LANGLEY, Va. — Master spies, young and old, joined forces this month at CIA headquarters to share stories of espionage and intrigue at the 60th anniversary of America’s first intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. The reunion was reminiscent of a family affair and brought together those who harassed the Nazis in France and those involved in today’s unconventional war in Afghanistan led by CIA operatives and U.S Special Forces.
Created in 1942 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt and headed by William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS claimed so many scholars and socialites that it was nicknamed “Oh So Social.” In addition to John F. Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., celebrities of that era who served as spies included movie producer John Ford, actor Sterling Hayden, master chef Julia Child, and Marlene Dietrich, who worked with OSS in London, singing melancholy songs such as “Lilly Marlene” over the OSS black radio station beamed at Nazi soldiers to make them homesick for the Fatherland.
This story first appeared in the June 26, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Find out whom he sleeps with, what he says when he sleeps with someone, what he likes to eat,” said retired CIA officer Samuel Halpern of his spying techniques. “It’s really all about human intelligence and what makes people tick.”
But while Halpern promoted the psychological angle, Allen Polson, a former research scientist at DuPont, reminisced about the technological side of the spy game. “I graduated as a chemical engineer and went to DuPont, where I worked on R&D on Teflon and Orlon,” he said. “After joining the OSS, one of the first things I did was test a grenade that looked like a baseball. That worked OK. Then, I developed a silent Thompson submachine gun. I got a lot of shoulder bruises testing that gun ’til it worked.”
Current technology might be a world away from the machine guns of Polson’s day, but some things at the sprawling CIA headquarters never change. Just as the nation’s intelligence community is criticized over its alleged lack of action to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, so it struggled in the beginning.
“The first battles, as usual, were fought in downtown Washington — imagine that?” said George J. Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, addressing the 500 OSS veterans and their descendants.
But the best stories in the room came from those who worked the front line. “We slipped messages into condoms telling the Indonesians that the Japanese would soon be defeated,” said Elizabeth McIntosh, who worked in the OSS Morale Operations Branch in Burma and China. “We floated the condoms ashore from a British ship. I asked the [military] doctor for some condoms, and he handed me several. I said, `No, Doc. I need 500.’ He dropped his stethoscope.””