Commentary Magazine

Walter Laqueur at Sixty-Five

To commemorate his sixty-fifth birthday, there has just appeared a bibliography of the writings of Walter Laqueur,1 the prolific, erudite, polyglot, polydisciplinary historian and journalist who is known not least for his longstanding association with COMMENTARY. The bibliography is limited for the most part to English-language publications, and it omits a full decade’s worth of daily journalism; even so, it runs to an astonishing sixty-six pages, and conveys well the range and depth which Laqueur commands in his work on 20th-century European history, the Jewish national movement, contemporary Middle Eastern politics, Soviet and East European affairs, United States foreign policy, and the Holocaust.

Laqueur has returned time and again to many crucial areas of 20th-century politics. The two subjects to which he devoted most of his journalism from 1947 to 1960 have been definitively illuminated by his 1972 study, A History of Zionism, and the often reprinted The Israel-Arab Reader (1969), not to mention numerous magazine and newspaper articles. His contributions to the understanding of the Soviet Union and international Communism have been indispensable, ranging across the decades and embodied both in books and in a whole series of seminal articles; he also served as the first editor of Survey, the London-based quarterly on Soviet and East European affairs (now edited by Leopold Labedz). And of course he has been a tireless interpreter of Western European politics to British and American readers, from the fascist phenomenon in the first part of the century to the attempt to find a fresh moral anchor for European civilization in the second part.

Laqueur is not a university man, although he has taught at universities and holds a formal academic position as University Professor and chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Washington’s Georgetown University. And there is no doubt that he has paid his scholarly dues. His gift, however, is to write of difficult and even abstruse matters for a general audience. Laqueur’s two most recent books demonstrate once again the wide talents, and also the central preoccupations, of this journalist/scholar who was born in 1921 in Breslau, Germany, grew to maturity in Palestine-Israel, spent much of his adult life in London, and now divides his time between Washington and Tel Aviv.

A World of Secrets,2 Laqueur’s book on the spying trade, is a tour de force that illustrates the demands and the capabilities of the intelligence community in the United States with careful reference to the historical record. Its thesis, as simple as it is important, is that however technical or professional the “craft of intelligence” (as former CIA director Allen Dulles called it) may be, the uses to which intelligence is put is an entirely political matter.

Laqueur calls his thick but readable study a “guide to action.” He starts with a question: Just what sort of a contribution can—and does—the intelligence community make to the formulation and execution of foreign policy? For an answer, he looks to the record of American intelligence since World War II (before then, the American attitude was summarized by the remark that gentlemen did not read one another’s mail), bringing to bear examples from elsewhere, some fairly extensive, for comparative and illustrative purposes. He does not go into great detail on the issues associated with covert operations, but concentrates instead on the classic job of intelligence: putting useful information into the hands of those who need it to make policy decisions.

Intelligence agencies received some hard knocks in the 1970’s, both from within government and from outside it. As Laqueur points out, this was especially so in the U.S., though all democratic regimes produced currents of skepticism regarding the operations, and even the basic purposes, of their intelligence services. The damage these knocks caused will not be fully comprehended for years to come. The extent of the harm done to the counterintelligence capability (spies catching spies), for example, can only be estimated, as spy rings against which the nation might have been guarded are unmasked and prosecuted. What is significant is that the assault upon the intelligence community was, in reality, an assault upon the foreign policy of the United States. It was precisely because so little was known about the secret services (a situation now more than adequately compensated for) that it was possible to make them the scapegoats for all manner of dissatisfactions that were political and cultural in nature.



Laqueur insists that, in reality, “far from wielding great influence in the councils of state,” far from being an “invisible government” as critics of the intelligence community have claimed, “intelligence has frequently been disregarded or ignored by decision-makers.” To take a particularly painful example examined in A World of Secrets, in the mid-to-late 1960’s the CIA (which is only one part of the intelligence establishment) consistently criticized the military’s generally optimistic view of the conduct of the war in Vietnam. Early on, John McCone, then CIA director, favored a knockout blow against the Communists; short of that, he said, it was better not to get “mired down . . . in a military effort that we cannot win.” This advice, needless to say, was ignored.

According to Laqueur, the synchronization of foreign policy and intelligence “production” was most effective in the Eisenhower administration, in large part because of the close relationship between Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, widely regarded as the best director the CIA has had. On the other hand, John McCone’s CIA, with its formidable intelligence-gathering capacities, could not dent the shortsighted, rationalistic views of the early managers of the Vietnam war. In the 1970’s, Nixon and Kissinger paid little attention to intelligence that contradicted their designs for détente. Jimmy Carter, for his part, did not believe in hostile Communist intentions, in South Asia or in Central America, until he saw them on the ground.

None of this, as Laqueur points out, has much to do with the quality of intelligence. American intelligence has been and remains excellent by any meaningful criteria. True, there have been grave shortcomings—for example, McCone had to insist, over the views of his own analysts, that his hunches were right at the time of the Cuban missile crisis; the Soviet strategic build-up of the 1960’s and 1970’s was inadequately measured—but other vaunted services, such as the French and the British between the world wars, registered comparable mistakes alongside their successes. Still, after examining the methods by which spies gather and analyze information, Laqueur concludes that even when intelligence has been right, “it has seldom had a decisive influence on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere in this book, “unless a country has a more or less effective foreign policy, the quality of intelligence at its disposal is of little or no importance.”



To say that the political mind, with all its inevitable biases, is finally bound to overrule the intelligence dossier, no matter how complete and no matter how well served by technical marvels, is not only to accept reality as it is but to place a heavy burden of responsibility on those who study, and those who make, foreign policy. For Laqueur, whose appreciation of the problems of intelligence services is in keeping with views on politics, international relations, and contemporary history that have been developed over many years, the ends of policy are what count. In this respect, perhaps no subject has engaged him more deeply over the years than the attempts of the democracies in this century to devise policies for dealing successfully with totalitarian aggression—then of the fascist variety, now of the Communist.

In 1980, Laqueur published a book called The Terrible Secret, which dealt with the psychological reasons for the Allies’ failure to rescue European Jewry during World War II. Unlike some retrospective moralists, Laqueur was not prepared to lodge wholesale accusations of criminal negligence against people who supposedly should have known better and should have been able to act upon what they knew. Those who, with all the advantages of hindsight, claim that something could have been done to save the Jews, or at least large numbers of them, overlook the speed with which the Final Solution was implemented. They overlook the fact that England and the Soviet Union, the only countries that could have taken active measures to try to arrest the mass murder (as opposed to such passive measures as were taken, heroically, in Denmark, Italy, and elsewhere), were themselves fighting for their national survival. The United States was not geared up for an assault on Nazi-occupied Europe until late 1943, by which time European Jewry was effectively lost. Finally, anyone who thinks it is a simple matter for a national government to decide to “do something” ought to reflect upon how long it took America, or some other beacons of liberty in today’s world, to make up its mind to do nothing in the case of the Cambodian holocaust, circa 1975-78.

This said, it remains a fact, as Laqueur was dismayed to find, that preceding the practical inhibitions on a rescue attempt was a psychological one. A great many people simply refused to believe the Holocaust was happening, despite credible evidence to the contrary. Some, including individuals in the U.S. State Department, had motives for dismissing the evidence, shameful motives. But Laqueur makes a strong case in The Terrible Secret that what doomed the Jews was widespread incredulity, in the literal sense, regarding Nazi intentions.

Evidence that the Final Solution had been decided upon and was commencing came from a variety of sources. The Allies (as Laqueur explains) had virtually no human agents inside the Reich. They were extraordinarily successful in cracking the German codes, but messages about the Holocaust were not transmitted by radio. In consequence, information came mainly from Jewish and Polish refugees and couriers. Their message was greeted with a degree of skepticism that seems criminal in retrospect.

In July of 1942, however, just as the Final Solution was entering its most horrific and devastating phase, a source reached the Allies through Switzerland that should have been unimpeachable. The identity of this source had eluded specialists for many years. Now Laqueur and Richard Breitman, a historian at American University, working at first independently and then together, have paid him a belated tribute in Breaking the Silence,3 a meticulous biography that reads like a thriller.



The source was Eduard Schulte, a convinced anti-Nazi who also happened to be one of the most important industrialists in Germany. Schulte’s own sources were excellent. His personal eminence—by the late 1920’s he was already one of the best-known businessmen in Germany—and his importance to the war economy gave him easy access to top military and state officials, as well as to high-ranking Nazis. The fanatical Karl Hanke, Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, was a “friend,” as were other party men imposed on Schulte’s company by the regime. There was thus no way Schulte’s information should have been received with anything less than the utmost seriousness—among many other things, he had informed his contacts in Switzerland of the imminent Nazi invasion of Poland and was one of those who corroborated the plans (indeed the date) for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Schulte, as Laqueur and Breit-man demonstrate by a careful examination of his life and opinions, was a sophisticated as well as a deeply moral man. He judged that the Allies “had their own worries, and the fate of the Jews would not figure very highly among them.” This was why, in July 1942, Schulte—within hours of learning that the Final Solution was under way—went not to his usual contacts in Zurich but to Jewish acquaintances. It was August 1 by the time these got to Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva representative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and himself a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Riegner, after consulting with Swiss Jewish leaders who knew Schulte’s reputation and could vouch for it, gave the information to British and American diplomats for transmittal to their governments and to Rabbi Stephen Wise, the head of the WJC. The British acted promptly, but the Americans hesitated. On August 10, a cautious message was sent to the State Department, which chose not to contact Wise.

The British Labor M.P. Sidney Silverman, who also served as London representative of the WJC, now sent Riegner’s message directly on to Wise. Confronted with Wise’s demand that it do something, the State Department sent the case back to Riegner, who, at the department’s request, prepared more extensive dossiers, as additional information was arriving from the east. Reluctantly, Riegner also gave Schulte’s name to the American minister, Leland Harrison. As the State Department procrastinated further, Wise went public in late September. But it was not until December that the U.S. government, following the lead of the British cabinet, denounced the mass murder and warned of retribution for those responsible.



It is futile to speculate about what might have happened had the U.S. government, acting on the information supplied by Eduard Schulte, made a forceful public statement in July rather than December. In July, it is possible that the Nazis might still have weighed the consequences of their deeds against a clear American warning that they would not go unpunished; by December, the machinery of death was in full gear, unstoppable except by the total defeat of the Reich. But it would be to misunderstand the logic behind the Nazi movement to think that the “Jewish question” was an area in which calculated restraint was a real possibility. And in any case, Laqueur and Breitman’s point is not to speculate about what might have happened with a less callous U.S. diplomacy (not that they make any attempt to view it generously). The authors do not mean to judge the American side. They mean, rather, to shed light on the most awful event in human history.

As it happens, the light they do shed strongly illuminates the general point Laqueur makes as well in A World of Secrets, and that may be taken, in fact, to undergird a very great deal of his writing on world affairs: that the minds and aims of men—politics, in short—matter more than the best dossiers. Breaking the Silence, though primarily a powerful and moving work of history, confirms Laqueur’s basic thesis: facts matter, and sound policy-making benefits from clearly presented facts—but belief, and the will to act on it, is all.



What do we need to be, or think, in order to act appropriately upon what we know? Eduard Schulte knew a great deal; he was also, more importantly, a man of profound, if quiet, moral passion. That his specific mission failed, at least in its immediate purpose, does not mean, in Laqueur’s estimation, that we are all bound to fail in the larger struggle against totalitarianism. To the contrary: the chemistry of moral sense, intelligence, and knowledge cannot be quantified, but that the “right” combination exists, and that it can be catalyzed into action, may be seen as the unspoken premise behind Walter Laqueur’s endlessly fertile, sometimes gloomy, but at bottom guardedly hopeful life’s work.



About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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