Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How Intelligence Becomes Policy

Susan McCall Perlman

For four decades now, historians have lamented intelligence as the “missing dimension” of diplomatic history and international relations, the lack of relevance afforded “long-term intelligence experience to current policy,” and the consequent dearth of sophisticated analyses of how intelligence influences relations between states.[1] My book, Contesting France: Intelligence and US Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War, seeks to address this void by examining the genesis of American perceptions of France through focus on the intelligence that drove US responses to the crisis in France at the end of the Second World War, when communists seemed poised to seize power. Those perceptions—namely that France was a weak and unreliable ally imperiled by a communist threat at home and in its overseas empire—encouraged American intervention in French affairs in the decades to come and shaped Franco-American relations for the rest of the century.

I spent several years in French and US archives coding and analyzing U.S. intelligence on France alongside the traditional diplomatic record, and with an eye to French responses to US activity and policy for France and her empire. In the process, I reconstructed a web of transnational sources and the transimperial circuits through which their information flowed, and, ultimately, traced their influence on policy in important, yet previously unrecognized ways. The results of this pain-staking effort were startling, and disruptive to some of what we have for years assumed about Franco-American relations during this period.

So how does intelligence become policy? It starts with a source. It turns out that much of the intelligence filtering in from the metropole and the empire was actually the product of a web of conservative, anti-communist sources, some with royalist or fascist sympathies, but all with a desire to shape US policy to their ends. Some of the sources were outright fabricators or intelligence merchants. One particularly prolific Belgian source’s reports were later dismissed as “une affaire rocambolesque,” pure fantasy. It also turns out that US intelligence had no sources inside communist party organizations, nor any plans to cultivate them. Instead, they relied on those contacts with whom they shared ideological and financial affinities. It also depends on the perspective and narrative that prevail. My research also revealed that this image of France was actually deeply contested by US intelligence officers, especially those in Office of Strategic Services who were more steeped in French culture and history and whose sources represented a more liberal, pro-Gaullist milieu. These analysts viewed France as a reliable, worthy ally and understood the appeal of communism in society ravaged by war and material depredation. Ultimately, though, the weakness narrative prevailed, despite the fact that the intelligence behind it pointing to an imminent and existential threat was largely unproven. It dominated because the factions behind it were better placed, they successfully played to American fears of communism, and their American interlocutors enjoyed more access in the Truman administration. The intelligence was overblown, part of a campaign to encourage intervention in the affairs of America’s oldest ally. French officials, for their part, privately noted that rumors of communist conspiracies deformed images of France. What is remarkable is that this influence, through intelligence, has gone largely unnoticed and unaccounted for.

While focused on a particular episode in Franco-American relations, this book also suggests ways in which intelligence might be applied more broadly to other cases and more systematically to the study of foreign relations. Recognizing the role that emotions play in the making of foreign policy, Contesting France borrows key insights from the history of emotions to help explain the influence of intelligence in American perceptions of France. Eighty years on, despite the advances in tradecraft and the ubiquity of artificial intelligence and big data—subsequent episodes have demonstrated that the dynamics that govern those essential human interactions at the profession’s core persist. At the same time, focus on the state actors present in the traditional diplomatic record obscures the vital role played by transnational and transimperial actors and factions with agendas, and focus on the official obscures key aspects of important relationships that play out in informal exchanges and methods of pressure. These sub-currents of factional jockeying and influence are worth revisiting because they remain relevant today.

[1] Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century (London: Palgrave, 1984); Andrew, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 738.

Contesting France By Susan McCall Perlman

About The Author

Susan McCall Perlman

Susan McCall Perlman is Professor of Intelligence Studies and History at the National Intelligence University in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed are solely those of the auth...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!