When you’re in a pinch, sometimes you make a deal with the Devil. In the early years after America’s entry into World War II, America was in a pinch when stalking Nazi U-boats that posed a real, ongoing threat to America’s East Coast port operations and merchant ships. In his latest novel, “The Devil Himself, ” crisis communications guru Eric Dezenhall weaves a tale around around the historically true wartime partnership between the American government and mob bosses aimed at combating this Nazi threat. It’s a story told by a young political operative serving in the Reagan Administration in 1982 and by the young man’s “uncle,” notorious Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky, in lengthy vignettes of the past.
In fact, the story is mostly told from Lansky’s point of view and depicts a patriotic, shrewd businessman who loves America, deplores Nazis (for obvious reasons), and engages in straight dealing (for the most part) with his Italian mobster brethren. If you’re going to have a mobster on your team, this is the one to have. I’m not sure what to make of that loving portrayal, since Lansky was no doubt involved in some dastardly and bloody deeds, especially in his hey-day, the Prohibition Era. Which is not to say that diminishes any aid he provided to this country during wartime.
I also don’t have any great pearls of wisdom concerning a central theme of the book. The uneasy alliance between reputation-wary government officials and Jewish and Italian organized crime bosses eventually leads the narrator to conclude that “everybody gets screwed ” in such partnerships. Politicians don’t want the bad PR that comes with public exposure of these shady alliances and any rewards that flow to bad guys doing good deeds. In fact, the chief government operative in the Dezenhall story, Charles R. Haffenden, winds up, not recognized for any success in crafting the unlikely and arguably successful partnership, but dispatched to the South Pacific and gravely injured at Iwo Jima.
From a policy perspective, it’s interesting to consider in the context of other such uneasy alliances the US has made throughout the years. From a strategic, cost/benefit perspective, it’s an interesting bit of analysis from one of the great communications wizards of our times. From an historical perspective, the book portrays yet another facet of a war and an era brimming with so many compelling and poignant personal stories.