22 April 2011

"Godwin's Backstory"

By Curtis C. Chen

The elevator ride up to the seventh floor seemed to take forever. Michael's hands weren't cuffed, but the three armed guards behind him and Denford made it clear that Michael was not a welcome guest.

Michael said, "Do you remember the first time you learned about 'Godwin's Law?'"

Denford kept staring straight ahead. "I thought you only reported to the old man now."

"I'm not reporting," Michael said. "We're just chatting."

Denford didn't reply.

"I hear it happened on the Russian Far East desk," Michael continued. "A local sport diver sensed Teutonic wards all over a shipwreck near Sakhalin. Nothing of obvious intel value, so nobody was very interested at first—except one World War Two enthusiast, an up-and-coming CIA supervisor named Theodore Godwin.

"It turned out that his division was trying to set up a completely unrelated operation near Vladivostok, and the only reasonable way to get their agents on site was by submarine out of Japan. But it was a high-risk, low-reward situation, and nobody wanted to stick their neck out for it. Godwin really believed, but he didn't have the clout to make it happen.

"Anyway, a few days later, another wire comes across the desk with new information about the Sakhalin shipwreck, and guess what? Somebody who saw the diver's photos is pretty sure that was a Nazi vessel, and there could be military artifacts on board. Maybe even some of Hitler's amulets.

"Well, all of a sudden, everyone and his dog is rushing to greenlight a recovery operation, and Godwin says you know, as long as we're out there near Sapporo with a submarine anyway, why don't we just go ahead and run this op that my division's been trying to clear for the last two months?"

Denford finally turned to look at Michael. "Yeah, I know the story. There's nothing in the shipwreck but some fish skeletons, but the old man lucks out and snags some prize intel on Soviet Fleet deployments. He gets on the fast track to director."

"And nobody could ever prove that Godwin doctored those shipwreck reports, or persuaded someone to do it for him, but that's irrelevant. The real lesson was, if you can draw some kind of line, no matter how thin or how convoluted, that connects your proposal to Hitler, your chances of approval magically and dramatically improve." Michael shrugged. "Godwin's Law."

The elevator stopped, and the doors opened. Denford and Michael marched forward, followed by the guards.

"Was there a point to all that?" Denford asked. "Or were you just running your mouth?"

"We're never going to catch Hitler," Michael said. "We missed our chance in 1945, and it'll never come again. But he's actually more valuable this way.

"As long as there's still some mystery surrounding him, we'll want to know more. And some people can use that. They can sell the question without ever worrying what the answer is going to be."

The double doors to the director's suite opened.

"Sometimes," Michael said, "we don't really want to know the answers."


Photo: 1938 German Nazi Coin by Kevin Dooley, November, 2009