American Hero, Soviet Agent: Lt.Col. Linn Farish, OSS
Over at his blog, Tom Ricks recently noted that in March 1943, President Roosevelt observed presciently about the future of Yugoslavia: “the Croats and Serbs had nothing in common and that it is ridiculous to try to force two such antagonistic people to live together under one government.” As the events of the 1990s showed, FDR was clearly on to something.
Yet Roosevelt’s polices towards the Balkans were less straightforward than that one-liner would imply. A few months after FDR stated the above, he actually altered US policy to favor the Communist resistance, led by the colorful Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who favored recreating a unified South Slav state.
Why FDR changed his mind about Yugoslavia and threw US support behind the Communists is a complex issue, yet it is clear that it had something substantial to do with a field assessment of the situation given by OSS Major Linn Farish, the first American to spend time with Tito’s HQ. Farish, a dashing adventurer – a Stanford-trained engineer and Olympic medallist, who fought with British commandos before Pearl Harbor – parachuted into the Balkans and spent six arduous weeks with the Partisans in the early fall of 1943, during a period of heavy fighting. He sent back enticing reports which were glowing about the Communist resistance. Farish’s reports claimed that Tito’s forces, though Reds, were the only ones really fighting the Germans; Farish’s wrap-up report on the situation called strongly for full US political and military support for the Partisans. Farish’s rather emotional assessment was nearly over the top, portraying Tito’s forces as defenders of freedom and justice, coming close to suggesting that if Washington and Jefferson were alive in 1943, they’d be marching with rucksacks through the mountains of Bosnia with Tito’s forces.
Farish’s reports were distinctly one-sided yet they caught the president’s eye, and FDR liked them so much that he had Farish sent back to DC to personally brief him, and FDR even shared’s Farish’s assessment with Stalin at the Tehran Conference! This was a key part of why FDR changed the US position, from support to Chetniks (Serbian non-Communist resistance), to pretty much exclusive support for the Partisans, who soon enjoyed regular US air drops of ammunition, food, and equipment. The impact of these supplies on the struggle for Yugoslavia was important, if not necessarily decisive.
Yet interestingly, a few months later, Farish returned to Yugoslavia to assess the impact of US support, and his reports back this time, in mid-1944, were far less supportive of Tito. He wrote, again with emotion, that the Partisans and Chetniks were engaged in a terrible civil war which was killing huge numbers of civilians in horrible ways, and that both sides were spending more time and effort fighting each other than the Germans – an assessment that was entirely accurate. It is easy to forget that for both the Chetniks and the Partisans, the war against each other – meaning the struggle for control of postwar Yugoslavia – was more important than the actual World War happening around them. Clearly disillusioned, Farish went so far as to recommend that the US cease any arms supplies to the Partisans, since American guns and ammunition were being used against women and children more than against the Wehrmacht.
This counsel, however, was fully ignored in DC – apparently it was not “on message” to use current Beltway lingo – disappearing down the memory hole, and in despair Farish asked to be taken off the Balkan account. He wanted nothing to do with the slaughter of innocents and he volunteered for air crew rescue missions – the most dangerous job in the OSS – and within a few weeks he was killed in action in Greece, dying a hero’s death. He was posthumously promoted and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest decoration for valor.
What makes this case truly interesting is that Farish was, in addition to being a brave American spy-warrior, also an active Soviet agent. A decade after his death, after painstaking investigation, US intelligence determined that Farish had been working for the NKVD (later called the KGB) – he appears in the famous VENONA archives as ATTILA, something which the IC did not reveal until after the Cold War. (For the hardcore spybuffs, it’s VENONA Message 1397, KGB New York to Washington, 4 October 1944.) Very little is known about Farish’s career in Soviet intelligence, but it is likely he was recruited in the 1930s, as were so many Western agents of Moscow. There are rumors that he secretly fought in Spain for the Republicans, and may have undergone training at NKVD schools in the Soviet Union before World War II. His 1943 report on Tito bears all the hallmarks of being a “tasked” effort by the Soviets, one which worked very well on FDR. It also makes his later, more balanced – indeed bleak – reporting all the more interesting.
Did Farish break with Moscow in the midst of a crisis of conscience? We simply don’t know, and we’re not likely to be able to say for sure anytime soon, since the Russians have resealed WWII intelligence files to outsiders, after a brief glimpse in the 1990s, and don’t expect Vladimir Putin, that old secrecy-obsessed Chekist, to lift that door too fast. LtCol Linn Farish, OSS, was an American hero, a Soviet agent, and a fascinating figure who shaped FDR’s views of Yugoslavia, and thereby US policy, at the decisive point of the Second World War.
Life can be complicated …