Scott Miller gives an absorbing portrait of Allen Dulles, a key figure in the OSS — the forerunner to today’s CIA.
“Agent 110: An American Spymaster and the German Resistance in WWII”
by Scott Miller
Simon and Schuster, 368 pp., $28
The subject of Seattle writer Scott Miller’s absorbing and bracing “Agent 110: An American Spymaster and the German Resistance in WWII” is a compelling one: the wartime exploits of Allen Dulles, a key figure in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency.
Dulles had a very specific assignment: aiding German military officers and resistance fighters in their efforts to kill Hitler and destroy the Nazis.
Dulles (whose code name gives this book its title) was a fascinating figure: lawyer, legal adviser to the U.S. diplomatic corps, and, as war broke out, head of U.S. espionage operations in neutral Switzerland.
The author of “Agent 110” will read and sign books at 7 p.m. on March 17 at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave. (206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com).
(As “Agent 110” points out, there’s a reason Switzerland has been able to remain neutral for centuries: its mind-bending preparedness for war. You really, really don’t want to mess with the Swiss Army.)
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A colorful cast of supporting characters populates “Agent 110.” (Miller provides a helpful list of these figures to keep things straight.)
The most crucial to Dulles were Mary Bancroft and Hans Bernd Gisevius. Bancroft was a charismatic, brainy American socialite with a taste for danger, and Gisevius was a German military intelligence officer who was nonetheless fervently anti-Nazi.
The three formed a highly effective unit linking the American intelligence agency with anti-Hitler forces. They also formed a romantic triangle that got a little messy at times. (The married Dulles was, by all accounts, an enthusiastic, even compulsive womanizer.)
“Agent 110” takes us all the way to the end of the conflict, the Nuremberg war-crime trials, and the advent of the Cold War. Dulles, who was implacably anti-communist, rose to become director of Central Intelligence and played a major role in shaping American policy during the tense Cold War years.
The book’s painstaking research, along with its extensive footnotes and bibliography, reflect Miller’s longtime experience as a globe-trotting foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Also reflecting Miller’s background in journalism is his clear, jargon-free prose — a welcome change from many stodgy works of history.
Still, for all its detail and sweep, “Agent 110” never quite nails a portrait of the man behind Dulles’ smooth public persona. This is understandable, of course, given that the spy trade, by definition, requires an obsession with privacy and secrets.
(For a different perspective, one that reveals some intriguing details about the private Dulles, see Douglas Waller’s lively 2015 study “Disciples,” newly out in paperback. It focuses on four OSS agents, including Dulles, who became successive CIA heads in the postwar years.)
Despite any shortcomings, however, “Agent 110,” with its tight focus and deep research, is an outstanding contribution to the long shelf of books about one of the most remarkable periods — and one of the most remarkable figures — in the history of American espionage.