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From the International column in the November 2000 Perspectives

Military History at the Oslo Conference

Joseph P. Harahan, November 2000

The Norwegian Military History Commission, led by Rolf Tamnes and Olav Riste, organized a daylong session at the International Congress of Historical Sciences titled "Intelligence After the Cold War." Approximately 400 historians, military officers, and defense officials listened as Michael Herman began the comparative session by arguing that the British Joint Intelligence Committee, with its mixture of senior military and civilian intelligence officers, was a model for interservice cooperation in providing the government with objective intelligence. Challenging this view from the audience, Donald Cameron Watt cited repeated analytical failures by this committee during Suez and other major crises during the Cold War. By contrast, Ken McDonald (USA) chose case histories of three incidents when the Central Intelligence Agency failed to provide warning. Such failures were institutional, McDonald argued, as the agency's leaders chose to go with their preconceived conclusions rather than intelligence analysis that spoke to a different conclusion. In short, they heard what they wanted to hear.

Misperception was not the issue with Josef Stalin in 1945–50, argued Oleg Tsarev. Dramatically citing highly classified British military planning documents of 1945–49 that were stolen by British spies, given to the Soviet KGB, and then passed to Stalin, Tsarev stated that the Soviet leader had thus had conclusive documentary evidence that a British-American coalition was forming against the Soviet Union. Part of the drama in Tsarev's presentation concerned the speed with which the classified documents were passed to Stalin in 1945–49; sometimes it was a matter of months, sometimes only weeks.

According to Wolfgang Krieger, West German foreign intelligence after 1945 was in the hands of General Reinhard Gehlen. An energetic, albeit mysterious, former Wehrmacht general who gave his Russian intelligence archives and organization to U.S. Army intelligence at the end of World War II, Gehlen led German military intelligence for more than 20 years. Krieger asserted that Gehlen used many levers of power to remain in power. In tracing the history of national intelligence agencies in Canada and Australia, Westley Wark and Frank Cain demonstrated the postwar emergence of the United States as the dominant nation in the field of Cold War intelligence. American money, agents, analysts, and technology predominated.

At the end of a long and interesting day, Olav Riste looked beyond each of these nations' intelligence structures to a new question of how to conceptualize a diplomatic history of intelligence during the Cold War. Due to the nature of World War II and the Cold War, national military and civilian intelligence organizations had to work jointly through alliances. But the restrictive nature of national intelligence itself, Riste argued, placed difficulties in the path of establishing diplomatic relations. Yet it did occur, Riste asserted, and historians need to analyze its impact on the major alliances during the Cold War.

This Oslo session followed by a week the annual congress of the International Commission of Military History (which is affiliated to the ICHS). Organized by Erik Norberg and the Swedish Commission of Military History, the congress, which met in Stockholm, attracted more than 250 military historians from 24 nations. The theme, "Total War and Total Defense, 1798–2000," provided an international forum for historians to present their research. American historians, Brian Linn, Geoffrey Wawro, Margaret Vining, and Barton Hacker, sponsored by the U.S. Commission of Military History, spoke on the American, French, and women's experiences with total war, respectively. Surrounding the scholarly sessions were trips to Swedish military museums, the Vasa and the Army Museum, visits to prominent city sites, Nobel Prize Hall and Gripsholm Castle, and a boat ride into the Swedish archipelago for a picnic en masse.

—Joseph P. Harahan is vice president of the U.S. Commission of Military History.