It was said that the acronym for the Office of Strategic Services, O.S.S., stood for “Oh So Social” because the ranks of America’s wartime spy service attracted playboys, dilettantes, and young men and women with last names such as Vanderbilt and DuPont. But the operatives of the O.S.S. included some cold-blooded assassins and mad scientists as well.
Most of their plots failed, which is perhaps just as well. The brutal realities of defeating genocidal Nazi Germany and rapacious imperial Japan called for extreme measures, including, ultimately, the atomic bomb. But most policymakers in Washington were at least ambivalent about their deadly decisions. The “cloak-and-dagger boys” of the O.S.S. seemed to relish devilry.
They learned to pick locks and mix poisons at a secret base—Division 19, also known as “Malice in Wonderland”—set up outside Washington at the Congressional Country Club, which the O.S.S. leased as a training facility. The boss of Division 19 was a renowned industrial chemist named Stanley Lovell. He had been chosen by the head of the O.S.S., General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, to be the spy service’s “Professor Moriarty,” after Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis.
In the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the fictional Professor Moriarty was an evil genius. Lovell was not evil, but he was well on his way to becoming morally bankrupt by the time President Truman shut down the O.S.S., at the end of World War II. In John Lisle’s The Dirty Tricks Department, a darkly entertaining trawl through the outlandish exploits and misadventures of Lovell’s “Department of Dirty Tricks,” the spymasters of the O.S.S. treat the rules of war as minor annoyances.
The O.S.S. could claim some behind-the-lines victories—blowing up bridges and derailing trains in war zones from France to Burma. But its more ambitious plots—to assassinate Hitler and Mussolini as well as America’s problematic ally China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and to kidnap or kill German physicist Werner Heisenberg—fizzled out.
Back at Division 19 headquarters, Lovell kept on scheming. After commissioning a Freudian psychologist to study Hitler’s personality, Lovell came up with the idea of injecting female sex hormones into Hitler’s food to make his mustache fall out and his voice turn soprano, in order to exacerbate his “fragile masculinity.”
Lovell later claimed that his agents had managed to hire one of Hitler’s gardeners to inject the hormones into some beets and carrots destined for Hitler’s plate, but the operation did not go as planned. Lovell speculated that the farmer absconded with the money and “threw the syringes and medications into the nearest thicket.” Either that, he wrote in his not entirely credible 1964 memoir, Of Spies & Stratagems, “or Hitler had a big turnover in his ‘tasters.’”
Some of the O.S.S. schemes were just nuts. An eccentric Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle Adams, who had an in at the White House because he knew First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, inspired years of daft experiments with so-called bat bombs. The idea was to tie little incendiary bombs onto bats and let them flutter down from bomber planes onto Japanese cities, which were largely made of wood. But the bats were hard to control, and the only structures ever burned down by the bat bombs were—by mistake—the control tower and several administrative buildings at Carlsbad U.S. Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base, in New Mexico.
Other schemes were more sinister. Lovell convinced himself that biological and chemical warfare was ethical, because, he argued, war is inherently immoral, and dying by conventional methods—by, say, a bayonet twisted into the gut—is no crueler than perishing from a pathological agent. Lovell wanted to drench the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima with poison gas to spare a bloody invasion, but President Roosevelt decreed “no first use” of chem-bio warfare (though he was willing to build chemical and biological arsenals, just in case).
The O.S.S. was disbanded after V-J Day, a victim of bureaucratic rivalry. (J. Edgar Hoover persuaded the president that there was room for only one peacetime spy agency—Hoover’s F.B.I.) But the Cold War gave rise to the C.I.A., and, in 1951, spymaster Allen Dulles asked Lovell whether the C.I.A. should create a dirty-tricks department along the lines of the one Lovell had run for the O.S.S. The answer, of course, was an emphatic yes.
Dulles created a branch called the Technical Services Staff, which went on to run bizarre mind-control experiments by drugging unsuspecting subjects as well as to manufacture poisons for the C.I.A.’s failed assassination attempts against Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
And Lovell? After retiring from the government, he bought a fake Ph.D. so he could become “Dr.” Lovell and formed the Lovell Chemical Company (“Better products through research”). Lovell made a “small fortune,” writes Lisle, when his company won an army contract to manufacture water filters. “Neither he nor his company had actually invented the filters,” according to Lisle. “Instead, he had gotten their design as a sort of ‘intellectual reparations.’ In the wake of World War II, while Germany lay in ruins, government agencies and companies, including Lovell’s, pilfered the country’s patents and business record.” Once a dirty trickster, it seems, always a dirty trickster.
Evan Thomas is the author of The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the C.I.A. and the forthcoming Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II