Saturday , May 18 2024
John Lisle

Book Interview: John Lisle, Author of ‘The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, The OSS, and The Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare’

While J. Robert Oppenheimer was busy with the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory, the United States was also occupied elsewhere during World War II with the secret so-called “Dirty Tricks Department.” Formally known as Office of Strategic Services, the OSS’ Research and Development branch recruited scientists to develop weapons, disguises, and false documents for undercover Americans to use overseas. John Lisle, a historian at the University of Texas, details the history of the OSS and its important figures in his book, The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, The OSS, and The Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare.

Lisle is really looking forward to signing copies of his book and meeting readers at this summer’s National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. I spoke with him on Zoom to learn more about this interesting time in history.

Choose Your Weapon

Image of the Dirty Tricks Department black and white book cover

The concept of dirty tricks in warfare, even World War II, wasn’t new. The British were already on the same track under orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who referred to it as “ungentlemanly warfare.” William Fairbairn, a combat expert, taught recruits on both sides of the pond about hand-to-hand combat.

Lisle nodded when I mentioned Churchill and Fairbairn in our call. He added, “Fairbairn invents his own technique after getting into fistfights in Shanghai. It’s called gutter fighting, where you use anything at your disposal to maim, kill, or stop your attacker. Fairbairn also came up with concepts for different knives: the stiletto and the smatchet. Those weapons would be neat as showpieces, but I wouldn’t actually carry them around.”

Rather, Lisle would have selected a different weapon to carry. “Stanley Lovell, the head of R&D for the OSS, helped come up with a silent, flashless 22-automatic pistol. A classic weapon, but that’s probably the most practical one to have.”

On Starting the Book

Backtracking a little, Lisle thought of writing The Dirty Tricks Department while he was still finishing up his Ph.D. dissertation on a totally different topic. “I might have been reading The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks, who talks about the Central Intelligence Agency. He also talks about some earlier people within the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. One of those people was Stanley Lovell, who is the main character in my book.”

The research hobby eventually turned into an idea for a full-length book. “Anytime that I went to an archive to research for my dissertation, I would pull files related to this other topic because I was interested in learning about it. At a certain point, I thought this story is too good not to tell.”

Lisle, whose doctorate is in the history of science, highly values storytelling in his writing. “When people think of history, they tend to think of dry facts, dates. More than that, history should be about storytelling. If you see the subject of this book and think that it’s going to be a boring, dry retelling of events in the past, my goal really is to tell a good story. I hope that’s what readers will take away.”

Glowing Foxes

While the OSS came up with great ideas, some projects didn’t make it to deployment. Take for instance Operation Fantasia, where scientists explored if it was feasible to send glowing foxes to Japan. The brainchild for this was businessman Ed Salinger, who’d worked in Tokyo. “Apparently in the Shinto religion, glowing foxes represent portends of doom / bad omens! Salinger said releasing glowing foxes in Japan would demoralize everybody. Maybe they’d give up the war.”

The OSS tried several experiments. They painted the foxes with radioactive paint and let them go in the Chesapeake Bay to see if they could swim to shore. They released several glowing foxes in Rock Creek Park, near Washington, D.C. to see if the foxes would scare Americans. “If the foxes would scare Americans, then they were certainly going to scare the Japanese. And the Americans in the park for nightly walks were scared.”

Operation Fantasia was eventually scrapped because the United States had a more effective weapon to deploy: the atomic bomb that Oppenheimer and his team developed.

Photo of man sitting at a table with World War II weapons
R&D Weapons (Courtesy of John Lisle)

The Dirty Tricks Department Giants: Stanley Lovell and William Donovan

Two main characters in Lisle’s book are Stanley Lovell and William Donovan. While Lovell headed R&D, Donovan was head of the entire OSS. Years before, Donovan came back from WWI as a decorated American soldier, with a Purple Heart and a Medal of Honor. He became a lawyer and ran for Governor of New York, but lost.

FDR recruited Donovan and sent him to Europe to observe the political situation. Those observations led to the creation of the OSS. Lisle said, “Donovan comes back and informs Roosevelt that he needs to create a centralized war intelligence organization to coordinate intelligence gathering.”

Lisle believes the OSS story is cinema worthy, smiling as he considers what an ideal cast might look like. “Stanley Lovell is from New England, right around Boston. I feel like it’s gotta be an actor who is around Boston. Matt Damon would be the choice. They look fairly similar. They also have have the Boston roots that would go really well in the movie.”

“For William Donovan, as far as people who even look similar to him, maybe someone like Alec Baldwin. I think his facial features are pretty similar. It would be hard to do better than how they’ve cast for Oppenheimer, though. Cillian Murphy lost a lot of weight and looks just like Oppenheimer, who was very gaunt.”

Photo of three men at a table
Message drops (Courtesy of John Lisle)

After The Dirty Tricks Department: Lisle’s Next Book

Lisle has plenty of advice for people who want to research WWII topics similar to his. “It can be a little overwhelming when you’re in the archives, because there is so much material related to what I researched. No one person will ever be able to see all of the documents in a lifetime. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, has the most documents.”

He offered encouragement about considering less traditional areas to search. For example, Lovell and the OSS greatly impacted the CIA, which came a decade later in the Cold War. CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb was influenced by Lovell’s work on “truth drugs” and wanted to do something similar through what became the “infamous” MKUltra mind control program.

Lisle explained, “A lawyer, Joseph Rauh, worked on a lawsuit against the CIA. It was launched by victims of this MKUltra program. The lawsuit was settled out of court, but Rauh had taken a lot of depositions of the people involved in this program. Those depositions never had to be submitted to court because the case was settled out of court. They ended up in his private papers, which got donated to the Library of Congress. I found thousands and thousands of pages of depositions, the interviews of the people responsible for this program.” 

“It’s the subject of my next book, but that ties in with this first book because the ending talks about how Stanley Lovell inspired Sidney Gottlieb in the CIA. In the depositions, Gottlieb talks about Lovell! That’s how I was able to make the connections.”

Follow John Lisle on Twitter for updates about his work. Visit the Library of Congress website for the National Book Festival schedule and more information about author book signings.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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