For years, speculation has been rampant that President Franklin Roosevelt knew about the impending attack. Dark conspiracies swirled.
Now comes a startling new book by John Koster, “Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor.”
Koster used declassified and never-before-translated-to-English documents to show that Harry Dexter White had been recruited by the Russians to foment war for America (there was real fear that if the U.S. did not come into the fight, among other things, the Soviet Union would fall to the Germans and Japanese).
Although the events happened, Koster weaves a tale that reads like a fast-paced espionage thriller: “Pavlov slid into a phone booth in Washington, D.C., and shut the door. He inserted coins into the unfamiliar telephone, heard the clink and jangle, and dialed. The phone started to ring. He said later that he felt time had stopped. Someone picked up at the other end.
“‘White here,’ the voice said.
“‘Mr. White, I’m a friend of your old friend Bill,’ Pavlov said. ‘Bill is in the Far East and wants to meet with you when he comes back. He wants you to meet with me right now.’”
White, director of the Division of Monetary Research at the U.S. State Department, was to meet with “Bill,” a.k.a. Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov, a Russian agent who was posing as an expert on China. Interestingly, chillingly, Soviet agents were honeycombed in key places in America. Akhmerov and White were put together by Joseph Katz, owner of a glove manufacturing company in New York, and another Soviet spy.
The Soviets had identified White as a potential help in spying, since he was already a communist sympathizer. They also viewed him as “timid and rather cowardly.” He’d have to be drawn out.
For those not familiar with what was going on in the world at the time, Nazi aggression had taken over much of Europe, and the Japanese had been terrorizing East Asia for a decade. While most Americans did not want to be involved in another wide-ranging war (Roosevelt had campaigned in 1940 on a pledge to keep the U.S. out of war), insiders knew that Great Britain could not hold off Hitler forever, and the emperor in Tokyo had ambitions as well. America had to be coaxed into the fight.
So it was, according to Koster’s research, that White set in motion a plan to do just that in spring 1941.
The Soviets’ agenda was fascinating: Having concluded early on that France and Great Britain had brought their own troubles on themselves, the Russians cared little what happened to those two powers. They were in fact at one time opposed to America helping her Western European allies … until they recognized Hitler for the menace he was just ahead of the 1941 invasion of Russia.
Koster has a terrific way of conveying profound information: “Harry Dexter White changed history by engineering the diplomatic responses that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and stranding, consequently, 30,000 Americans in the Philippines to be decimated by the vengeful Japanese. Toward the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians would die by incendiary bombs and nuclear attack.”
My goodness, the evil machinations of a lone individual!
“Operation Snow” reads like a movie script, with Harrison Ford in the lead. Koster’s narrative is so solid, the reader simply must go to the next page. And don’t think the story of Harry Dexter White ends with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. No, the Soviet mole walks into the next scene at the end of the war, and one almost feels that’s when the real spy chase begins!
In 1947, White resigned as director of the International Monetary Fund, and the Americans were on to him. The following year, he had requested a hearing before Congress and … well, I’ll leave you with this final tidbit as you make plans to get your own copy of “Operation Snow”:
White was questioned by members of the congressional committee, including one Richard Milhouse Nixon. Believe me, the back-and-forth between these two is reason enough to buy “Operation Snow.”
For anyone interested in history, and with a desire to more fully understand the dynamics behind the winds of change during a critical period in American history, John Koster’s “Operation Snow” is simply perfect.