The Scarlet Thread

Title:                      The Scarlet Thread

Author:                 Donald Downes

Downes, Donald (1953). The Scarlet Thread: Adventures in Wartime Espionage. London: Derek Vershoyle

LCCN:    53038119

D810.S8 D6


Date Updated:  February 22, 2017

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Two things distinguish Downes’ The Scarlet Thread. It is one of the first works by an intelligence officer (OSS in World War II) to express disenchantment with U.S. policy. It is also rare because it is the personal reminiscence of an American who admittedly served in British intelligence before Pearl Harbor. Among the locations at which he served while with OSS were Italy and North Africa. He was connected with the ill-fated team sent to Spain to collect intelligence, which The Secret War Report of the OSS[2] characterized as the largest OSS blunder of the war. Downes writes with feeling of many of the intelligence and non-intelligence events in his career. He tells many stories of intelligence interest: of surreptitious entries to acquire the codes of Vichy France and of some neutrals: of the feuding of OSS and the FBI; of operations both successful and unsuccessful abroad. His description of the FBI’s attitude toward and treatment of OSS assets turned over to them reads amazingly like the experiences of Dusko Popov and reveals J. Edgar Hoover’s attitude toward spies, known only to a few when the book was published. Downes’ account is partisan and cannot be relied on completely for accuracy. For example, he writes that Hoover and the FBI did everything possible to obstruct and embarrass British Intelligence in the United States before Pearl Harbor. This is a limited view and does not accurately describe the entire relationship between the two. For more views of Downes’ work with OSS in Africa and Italy, see R. Harris Smith’s OSS[3] and Cave Brown’s editorial comments in The Secret War Report of the OSS [referenced below.]. There is a brief mention of Downes in Troy’s Donovan and the CIA[4].

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[5]

The recollections of a New England school teacher who in 1939 turned to espionage for the British in the Near East, and after Pearl Harbor joined the OSS. His activities in North Africa and in Italy are described along with his duties as a trainer of agents. While with the OSS in Washington he successfully entered neutral embassies in order to secure information and codes. He is severely critical of the FBI regarding its policy to retain intelligence and counterintelligence in the Western Hemisphere as its own private hunting preserve and to bring pressure-to bear on the other American intelligence agencies to refrain from poaching. The book was first accepted and then turned down by three American publishers because of these criticisms and other revelations. It is possibly the first “politically sensitive” book on intelligence—something that became quite ordinary by the 1970s.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 166

[2] Cave Brown, Anthony (1976) ed. The Secret War Report of The OSS. New York: Berkley

[3] Smith, R. Harris (2005). OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press

[4] Troy, Thomas F. (1981). Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency. Frederick, MD: Aletheia Books

[5] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., pp. 207-208


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One Response to The Scarlet Thread

  1. Pingback: OSS—The U.S. Office of Strategic Service, Chapter 18 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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