Office of Strategic Services

The United States' first central intelligence agency

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the United States’ first central intelligence agency. Created to provide intelligence during World War II, the OSS only existed from June 1942 until October 1945. Many European émigrés found a role within the OSS (and particularly within the Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch) aiding in the war effort of their adopted homeland. R&A utilized academics, particularly economists, sociologists, historians, geographers and political scientists, to conduct its intelligence. Due to their scholarly and regional expertise, a number of émigré social scientists made important contributions to the intelligence work of the OSS during World War II. In particular, the Central European Section utilized German-born scholars to improve the United States’ understanding of Nazi Germany and to create strategies for the postwar period. The OSS played a vital role in helping to shape American perspectives on Europe during this era.

Creation of the OSS and Involvement of European Immigrants

The office was a product of the war and America’s growing global engagement. The immediate precursor to the OSS was the Coordinator of Information (COI), a new, civilian office created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1941 to improve the coordination of U.S. intelligence. The COI was tasked with collecting and analyzing information relevant to national security. Academics, lawyers, and businesspeople with international experience were recruited to the new agency. William Donovan, the director of COI, made research an important component of the agency’s intelligence work, establishing a Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch and cooperating with the Librarian of Congress.

Following the United States’ entry into WWII, gaining “insider” perspectives into European and other foreign societies became essential. The COI was divided into two components – the Office of War Information (OWI) and the OSS. Donovan, who became the head of the OSS, sent intelligence units to every theater of war, but one of most crucial components of the OSS was the R&A Branch. Approximately 900 scholars from the humanities and social sciences comprised the staff of R&A, which was headed by Harvard historian William Langer. Although it was not always easy for the academics to adjust to working within a large, governmental bureaucracy, these scholars brought with them an expertise that military intelligence personnel lacked, namely the ability to evaluate and analyze data using social science methodologies.

Regional linguistic and cultural knowledge was also particularly useful in analyzing information on the war in Europe. This made prominent émigré scholars particularly attractive as analysts. Although the OSS was initially hesitant to employ “enemy aliens,” the technical and regional expertise of these scholars was invaluable to the agency’s intelligence work.

One of the first émigrés recruited to R&A was German political scientist Franz Neumann, who started work in February 1943, after efforts were made by the OSS to expedite his naturalization. A prominent scholar of the Frankfurt School, Neumann had recently published Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, a groundbreaking analysis of the National Socialist state. He was therefore deemed an essential addition to the Central European Section of R&A, which was tasked with analyzing the capabilities and intentions of Nazi Germany.

Neumann was soon joined in the Central European Section by other German émigrés. Among these scholars were Neumann’s former colleagues Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer from the Institute for Social Research; political scientist and lawyer John Herz from Howard University; art historian Richard Krautheimer from Vassar; historians Felix Gilbert and Hajo Holborn from Yale; and philosopher Hans Meyerhoff, who had joined the federal government immediately after receiving his PhD from UCLA in 1942. In addition to the Senior Analysts of R&A, other immigrant scholars were recruited as short-term consultants for special projects. Other divisions within R&A also made use of émigré experts. For example, Russian-born economists Paul Baran and Wassily Leontief joined the USSR Subdivision, and German-born economist Walter Levy was section chief of the Enemy Oil Committee.

Impact and Legacy

The most significant contributions of the exile scholars of the Central European Section can be divided into three categories. First, the analysts produced a series of reports analyzing Nazi Germany. Using news reports and radio broadcasts from Germany, cables from OSS’ European offices, information gleaned from POW interrogations, and published materials held at the Library of Congress they analyzed the cultural, economic, social, and political structures of National Socialism. By doing so, they were able to fill the void that had previously existed in US intelligence on Germany. The analysis developed during this period also played an important role in postwar planning and in the preparations for the Nuremburg Trials.

Second, at the request of the War Department, R&A developed plans for the postwar period, including American military occupation and the denazification of Germany. Throughout most of 1944, the Central European Section focused on compiling background information for use by the American Military Government. They also wrote a series of Civil Affairs Guides, designed to aid Military Government personnel in practical matters ranging from administrative and legal affairs to dealing with potential violent backlash from Nazi Party members.

Finally, R&A reports prepared by the Central European Section played a major role in helping the prosecution prepare for the Nuremburg Trials. The analysts provided the legal team with important evidence and supervised the preparation of the final trial briefs. They prepared extensive documentation on the Nazis’ internal terror and aggressive international expansion, and wrote detailed briefs on Himmler, Goering, and on the Nazi organizations involved in war crimes. The Central European Section helped prepare “the most legally innovative parts of the war crimes prosecution strategy, such as the case against Nazi organizations” (Salter, 629; see also R&A 3113).

Neumann’s theory of National Socialism is one example of the profound influence émigrés had on these reports, and accordingly on the structure of the case against the Nazis. In particular, his “spearhead theory” of Nazi anti-Semitism shaped the manner in which prosecutors in Nuremberg addressed the persecution of the Jews. This theory suggests that the Nazis’ anti-Semitism was not an end in itself, but only one aspect of a program of repression and totalitarian control. Persecution against the Jews was used to test genocidal methods, which could then be put into practice against dissidents and nonconformists throughout Europe. Evidence of Neumann’s terminology is present in Justice Jackson’s opening speech to the International Military Tribunal (Salter, 581-589) as well as in many of the final trial briefs.

The OSS played a formative role for subsequent US perspectives on postwar Europe and was a central institution for integrating European émigrés into networks of American academia and of transatlantic policy making.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Office of Strategic Services
  • Author
  • Keywords OSS, office of strategic services, intelligence, research and analysis, central european section, transatlantic relations, world war II, social sciences
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date April 15, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 29, 2018