Interview with Dr. John Lisle on his new book, The Dirty Tricks Department

This week, The Footnote interviewed Dr. John Lisle, a historian of Science and the American Intelligence Community from Azle, Texas. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Texas, where he teaches classes on the history of science. His first book, The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare, sheds light on the scientists who developed secret weapons, documents, and disguises for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. 

The book brilliantly brings to life the masterminds of secret warfare, including agents, scientists, and eccentric inventors. The reader gains insight into the individuals behind the development of Bond-like gadgets in the mythologized Q-esque Departments, whose personalities shine through on each page. Indeed, legendary OSS director “Wild Bill” Donovan’s brilliantly confident and impulsive nature sharply contrasts with his “Professor Moriarty,” chemist Stanley Lovell, the “criminal mastermind” whose moral qualms kept him up at night. Lisle also seamlessly highlights some of the most intriguing planning stages of different operations, such as the Planning for Operation Fantasia. The goal was to target Japanese morale by exposing soldiers and civilians to the sight of kitsune, glowing fox spirits with magical abilities. To test the experiment’s efficacy, foxes dipped in glow-in-the-dark paint were released in Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park (85-90). By absolutely terrifying locals, the experiment proved successful but was never fully carried-out. When Bill Donovan told Stanley Lovell to “outfox the Nazis and the Japs” he didn’t mean it quite so literally” (91). Lisle also recounts the innovative inventions like bat bombs, suicide pills, and camouflaged explosives. Indeed, Aunt Jemima may be retired now, but her legacy includes helping sabotage Japanese efforts in World War II—in the shape of edible dough, one could bake explosive muffins or pancakes. Chemist George Kistiakowsky created a powdered form of an explosive called HMX, which when mixed with Aunt Jemima, could bake any deliciously malicious treat. The Dirty Tricks Department is a meticulously researched, thoroughly analytical and thrilling read for anyone interested in the history of espionage, science and World War II.

What initially drew you to write this book about secret warfare and World War II? 

John Lisle: This book is somewhat related to what I wrote my dissertation on. My dissertation was on a group of scientists during the Cold War that had connections to the intelligence community. As I was writing, I discovered some of the names that come across in this book, like Stanley Lovell. I kept coming across all these stories that seemed to be connected to Stanley Lovell. Like the bat bombs and glowing foxes…researching and writing this book became my hobby. Half the time I was doing archival research, I would be secretly researching for this book. My dissertation was not as character centric, and I knew I wanted this book to be for a popular audience and focus on character and narrative. I could have written this as an academic book and it would have included the same information, but I wanted the book to be more readable and fun for everyone to enjoy. 

Can you discuss any ethical or moral considerations that arose from the Dirty Tricks Department’s activities, and did these challenge your own moral compass when writing about them? 

JL: The main ethical dilemma in the book is Stanley Lovell’s position on whether he wants to be involved in creating deadly weapons. At the beginning of the book, when he meets with Donovan, he is very reluctant because he wanted to use science for good—he has a hippocratic obligation to do something good with his knowledge, but then he finds himself being used to create these deadly weapons. The book charts Lovell’s own trajectory, from someone very reluctant to engage with dirty tactics, to someone who advocates for the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction—chemical and biological weapons, and the atomic bomb. His main arc is the moral arc of the story. For Lovell, ending the war as soon as possible by whatever means necessary trumped all else, as the longer the war was prolonged, the more people were going to be killed. His son was on a boat midway across the Pacific waiting to get involved in the invasion of Japan—he wanted to save his son’s life and end the war. 

As far as myself, the main thing I had to grapple with was Sidney Gotlieb, the head of the infamous MKUltra program, which concerned mind control and LSD experiments. I had a preconceived idea that Sidney Gottlieb was evil. I wanted to compare what Gottlieb was doing during the Cold War with Lovell, but the more I looked into these two individuals, I noticed that the things they were doing were extremely similar. They were both involved in creating deadly weapons for their organization, they were both involved in drug experiments, chemical and biological weapons, and assassination attempts on foreign leaders. Their careers are very similar, and while I had a very good impression of Lovell when starting this book, I didn’t for Gottlieb. This is probably because the context in which they were working differs, wartime justifies unconscionable acts that can be more easily morally justified. 

In your book, you highlight Roosevelt and Donovan’s relationship. How did the relationship between the President and the intelligence community develop and evolve? 

JL: During wartime, it was a more acceptable relationship because time is of the essence, and normal rules are thrown out the window. From its inception, however, it was definitely not a very good or stable relationship. During the Cold War up to the mid 1970s, there really was not much oversight of the intelligence community. Steps have been taken since to keep secret departments in-check today, but during World War II this was certainly not the case. This was in the United States’ benefit at the time because desperate times call for desperate measures. During a war, you definitely don’t want to sift your way through bureaucratic red tape. During the Cold War, this same philosophy carried-over and it was to the detriment of a lot of people—because it was not the same kind of war. The lack of accountability and oversight was useful during World War II, but not during the Cold War. 

The President historically has tended to have some plausible deniability. The CIA, for instance, can conduct covert operations abroad and say that the President did not know about it. There are some measures that have been put in place to try to prevent this from happening and eliminate plausible deniability. So, if something goes wrong, the president is responsible—without this measure, the President is more likely to approve risky operations without thinking about personal repercussions. Oversight has definitely been good over time to implement. 

When writing this book how did you decide which sources to focus on? Can you describe some of the most audacious dirty tricks carried out by the OSS during the war and how difficult the selection process was? 

JL: There are a million different stories historians can choose to focus on. First, the job of the historian is to capture the essence of the truth. No one can lay out the whole truth. If I tried to include everything about a specific department there would be too many sources and I would never finish the book. At some point the historian has to curate what they decide to write about. Curating according to the essence of the truth, includes the essence of generally what was happening without completely ignoring some sources and prioritizing others. Second, I wanted to write a good story, so focusing on the events that will help me write a compelling narrative was pivotal. I found a lot of sources for Operation Fantasia, for instance, unlike other equally interesting stories. There has to be some subjectivity in choosing sources overall. The historian is the slave to the sources that survive. I am a slave to what exists. 

Also, the note section in the book is very long and filled with anecdotes. Incorporating them would have convoluted things, and because notes from a lot of history books helped me track down a lot of information, I decided to include these anecdotes at the end. Someone might happen to search for a quote in the book and it might help them with their own research. 

What kind of research did you undertake to write this book, and were there any challenges or surprises you encountered during the process? 

JL: Most of the research was conducted at various archives in the US, mostly in DC such as the National Archives, Library of Congress, National Academy of Sciences and American Institute of Physics. I really enjoyed the research experience, as there were plenty of surprises. 

I was initially going to simply include Operation Fantasia as an anecdote, but several documents highlight the intricate details of the operation, such as creating a skull to place on a fox and lift it with balloons. The most useful document I found in the National Archives was an overview of different OSS agents and what they had done on their missions and how the different disguises and documents had been helpful or hurtful to them. In the Undercover missions’ chapter, I created an overview of some of these individuals. The biggest surprises didn’t make it into the book—because they were my own personal ones. From my dissertation I had done research at the National Academy of Sciences and taken a bunch of pictures—when I was writing this book, I was reading Stanley Lovell’s memoir and he talks about one instance in which he was at the National Academy of Sciences at a meeting discussing Biological Warfare—his memoir exaggerates some instances, some things I could not include because I could not corroborate the facts. While looking through my documents, I found that I had already taken a picture of the very minutes of the meeting from the National Academy of Sciences. 

What do you hope readers will take away from The Dirty Tricks Department and the legacy of secret warfare during World War II? 

JL: First, I wanted to write this for a broad audience and allow more people, like my family, to enjoy the reading experience. So, writing a good story was the goal. Second, I am also trying to show people what historical empathy looks like—disturbing views on biological weapons, chemical warfare and using gadgets to kill people can easily be dismissed as something crazy done by evil people, but I wanted to paint the character portrait and show that this is a study in how people behave when they are asked to do something they initially think is unethical, but they start thinking about it more deeply—highlighting Lovell’s perspective clearly, so that he is understood. You don’t have to sympathize but can empathize with the characters. 

John Lisle was interviewed by Krystel von Kumberg on 4/3/23. The text has been edited by von Kumberg. She is studying Global, International, and Comparative History and graduated from the Security Studies Program at Georgetown (2020). She specializes in the roles of non-state actors; militarized social movements, terrorists, and militias in Europe and Russia. Her current research focuses on Cold War covert operations and terrorism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s