The Big Leak

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Agents hurried to Nebraska, the general’s home state, to investigate his German origins. They were somewhat befuddled to discover his German-born grandfather had fought for the Confederacy. His Irish-American mother was interrogated and called him long distance to ask him what in the world he had done. She thought he was in danger of being shot at sunrise. General Wedemeyer smiles when he tells the story now, but in 1941 he found nothing about his ordeal amusing.

Wedemeyer was not the only officer discomfited. The FBI reported that an Army Air Corps major, who knew Charles A. Lindbergh, sweated profusely, blundered into bad grammar, and displayed other signs of extreme nervousness. “It appears definite that [he] has been involved in some War Department politicing [sic] or sculduggery [sic] about which he is considerably worried,” the agent concluded.

Meanwhile the White House was reacting to the leak in several ways. Although FDR “approved” Secretary of War Stimson’s statement, the President refused to discuss the matter at a press conference on December 5. But he allowed reporters to question his press secretary, Stephen Early, who claimed he was not in a position to confirm or deny the authenticity of the Tribune ’s story. Early blandly commented that it was customary for both the Army and the Navy to concoct war plans for all possible emergencies. Sensing that this was an absurd way to describe Rainbow Five, which included the President’s letter ordering its preparation, Early stumbled on to comment that it was also customary to ask the President’s permission to publish one of his letters.

The press secretary undercut himself again by admitting that this was an official, not a personal, letter, hence a public document. Then he lamely pointed out that the President’s letter made no mention of an expeditionary force—although the report called for seven million tons of shipping and a thousand ships to bring five million men to Europe.

On only one topic did Early seem forthright. He said that the newspapers were “operating as a free press” and had a perfect right to print the material, “assuming the story to be genuine.” It was the government’s responsibility to keep the report secret. Almost in the same breath he added that other papers were free to print the story, too, depending on whether they thought such a decision was “patriotic or treason.”

Obviously Early was practicing what contemporary Washington calls “damage control.” After his histrionics with Major Wedemeyer, John McCloy coolly informed Clarence Cannon, the head of the House Appropriations Committee, and John Taber, the ranking House Republican, that there were no plans for an American expeditionary force. They brought this assurance back to their colleagues; Cannon declared the whole story, which he implied was fictitious, was designed to wreck the appropriations bill. The next day the House voted the more than eight billion dollars to enlarge the Army to two million men.

In his diary Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes recorded his outrage at the Manly story. At a cabinet meeting on December 6, Ickes urged the President to punish the Tribune and the Times Herald . Attorney General Francis Biddle said he thought they could be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. Ickes recorded his bafflement that Roosevelt, although apparently angry, showed no real interest in prosecuting the Tribune .

Roosevelt was not motivated by any idealistic opinions about the First Amendment. Later, in June 1942, when a Tribune reporter printed certain censored details about the Battle of Midway, the President ordered Biddle to prosecute, and the Attorney General did so, even though he later admitted the case was so weak that “I felt like a fool.” A grand jury was convened in Chicago to take up the Midway case, and the FBI at that time contributed more than a thousand pages of materials it had gathered on the Victory Program leak with a suggestion that the jury investigate it as well. In the middle of the hearings, the government dropped the entire case.

In other branches of the government, the reaction to the big leak was quite different. Far from exhibiting the slightest embarrassment, the Office of War Information decided to send the story abroad by shortwave radio as proof of America’s determination to defeat the Axis powers. The British, hanging on by their fingernails against German air and submarine offensives, headlined it in their newspapers as a beacon of hope.

On December 7, 1941, the question of Rainbow Five’s impact on American politics became moot. Japanese planes swooped out of the dawn sky to devastate the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Victory Program had envisaged devoting almost all of America’s military strength to defeating Hitler. Japan, in that scenario, was to be handled by defensive strategies short of war. This posture reflected the perceived danger of a German victory over Russia and Great Britain if the United States did not intervene swiftly.