|Richard Sorge in 1940|
Today is the 70th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that brought America into the second world war*, which, in turn, meant that
- there was no way that Japan would attack Russia in the Far East;
- Britain was getting America as an ally against Hitler and was going to war against Japan;
- Germany and Italy were to go to war against America;
- Russia (Soviet Union) was positioned as an Ally of both the USA and Britain;
- and, perhaps most importantly, the strategic odds in the world at war were tipping against Germany.
Tragic as it was, Pearl Harbor marked a turning point in the war, one of the most important in the chain of events that lead to the Allied victory in 1945.
There is one man who may have been the hero, or anti-hero, depending on how you look at the events, of Pearl Harbor. His name is Richard Sorge (Ree-khard Zohr-gheh), a Soviet spymaster, who ran a secret intelligence network in Tokyo working for the Red Army general staff. He was arrested by the Japanese in October 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but before that he is generally credited with providing Moscow with three crucial bits of information:
- In the first half of 1941 he passed on details of Hitler's imminent attack on Russia, until then a de-facto ally of Germany, including the exact or almost exact date of the invasion. That report was dismissed by Stalin.
- Later in the year he reported to Moscow that Japan will not attack Russia in the Far East. This time Stalin listened and the Red Army was allowed to move 26 fully equipped, winter-ready and battle-wise divisions from the Far East and Siberia to Moscow. The Russian counter-attack began on 5 December 1941, two days before Pearl Harbor. Hitler's army was pushed back.
- Sorge also reported that Japan was about to strike South, against America and Britain.
Articles and books about Sorge concentrate on the intelligence he collected and passed on. What still may not be fully understood is his work as an agent of influence. Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor was the result of fierce infighting between several political and military factions in Tokyo, notably the Army and the Navy. The Navy saw little glory for themselves in concentrating on land expansion. Sorge through his contacts, some high-placed, may have played an important role in swaying the balance towards attacking America.
This last bit was investigated by the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951 with a view of uncovering red spies who may have helped to catch America 'with her pants down' at Pearl Harbor. They concentrated on how the attack helped the Russians, but did not look into the possible links to British intelligence, in Japan and in the USA. Britain stood to profit from the American entry into the war, but neither in 1941, nor in 1951 could admit to have covertly worked to engineer such entry.
Sorge was working undercover as a correspondent for several German newspapers. Earlier he joined the nazi party to facilitate his intelligence work. In Tokyo he was well-known on the society circuit and knew everyone who mattered, including the British who still were not at war with Japan. The spy writer Chapman Pincher (wiki) in his book 'Their Trade is Treachery' asserted that Sorge recruited Roger Hollis, the future head of MI-5 in 1930s in China (wiki). This has never been proven, but still can be taken as evidence of Sorge's activity involving the British.
What distinguishes spies of that era is that many of them, like Philby, were politically motivated intellectuals who thought that working for Russia was working against nazism. In the case of Sorge, whose mother was Russian and father German, there may have been both a patriotic and an internationalist motive. In his mind he may have been serving both his home countries, Germany and Russia, when he worked for the defeat of the nazis and the victory of the Allies, and ultimately of democracy.
I find it difficult to write this, but the fact remains, Pearl Harbor, with all its human loss, silenced isolationists in America and lead to her joining the fight on the 'right side', the side of democracies.
Soviets, being on the winning side, did impose their regime on Eastern Europe. But millions of Russian soldiers, having marched through Europe, returned home with first-hand experience of the higher standards of living and a bug of democracy – at least some notion of the West's democratic ways – and a desire for a better life. One of them was a political commissar named Nikita Khrushchev. Twenty years after Sorge's execution, the leader of the Soviet Union Khrushchev saw the French film 'Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge?', checked with his spy bosses and outed Sorge who until then was not recognised by Russia as one of her spies. Moscow refused Japan's offers of trading him for their own spies and it is still not entirely clear why. 'Because that would mean admitting that it was us who turned Japan against America', one Russian academic told me in the 80s.
Or perhaps it was to cover Sorge's links in the US and Britain, still active many years after the war ended.
In 1964 on Khrushchev's initiative Sorge was awarded medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the country's highest decoration.
The film Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? (dubbed in Russian) is available on YouTube. It is based on the book by Hans-Otto Meissner 'The Man with Three Faces: Sorge, Russia's Master Spy'. The Russian text is here.
Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)
*WWII or World War II is Henry Luce's invention to which I strongly object and try never use it. Wars don't deserve to have royal names.
Check this chronology if you are interested in who went to war against whom when on whose side.