Intelligence and the German Invasion of the Soviet Union

Pre-World War II U.S. intelligence has a bad reputation, but occasionally American analysts were able to demonstrate the advantages that might have been derived had there been real efforts to coordinate intelligence. One such occasion came during the prelude to Operation BARBAROSSA, the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The United States learned of preparations for BARBAROSSA in the summer of 1940 and followed them over the coming year. Efforts were even made to warn the Soviet Union.


Gaining Access to Plans for BARBAROSSA

As a neutral country, the United States maintained relations with all involved countries early in the war. Although limited by Axis security, American diplomats were able to obtain good intelligence.

Sam E. Woods, commercial attaché in Berlin, developed excellent contacts in the German army command—contacts which brought him close to high-ranking German staff officers opposed to Hitler who knew of the plans for BARBAROSSA. Woods was able to follow the German preparations from July 1940 until the plans were finalized that December.


Warning Moscow

Woods' findings were at odds with military attaché reports from Berlin, however, and initially were viewed with skepticism in Washington. Nonetheless, his evidence eventually convinced both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who agreed that Moscow should be told.

On Roosevelt's orders, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles met on March 20, 1940 with the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Konstantin A. Umansky, to pass along a warning. Shortly after he did so, Woods was corroborated by reporting from another source: MAGIC.



In September 1940, U.S. Army cryptanalysts solved the Japanese diplomatic cipher. American codebreakers called the cipher PURPLE, and protected their exploitation of it by stamping the control "MAGIC" on the resulting decrypts and reports.

Most of the MAGIC material covered Japanese interests in Asia and the Pacific, but an unexpected bonus came courtesy of Lt. Gen. Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador to Berlin. Oshima had become friendly with the Nazi regime, with the result that he learned more about preparations for BARBAROSSA than his hosts intended. His reports back to Tokyo were an unintended trove of information for Washington. MAGIC in the last week of March 1941 began to produce clear indications of a German invasion.

Washington now knew enough about the impending invasion to be very concerned. To reinforce the warning already given to the Soviet ambassador, Welles passed a similar notice through our ambassador in Moscow, who on April 15, 1941 told a contact in the Foreign Ministry: "I consider it my duty to inform you and ask that you inform [Soviet Foreign Minister] Molotov: 'Beware of Germany.' There is more to it than simple rumors; it would be madness for Germany to take this step, but they can do it."


Stalin Dismisses Warnings

At the same time, British cryptanalysts had reached the same conclusion from their reading of German military communications gathered from Enigma intercepts. Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon sent his own warnings to Moscow.

Between August, 23, 1939, and June 22, 1941, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler were formal allies as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. While a marriage of convenience that neither intended to last for the 10 years specified, Stalin considered Hitler a more reliable ally at the time than he did either the British or the French who had reached out to him for an alliance early in the immediate prewar period.

Stalin apparently believed that London was linked in a conspiracy with conservative, anti-Nazi German officers to provoke Moscow into a war that would destroy both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The timely arrival of the intelligence from Washington only convinced Stalin that Roosevelt was in on the plot, too. A report from Soviet military intelligence in Prague about this same time also was discarded, with the notation, “English provocation! Investigate! Stalin.”

As German preparations for BARBAROSSA neared completion, warnings of the attack reached Moscow with clamorous frequency from all over Europe and even Japan. All fell on deaf ears; Stalin’s mind was poisoned against the idea of a German invasion, and thus he viewed all intelligence about BARBAROSSA as evidence of the conspiracy developing in London and Berlin. Only the invasion itself convinced him.


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Posted: Jun 24, 2011 10:12 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:53 PM