Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
22 June 2020
Review by Rich McGaha, Seattle University
The Hidden War in Argentina: British and American Espionage in World War II
By Panagiotis Dimitrakis
New York: I.B. Tauris, 2019. Pp. xii, 251. ISBN 978–1–78831–341–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 20th Century, World War II, Espionage Print Version

In The Hidden War in Argentina, the prolific intelligence historian Panagiotis Dimitrakis provides welcome new insights into intelligence activities in Argentina during World War II. His thesis is that

no spymaster was ready for the war; they all rushed into the game of espionage without real experience or expertise in foreign intelligence (and particularly in a South American country) and without an established network of informers. All spies learned the ropes of espionage on their missions while trying to evade Argentine police and security services. The spymasters had to conclude their own training in tradecraft and spies' recruitment and management. After all, espionage is mainly an art and someone has to have talent to rise to the challenge of operating in a foreign hostile environment where the local authorities with their vast numbers of informers and experienced police officers outnumber all foreign spies. This book shows that of all intelligence agencies, it was MI6 which achieved the most coups, shadowing their German rivals and identifying their collaborators and their activities. Indeed, German spies in their contemporary reports rated the efficiency of their British rivals in Argentina very highly. (3–4)

Despite its title, the book concerns German as well as British and American diplomatic and intelligence activities in Argentina.

The volume's fourteen chapters center on specific persons or events. This approach helps readers keep track of the myriad events going on concurrently. The author's excavation of British and American archives for documents pertinent to espionage in Argentina produces new revelations. For instance, a chapter on the German warship Graf Spee explains how the British, through a Uruguayan intermediary, secretly purchased the wreckage of the scuttled vessel in order to analyze German naval technology (47–62). A chapter clarifying the place of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas in British diplomacy with Argentina surprisingly concludes that the British feared a Japanese occupation of the islands more than an Argentine one (63).

The reader also learns in detail about competitions between the various Allied agencies attempting to gather intelligence in Argentina and Latin America as a whole, not only between the British and the Americans, but also between various US government agencies such as the US Army's Military Intelligence Division (MID) and the FBI's Special Intelligence Service (SIS). The MID set up the American Intelligence Command for Latin America specifically to compete with the SIS. Moreover, the US military attaché in Argentina was openly hostile to the SIS and refused to coordinate with them. This rivalry even resulted in the transfer of an SIS agent from Brazil after a US Naval officer exposed his identity (102–3).

Dimitrakis does, however, have some biases. In comparing the efficacy of British and US intelligence efforts, he portrays the British as either extremely professional or cool-headed laypersons and the Americans, especially the SIS, as rank amateurs. He fails here to take account of the fact that the Americans had to set up most of their intelligence organizations from scratch, while the British had a thirty-year head start. And, too, the United States had only a very distant relationship with Argentina, while the British had been doing business there for over sixty years. Indeed, British business interests in the country were so extensive that Argentina was (albeit informally) considered part of the British Empire.[1]

While Dimitrakis is most enlightening on the actions and goals of the Allies, his analysis of German motives is the weakest part of the book. His chapter on Walter Schellenberg, head of Office VI, SS Foreign Intelligence, relies heavily on his memoirs and postwar responses to Allied interrogation, both of which are disingenuous and self-serving.[2] Katrin Paehler has argued that Schellenberg's ultimate ambition was to become Foreign Minister and that he used Office VI to further that goal.[3] I have argued elsewhere[4] that the so-called "Hellmuth Affair," detailed in chap. 11, must be seen in the context of Schellenberg's desire to unseat Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The Hidden War in Argentina contains revelations that will interest and instruct students and specialists alike. But its assessment of German motives lacks due attention to the ideological context of the Third Reich's intelligence services and decisions made by Office VI. Even so, used in conjunction with other studies of the subject, Panagiotis Dimitrakis's book fills serious gaps in our knowledge of the hidden struggle for intelligence in Argentina during the Second World War.

[1] For US relations with Argentina, see David M.K. Sheinin, Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained (Athens: U Georgia Pr, 2006), and Joseph Tulchin, Argentina and the United States: A Conflicted Relationship (NY: Twayne, 1990). For the British in Argentina, see esp. Gordon Bridger, Great Britain and the Making of Argentina (Southampton: WIT Pr, 2012), and David Rock, The British in Argentina: Commerce, Settlers and Power 1800–2000 (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

[2] See Reinhard Doerries and Katrin Paehler, The Labyrinth: Memoirs of Walter Schellenberg, Hitler's Chief of Counterintelligence (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2000), and Doerries, Hitler's Last Chief of Foreign Intelligence: The Allied Interrogations of Walter Schellenberg (NY: Routledge, 2003).

[3] The Third Reich's Intelligence Services: The Career of Walter Schellenberg (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2017)—see chap. 7 on Schellenberg's machinations against Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

[4] "The Politics of Espionage: Nazi Diplomats and Spies in Argentina, 1933–1945" (diss.: Ohio Univ., 2009) chap. 7.

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