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Nicholas Dawidoff
March 23, 1992
Moe Berg, baseball's Renaissance man of the '20s and '30s, was a U.S. atomic spy in World War II
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March 23, 1992

Scholar, Lawyer, Catcher, Spy

Moe Berg, baseball's Renaissance man of the '20s and '30s, was a U.S. atomic spy in World War II

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Berg's job was to tour U.S. bases in Latin America, handing out Softball equipment, books and fishing tackle to both soldiers and local citizens. The region was rife with pro-Axis political sentiment, so Berg was also sending back to Rockefeller memos marked SECRET AND CONFIDENTIAL that evaluated potential dangers to the U.S. from fascists in Central and South America and offered suggestions on wooing neighboring countries to the U.S. side. Working without precise orders, Berg enjoyed himself immensely, picking up, among other things, news of Mussolini's failing health, a middling proficiency in Portuguese and plenty of women in Rio. Rockefeller wrote him in April 1943, "Only someone with your experience and knowledge of international as well as human problems could have handled this situation with such tact and effectiveness." By summer Berg was over in Europe.

General Wild Bill Donovan, the father of the OSS, created a bohemian intelligence operation staffed by a sparkling group of amateurs that included lawyers, professors, businessmen, lotharios, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Julia Child and members of Murder Inc. Donovan wanted daring men and women who liked adventure and could keep a secret. In many ways, Moe Berg was the ideal OSS agent.

Donovan initially found Berg appealing probably because of his linguistic skills. Berg took an oath of secrecy, was issued a revolver and a capsule of cyanide, and was given a variety of assignments in Italy, Switzerland and Sweden. Easily his most significant work was in atomic counterintelligence. The British were confident that Hitler's scientists were nowhere near completion of an atomic bomb, but Donovan and Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project—the U.S. bomb effort—wanted their own confirmation. In preparation, Berg had immersed himself in nuclear physics. This enabled him to attend a lecture given in 1944 in Zurich by the leading German atomic scientist, Werner Heisenberg. Berg had orders to kidnap or assassinate Heisenberg if a German atomic bomb project was flourishing. Masquerading as a student, Berg listened to Heisenberg's talk, which had nothing to do with weapons production. Afterward, Berg strolled about gathering information and ultimately decided to let Heisenberg be.

A recently declassified memo written in 1946 by Colonel Howard Dix to recommend Berg for the Medal of Freedom says that Berg's attendance at the meeting "yielded the most important information snatched from under the cloak of secrecy which the Germans maintained on this subject. This and other information sent back by Mr. Berg and obtained by him while under continual risk of exposure and retaliatory action, was used in guiding, the U.S. operation in this field and in determining...the pressures to be placed upon U.S. scientists for rapid progress towards ultimate completion of the Manhattan Project."

Berg's other intelligence work was eclectic. He interviewed scores of European scientists. He helped confirm that the Germans did not have a sophisticated bacteriological warfare program. He worked on codes, translated documents and sent in reports on Axis glider factories, radar, optics, and radio-controlled missiles. He arranged for prominent scientists to escape to the U.S., most notably Antonio Ferri, Italy's great aeronautical engineer. When news of Ferri's arrival in Virginia in 1944 reached President Roosevelt, he said, "I see Berg is still catching pretty well."

Some CIA scholars hold his work in considerable esteem. "He sent back reports that were much fuller and humanly more revealing than was customary for intelligence agents," says Thomas Powers, whose book Heisenberg's War will be published by Knopf early next year. "Berg was interested in what was going through a man's mind. He could be very imaginative in the ways he'd find people and talk to them. And no man ever knew more languages and said less in them."

When he was first told that he was a likely recipient of the Medal of Freedom, Berg requested permission to tell people what he had done to merit it. He was told that this was classified information. He then refused the medal on grounds that it would "embarrass" him, and he took most of his secrets to his grave. After he died, Ethel Berg wrote to the government and claimed the award. The medal is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Coopers-town, N.Y.

Charlie Wagner, an old Red Sox teammate, saw Berg shortly after he returned home from the war. "He seemed like he knew what he was doing but was a little off-center," says Wagner. The last 25 years of Berg's life were marked by increasingly erratic behavior. At first it was hardly noticeable. Berg began carrying an umbrella on sunny days. But then he'd always had his own sartorial ideas. Various disappointments in the next few years, however, exacerbated matters.

Before leaving for Europe, Berg had invested what money he had in a pair of companies: Novelart, a stationery manufacturer, and Novelview, which made films. When he got back in 1946, he found that not only had both firms gone under, but his partner in the two companies had run off, leaving him without assets and responsible for a healthy sum of back taxes. It took years for Berg to settle with the IRS, and the acrimony involved deflated his spirits.

The CIA left him despondent, too. Berg liked spying as well as anything he'd ever done, including playing baseball. When the OSS was disbanded by President Truman and replaced by the CIA, the tenor of American intelligence changed, becoming more bureaucratic. There wasn't much room for a colorful improviser like Berg. He received occasional CIA assignments that had to do with atomic intelligence in Europe. Most often, however, when Moe arrived at Dr. Sam's house and asked if there was a letter for him from the government, the answer was no.

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