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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / November 19, 2001

Page 5 of 11

Continued from page 4

Stewart and Hopps were not unknown to the unit investigators; they had been part of the original OSS committee convened to design the Insurance Intelligence Unit, according to the minutes of meetings that included OSS officials and prominent international insurance executives.

Profit appears to have been the prime motivation for the dubious dealings that blurred enemy lines. US intelligence officials were clearly concerned that commerce was giving the Axis easy access to vital defense information.

Such dealings were a part of routine global commerce during peacetime, and they continue today. Swiss Re, for example, insured 22 percent of damage done to the World Trade Center, and the insurer and the towers' owners have tussled over the amount of the proper payout. Just as numerous businesses have capitalized on the fear and anxiety that have gripped the United States since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the declassified World War II documents help demystify one of the most overromanticized of eras.

The records illustrate the range of greed that was pervasive during the war. ''The Greatest Generation,'' for all its exploits, was also peppered with crooks, con artists, and cold-hearted profiteers.

Butchers in Brooklyn rioted over federal meat rationing; coal miners defied a law against strikes in essential industries; hoarders emptied stores to create food shortages. The United Auto Workers fought hard to keep women -- epitomized by the propaganda posters of ''Rosie the Riveter'' -- off the assembly lines. Race riots broke out nationwide when labor shortages allowed blacks and Hispanics into jobs that previously were unattainable for minorities. OSS operatives in occupied France continually complained that members of the fabled ''La Resistance'' were often merely bandits who stole their equipment and held their agents for ransom.

''Regardless of the country or the era, you don't change human beings very much, or their instincts,'' said Edwin J. Putzel Jr., former executive officer to the OSS's General Donovan. ''Their basic drives, good and bad, are always there.''

Unit hoped to exploit insurance information

The idea for the Insurance Intelligence Unit was hatched by Ernest Cuneo, a New York lawyer and OSS operative close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, spy novelist Ian Fleming, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and muckraking newsman Drew Pearson. Cuneo later ran a newspaper syndicate that had ties to US intelligence agencies.

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