The Footnote Sleuth
I was born in 1940, one of the worst years in history, when it seemed inevitable that Nazi Germany would conquer the world. Being born into such terrible times may be one of the reasons I became a World War II history buff, but that history has not been writ in stone. Since the late 1980s, when governments began releasing troves of declassified WWII documents, historians have been essentially rewriting much of that history, particularly in books published during the last decade. Needless to say, this new information comes with massive citations. I read some of these books while researching articles for a local newspaper about Bell Labs (later converted into Westbeth Artists Housing, where I live) when it was one of the sites of the top-secret Manhattan Project. I found new information in these books about the scientists who worked here, many of them refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, and I also came upon an intriguing Web site that posts transcriptions of interviews with these scientists when they were finally allowed to talk about their work during the war. (The Bell Labs articles are posted on the portfolio page of this Web site.)
Then, a few days ago, I found a stained, dog-eared copy of A Man Called Intrepid, a WWII history book I’d never heard of, in the “free” pile outside the St. Luke’s Thrift Shop on Hudson Street. Published in 1976, it’s a page-turner, a real-life spy thriller, but I was surprised to find it had no footnotes. I mean, none. The main source of information is the spy himself, Sir William Stephenson, since deceased, code name “Intrepid,” but apparently the book’s lack of citations has prevented it from being considered a reliable source. Some historians dismiss it as the work of a hyperactive imagination. Another reason for its disappearance down one of history’s wormholes may be Stephenson’s revelations about prominent Americans who were either Nazi sympathizers or wanted to do business with Germany at a time when the United States was still neutral and few took seriously the idea of a Nazi fifth column in this country. (According to this book, that was not a threat. It was real.)
Here’s what I find fascinating. As I plow through the dense prose of A Man Called Intrepid, I’m discovering that much of its tantalizingly undocumented information is corroborated in these recently published books! Which is why there are still dishes in the sink from yesterday. . . .
September 13, 2015