Short history of spies given at Wilton library

WILTON – Mata Hari was a bad spy. What she did had little effect on the outcome of World War I, yet her name now means a woman who uses her charms to obtain information.
Nathan Hale was an untrained amateur who made a lot of mistakes. But he has more statutes – 12 – than any other spy.

“All nations employ spies, or intelligence services, and always have,” history professor Douglas Wheeler told a large and appreciative audience at the Gregg Free-Wilton Public Library on April 1. “And it is a lot harder to keep secrets now, in this technical age, than it was during World War II.”

Wheeler is retired from the University of New Hampshire and is now a speaker with the N.H. Humanities Council’s Humanities-to-Go program. The program was co-sponsored by The Friends of the Library.

Quoting one of his historical heroes, British Admiral William Hall who was in charge of intelligence in World War I, Wheeler said, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Intelligence may be important enough to not need the weapons.”

Wheeler focused on three events to discuss the importance of acquiring information, the use and breaking of codes, and communications: the Zimmerman Telegram which forced the U.S. into World War I, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The Zimmerman Telegram was sent from Germany to Mexico, intercepted and decoded by the British and then conveniently leaked to President Wilson. The telegram was an offer to the neutral Mexico. If Mexico would side with them, when and if the U.S. entered the war, they promised Mexico would get back Arizona and New Mexico.

“This is the best documented case of World War I,” Wheeler said. The telegram was sent in a number code, each word represented by a series of three to five numbers, and it took British intelligence some time to decode it.

Prior to World War II, Wheeler said, Germany perfected the Enigma Machine, a forerunner of the computer, which was used to send coded radio messages. It resembled a typewriter but had more than 17,000 settings for each of 60 possible wheel orders. It was refined and varied through 1945. The Germans were so confident of their secrecy they did not realize until too late that the British had learned to decode the messages, a discovery estimated to have shortened the war by two years..

As to the “ultra secret” attack on Pearl Harbor, he asked, “How could we be surprised when we were breaking their codes? Because information wasn’t being shared among departments.” Although we intercepted many Japanese messages, “we weren’t getting the ones with the invasion information.”

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was U.S. educated and knew the country, and there was a Japanese spy in Pearl Harbor for years, studying the weather, the harbor and the people. Both men advised against the war as being unwinnable.

“There are conspiracy theories out there about President Roosevelt knowing ahead of time,” Wheeler said, “but there is no evidence to support that.”

In 1962, at the height of the cold war with Russia, “We knew something was obviously going on in Cuba. The Bay of Pigs fiasco had frightened Cuba and Castro turned to Russia for help.”

The Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev had his own worries in Berlin and NATO missiles on the Russian-Turkish border and was looking for a way to neutralize world conditions. He agreed to arm Cuba with nuclear missiles.

The U.S. developed the U-2 spy plane, Wheeler said, which showed us what was going on and a blockade of Cuba was ordered. Krushchev backed down,.

The spy business has changed, Wheeler said. “With so many private contractors out there like Edward Snowden,” and all of the social media available, it is harder to keep secrets.

The library’s next program is “World War II in New Hampshire,” presented by John Gfroerer at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16. Programs are free and open to the public.