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

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / December 3, 2001

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The latest batch of declassified records, a collection of dazzlingly detailed documents that contain some of the last secrets of the last world war, delve deeper than any previously opened files into ground-level intelligence at its grittiest. And they reveal the rough templates that generations of US officials have followed to rattle the enemy and rally the home crowd, though often ineptly.

From the authoritative assurances about the winnability of the Vietnam War to the exaggerated accusations that Saddam Hussein had ruined the Persian Gulf by intentionally dousing it in oil in 1991, the truth sometimes takes years to surface.

The guidelines for twisting the truth can be found in the files unsealed at the National Archives II building in College Park, Md., particularly among the CIA dossiers opened in June 2000. They reveal that rockets that could arc over oceans and bombs that split atoms weren't just top secrets, but the stuff of rumors and leaks designed to frighten and confuse.

These documents drill down from the hierarchy of a horrible war to, say, a solitary US intelligence man, composing a plan to create a popular opposition to Hitler. The idea was to publish a newspaper that seemed organically German yet virulently anti-Nazi. The challenge was to distribute it.

The solution? Pack papers into hollow missile casings, load them onto Allied aircraft and, during regular bombing runs on German railroad trains, fire these flying newspaper stands into mail cars. Thanks to phone books and intelligence on areas heavily populated by German soldiers, many of the papers had specific addresses.

After the attacks, German details dutifully gathered up the scattered mail to make sure it reached its intended destination. After all, keeping the basic elements of a society functioning was essential to maintaining the collective sanity of the populace. A breakdown in routine was a concession to fear, an admission of weakness to an enemy.

So in the tightly guarded prison yard that was Nazi Germany, soldiers and civilians suddenly picked up a newspaper that denounced der Fuehrer.

Program's success hard to evaluate

How well these things worked was rarely quantifiable, even today. World War II was a global conflict that continues to shape the world, spawning a Cold War that flamed out only a decade ago with the dissolution of the USSR. The vacuum left by one superpower's implosion was filled by instability, nationalism, fanaticism, and guerrilla warfare that has defined a chaotic transition to an uncertain new era.

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