Why did the United States send librarians undercover to gather information during World War II? (2023)

Norteo There was a well-defined plan to send microfilm specialists to war when Franklin Roosevelt agreed to set up the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications (IDC). The agency initially struggled to gain a foothold. However, as the war progressed, the IDC developed an extensive operation to provide printed sources for intelligence purposes. When the bookmen became Secret Service agents, the ordinary activities of librarianship—acquisition, cataloging, and duplication—became fraught with mystery, uncertainty, and even danger.

In the late spring of 1942 plans were put in motion to send microfilmers and a woman to Stockholm, Lisbon and other neutral cities. For those working in the secret service, Lisbon was an exciting place to be during the war. Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar had declared Portugal's neutrality, hoping to avoid invasion and preserve what was left of his shriveled empire. Sympathetic to Fascism but bound by a long-standing treaty with Britain, he positioned himself between the Allies and the Axis. Portugal's neutrality made it the crossroads between Europe and America, a magnet for exiles, diplomats, foreign correspondents and adventurers. Refugees from occupied countries crowded into Lisbon and had to wait a long time for exit visas to England or the western hemisphere. The cafés, kiosks, and bookstores were packed with newcomers; extravagant parties, ballrooms and casinos attracted the rich every night. It was no coincidence that the city had become a destination for spy travel. As one secret agent put it, "Lisbon is like New York in miniature, with lots of firefighters coming by every few days." The classic possibilities of urban modernity (anonymity, camouflage, identity transformation) were intensified in the Lisbon of the War. The business cards of oil tycoons, movie moguls, and consular attachés hid secret lives. Even book buyers can be secret agents.

(Video) Why the US photographed its own WWII concentration camps

Lisbon developed its own information economy: an underground market where gossip was exchanged and rumors spread. German, British, American and Japanese agents mingled, intercepted information and spread misinformation. Rumors were already commonplace in a place where press censorship and secret police reigned supreme, and the war in Europe has fueled the rumours. The Strategic Services (OSS) cabinet even sent a note to its station chief in Lisbon about the rumours, in the optimistic tone of a marketer: “If you've never dealt with it, the ideal is to spread a rumour. It's not about telling it in as many places as possible, but putting it in the hat of someone you know is gossip. Agents could also invent their own rumors, as crazy as they wanted, with the exception of three forbidden subjects: future military plans, activities of neutral countries, and the Pope.

In this world, Americans abroad were innocent, inexperienced in gathering information and evaluating its plausibility and usefulness, outclassed by veteran British and German covert operations. The first OSS officers were untrained, had no experience in military or political affairs, and did not speak Portuguese. In early 1942, one of them admitted, "I don't think anyone here can shake the feeling that we're 'behind the Eight Ball.'"

Anyone looking for other information in the form of the printed word came to the greenhouse in Lisbon. Salazar's heavy hand did not prevent many books, newspapers, and magazines from appearing among the city's polyglot population. The kiosks sold out everythingdaily expressforThe Empire, Documents from "all major European countries except Russia". The city had numerous bookshops, from the venerable 18th-century Livraria Bertrand to the recently opened Livraria Portugal, whose owners were sympathetic to the Allied cause. Even stationery shops offered useful jobs: Papelaria Fernandes specialized in military affairs, while Papelaria Pimentel & Casquilho sold technical books and instruments. Though hampered by censorship, tariff restrictions, and changing political winds, these merchants found ways to import literature and keep their shelves stocked. Lisbon craved books and news, and both educated Portuguese and travelers frequented these places.

Get your history overview in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

(Video) How An American News Crew Found The Last Nazi Officer | Nazi Hunters | Timeline

Among them were American librarians working for the IDC. The Portuguese were introduced as American clerks collecting materials for the Library of Congress and other government libraries "who are naturally interested in preserving the record of our civilization's current crisis". They openly visited bookstores and stationery stores and subscribed to newspaper distribution lists. Sympathetic residents, including academics, publishers, journalists, and diplomats, helped and also ordered books and newspapers on his behalf as a front for Americans. The Portuguese didn't want money, but they wanted current books and American magazines like VIDA and TIEMPO. The IDC men reportedly agreed with a US secret agent who commented, "Some of my most valuable acquaintances in Lisbon stem from my ability to provide them with written material that would otherwise be unavailable due to Portuguese censorship."

By 1943, operations were in full swing. "The items are coming in," said Ralph Carruthers, an IDC agent in Lisbon. "As soon as we see the light of day, something else comes along." The sources and flow of publications varied with the movements of the war. When the Germans tightened border controls and began closing sources in Switzerland, IDC quickly arranged a large shipment from a Swiss bookseller to a fake business address in Lisbon. The growing French and Italian resistance stimulated the collection of secret publications. The IDC outpost tried to respond to urgent requests from Washington wartime officials, local embassy officials and agents outside of Lisbon. IDC chief Frederick G. Kilgour cabled pre-war Hungarian newspapers, railroad directories, and Baedekers to help with military planning. A telegram highlighted the "great demand for the procurement of approximately 250 original copies of newspapers including duplicates as soon as possible". During Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, Carruthers was asked by the OSS outpost in Algiers to send current German newspapers. "We probably won't get all of them," he reported, "we'll be lucky if we get four of them." In fact, he managed to get hold of ten rolls in a four-day detour through Tangier.

What was the value of these acquisitions? In the dark world of intelligence, the printed word was enlightening, or so it seemed. The materiality of the publications made them measurable: number of books sent and rolls of microfilm filmed. Scientific journals, technical manuals, and industry directories straight from the Axis and occupied countries were scrutinized for evidence of enemy troop strength, new weapons, and economic performance. Even trivial elements can matter: society pages can reveal a regiment's location, and gossip columns "provide clues to scandals that an undercover agent can exploit." The willingness of the well-educated to prefer the printed to the spoken word made these sources more trustworthy. In Lisbon, rich in rumor and speculation, the head of the OSS, H. Gregory Thomas, enjoyed the legation's press conferences and commented: “Many of the clues I find here can be derived from the local press, which of course I read daily. Even the clandestine Secret Intelligence Branch, which was looking for human informants, found that "intelligence material from foreign newspapers is of great value". The war authorities in Washington also found these materials useful. But there was more to this realization than just reading texts. IDC librarians transformed the familiar forms of books and series into the intelligence genre.

Why did the United States send librarians undercover to gather information during World War II? (1)


(Video) The New York Librarian Who Spied on American Nazis

(Video) Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe

Adapted from Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Joined forces in Europe during World War II by Kathy Peiss with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Oxford University Press.

Mehr TIME Must-Reads

(Video) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Network of Spies | Secrets of War | Timeline

  • ÖThe best places in the world in 2023
  • Exclusive:Effective altruistic leaders have been warned repeatedly about Sam Bankman-FriedYears before the collapse of FTX
  • Who should be at TIME100 2023?Vote now
  • Post ministerThe amazing second act by Louis DeJoy
  • Gaslighting, narcissistic and more psychological termsyou are using it wrong
  • The man behind War on FakesOne of the most popular propaganda accounts in Russia.
  • In this Texas countyThere is nothing like overcoming COVID-19
  • In defense of Nora Ephron's wrongly criticized heartburnFilm
  • Psychedelics could revolutionize couples therapy
  • Want today's top headlines in your inbox?Subscribe to the summary

Contact usNOcarta@tiempo.com.


1. How Women Mastered The Art of Espionage | Secrets of War | Timeline
(Timeline - World History Documentaries)
2. The Daring Undercover Spy Missions In Occupied France | A Most Secret Service | Timeline
(Timeline - World History Documentaries)
3. Inside The Allied Invasion Of Germany | Battlezone | War Stories
(War Stories)
4. The Spy Who Betrayed Hitler | Secrets Of War | Timeline
(Timeline - World History Documentaries)
5. A Stain on American Jurisprudence: What Korematsu vs. United States Means Today
(San Diego Public Library)
6. "Wild Bill" Donovan: The Man Behind Roosevelt's WW2 Secret Spy Army | Secrets Of War | Timeline
(Timeline - World History Documentaries)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Dean Jakubowski Ret

Last Updated: 03/03/2023

Views: 5279

Rating: 5 / 5 (50 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Dean Jakubowski Ret

Birthday: 1996-05-10

Address: Apt. 425 4346 Santiago Islands, Shariside, AK 38830-1874

Phone: +96313309894162

Job: Legacy Sales Designer

Hobby: Baseball, Wood carving, Candle making, Jigsaw puzzles, Lacemaking, Parkour, Drawing

Introduction: My name is Dean Jakubowski Ret, I am a enthusiastic, friendly, homely, handsome, zealous, brainy, elegant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.