Introduction: A Complex and Ambiguous Alliance
The relationship between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union during World War II was a complicated and often contradictory one. While the Western Allies and the USSR were united in their opposition to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, they also harbored deep suspicions about each other’s intentions and capabilities. This paradox is exemplified by the fact that despite the significant codebreaking abilities of both London and Washington, they chose not to focus on deciphering Soviet codes.
I. The Codebreaking Conundrum: Ignoring the Soviet Enigma
During the war, British and American cryptologic experts were primarily concerned with breaking German and Japanese codes. The sheer volume of intercepted messages from these adversaries kept them occupied, while the perceived difficulty of Soviet codes was also a deterrent. However, in the aftermath of the war, it was revealed that breaking Soviet codes was not an insurmountable task, leading some to question whether President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had deliberately steered their analysts away from the USSR.
II. The Espionage Imbalance: Western Caution versus Soviet Boldness
While the Western Allies refrained from deploying agents in the USSR, Moscow did not hold back. It has been revealed that the Soviets had been running extensive espionage operations in the UK and the US since the 1920s and 1930s, with the aim of recruiting individuals who could eventually attain positions of power. Throughout the war, the USSR continued these covert operations, even as London and Washington exercised restraint.
Some attempts by the West to gather intelligence on the USSR have been documented, but these were largely amateurish in nature. Notably, in 1942, William J. Donovan, the Director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), disregarded a source in Washington who had access to Soviet Ambassador Maksim Litvinov. Later that year, Donovan suggested collaborating with British intelligence to gather information on the USSR, but the State Department declined, citing concerns about the potential fallout if an undercover agent were exposed.
III. Uneasy Intelligence Sharing: The ULTRA Affair and Beyond
Despite initial reservations, the Western Allies did share sensitive intelligence with the USSR during the war. Churchill, for example, ordered ULTRA-derived military intelligence to be provided to Moscow shortly after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Moreover, the Russians likely gained access to ENIGMA decrypts even before the Americans did.
Although the flow of intelligence from Britain and the US to the USSR was substantial, it was not without its limits. Churchill insisted that the methods used to obtain ULTRA information be kept secret, and Russian officials were not informed about the joint atomic bomb project until the Potsdam Conference.
IV. Mutual Mistrust: Post-War Revelations and Implications
The willingness of the Western Allies to share intelligence with the USSR was tempered by a long-standing atmosphere of mistrust. General John R. Deane’s 1947 memoir, The Strange Alliance, highlights this sentiment. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that the Soviets reciprocated by sharing any of their codebreaking successes with their Western counterparts.
Perhaps the most striking disparity between the intelligence activities of the West and the USSR is the extent of Soviet espionage during the war. Notably, Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, provided Moscow with crucial information about the atomic bomb even before the project’s existence was publicly known.
Conclusion: The Enigma of WWII Intelligence Relations
The intelligence relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union during World War II are shrouded in mystery
and intrigue. While they were united against common enemies, deep-rooted suspicions and divergent interests shaped their intelligence interactions. The decision to refrain from targeting Soviet codes and the disparity in espionage activities point to a delicate balancing act, as the Allies sought to maintain their uneasy alliance without compromising their long-term strategic interests.
As the war drew to a close, these dynamics began to shift, with the emerging Cold War highlighting the latent tensions between the West and the USSR. The wartime intelligence cooperation, marked by both secrecy and mutual mistrust, foreshadowed the complex geopolitical landscape that would define the latter half of the twentieth century.
Ultimately, the intricate web of intelligence relationships during World War II serves as a reminder that even in the face of a common adversary, the underlying dynamics of international relations are often far more nuanced and multifaceted than they might appear on the surface. As we continue to study this pivotal period in history, we must strive to untangle the enigma of these alliances and understand the motivations and calculations that underpinned them.