Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Not-So-Secret Career as a Spy

My father's OSS records reveal no James Bond, but a World War II career like so many others.

Arthur Schlesinger's personnel files at National Archives.
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"Your dad was a spy!"

This, with a URL, was the total body of an E-mail I received last week, the first of several along the same lines from various friends. The link was to an AP story on the release of 750,000 formerly top-secret government records, personnel files for nearly 24,000 people who labored for the Office of Strategic Services ("Oh So Secret")—the intelligence agency that we now call the CIA. Among the notable onetime spooks was Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., my father.

The truth can now be told: He was a spy.

Actually, the truth has been told, most recently in his 2000 memoir, A Life in the 20th Century. But that didn't stop me from heading to the National Archives facility in College Park, Md., to see what newly declassified tidbits I might uncover. Other notable files had turned up gems. Julia Child helped cook up shark repellent; the actor Sterling Hayden—working under the assumed name John Hamilton—parachuted into Croatia and was strafed by German planes. No wonder he was so convincing as Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.

My father had been initially skeptical about intelligence work. In 1943, he had two job offers, one from the Board of Economic Warfare and the other from the OSS. The board had the advantage of clear activity—establishing blockades, gathering scarce metals, and so on—while the spy shop seemed entirely staffed by academics. It would be "depressing," Dad wrote his parents, "to be in the middle of a lot of Ph.D.'s once again." But the spies won. He felt more comfortable with politics than with economics.

He edited the Research and Analysis Branch's PW Weekly, a classified journal that focused on psychological warfare (for which Dad retained a healthy skepticism). At the archives, I came across some "Efficiency Rating" reports for research analyst Schlesinger. He received "outstanding" plus signs in a dozen of the 14 categories in which he was rated, including "Attention to broad phases of assignments," "Attention to pertinent detail," "Initiative," and "Resourcefulness." He was imperfect, however, receiving only "adequate" check marks in "Cooperativeness" and "Physical fitness for work."

In September 1943, according to another document in his files, my father was appointed to the "Rumor Committee," which met Wednesday and Saturday mornings at 11. Schlesinger, another internal memorandum reported, "virtually gets out the PW Weekly singlehanded."

I came across little of my father's actual handiwork in his file. "The real political significance of lend-lease seems actually to lie much less in bringing pressure on neutrals, or in waging psychological warfare against the Axis, than in keeping our hand in economically throughout the world in order to discourage the British from getting away with too much on the post-war trade question," he wrote in a July 1943 memo.

Being an intelligence analyst did not exempt my father from military service, and his travails with Cambridge, Mass.'s Local Board No. 44 of the Selective Service System are recorded in part in his files. Schlesinger "is one of a group of highly specialized political scientists responsible for reporting, analyzing, and making recommendations on the political trends and developments of the Axis-controlled countries and liberated areas," the head of Research and Analysis wrote to the OSS's Draft Deferment Committee in September 1944. "This work is a vital part of the post-war work planned for the European Continent, and will include Germany after its conquest."

The committee was unmoved, concluding on October 12 that "there is not sufficient justification" for another deferral (Dad had originally been rejected from the Army because of poor eyesight and then had received one deferral). "This registrant is technically a delinquent at the present time," the clerk of the draft board wrote a week later.

Matters were complicated by the fact that Dad had by this time transferred to London (code cable address: "Ambino Platform"), where he edited the European Political Report, while discovering the horrors of the German V-1 and V-2 rockets. "Drink was the great anodyne," he later wrote. Even as the draft board sought him, he was following the war to liberated Paris, where he was deputy chief of the OSS's reports board, an intelligence clearinghouse. The moves had been spurred in part by a desire to be closer to the action and a personal sense of guilt at not being on the front lines. In the early 1940s, he later wrote, "when I was righteously agitating for American intervention, Tom [his brother], a Brown undergraduate, was happily listening to jazz in smoky backrooms. Now I was in comparative safety in Paris, and Tom was at the fighting front. I do not find much virtue in guilt, but this was one point in life when guilt was inescapable."