Intelligence Failure

Who Leaked America’s Secret War Plans Into Hitler’s Hands?

Disclosure of America’s top-secret war plans gave Hitler intelligence he needed to win World War II—and some claim FDR himself was behind the leak.

With the United States caught up in an undeclared shooting war with Germany in late 1941 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt battling isolationists to deliver more support to the British and the Soviets in their desperate fight against Hitler’s forces, the release of top secret American war planning documents shook the nation. Seventy-five years later, the leak continues to stir up controversy. Some even claim that FDR himself was behind the leak of his own military’s blueprint for war against Nazi Germany.

World War II was raging in Europe and Indochina throughout 1941, sweeping up virtually every nation on earth—except the United States. Thanks in large measure to Americans’ isolationist leanings, the U.S. remained officially neutral while Hitler’s forces occupied almost all of Europe, part of North Africa and the Middle East, and advanced deep into the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Japanese forces were waging a long and brutal war in Indochina and preparing for a possible attack on the United States itself. President Franklin D. Roosevelt feared that a Nazi victory over the British and Red armies, the last remaining European holdouts against Hitler, would leave America truly isolated in the face of Germany’s and Japan’s murderous aggression. But in the heat of the tough 1940 presidential campaign, FDR had repeatedly assured American mothers, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Then, on Dec. 4, 1941, came the explosive revelation that seemed to show he was lying. The U.S. military had prepared a lengthy report, called the Victory Program, which spelled out in detail war plans for defeating Germany, down to the sites for invasion and the number of ships, aircraft, tanks, and trucks needed. The deeply isolationist and anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune, which revealed the document’s existence, ran a huge block type headline declaring: “F.D.R.’S WAR PLANS!” (The same article appeared simultaneously in the Washington Times-Herald, a politically similar newspaper published by the cousin of Tribune publisher Colonel Robert McCormick.) The Tribune’s Capitol Hill correspondent, Chesly Manly, described “a blueprint for total war on a scale unprecedented in at least two oceans and three continents, Europe, Africa, and Asia.” The Victory Program called for a draft army of 5,000,000 troops, from a total manpower of more than 10,000,000 men in uniform, as part of a general national war mobilization. The U.S. would, Manly wrote, invade Europe on the specified date of July 1, 1943, in “the final supreme effort… to defeat the mighty German army…”

Most Americans recognized the threat Hitler posed to the nation, particularly should the British, presently backed by American Lend-Lease shipments of munitions, ships, aircraft, and guns, give up the fight. But the majority of people this side of the Atlantic had little stomach for sending American soldiers to fight a war thousands of miles distant. Nerves were on edge over the increasing possibility of war with Japan, though even many among the nation’s military brass considered that unlikely and, should war come, unlike Germany, anticipated an easy fight against an overmatched enemy far from the American homeland. And while an undeclared war against German U-boats in the Atlantic had led President Roosevelt to call for his navy to “shoot on sight,” a naval war to protect cargo ships was a far cry from an expeditionary army requiring virtually every one of the country’s young men, and many older ones, too, to go to war in Europe. The Victory Plan’s detailing of the requirements for an American invasion of northwestern Europe and its stunning cost (more than $150 billion when the current annual defense budget amounted to about $6.4 billion), and a summation that “Ultimate victory over the Axis powers will place a demand upon industry few have yet conceived,” swept the American political landscape with tsunami force.

The Tribune’s revelation of what McCormick crowed was “the greatest scoop in history” seemed to put the lie to all of FDR’s repeated claims that he would not take the country to war. The isolationists including Charles Lindbergh, leading spokesman for the America First antiwar campaign, saw in the Victory Program proof of what they had claimed all along: The duplicitous FDR intended to go to war, despite most Americans’ desire to keep out of the war. FDR-hater McCormick declared in his newspaper’s pages, Roosevelt “didn’t talk that way when he was a candidate for the third term, just a little more than a year ago. If he had he would have been defeated as a mad man.”

“The American republic has been betrayed,” an isolationist Massachusetts Republican congressman declared. The timing for the antiwar side could not have been better as business in Congress, now in an uproar with members brandishing copies of the Tribune on the House Chamber floor, skidded to a halt in its debate over a huge new defense appropriation bill. Defeating the Nazis as planned in the published documents, proclaimed Senate Republican leader Robert Taft of Ohio, “would bankrupt the United States and put an end to what we have known as democracy.” Perhaps the most vocal and staunch isolationist in Congress, Senate Democrat Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, announced he would lead an investigation into charges that the president had been deceiving Congress and the public about his real intentions.

Any chance that FDR had of further expanding the increasingly violent undeclared war with Germany in the Atlantic Ocean seemed doomed.

But who released the war plans and why? The document circulated only among the highest national leadership.

The Wrong Man with the Plan

Most fingers pointed to one man.

In the summer of 1941, the world was at war and the U.S. had a small draft army, less than a tenth the size of Germany’s alone. Men and officers were poorly trained, had few weapons, and remained uncertain about their mission. The White House knew little about what it might take to ramp up production and assemble men and materiel for the colossal force that would be needed to defeat Hitler’s hardened armed forces—let alone the increasingly looming threat of facing Japan, Germany’s Axis partner, in a two-ocean war. While pushing his military to study the nation’s needs in the eventuality of war, FDR had pointedly resisted signing off on any of these studies as the basis for war preparations. On July 9 finally Roosevelt ordered Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and his Navy counterpart, Frank Knox, to come up with a plan for the “overall production requirements required to defeat our potential enemies.” To prepare for even a possible war, the armed forces needed to understand what that war might look like. And the likeliest enemy of all was Germany.

The man tasked to lead the project could not have been politically less suited for the job. Major Albert Wedemeyer, head of the War Department’s War Plans division and lead author of the Victory Program, admitted some years later that he became “the planner of a war I did not want.” While studying at the German war college in Berlin in the late 1930s, he became a Nazi sympathizer. He regarded Hitler as a far less dangerous threat to American interests than “the worldwide Communist conspiracy centered in Moscow.” While in Germany he joined with Lindbergh during his aviation tours. The two shared an admiration for Germany’s development into a disciplined, racially-based society under Hitler. Both largely ignored the Führer’s leadership of a state that euthanized the mentally challenged; imprisoned, tortured, and murdered its political opponents; broke treaty after treaty; invaded and annexed neighboring lands; and unleashed horrific anti-Semitic violence. Wedemeyer considered Germany’s drive for conquest “a national movement to win living space [away from] more backward peoples.” He even attended one of the many America First rallies where Lindbergh spoke out against the commander in chief. He nonetheless took on the assignment “so that my country would be prepared for any contingency which fate, politicians, or power-drunk leaders [by which he meant Roosevelt] might precipitate.”

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Astonishingly enough, he delivered a brilliant document in two months. Working feverishly with a small Army, Navy, and Air Force team, he drew together information about America’s raw materials, industrial and transportation base, the ships, aircraft, weapons, and men needed to defeat Hitler, and combined them into a blueprint for mobilizing the armed forces “calculated to bring our enemies to their knees in the shortest possible time.” In hindsight, the Allied strategy seems intuitive: Get millions of men and supporting materiel to Great Britain while keeping the British and Red Army in the fight, primarily with Lend-Lease supplies, soften up German antiaircraft defenses to gain air superiority, bomb Germany’s industrial base from the air, and stage sufficient firepower for an invasion of the Continent across the English Channel as quickly and decisively as possible. But nobody knew that at the time, most doubted that Moscow would survive for long, some wondered whether Great Britain could hold on, and many leaders, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his military advisers, thought that eventual victory over Germany might come through air power alone.

Wedemeyer’s Victory Program submitted on Sept. 11, 1941, amounted, according to FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood, to “one of the most remarkable documents of American history, for it set down the basic strategy of a global war before this country was involved in it.”

Its release also provided an intelligence coup for Nazi Germany. Upon learning about the war plans release, Germany’s Chargé d’Affaires Hans Thomsen at its Washington Embassy immediately telegraphed Berlin about the “sensation” the report had caused. He summarized the document’s findings about the war and noted that the report confirmed “the known fact” that America would not be ready for full-scale war before July 1943.

Hitler seemed to recognize the need to reorient his forces to stave off this eventual American invasion strategy. The Führer issued a war directive a week after the Victory Program’s release to increase air defenses around key industries, move more troops to defend Western Europe’s coastline, and greatly step up Atlantic Ocean attacks to keep American invasion forces from ever reaching Britain. This strategy might have delayed U.S. entry into the fight so long that Germany could not lose. Given Germany’s limited war-making resources, Hitler commanded his forces in the Soviet Union to halt their aggressive tactics, to preserve his power for the westward transfer. However, after visiting the Eastern Front a few days later, he grew infuriated by his forces failures to achieve his goals there. He quickly reversed his orders and called for his armies to go back on the attack against the massive Red Army. With that disastrous decision, he sealed Nazi Germany’s doom.

Who Leaked the Victory Plan?

The White House made no attempt to deny that the Tribune had quoted from the real Victory Program prepared at the President’s request over the summer. An enraged Stimson railed against “the patriotism of a man or a newspaper which would take these confidential studies and make them public to the enemies of the country.” He called for “a great State prosecution” of McCormick and leaders within the America First organization, for their “disloyalty.” Others in the Cabinet demanded McCormick’s immediate arrest for aiding the nation’s enemies—in a word, treason.

FDR was at first ready to pursue prosecution, but then told his press secretary, Steve Early, to release a statement that newspapers had the right “to print the news.” The president did instruct the FBI and Army to investigate the source of the leak.

All fingers immediately pointed at Wedemeyer. His Nazi and America First sympathies were well-known. FBI agents “descended upon me like vultures upon a prostrate antelope,” he recalled. His life was turned upside down while he and his associates’ homes were searched, mail read, and telephones wiretapped. However, the FBI finally exonerated him. The talented Wedemeyer eventually made general and continued to serve as head of War Plans, helping to plan the successful Normandy Invasion. He was later transferred to a command post in Southeast Asia. His staunch anti-communism brought him into a later alliance with Senator Joseph McCarthy. He lived to age 92 and died in 1989.

Three days after the bombshell of the war plan’s leak hit, real bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Four days later, Germany declared war on the U.S. In the fire of real war, nobody was ever charged with the crime of releasing America’s top secret war plans.

Several possible culprits have arisen in the years since. In 1976, a sensationalistic biography of Sir William Stephenson, the director of the British Security Coordination (BSC), the secret and massive Western Hemisphere-wide intelligence operations based in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, claimed that the man who would later serve as the model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond had himself concocted the Victory Plan. He supposedly then released it through hidden channels in an effort to provoke Germany to declare war. That scenario appears completely preposterous on the face of it.

Even FDR proved not above suspicion. In 1987, historian Thomas Fleming published a book on the battles within the FDR Administration over its war policies. In it he accuses the president of having brought about the leak as a backdoor way to provoke Germany into declaring war. Hitler did cite the Victory Program as one among numerous excuses to declare war on the U.S., including the naval battles that had already taken place in the Atlantic. However, clearly based on documents from the German foreign ministry, Hitler was already committed to join in the war Japan was about to launch against the U.S. Caught up in a two-ocean war, his unprepared enemy could not, he was convinced, mobilize before he defeated the Red Army and made Fortress Europe impregnable to attack.

According to Fleming, Wedemeyer told him in 1987 that he suspected FDR of having manufactured the leak. “I have always been convinced, on some sort of intuitional level, that President Roosevelt authorized it,” the then 100-year-old general said. But Wedemeyer never lost his dislike of the war he didn’t want and the commander in chief he didn’t trust. No evidence has ever been found to implicate FDR in any way in any plot to disclose the Victory Program.

In 1962, with the statute of limitations on the crime having expired, the former isolationist in chief and Montana senator Burton Wheeler owned up to his definitive role in the leak. He wrote that an unnamed Army Air Forces captain was his mole. The officer, who had passed him confidential information about military preparedness over the previous year, now delivered what Wheeler described as the “most closely guarded secret in Washington,” a document “as thick as an average novel, wrapped in brown paper and labeled ‘Victory Program.’” Tribune reporter Manly joined Wheeler at his Washington home where they read and copied out extensive portions of the war plan. Wheeler explained his willingness to leak the top secret document as his belief that the American people should learn “what was in store for them if we entered the war…”

Wheeler’s son, a Washington attorney, later claimed that the leak plot went higher and deeper. The army captain, he said had told his father he was “only a messenger.” According to the son, the captain had been dispatched by Army Air Forces commanding general Henry “Hap” Arnold, who was reportedly disturbed by the lack of sufficient aircraft going to his forces in the current Lend-Lease period and in the planned buildup for war. According to the story, the FBI investigation led them to Arnold, but, at FDR’s behest, stopped its investigation before word got out to the public. However, again, in the military hierarchy of the time this seems highly unlikely. Nothing showing Arnold’s fingerprints, real or figurative, on any of the disclosed documents has ever been found.

So, who leaked the “most closely guarded secret” in the nation? I think that like Wedemeyer the unnamed captain was quite likely one of the many officers within the regular military establishment who distrusted Roosevelt. Many felt incensed that the government was already caught up in war with Hitler and grew increasingly angry, perhaps even frightened, at the prospect of entry into the world war. Wheeler said the captain told him, “I think [Congress] has a right to know what’s really going on in the executive branch when it concerns human lives.” After 75 years, not a shred of concrete evidence shows that the mole, whoever he was, acted other than alone in leaking the Victory Program.

As shocking disclosures of government secrets by WikiLeaks and within the Executive Branch reach the press again and again, some may wonder whether future historians will figure out who is responsible. Judging from the continued uncertainty over a leak that might have brought Nazi victory in World War II, the answer is almost certainly no.