From a historian’s perspective, it’s easy to see how the stresses and strains between nations lead to the outbreak of war. But what about at the time? What was known? What was missed? President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted answers to these questions, but who could he ask? Who were the proverbial weathermen that could forecast the typhoons that hurled the world into chaos?
President Roosevelt turned to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox for answers. Roosevelt asked Knox to gather all the naval attaché reports and dispatches from key foreign cities going back to January 1937. He wanted the search to include reports and dispatches from London, Paris, Brussels, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, and Tokyo. The President asked for reports from Bulgaria and Austria too, but there were not any naval attachés there during the specified period.
The reports and dispatches were compiled into a series of records, which was later microfilmed as National Archives Publication M975: Selected Naval Attaché Reports Relating to the World Crisis, 1937-1943. It is a small three-reel collection.
The documents that were microfilmed are stamped with various classification markings from Secret to Restricted. These documents have been declassified under declassification authority - DECLASSIFIED, E.O. 11652, Sec. 3(E) and 5(D) or (E), NND 730043, and researchers may make copies of the documents.
The reports are arranged in two subseries: “Estimate of Potential Military Strength” and “Probability of an Outbreak of War.” They are further arranged by post of attaché, and thereunder chronologically and numbered consecutively. Letter symbols have been employed to identify the post from which the reports originated. The symbols used for the “Estimate of Potential Military Strength” are:
The symbols used for the “Probability of an Outbreak of War” subseries are:
There are several volumes of reports and dispatches for each city.
Preceding each group is a summary that includes excerpts and abstracts of the reports with letter and number notes written in the margins, which correspond to the report or dispatch that it was taken from. For example, K-2-77 indicates the 77th Report in the 2nd Volume from Rome (K) from the subseries “Probability of an Outbreak of War.” There is sometimes a number in parentheses indicating a page number from a report.
The information discussed in the reports varies from post to post. For example, the Berlin reports include U-Boat development and the success of overtaking parts of Czechoslovakia, the London reports cover the expansion of British Forces and preparations for shifting of power in Europe, and the Tokyo reports include strategic Japanese plans for China and the expansion of the Japanese military and naval forces.
These reports were a selection made by Secretary Knox, but more context can be found through further research. Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations includes additional bodies of naval attaché intelligence reports both at the National Archives in Washington, DC (in Entry NM-63 98 for the period of 1900 to 1939) and the National Archives in College Park (in Entries A1 98-A and A1 98-B for the period of 1940 to 1946). The index to the naval attaché files at the National Archives in College Park has been microfilmed in NARA Publication M1332, which also has been digitized, and will be the subject of a future History Hub blog. In addition to the naval attaché reports, there are several series of monograph files relating to Germany, Japan, and other countries. The monograph files are basically the Office of Naval Intelligence’s vertical files, where articles, reports, and other printed material were collected and sorted into subjects like functions of the government, and army and navy of a particular country. Another resource is the two series of administrative files for the Office of Naval Intelligence (Entries UD 84 and A1 85), which have inclusive dates that start before the war, but the bulk dates are the war period. These administrative files are arranged according to the Navy Filing Manual (4th Edition, 1941).
Despite myriad signs, changes in the wind, and the scent of the coming storm, no one was able to predict what would spark World War II. The naval attachés knew about their individual areas, but could only make guesses as to what their future would hold. The storm would not arrive until the first drop of rain and the first rumble of thunder, which was no longer in the distance, but in the here and now.