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How powerful US spymaster failed to avert World War II

By - Amos Kareithi | June 30th 2013

By Amos Kareithi

When the world’s most dreaded spymaster slips, the world tumbles and millions get hurt.

History is replete with such slips but the most memorable one, which changed the course of history globally, occurred almost 70 years ago.

The echoes, however, are still heard, and the wounds still hurt, despite the passage of time.

Some credible strands of evidence show how the spymaster, who outlived eight United States of America Heads of State, failed the world at its most critical moments.

This is the man the successive presidents loved sacking but could not dare, as the consequences would have been too grim to contemplate.

As a result of the failure, which was later swept under the carpet, the mighty USA suffered one of the most devastating military loses and was pushed to war.

Forty one years after the death of the icon, J Edgar Hoover and despite having indirectly caused the deaths of 2,335 US servicemen, and destruction of 118 war planes and a dozen war ship, he has remained an idol to the public.

His name, spelt in gold lettering is prominently displayed at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Headquarters, where he is idolised like a god.

Like a perfect student of Edward Bernays who pioneered propaganda after the First World War, Hoover has apparently continued to pull the wires which control the public mind the conscious manipulation of opinions from the grave.

Although his major weakness, homosexuality was an open secret which was exploited by the mafia to blackmail him, he successfully put a façade of a defender of morality.

Hoover too was the only man who knew the sins and secrets of successive US presidents and was ready to expose them to save his job.

Despite his enormous clout, he has gone down in history as one of the men who had the capacity to dramatically alter the course of the Second World War but he miserably failed.

According to Anthony Summers in his riveting book, Official and Confidential: The secrets Life of J. Edgar Hoover the icon failed.

The consequences of this failure not only affected the US intelligence gathering but also pushed the super power to the war.

The results were quite catastrophic as was later demonstrated by the twin bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

According to Summers, Hoover had the capacity and the opportunity to preempt the Pearl Harbour attack but failed to do so.

At around August 1941, at a time the US was neutral and had not joined any side of the war, the British military intelligence learnt that the Japanese had been collecting information on Pearl Harbour.


Pearl Harbour was a military base for the US military. The intelligence had been gleaned from a German spy by a double agent, Dusan Popov a Yugoslav, who was moonlighting for Britain.

Popov had been recruited by Germany but had been turned by the British who used him to gather intelligence which was mutually shared by US and Britain while Germany was fed with phony information.

Some of Germany’s secrets were also gathered from Enigma, a German invention which was capable of deciphering military communication.

This machine had been captured by Britain and according to Winston Churchill who later became Britain’s Prime Minister, its secrets were only supposed to be relayed to the US President Franklin Roosevelt.

This explains the circumstances under which Hoover, who was the Director of Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), became privy to the intelligence gathered by the double agent dealing with both allies and Germans.

Hoover had to be roped in since his cooperation in the matter was crucial.

So on August 14, 1941, four months before the Pearl Harbour bombing, a senior FBI official sent a report to Hoover.

Popov’s German contact, Jebsen had said “If my calculated opinion interests you, The Japanese will attack the US.” The Japanese, according to the intelligence gathered had by then already obtained detailed data about including troop visibility strengths and weaknesses.

On learning this Popov reported it to British intelligence who instructed him to proceed to the US so that he could personally relay the information to the Americans.

Popov is reported to have arrived in New York on August 12, 1941 and was met by FBI officials among them Hoover’s assistance, Earl Connelly.

His information was however dismissed as speculative and perceived by some as a trap.

After doing nothing for three weeks, Hoover finally wrote to one of his officers thus: “Sam:  see Connelly in N.Y. and get this Popov thing settled.”

When Hoover finally met with Popov in New York, he harangued and dismissed him as a fake spy who was just interested in chasing film stars. Later, it emerged that Hoover had made an error which would cost the world hundreds of thousands of lives. Hoover’s apologists later argued that there had been no cause to make FBI take the Popov warning seriously.

The FBI too has rejected suggestions that they had been forewarned about Pearl Harbour, and dismissed Popov’s version as ‘fiction’ with others arguing that he never met the FBI director.

The British intelligence agencies however, believe that Popov was credible and although the information which could not have been wholly verified, it was serious enough to warrant being forwarded to FBI for further transmission to President Roosevelt.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) too was convinced that Hoover had been a major let down. CIA director William Casey was quoted saying, “ Hoover had shown his total incompetence for sophisticated wartime intelligence. His handling of Popov Affair was a tipoff of his oversimplified thinking.”

After the Pearl Harbour bombing, Hoover started doing damage control and effectively monitored the flow of information by US media outlets. He prevented media organisations from telling the world about the real magnitude of the attack in which 2,400 American servicemen had been killed, 1300 wounded, 11 ship destroyed and 118 planes destroyed. He achieved this by threatening to arrest any journalists who defied.

When reports of the Pearl Harbour attack started leaking out, Popov was overjoyed for he thought that the Americans had thwarted the raid by Japan which was fighting on Germany’s side.

He however, was horrified to learn that the Americans had been caught napping despite his warning. 

This is the attack which prompted America to enter the World War 11 and joined the side of the allies.

The consequences of America’s entry into the war were instant and will forever remain engraved in the history books.

According to BBC, on the morning of August 6, 1945 an American B-29 bomber, christened the ‘Enola Gay’, violated Japan’s airspace and dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.

The bomb which was dropped by parachute exploded, killing between 60,000 and 80,000 people instantly.

It is estimated that 135,000 victims among them Koreans who had been forced to come to Japan as labourers, and American prisoners-of-war who were imprisoned in Hiroshima died.

Hiroshima was chosen because it had not been targeted during the US Air Force’s conventional bombing raids on Japan, and was therefore regarded as being a suitable place to test the effects of an atomic bomb.

It was also a way of demonstrating American military superiority over the Soviet Union.

Three days later on August 9, 1945, the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb which killed 50,000 people while a third of the city was destroyed.

Second bomb

The original target was Kokura, but this was obscured by cloud so the bomb was dropped on nearby Nagasaki, an important port.

Five days after the second bomb, Japan ultimately agreed on August 14, 1945 to the allies’ terms of surrender. At midday on the following day, Emperor Hirohito broadcast the news to the Japanese people.

It is estimated that the Second World War which was fought in Europe, in Russia, North Africa and in Asia claimed 60 million people died out of which about 40 million were civilians among them children.

In a way, Hoover’s initial inertia altered the lives of 16,112,566 Americans who were called upon in the US to fight alongside the allies. During the war which would cause about 291,000 casualties in the US although on the global scale 72 million deaths were caused by the war.

Despite Hoover’s apparent failure to gather and disseminate the vital information to his government, he remained an untouchable and actually died in his sleep on May 2, 1972 at the age of 77.

Although many of those in power hated the FBI director who was a law unto himself, they accorded him a state funeral like a president.

During his tenure which started on May 9, 1924, everybody lived in fear for he had the capacity to ruin lives and careers of public and private individuals.

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