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Canvassing map for pre-election door knocking.

I’m the last person you’d want for grassroots action. I’m not organized and I don’t really like meeting new people. Truth is, I don’t have faith in a two-minute meeting between strangers to change minds. But in 2008, desperation over the election outcome made me volunteer to go door-to-door and get out the vote in Alexandria, Virginia, where I lived and had grown up.

Desperation and fear pushed me out my door at 6 a.m. on Election Day to the campaign headquarters. I’d be a “floater,” driving voters to the polls as needed. …

You might say there are three kinds of people. The first, a tiny group, are born activists. From a young age, they burn with often a furious passion for change. The second group is most of us who will never be activists, who see our lives as a continuous accommodation to reality. The third group consists of people who never thought they would be activists but who find themselves in the demands of a moment. In that moment they find a voice louder than they ever expected.

That’s how I picture Varian Fry, an American journalist who set out for France in the summer of 1940, as it fell to Hitler. Now we think of that time as the brink of World War II. At the time, Americans thought of it as a period when America was recovering from the Depression, and avoiding getting ensnared in Europe’s wars and refugee problems. There was little political will to help refugees and a popular isolationist movement urged America First. …

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OSS intelligence flow chart from declassified files at the National Archives

Last week when Congress awarded its Congressional Gold Medal, its highest honor, to the long-defunct Office of Strategic Services, the citation recounted the agency’s contribution to winning World War II. But the OSS has long contended with a mixed reputation and many critics. After the war ended, the agency’s records remained classified for six decades. Made public only 10 years ago, those more than 35,000 files show how the OSS venture in U.S. spycraft mimicked the private sector, from HR policies to media strategy, and relied on business contacts from Chanel to Time magazine.

Shaken by the Pearl Harbor attack and the intelligence gaps it revealed, FDR created the Office of Strategic Services in June 1942, modeling it on the British example. As America’s first spy agency created outside the military, the OSS started with an unusually broad mandate and its founding director, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, went about recruiting citizens from across the private sector. He tapped an eclectic mix of sources to create a truly international network, and meanwhile within the government sparred for turf with J. …


David Taylor

Author & filmmaker on history, culture, food & travel. Blog:

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