Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Edward Bancroft, or, Most Spying is Useless

Edward Bancroft was probably the most successful spy of the American Revolution. Attached to the American mission to France, he kept the British government very well informed about the ongoing negotiations. In particular, he warned Lord North that French recognition and aid would come very quickly after the American victory at Saratoga, which led North to send a commission to America offering everything the Americans sought in 1775. Bancroft was also a scientist, physician, and explorer, whose most significant discovery was probably the electrical activity of the electrical eel, so an all-around fascinating character, and I may end up reading the new biography by Thomas J. Schaeper.

What I find particularly interesting is the question of whether Bancroft's spying did the British any good. Benjamin Franklin famously refused to take precautions against spying on the grounds that nothing he did was worth keeping secret. Schaeper, after reviewing Bancroft's career carefully, seems to agree with Franklin:
What difference, if any, did Bancroft’s espionage really make? The basic answer seems to be, not much, if any at all. Information obtained in Europe could provide the British with a great source as to how much support the Americans were gaining from their alliance, but translating that into operational advantage, either at sea or an ocean away in North America, was virtually impossible. This was not the age of Magic or Enigma, and distant disclosures of critical intelligence rarely if ever had immediate application. On the diplomatic side, the major determinants of wartime diplomacy were the Americans’ October victories at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. One brought alliance, the other brought peace, and Bancroft’s disclosures on both occasions did nothing to alter the course of diplomacy.
Even when spies deliver accurate information on future plans, politicians often cannot tell whether to believe them, and they often guess wrongly. (George III refused to believe that France was acting as quickly as Bancroft said they would.) Enormous investments in spying are made with the idea that perfect information will lead to better policy, but the evidence that this is so is very thin.

What difference did the enormous American and Soviet investment in Cold War espionage make to history? None, I say; the course of the conflict was determined by political and economic developments within the two countries. And no amount of information about American diplomacy could have saved the British government from their basic error of treating the colonists with contempt.


Unknown said...

I'd note that the author confines his remarks on the uselessness of spying to the 18th century, not "the age of Magic and Enigma."

Actually, I'd saying spying can make a great deal of difference. Spying certainly helped the Soviets develop atomic weapons faster, because Stalin was more willing to back fully a program that he knew would build a working bomb (since the Americans had already tested the designs in question); you could say the decisive factor there was the leadership's attitude, but to me that says nothing about the importance of spying; I can't think of anyone who's ever claimed that spying ALONE makes much a difference.

In many cases (notably Stalin ignoring Richard Sorge's warnings in 1941) it's true political leaders ignore information that doesn't accord with what they've already decided is the truth. But not doing that is part of what effective leadership is about. Effective spying plus effective leadership is a very strong combination; leave out one or the other, let alone both, and you've got a problem.

Unknown said...

I would add that spying has proven its effectiveness in some cases by what leaders *haven't* done. The first U-2 images of the Soviet Union helped convince Eisenhower that the Soviets were not preparing for war. Obviously that didn't end the arms race or make Eisenhower a pacifist; but it made it easier for him to stand up to LeMay and others who were demanding immediate preemption.