Thursday, February 05, 2004

Hitler's WMDs

In 1939, Albert Einstein was enjoying a sailing vacation on Long Island when fellow physicist Leo Szilard approached him on what he described as a matter of supreme importance. A large stockpile of uranium ore from Africa was in danger of being transferred to Nazi Germany, a country with which America was then at peace. Although seemingly innocent, it might be the last remaining step necessary to complete what America must prevent. It was absolutely important, Szilard argued, that President Roosevelt be made aware of the danger to the world of the imminent development of weapons of mass destruction, notably an Atomic Bomb, by Adolph Hitler. Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt warning of a Nazi nuclear weapon, reproduced here, which eventually helped spur the establishment of the Manhattan Project.

Hitler, too, believed he was building an Atomic Bomb, but was apparently misled by his scientific advisers, many of who understood too well what such a weapon would mean in the hands of a maniac, and quietly slackened their efforts. At the end of the war, for a variety of reasons, including the Allied aerial destruction of Nazi industrial resources, American searchers who had believed they were racing neck-and-neck with Hitler for the development of nuclear weapons found no operational weapons of mass destruction. The Nazis had been far from making an A-Bomb. There had been an intelligence failure.

Reader FG links to a Daily Telegraph article where John Keegan describes some of the numerous intelligence failures of World War 2, including the complete misestimation of the Nazi rocket and pilotless bomb program, of which Churchill was unaware, until shortly before V2s and V1s pummeled London, killing thousands. Keegan uses it to illustrate why the Liberal demand for perfect intelligence was an impossible demand both then and now.

Usually, however, intelligence does not provide unequivocal answers, but only indications, which require imagination to interpret correctly. Interpretation inevitably leads to disagreements among the intelligence officers concerned. Before Midway, the most important naval battle ever fought, the heads of the naval plans and communication departments in Washington were at open war over interpretation. An even more striking example of disagreements, bearing directly on the current Iraq controversy, was over intelligence of German secret weapons. A strange leak, the Oslo report, had warned the British in 1940 that Hitler was developing pilotless aircraft and rockets. It was ignored until, in 1943, reports from inside occupied Europe referred to the subject again.

A committee was set up, chaired by Duncan Sandys, Winston Churchill's son-in-law. Its findings were reviewed by another committee, of which Lord Cherwell, Churchill's scientific adviser, was the most important member. Cherwell absolutely denied the possibility of Germany having a rocket, and produced the scientific evidence to prove it. He persisted in his denial throughout 1943 until June 1944, when remains of a crashed V2 were brought to Britain from neutral Sweden. Shortly afterwards, the first operational V2 landed on London. Churchill was furious. "We've been caught napping," he burst out in Cabinet. Worse than napping. More than 1,500 V2s landed on London, killing thousands, at a time when Hitler was also trying to develop a nuclear warhead. The whole pilotless weapons episode demonstrates that, even under threat of a supreme national crisis, and in the face of copious and convincing warnings, intelligence officers can disagree completely about the facts and some can be 100 per cent wrong.

But it is not the Liberal expectation of war with perfect knowledge, no casualties and no collateral damage that is insidious. Any general would wish as much. It is the requirement not to act until we have achieved it which actually guarantees its reverse: no knowledge, a steady dribble of casualties and the quiet acceptance of genocide; when business as usual with monsters masquerades as peace. Einstein was mistaken; but he was not wrong.