The best books on how citizen spies built modern American intelligence in World War II

Who am I?

The defining event in my parents’ lives, World War II has always been in my blood. When I was growing up, it would surface now and again when old comrades came to visit or when we came across souvenirs from the war. My favorite was a carefully etched German map showing sea lanes in the Caribbean, exotic and somehow menacing at the same time. My curiosity piqued, I knew I wanted to be in the thick of history—which meant reading and writing about the war, getting my PhD in history, and becoming a Marine and an intelligence officer.  


I wrote...

Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence

By Nicholas Reynolds,

Book cover of Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence

What is my book about?

Need to Know is the first comprehensive history of the rise of modern American intelligence. It looks not at one activity but at a broad range of activities, from codebreaking and law enforcement to espionage and guerrilla warfare, from the halls of government in Washington to the jungles of Burma and the sands of Normandy, from June 1940 to January 1946. Detailed yet readable, it shows how the community surged from a handful of cottage industries into the robust services that helped win World War II—and not least set the stage for intelligence in the Cold War. The story is told through the eyes of the men—and women—immersed in wartime drama. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Codebreakers: The Story Of Secret Writing

Nicholas Reynolds Why did I love this book?

David was a pioneer. Before Codebreakers there was next to nothing in print about codebreaking. Focused on World War II, he introduced a generation of readers to a secret realm, inviting us to look behind the big green door for the first time. This generous and loyal friend alerted me to the need for comprehensive overview of American intelligence in World War II.

By David Kahn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Codebreakers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Codebreaking is the most important form of secret intelligence in the world. It produces much more and more trustworthy information than spies, and this intelligence exerts great influences upon the policies of governments.


Book cover of For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush

Nicholas Reynolds Why did I love this book?

This is another groundbreaking book, but from the White House perspective. Broader in scope, For the President’s Eyes Only is another work that is both scholarly and readable. It may be the single best book on American intelligence, valuable as an introduction or an overview. Not unlike David Kahn, Christopher Andrew did much to invent the field of intelligence history—and to welcome scholars and practitioners (including yours truly) into the field.

By Christopher Andrew,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked For the President's Eyes Only as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the co-author of KGB: The Inside Story and an acknowledged authority on the subject comes "the most important book ever written about American intelligence."--David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and Hitler's Spies


Book cover of The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945

Nicholas Reynolds Why did I love this book?

An amazing storyteller and unrivalled expert on World War II, Sir Max is best in class when it comes to combining the big and little pictures. He renders pithy judgments on thorny subjects. This may be the best overview of intelligence from east to west, north to south in World War II. Again like David Kahn and Christopher Andrew, Sir Max is generous to fellow writers and gracious to readers. I remember a talk at a Washington, DC bookstore to which a reader brought a stack of Hastings books—perhaps 10 or so—for his autograph. Sir Max did not hesitate, cheerfully reaching for his pen.

By Max Hastings,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Secret War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'As gripping as any spy thriller, Hastings's achievement is especially impressive, for he has produced the best single volume yet written on the subject' Sunday Times

'Authoritative, exciting and notably well written' Daily Telegraph

'A serious work of rigourous and comprehensive history ... royally entertaining and readable' Mail on Sunday

In The Secret War, Max Hastings presents a worldwide cast of characters and extraordinary sagas of intelligence and Resistance to create a new perspective on the greatest conflict in history. The book links tales of high courage ashore, at sea and in the air to the work of the brilliant…


Book cover of Wartime Washington: The Secret OSS Journal of James Grafton Rogers, 1942-1943

Nicholas Reynolds Why did I love this book?

Memoirs and diaries open doors to the past. I cherish this obscure book because it is by a man who sat in the wheelhouse of American intelligence in wartime Washington. He was both insider—part of the ruling elite—and outsider—an independent westerner. Rogers was a perceptive observer who religiously recorded events and impressions as they occurred, which makes this book even more valuable. He lets the reader feel what it was like in the nation’s capital, and doesn’t spare the high and mighty when they transgress the bounds of common sense. The descriptions of the OSS leadership alone are worth the price of admission.

Book cover of A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior

Nicholas Reynolds Why did I love this book?

Biography, especially this riveting biography, is a great way to learn about intelligence in World War II. Bradley looks into dark corners to uncover the almost unbelievable truth about a Soviet spy in the front office of American spy chief William J. Donovan. Like James Grafton Rogers, Bradley tells us what it was like to live and work in Washington during World War II—but with another layer of intrigue and, yes, treachery. 75 years after the fact we tend to forget that a group of privileged Americans like Lee—a Rhodes Scholar and Wall Street lawyer distantly related to Robert E. Leen—once thought that communism might be a viable alternative to capitalism and the economic misery of the depression.

By Mark A. Bradley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Very Principled Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Duncan Chaplin Lee was a Rhodes Scholar, patriot, and descendent of one of America's most distinguished families,and possibly the best-placed mole ever to infiltrate U.S. intelligence operations. In A Very Principled Boy intelligence expert and former CIA officer Mark A. Bradley traces the tangled roots of Lee's betrayal and reveals his harrowing struggle to stay one step ahead of America's spy hunters during and after World War II.Exposed to leftist politics while studying at Oxford, Lee became a committed, albeit covert, member of the Communist Party. After following William Wild Bill" Donovan to the newly formed Office of Strategic Services,…


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