OSS Operation Black Mail: One Woman's Covert War Against the Imperial Japanese Army by Ann Todd is the story of a remarkable woman, Elizabeth “Betty” McIntosh, who fought World War II on the front lines of psychological warfare.
OSS Operation Black Mail is the story of Elizabeth “Betty” McIntosh and so much more. The bulk of this book concerns McIntosh’s experience in World War II and how the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operated against the Japanese in China-Burma-India. Along the way, we learn about how the U.S. intelligence community rapidly formed during WWII, the gender obstacles that women agents faced, interagency bickering, tensions between allies, and how agents operated on the ground, all from a very different theater of war—one that hasn’t been written about as much as the war effort in Europe or the Pacific. The book also touches on the early years of the Cold War, Hoover’s investigations into communist activities, and McCarthy’s fanatical assault on American citizens.
McIntosh was recruited into the OSS in 1943 due to her background as a reporter and her personal interest in Japanese language and culture. She was also not afraid of taking risks, as attested by her hike up an active volcano as multiple pairs of shoes melted under her feet.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, McIntosh was a reporter living in Hawaii. As author Ann Todd makes clear, prior to the Japanese attack, most Americans didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. Much of Betty’s warzone reporting from Hawaii didn’t make it past the censors. Although she was initially excited to be granted war correspondent status, frustration over not getting her reporting through the censors led her to take a job in Washington, D.C., where she wrote a column that focused on wartime rationing. She also attended Eleanor Roosevelt’s weekly women-only press conferences at the White House. Still, she felt like she was missing out on the war effort.
When a “friendly, elfin-faced Major” approached her at a convention and asked if she had ever considered working for the government, McIntosh was intrigued—especially when he added the “possibility of an overseas posting.” She filled out the applications and soon found herself hired for a job that she knew nothing about and undergoing training that was created on the fly.
McIntosh became a close colleague and friend of another recruit, Jane Foster, who would later be indicted on 38 counts of espionage as a Communist spy. Both McIntosh and Foster served in the Morale Operations branch of the OSS, which focused on black propaganda.
At the time, there was tension within both the U.S. and British governments between “white” and “black” propagandists. White propaganda, such as the propaganda put out by the United States Office of War Information (OWI), was considered a noble cause (“we only print the truth”). It was a clear effort to tell enemy combatants and civilian populations that they were wrong and would lose the war unless they took a suggested action. Correspondingly, OWI took the opposite tactic toward U.S. troops and American civilians, telling stories in such a way that would keep up morale. Their motto could have been taken from Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Black propaganda is not based in truth. It is a nefarious, psychological form of warfare. Its aim is not necessarily to get anyone to do anything in particular but to “plant seeds of hopelessness and resentment” and weaken the will of enemy combatants and civilians.
Agents practicing black propaganda had to be capable of working without seeing tangible results. More often than not, McIntosh didn’t see the results of her labor, but there are several hair-raising moments in this book when she does. In one example, she requested a Burmese agent “kill a courier and plant the falsified orders on him so that his comrades will find them with his body.” This was a forged order telling Japanese fighters that they could surrender with honor rather than fight to their death or commit suicide. Word eventually got back to McIntosh that an increasing number of Japanese were surrendering, thus saving lives on both sides.
The operation from which this book takes its name, Operation Black Mail, shows McIntosh’s brilliance and how crucial it is to have an agent on the ground who understands a culture. A bag of postcards from a Japanese military unit that was already cleared by Japanese censors had been captured. McIntosh and her team erased the patriotic, hopeful sentences of the soldiers and inserted messages that ached with disappointment to discourage the recipients and spread discontent.
McIntosh also read diaries of captured or killed Japanese soldiers to get into their heads and then used what she learned in cartoons, fake newspapers, radio messages, letters, and anyway that could be imagined. Jane Foster’s “condom caper” used hundreds of inflated condoms to float messages laced with black propaganda.
McIntosh’s efforts at intimately understanding the mind of the enemy sound logical today, but during WWII, most leaders and military strategists relied on stereotypes of the enemy, swinging from viewing the Japanese fighter as a “little yellow monkey to seeing him as a jungle-fighting super-soldier.” Neither stereotype helped military effectiveness. OSS agents like McIntosh, with their pre-war interest in Asian cultures—and understanding that Asians are human—knew better and used their knowledge to get under the skin of the enemy.
Julia and Paul Child also served in the MO branch of the OSS and became colleagues of McIntosh’s in India and China. Julia is presented as a woman biding her time and then strategically inserting herself in Paul’s hemisphere to get her man.
OSS Operation Black Mail is based on Todd’s doctoral dissertation. There are times when the thread of McIntosh’s story grows thin to the point of disappearing, and the writing may not be smooth enough to maintain the interest of a general reader, but for those interested in WWII history, intelligence efforts, and women agents, every page has something fascinating to offer.
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Chris Wolak is an avid reader of crime fiction, history, and classics. She writes about books at WildmooBooks.com and is the cohost of the podcast Book Cougars. You can also find her on Twitter @chriswolak.