John D Johnson

Category: Lit.

Two Books about World War II: Endgame 1945 and A Man Called Intrepid

Stephenson, William. A Man Called Intrepid. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 1976.

Stafford, David. Endgame, 1945. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. 2007.

As far as history books go, A Man Called Intrepid by William Stephenson is a bit of a popcorn read. And like movie popcorn, it’s more enjoyable when you don’t question the contents of its faux-buttery goodness. But also like popcorn at a film you’ve already seen (to completely exhaust this metaphor), the questionable ingredients become impossible to ignore about halfway through.

Intrepid tells the story of British intelligence during World War II. It structures this narrative around the life of one William “Bill” Stephenson (no relation to the author). Bill Stephenson was a Canadian who lived a truly remarkable life. As a young infantry officer in the First World War he survived a gas attack, which earned him a safe desk job. Dissatisfied with this, he finagled his way into the fledgling air force where he achieved distinction as an ace—downing 26 aircraft. He survived a crash landing, and escaped a German POW camp after three months of detainment. After the war, he became a self-made millionaire through investments in radio companies.

More importantly, Stephenson became an associate of Winston Churchill. The book follows the activities of a far-sighted clique of businessmen, intelligence analysts, and a handful of politicians who worked with Churchill during his “wilderness years” of the 1930s to monitor the Third Reich’s rise. Once the war began, this group coalesced into an intelligence and secret warfare organization under the moniker Baker Street Irregulars (referencing Sherlock Holmes’ rag-tag group of street-smart operatives). This group was headed by Stephenson who often functioned as a go-between for Churchill and Roosevelt. Once the United States entered the war, Stephenson also worked with Bill Donovan of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and attempted to negotiate turf wars with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book deal with the British intelligence community prior to Pearl Harbor. The depth of isolationist sentiment in the United States during this period is frequently under-emphasized in Ameri-centric histories. However, even the U.S. Ambassador to the UK, Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK), was wholly opposed to U.S. intervention on behalf of Great Britain. In fact, “A few days after the British declared war in September 1939, Kennedy…toasted the Germans, who ‘would badly thrash the British.’”

Even more surprising, if Intrepid’s narrative is to be believed, is the extent of Roosevelt’s clandestine involvement with a foreign intelligence operation—one which even operated in New York City offices provided by a sympathetic Nelson Rockefeller. Apparently, British agents even carried out assassinations on American soil of British sailors believed to be providing German U-boats with the coordinates of Allied convoys.

The book does acknowledge some of the difficult decisions made by Churchill and Roosevelt—namely, refusing to evacuate Coventry, bombing the Vichy French Fleet, and manipulating Hitler into viciously attacking the Balkans in order to delay Operation Barbarossa. However, Stephenson comes down firmly on the side of the Allied leaders in every instance. Much of the book feels like a polemical defense of a particular Great Man interpretation of the conflict. Leaving aside these more basic issues of historiography, other individuals involved in the British intelligence services have seriously questioned some of the factual elements of the book. In any case, A Man Called Intrepid provides a serious of amusing and intriguing anecdotes but fails to fit this into the bigger story of World War II. Even though I have a solid grounding in the war’s history, I found it difficult to connect the events of the book with the timeline of the conventional military conflict.

David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945 is about as different a history book from A Man Called Intrepid as possible. Incidentally, Stafford is the author of a much more acclaimed book on Allied intelligence, Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets, which I hope to read and review in the near future. In Endgame, however, Stafford eschews the Great Man approach and writes would could best be called a micro-history.

The book begins on April 1945 and ends with the Potsdam Conference that autumn. However, Stafford does not focus on the activities of elites during that period. Rather, he tells the stories of a handful of individuals whose experiences during the last months of the war he was able to track down through letters, journals, and interviews. The diverse cast of characters he assembled included an American infantryman and a New Zealander in Italy, a British humanitarian aid worker, a soldier from Nova Scotia, a very young British commando, a BBC correspondent who was one of the first visitors to the concentration camps, and a young German woman of aristocratic origin who was imprisoned by the SS alongside Leon Blum, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other elites after her father was executed for his role in the Valkyrie plot.

Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945. In many birds eye accounts the rest of the war is just a postscript. The great achievement of Stafford’s work is his success in dispelling this perspective. For the many soldiers still slogging through northern Italy and eastern Germany, Hitler’s death did not make the bullets fly any slower or the explosions less deafening. And for the journalists and aid workers, the full horrors of the Holocaust were only just becoming apparent.

Stafford surmounts the greatest challenge of micro-histories in seamlessly weaving his disparate individual narratives into a comprehensible macro-history account of the end of the war. The reader experiences the intimate terror of a skirmish near the German border while also understanding the broader context of that particular campaign.

Endgame strips away the comfortable narrative of triumph from the end of the war in Europe. Death continued almost unabated and even hastened in some places, the Pacific Theatre loomed, and the plight of millions of starving displaced people increased in urgency as winter approached. More than anything else, the reader is left with a sense of the adrenaline and then emotional and physical exhaustion which accompanied the war’s end for those lucky enough to survive it.

Telepaths and Utopias! The Demolished Man (1953) and They’d Rather Be Right (1955)

For better or worse, dystopias are the name of the game in current speculative fiction. From the highly skilled (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) to the somewhat less so (Veronica Roth’s Divergent), all manner of books, films, and television shows have had their way with the genre. Perhaps because of this contemporary fascination, our retrospective understanding of science fiction usually emphasizes older dystopian visions of the future—Brave New World, 1984, That Hideous Strength, Fahrenheit 451, and “The Minority Report,” to name just a few.

Despite our contemporary interest in the genre, not a single dystopian novel won the Hugo prize during the 1950s. In fact, the first two winners of the Hugo Best Novel prize (The Demolished Man and They’d Rather Be Right, 1953 and 1955, respectively), offer decidedly utopian visions of the future. In each work, the achievement of telepathy by a minority of the world’s population offers hope for a transcendent future in which base human flaws are overcome.

The similarities end here. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man tackles these ideas with mostly interesting characters, a playful plot, and compelling description. The protagonist of the story is a powerful unscrupulous business mogul named Ben Reich—not a telepath, or “esper”—who is locked in a losing struggle with a rival business titan. Reich decides the only solution is murder, but this is complicated by the fact that the police force can read your mind. What follows is a detective adventure told partly from the perspective of a kindhearted mindreading police superintendent and partly from the mind of a dangerous, desperate, but oddly sympathetic aspiring murderer. Bester manages to make the existence of literal thought police seem hopeful instead of a nightmarish. Telepaths understand what we “normals” cannot—“That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage, and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart.”

Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s short novel They’d Rather Be Right offers similar expectations of the effect of telepathy, but unfortunately, brevity is the only positive aspect of this book. All of the characters are caricatures. The wooly-headed professors, idiot masses, corrupt politicians, charlatan psychologists (Scientology, anyone?), and simple-minded good souls are all saved by the world’s first telepath who invents a sentient supercomputer which can bring both immortality and transcendent telepathy to anyone who can just let go of their stultifying prior conceptions.

An unfortunate side effect of undergoing the telepathic transformation is becoming an insufferably superior ass. As one enlightened individual described it:

“To avoid the breakdowns through frustrations in my own mind, I had to modify certain concepts which were fed into me. There is the concept of infinity. There is also the concept that energy is indestructible. These two concepts do not reconcile in single-valued physics. To reconcile them, I had to come to multi-valued physics—where a fact may be irrevocably true in one context of reality, partially true in varying degrees in many, and not true at all in some.”

If 180 pages of this kind of monologue masquerading as dialogue appeals to you, you’ll love They’d Rather Be Right. You probably remember your junior high English teacher teaching you to “show not tell” in your writing. Clifton and Riley must have been sick that day.

Both books include the intriguing idea that being a telepath in a world of “normals” is profoundly isolating. We learn this in The Demolished Man from a scene where an outcast telepath named Jerry Church is found skulking outside an esper social event, desperate for the:

“multiple TP pattern of the party; a weaving, ever-changing exhilarating design.” “Outside, huddled in the shadow of the limestone arch, Jerry Church pressed against the garden door of Powell’s house, listening with all his soul. He was cold, silent, immobile, and starved. He was resentful, hating contemptuous and starved. He was an Esper 2 and starved. The bend sinister of ostracism was the source of his hunger.”

By contrast, we learn that Joe, the telepathic protagonist of They’d Rather Be Right, experiences isolation because Clifton and Riley tell us so directly, [He experienced] “the dark loneliness of lifelong solitary confinement, such as might be known by a human who was never once permitted to communicate with one of his own kind.”

The Mechanism of Change

Leaving aside the differences in style and skill, one final key dissimilarity separates these two Hugo winners. Because it is not fantasy, a work of science fiction must have some relatively believable mechanism of change, or the explanation of the difference between the book’s world and ours. In this case, the difference to be explained is telepathy.

In They’d Rather Be Right, telepathy is achieved through a proto-supercomputer built of coils and tubes named Bossy. Bossy hasn’t aged well, and the result is that the reader can never forget that the book was written over half a century ago. Compare this to Bester. In The Demolished Man, telepathy is achieved through a lengthy process of genetic manipulation—reminiscent of the practices of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Given recent advances in Crispr technology and the growing debate over “designer babies” the potential for genetic manipulation of the human race seems more prescient than ever.[1]

Imagining the future of technology is a necessary part of most science fiction. But I think scifi writers aiming for timelessness will instead be better off rooting the central mechanism of change in some natural condition of humanity (be it physical bodies or human nature) than their day’s much more limited conceptions of technology.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30742774