Honorable Treachery

In this broad ranging history, G. J. A. O’Toole provides a highly readable account of American intelligence gathering, espionage, counterespionage, and covert action from the early days of the American Revolution, when we were still wet behind the ears, to the Cuban missile crisis, by which time a huge intelligence establishment had become firmly rooted in Washington. O’Toole’s narrative includes portraits of heroic figures such as Nathan Hale, scoundrels such as Benedict Arnold (whose very name has become synonymous with not-so-honorable treachery), and pioneers of modern intelligence efforts such as “Wild Bill” Donovan, who, during World War II, organized the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which evolved into the oft-maligned CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

While O’Toole presents U.S. intelligence efforts candidly, warts and all, he does have a point to make. In opposition to those critics who characterize espionage and covert action as undemocratic and, therefore, un-American, he offers abundant evidence indicating, first, that modern nations suffer when they neglect intelligence gathering, and, second, that spying is at least as American as apple pie. We just have not always done it very well.

While O’Toole’s research seems to have been painstaking, the book still suffers from a dearth of facts. Spies and people who employ spies usually do not leave behind detailed memoirs describing their exploits. As a result, O’Toole is forced to rely on numerous fragmentary accounts which he attempts to piece together as best he can. At key junctures, he is left with no choice but to speculate on what really might have occurred and why. Nevertheless, the book does succeed as an overview of the role played by espionage and the like in our history. As such, it serves as a pithy corrective to the idealized political self-image held by many Americans.