European Affairs

Operation Rollback: America's Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain     Print Email

By Peter Grose.
Reviewed by Brian Knowlton

When Winston Churchill spoke in March 1946 of an "Iron Curtain" descending across the European continent - probably unwittingly borrowing Joseph Goebbels' imagery of smothering Soviet domination - no one knew how permanent a fixture that curtain would prove to be. When it was finally swept aside more than 40 years later, some Americans claimed it as a victory of U.S. resolve.

But in the early postwar days, U.S. policy toward the countries newly occupied by the Red Army tended toward neglect and dismissiveness, or so it publicly appeared. "Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia et al. made no difference to U.S. interests," President Truman wrote.

The United States was slow to shift away from the wartime alliance with Stalin. Pro-Moscow sympathies lingered in corners of the U.S. government, shuttering out evidence of an emerging expansionist threat. The world, anyway, was weary of confrontation; a shattered Europe faced problems of daily survival.

But apathy was no option, the young American diplomat George Kennan said in his now-famous long telegram from Moscow to Washington. He warned urgently of dangerous Soviet ambitions and pleaded eloquently for a policy that would come to be known as "containment."

Less well-known, but the fascinating subject of Peter Grose's "Operation Rollback," is that Kennan also quietly agitated for a covert policy not just of containing Soviet might but of actively rolling it back. In the end, this overambitious plan failed miserably.

At the time of its conception, however, the Soviets were cracking down in the occupied countries, ruthlessly eliminating opponents. Truman was more deeply suspicious of Moscow's intentions than Roosevelt had been. "Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language, another war is in the making," he said.

The "iron fist" approach meant encouraging resistance movements in the occupied countries, undertaking an active propaganda campaign, and parachuting small anti-communist units behind Soviet lines - all in the greatest secrecy. It was the drawing of "the first battle line of the Cold War," says Grose.

The author of a noted biography of Allen Dulles, Grose draws from recently declassified government documents to flesh out this previously little-known story. Records had been suppressed by the Soviet Union, embarrassed by discontent in its empire, and by the Americans and the British, who were embarrassed by their failures. The result is a smoothly written and compelling account.

Kennan had been deeply disturbed by what he had seen in Moscow. Returning to a State Department position in Washington, he approached the Joint Chiefs of Staff about establishing a guerrilla warfare school to train Americans and selected foreigners in "counterintelligence, foraging, sabotage, guerrilla tactics, field medicine and propaganda."

The chiefs responded with scorn, saying European recruits from displaced-person camps would probably include "free-booters, criminals and petty racketeers." In fact, U.S. recruiters sometimes found themselves competing for the same mercenaries and marginal characters with the French Foreign Legion.

Truman quietly committed the United States to a program not just of espionage and propaganda, but of "psychological warfare" and limited counterforce. The record indicates no debate, Grose says, of whether a democratic government ought to take part in such activities.

U.S. intelligence units had been productive in the war years. But peace eroded the sense of urgency. Some espionage networks were dismantled, others rendered irrelevant by shifting political realities. But as the war wound down, a few forward-looking intelligence officials prepared for an uncertain future. In the war's final months, a dynamic naval lieutenant commander, Frank Wisner, helped the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) to build a particularly effective network of anti-communist agents in Bucharest.

So when the postwar Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) was created to undertake the Rollback mission, Wisner was called to head it. Technically just a deputy to an assistant secretary of state, he managed to maneuver the CIA to agree to exempt the OPC from its control. For some four years, OPC retained astonishing independence.

Wisner hammered out an ambitious agenda, comprising psychological warfare (poison pen, rumor-planting); political warfare (support of resistance, encouragement of defection); economic warfare (market manipulation, counterfeiting); and "preventive direct action" (support of guerrillas, sabotage). The government, meanwhile, was to be able to "plausibly disclaim any responsibility."

All this was bolstered by liberal financing from a largely secret fund. The Exchange Stabilization Fund, originally just that, was used during the war as a holding pool for captured enemy assets. Afterward, most of this was transferred to the new International Monetary Fund. But some $200 million was kept in the Treasury, where Wisner had easy access. Only one man on Capitol Hill, an appropriations committee clerk, knew these details. Most in Congress remained happily ignorant.

Yet Soviet intelligence learned about Rollback within a week of Truman's order. A Tass dispatch reported U.S. plans for a special agency "for sabotage and terrorism in Eastern Europe." It cited British sources - most likely, it is now believed, Donald Maclean, senior political officer at the embassy in Washington, not yet unmasked as a Soviet spy.

When the Americans, sometimes alone, sometimes with the British, began trying to insert small teams of agents into Yugoslavia, Albania, Ukraine, Soviet Moldavia, or other places to foment resistance and ultimately rebellion, the results were almost uniformly disastrous. Agents offloaded on the Albanian coast were quickly confronted by guards, who killed or arrested most of them. The British-American planning team that met later for a somber postmortem included a certain likable young British diplomat, Kim Philby.

Subsequent operations had similar results. Infiltration units were spotted almost as soon as they landed. In one instance, the OPC had spent years, and perhaps $1 million, to support what was believed to be a large network of Polish anticommunists capable of being mobilized in event of a war against Russia. By 1951, the British and American case officers, writes Grose, "felt confident enough in their Polish contacts to reveal their full contingency plan to retard the feared Soviet advance."

But when Poles in the group asked for a high-ranking American military officer to be sent in, as a sign of support, U.S. organizers grew wary. Then, to their horror, the Polish press revealed in 1952 that the reputed Polish commanders were double agents. Embarrassing details emerged of U.S. requests for intelligence and sabotage.

Grose holds that even if Philby and other spies had not wrought such mischief, Rollback might have failed, so daunting were its challenges. The camps where Americans recruited potential agents and informers were rife with Soviet agents. Finally, in 1952, the OPC was melded into the CIA. Air drops of infiltrators essentially ended the following year.

Rollback's operations had been "unnecessarily dangerous and provocative," John Paton Davies, a member of Kennan's staff, said years later. Kennan himself eventually acknowledged Rollback as a disaster.

Any big espionage operation is subject to a variety of conceptual, political and operational pitfalls, as Grose explains. Good information, for example, is often discounted because of sleazy sources. Rollback suffered from many of these traps.

Among its rare successes were the founding of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty - the least direct forms of intervention, yet the most significant over time. Boris Yeltsin himself said they helped end Soviet totalitarianism. Czech President Vaclav Havel figures he would have been in a Czech prison for another couple of years were it not for publicity carried by those stations.

And Truman himself put his finger on the West's most effective weapon, one that had nothing to do with espionage. Defending the Marshall Plan, he said that it would eventually lead to a peaceful raising of the Iron Curtain. "If Western Europe is prosperous," he said, "Eastern Europe will have to come in" to join it.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number III in the Summer of 2000.

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