Rise of The Rocket Girls

Title:                      Rise of The Rocket Girls

Author:                 Nathalia Holt

Holt, Nathalia (2016). Rise of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to The Moon to Mars. New York: Little, Brown and Company

LCCN:    2015954384

TL862.J48 H65 2016


  • “During World War II, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate jet velocities and plot missile trajectories, they recruited an elite group of young women–known as human computers–who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design and helped bring about America’s first ballistic missiles. But they were never interested in developing weapons–their hearts lay in the dream of space exploration. So when JPL became part of a new agency called NASA, the computers worked on the first probes to the moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond. Later, as digital computers largely replaced human ones, JPL was unique in training and retaining its brilliant pool of women. They became the first computer programmers and engineers, and through their efforts, we launched the ships that showed us the contours of our Solar System. For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women who charted a course not only for the future of space exploration but also for the prospects of female scientists. Based on extensive research and interviews with the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science, illuminating both where we’ve been and the far reaches of space to where we’re heading.”–Dust jacket.


  • January 1958 : Launch day — Part I. 1940s. Up, up, and away — Headed west — Part II. 1950s. Rockets rising — Miss Guided Missile — Holding back — Ninety days and ninety minutes — Moonglow — Part III. 1960s. Analog overlords — Planetary pull — The last queen of outer space — Part IV. 1970s-today. Men are from Mars — Look like a girl — Epilogue.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 16, 2017

Reviewed by Margaret Weitekamp[1]

They were always there.

Women making history have always existed, present in their time and thus in the archival record, although sometimes unnamed. But their stories have not always been considered significant. Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls investigates the history of women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to offer “an inside look at pivotal moments in American history from a perspective never before told”. Such compensatory histories that restore lesser-known figures to the historical narrative are only just the first step in bringing the lens of gender to analytical histories, we know. And yet, such efforts continue to be important restoratives with significant implications, in this case, for the current state of mathematics, science and engineering.

Doing women’s history presents real challenges. As Holt recounts, photos of women may have been saved but sometimes without captioning. Also, many women change their surnames when they marry, complicating research. Indeed, Holt contacted 12 different women before locating the right Barbara Lewis (Paulson), a key figure for this book. Holt’s story begins, however, with a different Barbara.

When 19-year-old Barbara Canright moved with her husband to the California Institute of Technology in 1939 and took a job as a typist, the school was still all-male. The young couple befriended the so-called Suicide Squad of incipient rocketeers–Frank Malina, Jack Parsons and Ed Forman–thus becoming two of the first employees of the newly funded Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project, the precursor of JPL (which would later become part of a new government agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA). As the team developed jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) devices for the US Army Air Corps beginning in 1939, Canright joined the men in the field (quite literally). As the group tested rocket motors in a dusty, dry streambed outside Pasadena, she, in stockings, heels and a skirt, recorded and processed the data. She was a computer.

Before electronic devices took over the term, a computer was a human being who computed. In Canright’s case, she calculated complex thrust-to-weight equations, repeatedly and accurately, to compile the experimental data. Armed with a high school education where she had been one of the few girls, if not the only one, in her advanced math and science classes, she embraced the job. America’s entry into the Second World War brought more women to work alongside Canright, who was initially the only woman at JPL other than Malina’s secretary. Holt’s story reconstructs the broader history of female computers at JPL, a group eventually known simply as “the sisterhood”. At JPL, their mathematical competence coexisted with interdepartmental beauty contests in the 1950s (in some ways, a sign that there were enough women at JPL to compete) and real restrictions on their professional advancement.

The all-female computers’ enclave can be credited to Macie Roberts, the head of department after 1946. After the only male computer left during the war, Roberts hired women exclusively. She guarded her group of professional women carefully, discouraging dating at work and protecting them from untoward advances. Roberts worried that a male computer, who could advance professionally into engineering in ways that women could not, would not be content as a peer on the team. More so, however, she wanted the women’s work to be accurate and excellent. Roberts integrated the department in 1952 by hiring Jamez Lawson, whose long commute across a racially segregated Los Angeles to her new job in all-white Pasadena testified to her commitment.

Male figures in history are often written about in purely professional terms. But to flip a common slogan from the women’s movement, if the personal is political, then, for women, the professional is also personal. The realities of these women’s employment conditions–for a long time the women at JPL could not remain employed if they had a baby–meant that their professional skills were never really separate from their personal lives. Canright received weekly missives from her mother in Ohio asking her to start a family. (Indeed, in 1943, Canright left to have a baby.) In the white-collar world, even for very talented, bright, hard-working, well-educated young women, for a long time the only employment options were secretary, teacher or nurse.

The women themselves helped change those circumstances. After Helen Ling returned to work after childbirth in 1961, she rehired Barbara Paulson, who had also just had a baby. Holt interleaves the professional achievements of these working women–and then working mothers–with histories of divorce law, the Pill and the invention of pantyhose. Holt depicts women who were as comfortable with oxidizers and experimental fuels as they were with hairstyles, hemlines and childrearing. Likewise, readers of Rise of the Rocket Girls will not only meet these women but will also be introduced to hypergolic fuels, inertial guidance, and gravity assists, topics inextricably woven into the women’s work.

After electronic and digital computers began to change the women’s work in the early 1950s and 1960s, JPL’s women took on computer programming and digital image processing. Their work in data reduction, finding patterns, influenced spacecraft design. Holt’s account offers a useful precis of the early history of JPL’s planetary exploration missions and the women’s contributions. By the time the women’s titles are changed to “engineer” in 1970, and some of the women start to be credited as co-authors in scholarly publications, readers understand how significant those advancements are.

One of the challenges of collective biography is not allowing the varied historical actors to blur, becoming indistinguishable or interchangeable. Holt’s highly readable account draws compelling portraits of each person. And yet, I also wanted more images of the women themselves. Holt describes various group portraits, often noting how the women presented themselves as feminine professionals, but these images are not reproduced. Archival photos of calculating machines, missiles and computing punch cards illuminate the human computers’ work, but more photos of the women throughout (in addition to the small portraits introducing early sections) would have been welcome.

Those who already know JPL’s history will find Holt’s larger story to be familiar–and indeed, the book’s notes testify to the depth of her archival research and solid command of the secondary literature. But these stories of women, taken seriously and in depth, are new and worthy of attention. The engaging stories move quickly and would even, I venture, make good beach reading.

Writing women back into the history of science and technology has profound implications, not only as a corrective to our understanding of the past but also for current practice. Take all-male conference panels (“manels”). Tumblr contributors mock them online and Canadian mathematician Greg Martin published a brilliant critique of how statistically unlikely such groupings are, given the proportion of women with PhDs working in mathematics. But pair those professional slights with some appalling stories of high-profile scientists who have driven competent women out of their fields through sexual harassment or even outright assault and one reveals pockets of misogynistic culture. Uncovering past female role models won’t solve those problems, but such models do begin to correct a fundamental misperception equating math, science and engineering with masculinity.

JPL’s computers were there. They did the work and, to paraphrase the quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels, these ladies made their professional marks in hose and with a baby waiting at home. You’ll want to meet them.

Author Nathalia Holt“I was born and raised in New York City, a place that I believe engendered my gritty determination but also my love of science,” says Nathalia Holt.

“My dad is a jazz musician and my mom was a secretary, so my steadfast pursuit of science–and I was a studious child–was an act of rebellion in my family.”

She took her undergraduate degree, in biology, at Humboldt State University in northern California. “I was 16 when I started my degree, so I was younger than most of my peers. This made me determined but also painfully naive.”

Until recently, Holt was a postdoctoral fellow carrying out research into HIV/Aids at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based medical institute is, she enthuses, “a special lab and a place that truly fosters collaboration across disciplines in science”. Holt left the Ragon to pursue a full-time writing career, following the publication in 2015 of her much-acclaimed first book Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV.

Of the research she carried out for Rise of the Rocket Girls, Holt says “there were so many surprising discoveries, but I was most shocked at how the history of these women had been forgotten. Although they worked for NASA for 50 years, the agency had forgotten their names and contributions.

“From the first phone call I made to them, they were delighted but not surprised. I almost think they’d been waiting this whole time for someone like me to come along and finally record their memories.”

What gives Holt hope?

“Women scientists are getting far more attention now than they ever have in the past,” she says. “And I’m hopeful that the history of our current female pioneers won’t be lost to the cosmos.”

[1] Margaret Weitekamp, a review (July 28, 2016). Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. This article accessed at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/review-rise-of-the-rocket-girls-nathalia-holt-little-brown

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Intrepid’s Last Case

Title:                      Intrepid’s Last Case

Author:                 William Stevenson

Stevenson, William (1983). Intrepid’s Last Case. New York : Villard Books

LCCN:    83048077

UB271.G72 S77 1983

LC Subjects

Date Updated:  November 2, 2017

Reviewed by James Bamford[1]

On a warm September Thursday in 1945 a tired young man in baggy pants crisscrossed the city of Ottawa with his wife and 2-year-old son. All day and the previous night he had been pounding the streets searching for someone who would take an interest in a shopping bag of papers he carried. First he visited the night editor of The Ottawa Journal who glanced at the pile and said, “No thanks.” Then he trudged over to the Ministry of Justice where a policeman told him to come back the next day. At 8 o’clock the following morning the young man again made his way to the Ministry of Justice and asked to speak to the minister. He was sent to the Parliament building and, after a two-hour wait, was told the minister was too busy to see him. Then it was back to the Journal, once again to the Ministry, and finally to the Crown Attorney’s office. Nobody seemed to care a whiff about his bag of papers.

The young man was Igor Sergeievitch Gouzenko, a slight, 24-year-old Russian attached to the cryptographic section of the Soviet Embassy. And what he was hauling around the Canadian capital were several reams of the Soviet Union’s deepest secrets—including evidence that Moscow had penetrated the Manhattan Project and walked away with key pieces to the puzzle of the atomic bomb.

Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, had been informed of the Russian and his bag of secrets within half an hour of Mr. Gouzenko’s first approach to the Ministry of Justice, but delayed taking any action for fear of offending the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Mr. Gouzenko was “a political hot potato, too hot to handle,” King later wrote. Eventually persuaded otherwise, the Prime Minister granted permission for accepting Mr. Gouzenko’s appeal for political asylum.

For protection, the Gouzenko family was hidden at Camp X, a secret, wartime espionage training center bordering Lake Ontario. There, during long interrogations, Mr. Gouzenko told of extensive Soviet penetration of the West and named a Russian agent in Canada with the code name ELLI. Later identified as Kathleen Willsher, a confidential secretary to the British High Commissioner, she was apprehended and prosecuted. But Mr. Gouzenko was later to suggest there was a second ELLI, a Soviet mole high in British intelligence circles whose cover has never been blown.

Among those initially involved in the Gouzenko affair in 1945 was Sir William Stephenson who, under the wartime code name INTREPID, was in charge of London’s New York-based British Security Coordination office. The B.S.C. was responsible for all clandestine British activities in the Western Hemisphere and for close liaison with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime undercover intelligence operation.

Sir William and the B.S.C. were the subjects of William Stevenson’s earlier best seller, A Man Called Intrepid[2]. So at first glance, one might assume that Intrepid’s Last Case would also concern Intrepid and the B.S.C. But since President Harry S. Truman, following the end of the war in Europe, had served the B.S.C. with an eviction notice four months before Mr. Gouzenko defected, the involvement of INTREPID in the Gouzenko case covers only a few pages. Sir William contributed to some initial decisions made in the case by the Canadian Government and interviewed the defector once at Camp X, but he then returned to New York to close down his B.S.C. office.

Actually, the primary purpose of Intrepid’s Last Case is to clear the late Col. Charles H. Ellis, INTREPID’s wartime aide, of recent allegations that he had been a mole for both Germany and the Soviet Union. The charge is all the more significant in the light of the major role Ellis played in helping to create America’s O.S.S., the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II.

Among the most serious attacks on Ellis was one in The New York Times Book Review last January [1983]. In a review of The Last Hero by Anthony Cave Brown[3], a book about the late O.S.S. chief William J. Donovan, Edward Jay Epstein said that in 1965 Ellis “broke down and confessed that before World War II began, he had been recruited as a double agent by the Germans and then blackmailed into service by the Soviet Union. Thus the man who really organized American secret intelligence was in a perfect position to expose and compromise every secret agent, operation and modus operandi of the agency.” A similar charge against Ellis had been made earlier by the British author Chapman Pincher in his book Their Trade Is Treachery[4].

But what is the possible connection between Ellis and Mr. Gouzenko? On March 27, 1981, Mr. Gouzenko said in a Canadian television interview that during his interrogations at Camp X in 1945 he had confided his most secret piece of information to a mysterious “gentleman from England.” He said he told this Englishman that he knew of a second Soviet mole, with the identical code name given to Kathleen Willsher, and that this second ELLI was firmly implanted in the upper ranks of British intelligence. He had never told anyone else about the second ELLI, he said, because he was confident the “gentleman from England” would initiate a proper investigation and he was afraid of reprisal if the second ELLI discovered that Mr. Gouzenko had compromised him.

No record exists of who this “gentleman from England” might have been, but Mr. Stevenson is convinced that he was in fact the second ELLI. In Intrepid’s Last Case, INTREPID and Mr. Stevenson set out to discover the true identity of the “gentleman from England” and at the same time clear the reputation of Colonel Ellis. Sir William Stephenson “had the contacts. I had the mobility,” Mr. Stevenson says. “We resumed an old working relationship.”

Poor Ellis. The result of their search is a tedious sermon on Soviet disinformation which, Mr. Stevenson concludes, has been responsible for everything from the expulsion of valuable “creative eccentrics” from Western intelligence organizations to the 1981 allegations that the C.I.A. Director William J. Casey was involved in questionable business and financial activities. It is with little surprise, therefore, that Mr. Stevenson sees Soviet disinformation—and even the British mole Kim Philby who defected to the Soviet Union—behind the allegations against Ellis.

But how confident can Mr. Stevenson be about his own theory? He reports in this book that he interviewed the now-blind Mr. Gouzenko. The Russian asked whether Ellis had ever been married to a Russian or served inside the Soviet Union, or whether he was in Paris with Hitler before World War II. The answer to all those questions was “yes,” prompting Mr. Gouzenko to declare, “Then it’s possible ELLI was Ellis.”

In the end, INTREPID and Mr. Stevenson are no closer to discovering the identity of the mysterious British ELLI than they were more than 300 pages earlier. In a sad and embarrassing final page, a defeated INTREPID punches his stomach. “Look! I can still take it,” he says, and wanders off to a chattering teleprinter. “This time, perhaps,” the book concludes, “he would find the final clue to the true identity of Gouzenko’s ‘gentleman from England.’ “

The issues involving Colonel Ellis are important ones, but Mr. Stevenson and his patron are not the ones to deal with them. Instead of exhaustive research, including plowing through dusty archival records, drafting numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and interviewing a generous number of people on both sides of the issue, Mr. Stevenson simply weaves together a number of tired old spy stories, ties them together with the thread of Soviet disinformation, and quotes pearls of wisdom from the man called INTREPID whom he compares to “the oracle of Delphi.” “The enemy is not only at our door,” Sir William says at one point, “but inside our houses and practically in every room.”

In Intrepid’s Last Case,” the problem is not disinformation, but noninformation.

[1] James Bamford, “On The Trail of a Mole,” The New York Times Books (January 22, 1984). Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/22/books/on-the-trail-of-a-mole.html?pagewanted=all James Bamford is the author of The Puzzle Palace: A Report on NSA, America’s Most Secret Agency.

[2] Stevenson, William (1976). A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

[3] Brown, Anthony Cave (1984). The Last Hero : Wild Bill Donovan: The Biography And Political Experience of Major General William J. Donovan, Founder of The OSS And “Father” of The CIA, From His Personal And Secret Papers And The Diaries of Ruth Donovan. New York: Times Books

[4] Pincher, Chapman (1981). Their Trade is Treachery. London: Sidgwick & Jackson

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Open Secret

Title:                      Open Secret

Author:                 Stella Rimington

Rimington, Stella (2001). Open Secret: The Autobiography Of The Former Director-General of MI5. London: Hutchinson

LCCN:    2002327996

UB271.G72 R55 2001

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 1, 2017

Review by Chris Mullin[1]

Chris Mullin believes that all has not been revealed in Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 and still has questions for Stella Rimington

Soon after first joining the home affairs select committee, I suggested that we invite Stella Rimington, the newly appointed head of MI5, to give evidence. This was in the days before she had been outed; all that was known of her then was her name and one blurred, out-of-date photograph. At first the chairman, Sir Ivan Lawrence, hummed and hawed, but eventually he warmed to the idea. An invitation was dispatched and in due course word came back that it had been vetoed by the home secretary, Kenneth Clarke.

Meanwhile, it was rumored that she was dining with newspaper editors. I rang a couple who confirmed that they had indeed entertained her. So when Kenneth Clarke next came to the committee we put it to him that if it was OK for Mrs. Rimington to meet unelected newspaper editors, how could it be wrong for her to meet elected members of parliament? At which point, he came out with his hands up. We were offered not an evidence session (the Home Office being anxious not to concede that parliament had any right to scrutinize the security services), but a free lunch.

A cloak-and-dagger atmosphere surrounded our visit. On the appointed day MI5 sent cars to whisk us across London to an unspecified destination, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be MI5’s then headquarters at Gower Street. We were chased across London by photographers on motorbikes. At every traffic light, lenses were poked through the windows. It was all very exciting.

That was nearly 10 years ago. Since then, the relationship between MI5 and the outside world has been transformed. Its work and that of the other intelligence agencies is now subject to parliamentary inspection (albeit by a committee appointed by and reporting to the prime minister) and there is an annual debate in parliament; we now know far more about its inner workings than ever before. Stella Rimington’s memoirs are only the latest step on the long road towards a mature relationship between the security services and the public they exist to serve.

Despite the upset she may have caused in certain parts of the establishment, there is nothing here that is likely to cause the least offence to any but the most obtuse of her former colleagues in the secret world. Rimington is no whistleblower and, if you believe her, there are no whistles to blow. She tells us nothing new about the activities of MI5 during the miners’ strike beyond assuring us that it was all perfectly above board.

Maybe, but one would still like to know the relationship between the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Roger Windsor, and the security services. She says only that “he was never an agent in any sense of the word that you can possibly imagine”. What was he then? Whose idea was it to send him to Libya and then leak news of the trip to the Sunday Times? What part did MI5 play in the attempts to frame Arthur Scargill by pretending that he had used money donated to the strike fund to pay off his mortgage? Whose idea was the unsuccessful attempt to deposit £500,000 in a Dublin bank account with the aim of suggesting that Scargill was an embezzler? These are all areas in which Rimington could assist with inquiries, but she does not. Beyond admitting to a little over-enthusiasm when it came to targeting groups on the the left, Rimington concedes nothing.

If Rimington were in a mood to be frank, she could tell us what Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham was doing in room 105 at BBC Broadcasting House, stamping upturned Christmas trees on the personnel files of staff thought to be insufficiently patriotic. Alas, however, there is little or no mention of MI5’s close relationship with certain sections of the media, which has proved so useful at times of crisis, such as a miners’ strike.

There are occasions when her memory is at fault. Peter Wright, she says, later withdrew the allegation that there had been a plot involving himself and other MI5 officers to destabilize the government of Harold Wilson. Not quite. All Wright conceded was that any such plot had been a great deal smaller than he had alleged in Spycatcher[2] and that, far from being drawn into it, he was one of the ringleaders. In any case, there is plenty of evidence from sources other than Wright of a whispering campaign against Wilson and some of his ministers. And while we are on the subject, who went to the trouble of forging a Swiss bank account for dear old Ted Short when he was deputy prime minister in the mid-1970s?

This is not to say her book is of no interest; on the contrary. The story of MI5’s transformation from a stuffy, paranoid, introverted, exclusively male, incompetent dinosaur into a modern, efficient, self-confident public service is fascinating. So, too, is Rimington’s account of her rise in what was very definitely a man’s world—and only a certain type of man at that. “Some,” she says of the men who ran MI5 30 years ago, “seemed to do very little at all and there was a lot of heavy drinking.”

By the mid-1990s all that had changed. The changes began under her predecessor, Sir Antony Duff, and continued under her. By the time she left the service there was an air of professionalism wholly absent from the early days and almost half the staff were women (I recall a Tory home secretary whispering to me that they had got rid of “an awful lot of dead wood”).

Even so, it seems that some female operatives still found the going hard, especially those seconded to anti-terrorist work with the Metropolitan Police. “They got some first-hand experience of how women are treated in the police.” One female officer seconded to the Met found a pile of dirty washing on her desk, with the instruction that she was to wash it. “She threw it out of the window and was not harassed again.”

Fascinating, too, is the way in which Rimington juggled her domestic life as a mother of two young daughters (and in later years as a single parent) with the extraordinary demands of her job. She recounts one occasion when she had to borrow taxi fares from a prospective defector in order to cope with a domestic crisis, and there is a touching little account of a Christmas dinner eaten off plastic garden furniture in an otherwise bare room, after she and the girls had moved to a house still in a state of disrepair. It’s a far cry from the stereotyped world of spy masters in popular fiction.

Finally, I have my own little bone to pick with Rimington. When I visited her at Gower Street 10 years ago, I noticed a framed quotation from Edmund Burke hanging on the wall behind her desk. It read: “Those who would carry on great public schemes must be proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults and worst of all the presumptuous judgment of the ignorant upon their designs.”

She takes up the story at page 259: “I was rather embarrassed about this and hoped no one would notice it, but as luck would have it, Chris Mullin did, and later sent a message asking for the wording. I did not give it to him, as I suspected it would only turn up later in some sardonic article. Instead I removed it.” At the time she told me it had been lost in the move from Gower Street to Millbank. Dear Stella, devious to the last.

[1] Chris Mullin, “A Spy Like Us,” The Guardian (September 28, 2001). Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/sep/29/biography.highereducation At the time of writing, Chris Mullin was the chairman of the home affairs select committee and MP for Sunderland South.

[2] Wright, Peter (1987) with Paul Greengrass. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of A Senior Intelligence Officer. New York: Viking

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East German Intelligence And Ireland, 1949-90

Title:                      East German Intelligence And Ireland, 1949-90

Author:                 Jérôme aan de Wiel

De Wiel, Jérôme aan (2015). East German Intelligence And Ireland, 1949-90: Espionage, Terrorism And Diplomacy. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press

LCCN:    2015452643

UB271.G35 D43 2015


  • This book examines in depth Ireland’s relations with a country behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, the former East Germany. It is based on extensive research undertaken in Germany and Ireland, especially in the archive of the former Stasi. The first part of the book analyses Irish-East German bilateral relations at political, diplomatic, economic and cultural levels, but as is very clear the Stasi was never too far away. The extraordinary story of the repatriation of the remains of IRA-volunteer Frank Ryan from Dresden to Dublin is related in detail. The second part of the book focuses exclusively on intelligence. It shows the activities of the HVA, the Main Directorate of Foreign Intelligence, and reveals the information obtained and the names of East German agents and sources involved. The onset of the conflict in Northern Ireland caught the attention of the HVA but also of Department HA-XXII in charge of terrorism. HA-XXII monitored the Provisional IRA and the INLA’s campaign against the British Army of the Rhine in West Germany. It obtained its information thanks to moles deep inside the West German security and intelligence services. The PIRA and the INLA’s contacts with West German terrorist groups are examined, so are Soviet and Romanian intelligence activities. This book makes an original contribution to the much neglected area of Ireland’s relations with continental European countries during the twentieth century and also Ireland’s position during the Cold War. It will be of interest to scholars, students, the general public and professionals in the field of intelligence and security. –Provided by publisher.


  • Part 1: Relations Between Ireland and East Germany — History of the relations between Ireland/Northern Ireland and the GDR — Part 2: Intelligence — Stasi history and sources — Keeping informed and spying on Ireland — Northern Ireland in the Zentralen Personendatenbank (ZPDB) — Watching the PIRA, the INLA and BAOR, 1970s-1980s.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • Diplomatic relations.
  • Intelligence service.
  • Germany (East)
  • Ireland.

Date Posted:      October 26, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Review by Derek Scally[2]

This efficient, seemingly thorough trawl through old Stasi files reveals no Irish Kim Philbys–or, for that matter, little real East German interest in Ireland North or South

Sometimes dead men do tell tales, although not always the ones you’d like to hear. That’s the lesson of this engrossing study of East Berlin’s contacts with Ireland until the socialist German state vanished, in 1990.

Although the work carries the racy subtitle Espionage, Terrorism and Diplomacy, Jérôme aan de Wiel doesn’t airbrush the central dilemma of his subject: relations between East Berlin and Dublin were, frankly, not very racy at all.

But this hasn’t compelled aan de Wiel, a Dutch-French lecturer in history at University College Cork, to produce a dusty volume. Instead he frames the book using what one East German dismissed as distasteful “corpse diplomacy”: the farcical, on-again off-again efforts to repatriate the remains of the Irish republican Frank Ryan[3]. The Limerick man fought in the Spanish Civil War on the republican side and moved to Berlin in 1940, where he died of pleurisy four years later.

East Berlin’s appetite for exhuming Ryan’s remains after the war were dealt a blow when it learned of his wartime contacts with the SS. Dublin’s interest in the business was equally low, given its embrace of the Hallstein doctrine[4], which accepted the Bonn administration of the West German federal republic as Ireland’s only legitimate German partner.

This diplomatic stance, combined with limited economic ties, meant that contacts between Ireland and East Germany were kept to a minimum. Even the celebrated playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht was refused permission to visit Dublin in 1953.

After several false starts, however, the repatriation went ahead, in 1979, as a “humanitarian act” and as an East Berlin favor to the Communist Party of Ireland. And, as some in East Berlin hoped, it opened the door to diplomatic ties a year later. The Irish Embassy in The Hague was double-accredited to East Germany; East Berlin’s embassy in London took up duty for Ireland.

Given that just nine years was left on East Germany’s clock, the book shifts its focus to a study of East German interest in Ireland–which began as a low priority, aan de Wiel acknowledges, and diminished still further as time went by.

As he explains, and I can testify, the bulk of Stasi information gathering on Ireland amounts to several folders of yellowing press cuttings. The few intelligence reports that exist are less interesting for their contents, often plagiarized from books, than for their sprinkling of factual and typing errors.

As aan de Wiel relates, Stasi moles at EEC institutions and the Belgian foreign ministry provided information on events in Northern Ireland, although again of a limited quantity and quality. The files reveal no evidence of an Irish Kim Philby selling secrets to East Berlin.

Despite–or rather because of–this lack of revelations, aan de Wiel’s study has a value on two levels. First, he provides an intelligent and timely corrective to competing narratives on the Stasi that have emerged since the East German secret police was wound up, a quarter century ago.

One narrative, egged on by the entertaining Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, presents the Stasi as a pitiless, bloodless bureaucracy, where all-seeing agents with unlimited resources ruined people’s lives.

Another narrative, spun by the foreign intelligence head Markus Wolf and swallowed by many beyond East Germany, presented the Stasi as a secret service like any other. This is also a distortion, given the Stasi’s cruel policy of zersetzen[5]–grinding down ordinary citizens to achieve arbitrary ends, without Stasi officers having to worry about the legal ramifications of their actions.

Given its limitations, the Stasi was an effective intelligence service. But, wielding his academic shears expertly, aan de Wiel trims the service down to size and strips it of lingering mystique. Which leads to the second achievement of his book: what he didn’t find in the 6,000 pages of Stasi files on Ireland, namely evidence that East Berlin had anything more than an observer’s interest in Northern Ireland affairs.

The author does a good job of putting in context contacts of the IRA, both Provisional and Official, with Moscow. He also details how East Berlin monitored the Provisional IRA and INLA campaigns against British army bases in West Germany. But what of the shadowy contacts between Belfast and East Berlin that pop up in many standard works on the Troubles? According to aan de Wiel, many of these works, such as Ed Moloney’s history of the IRA, make claims that are not backed up with evidence.

Was there anything more than provincial vanity to the claims the Stasi saw itself obliged to support a republican campaign against British imperialism? The author says that “not a single sheet proves or even hints that the Stasi assisted the OIRA [Official Irish Republican Army], PIRA [Provisional Irish Republican Army], or INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] by providing either finance or armament”.

That puts the ball back in the court of many journalists, historians and writers in Northern Ireland to produce the evidence that their IRA-Stasi claims are more than wishful thinking.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Derek Scally, “Review: East German Intelligence and Ireland 1949-90,” The Irish Times (January 18, 2015). Accessed at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/review-east-german-intelligence-and-ireland-1949-90-1.2068841 . Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent

[3] [FLW] Frank Ryan (died June 1944) was an Irish politician, journalist, intelligence agent and paramilitary activist. He first came to prominence as an Irish republican activist at University College Dublin and fought for the Irish Republican Army during the Irish Civil War. Ryan fell under the influence of Peadar O’Donnell; an advocate of Marxist-Leninism within Irish republicanism; which saw him break with the IRA and become involved with founding of a new political organization known as the Republican Congress and editing the newspaper associated with it; An Phoblacht. Along with others, Ryan participated in the Spanish Civil War on the Popular Front side, fighting for the Comintern-organized International Brigades (retroactively known as the Connolly Column). After being captured by pro-Nationalist Italians, he was sentenced to death but later granted an “escape” by Franco personally. He was released into the hands of the Abwehr (military intelligence of Germany) and transported to Berlin. Ryan spent the rest of World War II until his 1944 death working as an IRA-Abwehr go-between on operations such as Dove, Whale and Sea Eagle.

[4] [FLW] The Hallstein Doctrine, named after Walter Hallstein, was a key doctrine in the foreign policy of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1955-1970. As usually presented, it prescribed that the Federal Republic would not establish or maintain diplomatic relations with any state that recognized the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

[5] [FLW] Zersetzung (German; variously translated as decomposition, corrosion, undermining, biodegradation or dissolution) is a psychological warfare technique that was first used by Nazi Germany as part of the accusation Wehrkraftzersetzung against political opponents (which typically resulted in death penalties). Decades later, during the Honecker era, the Stasi used the accusation Zersetzung to silence political opponents by repression. The “measures of Zersetzung”, defined in the framework of a directive on police procedures in 1976, were used in the context of so-called “operational procedures” (in German Operative Vorgänge or OV). They replaced the overt terror of the Ulbricht era. The practice of repression in Zersetzung comprised extensive and secret methods of control and psychological manipulation, including personal relationships of the target, for which the Stasi relied on its network of informal collaborators,[2] (in German inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or IM), the State’s power over institutions, and on operational psychology. Using targeted psychological attacks the Stasi tried to deprive a dissident of any chance of a “hostile action”. The use of Zersetzung is well documented due to numerous Stasi files published after East Germany’s Wende. Several thousands or up to 10,000 individuals are estimated to have become victims.

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The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945

Title:                      The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945

Author:                 Wolfgang Neugebauer

Neugebauer, Wolfgang (2014), translated from the German by John Nicholson und Eric Canepa. The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945. Vienna: Edition Steinbauer

LCCN:    2014409221

D802.A9 .N48 2014

Uniform title

LC Subjects


  • Revised and expanded English version of the German edition of 2008.

Date Posted:      October 25, 2017

Review by Martin Malek[1]

The Viennese historian Wolfgang Neugebauer (not to be confused with a German historian of the same name) worked from 1969 in the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes, or DOW) and was from 1983 to 2004 its scientific director. He is also Honorary Professor at the University of Vienna and author of numerous publications on resistance and persecution in Austria from 1934 (when democracy was abolished) to 1945, the justice system and euthanasia during Nazi rule in Austria (1938–45), right-wing extremism in Austria after 1945, the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or FPO) and the history of Austrian Social Democracy. The book under review is based on a translation of Neugebauer’s 2008 book Der österreichische Widerstand, 1938–1945, but several chapters have been revised and expanded.

The film of Adolf Hitler’s speech at Heroes’ Square in central Vienna on 15 March 1938, which over the decades has been shown over and over again, suggested overall support for National Socialism in Austria. There were, however, always different forms of opposition as well, which are covered by this volume in an introduction, 18 sections and a final chapter. Resistance emanated from Communists, Socialists and other leftwing groups; Conservatives and Legitimists; Catholics (with Franz Jagerstatter as an especially noteworthy case), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, etc.; Jews; Austrians in exile; Allied commando operations (at least 10,000 Austrians fought in the Allied armies against Germany); partisans, especially consisting of Carinthian Slovenes; Austrians in the German military (with Carl Szokoll the best known); cross-party groups like the O5, founded in 1944; prisons and concentration camps where tens of thousands of Austrians were detained; and individuals (including well-known help for persecuted Jews and the forbidden listening of Allied radio broadcasts, but also almost unknown resistance to the Nazi euthanasia programme and espionage for the benefit of the Allies). A separate chapter illustrates the repression apparatus in the shape of the Nazi Party, the Gestapo, the concentration camps, the police, the security service, the courts, etc.

Communists, many of which had been (i.e. before 1938) Social Democrats, were dominant in the resistance (cf. pp. 58–9, 81). In no other period of its history, did the – naturally forbidden – Austrian Communist Party, acting undercover, play a more significant role than during Nazi rule (p. 82). The author maintains that Stalin’s crimes give no reason to disregard the communist resistance (p. 114). However, it would have been possible to add at this point that the Communist Party explicitly denounced a post-war reincarnation of Austria as ‘bourgeois-democratic’ republic (as it was established in 1945), but advocated a Soviet political system.

The Holocaust claimed 66,000 lives in Austria. About 9500 Austrians (including those condemned by German military courts) were executed. During the euthanasia programme, between 25,000 and 30,000 people were killed. Furthermore, 9000 Roma were murdered (p. 256). This means that, due to political persecution, roughly 110,000 Austrians were put to death (which would have been augmented by the figures for civilians and soldiers who perished in the war, but they are not the subject of this book).

The author emphasizes that National Socialism, keen erase any kind of Austrian identity, achieved the opposite. This refers especially to political prisoners: “In almost all prisoner accounts we see that the Austrians saw themselves as Austrians and that most of them had a vision of an independent Austria in the future” (section 224). This would have important consequences for the period after 1945, when–in complete contrast to the First Austrian Republic after 1918–the idea of unification with Germany was “dead” and nobody doubted Austria‘s independence and viability.

Overall, this book offers an excellent survey of all forms of resistance against the Nazi regime in Austria, based on archive documents which were collected, evaluated and reviewed over decades. Tiny inaccuracies – for example, the German toponym “Weisrussland” has to be translated as “Belorussia” and not as “White Russia” (p. 209)–by no means change the fact that this volume deserves the widest possible distribution.

[1] Martin Malek, “Austrian and German Studies,” accessed at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0ahUKEwjKw-SwhYzXAhWL3YMKHeDrB5UQFggsMAI&url=http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F0047244116630233i&usg=AOvVaw3GjNQMMCU9AZyg-SciUVpx

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Last Man Out

Title:                      Last Man Out

Author:                 James E. Parker

Parker, James E., Jr. (1996, 2000). Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War. New York : Ballantine Books

LCCN:    00190008

DS559.5 .P35 1996

LC Subjects

Date Updated:  October 24, 2017

A proud veteran who simply did his duty gives an account refreshingly free of cynicism and self-pity. Parker unsentimentally chronicles his love for his country, his fellow soldiers and the Vietnamese people. His account is also the story of a boy becoming a man in a system that would fail to measure up to today’s politically correct standards of consideration for others. Early in the war when Parker signed on, however, it was as close to a pure meritocracy as such a system could be, and it produced competent, caring patriots who, like Parker, did their best to support and defend constitutionally formulated foreign policy objectives. Last Man Out will make readers who served in Vietnam remember the particulars of their training leading up to deployment and those hundreds of forgotten incidents that made up a tour of duty. For those who know the Vietnam War as history, it will help tell the rest of the story. This is an account of a proud veteran who simply did his duty.

There comes a time when old soldiers owe it to posterity to offer a summing up, but it is unusual and refreshing when memoirs appear free of prevailing mythology or self-serving ambition. Parker thinks for himself and tells no “bright shining lies.” The results are thoroughly honest and compelling Vietnam memoirs about uncommon duty in Southeast Asia.

Refreshingly free of cynicism, self-pity and self-aggrandizement, Parker’s candid account of the human dimension of combat belongs on your bookshelf next to other soldierly accounts of honorable duty such as Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young.

There is also a Publisher description for this book. Joseph Cox wrote the above review. Full review at: http://www.thehistorynet.com/reviews/bk_manout.htm.

The author of this book is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), and this review is published on the Association’s website.

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Engineering Communism

Title:                      Engineering Communism

Author:                 Steven T. Usdin

Usdin, Steven T. (2005). Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin And Founded The Soviet Silicon Valley. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

LCCN:    2005015436

UB271.S652 B47 2005


  • Initiation — Washington, spring 1940 — Fort Monmouth, 1940-1942 — Western Electric, 1942-1945 — Sperry Gyroscope, 1946-1948 — Prague, 1950-1955 — Special laboratory 11, 1956-1962 — Zelenograd, the Soviet Silicon Valley, 1962-1965 — Leningrad Design Bureau, 1965-1973 — The minifab, 1975-1990 — The strange case of Iozef (Josef) Berg AKA Joel Barr, 1990-1998.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      October 20, 2017

Review by Robert M. Goldberg[1]

Engineering Communism is an engrossing and quintessential tale of two American immigrants—Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant—using their entrepreneurial skill and inventiveness to create a high tech empire. Except that in this case the arrivistes took their can-do spirit to the Soviet Union after spying against the United States in hopes of creating the worker’s paradise.

In writing what amounts to a dual biography, Steve Usdin—who met Barr in Moscow while writing an article on Soviet-American technology transfer—lets the personality of the two spies shape both the direction and structure of the book. Barr was part of the circle of communists whose outlook and commitment to communism was shaped by conversations, a daily stream of lectures, books and classes held at City College of New York. It was there that Barr would meet the more infamous Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sarant’s and Barr’s paths would cross while working, at all places, for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps.

Risk-taking was clearly part of Barr’s character, as it was with Sarant. It was that trait that probably allowed them to avoid arrest by what appears to be a fumbling FBI. (The agency knew that Barr, Sarant, and Rosenberg were spying but never seemed to connect the dots or acted on the information it had on all three. Sound familiar?) Both Barr and Sarant were more than willing to make a clean break with life in America to build up the Soviet Union’s defense and high-tech industry. Rosenberg was more cautious and less inclined to leave home, and that more than anything else led to his capture.

Incredibly, Barr and Sarant’s story is that of boy makes good. Their Soviet spy handlers give them new identities and new names, Philip Staros and Joseph Berg (a not-so-veiled reference to Barr’s Jewish heritage). The two buck the rigid Soviet bureaucracy and anti-Semitism to create the Soviet equivalent of a skunk works. They were less than interested in holding party meetings at their facility. “Seeking to attract top-level talent, they ignored the unspoken but universally understood rules regarding the employment of Jews”, Usdin writes. They had their own budget, access to anything they wanted in terms of parts and equipment. The result was the components essential to tracking radar needed to launch the Sputnik.

It also launched the creation of Zelenograd, the Silicon Valley, Soviet-style. The goal was to create, design and produce computers that could operate the military might of the socialist paradise. Then-premier Khrushchev was their patron—he built them the city they dreamt of and gave them control over one of the largest budgets of any bureau in the Soviet Union, clearly the largest awarded to anyone who was not a minister or party powerbroker. They lived a bourgeois existence, complete with maids, mistresses, and huge apartments, shopping at stores reserved for party members. And it seemed that their vision of centrally planned computer industry crushing the capitalist competition was to be realized.

But it was not to be. Their dream would drown in what Usdin calls “the swamp that doomed Soviet industry to mediocrity.” Ironically what doomed Berg and Staros was the harsh political edge that centralized planning always possesses and what Berg clearly saw:

The men…responsible for deciding how state funds would be invested were selected for their political reliability, not for their technical knowledge. They reported to men who were even less qualified to make technical decisions, who ultimately reported to the Central Committee, which with a few exceptions was composed of poorly educated political operatives. At the same time, failure was harshly punished…In this environment, there was very little incentive to innovate. Managers who weren’t competent to judge between competing proposals adopted a simple stratagem: invest only in technologies that had already been proven in the West, particularly in the United States.

Ultimately, when Khrushchev was purged from power, Berg and Staros lost their patron, their status, budget and position. Staros died in 1979 bitter and defeated, half regretting he had allowed Berg to convince him to become a spy. A proposal to revolutionize the production of semiconductors—Berg called it the “minifab”—was frustrated time and again until glasnost came and Barr was given funding to complete his work and showcase the process for, ironically, American investors.

With glasnost came the opportunity to return to America and, not unpredictably, some fame as a recently discovered espionage agent associated with Rosenberg. Barr was not immune to the celebrity virus and tried to play it for what it was worth, even hoping to use an interview on ABC’s Nightline to market his semiconductor process. How American.

This is Steve Usdin’s first book and he tells this emotionally and historically complex tale well. Usdin writes crisply and engagingly. And it is refreshing to read a historical biography devoid of cattiness and judgment. Rather, he allows Barr’s and Sarant’s actions to speak for them.

In many respects, Barr is the inverse image of Jay Gatsby the man who moved East from Minnesota, reinvented himself and built a dream world to win a girl. Much like Jay Gatsby, Joel Barr “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” And as Usdin notes, though Barr had to come to grips with his past actions when he returned to America, “the future had always been more attractive for Berg than the past.” So too with Gatsby who “believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Barr moved East as well and then home again. He was loyal to communism but ultimately it was his American capacity for invention and reinventing oneself that allowed him to live out his dreams and his desires.

[1] Robert M. Goldberg, American Spectator (July 11, 2006), accessed at https://spectator.org/46754_engineering-communism-american-style/

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