Fascinating account of an espionage pioneer who thrived during the Korean War and then disappeared into disgraced obscurity.
Harden (The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, 2015, etc.) deepens his exploration of Korean history with the bizarre story of Donald Nichols (1923-1992), who spent World War II as a motor pool sergeant, then moved into military intelligence in Korea as the peninsula was descending into civil war, becoming a confidant of anti-communist strongman (and eventual South Korean president) Syngman Rhee. “In Nichols,” writes the author, “Rhee discovered a back door for delivering intelligence that could influence American policy toward Korea.” However, Nichols also witnessed Rhee’s torture and massacre of both insurgents and civilians prior to the 1950 Soviet-backed North Korean invasion. Nichols’ prescient warnings about the invasion to the American military were ignored; once war began, he was able to run operations including code-breaking and pilfering secrets from disabled Russian tanks and planes. “The air force credited Nichols, more than anyone else, with finding bomb targets in North Korea,” writes Harden. Under the protection of a powerful superior, Nichols built up an unsupervised black-ops unit, often sending South Koreans on suicide missions. His shadowy activities continued after the 1952 armistice (when he was vilified as a spy in a North Korean show trial), but in 1957, Nichols was abruptly sacked by the military and hospitalized, receiving electroshock therapy. Living with relatives in Florida, the ex-spymaster tried to acclimate to civilian life, but he was eventually revealed to be a sexual predator, accused of molesting young boys. Harden’s research shows such behavior had begun with his subordinates during the war, seemingly signifying the amoral inner life of an otherwise audacious, successful spy. The author ably connects his ominous central figure to the larger mysterious, unresolved narrative of the Korean conflict.
An engrossing hidden history of wartime espionage, with elements of derring-do and moral barbarity.