Seventy years ago on Nov. 7, the Japanese authorities executed Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy who became a member of the Nazi Party and was operating as a journalist in wartime Tokyo.
He was a raffish, womanizing, hard-drinking party animal who produced intelligence coups that may have helped turn the course of World War II. Although resourceful and productive as both spy and reporter, Sorge often expressed unhappiness while living a stressful clandestine double-life subject to extensive Japanese surveillance.
Beginning in 1933, Sorge assembled a spy ring in Tokyo that came to include Hotsumi Ozaki, a journalist who had helped him previously in Shanghai, shared his communist sympathies, was an expert on China and had an elite educational background that gave him top-level access. In 1937, he was invited to join the Showa Research Association that served as a braintrust on the “China problem” for Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (1937-1939, 1940-1941). It was Konoe who escalated that conflict and presided over critical decisions that pushed Japan into World War II.
In 1938, Ozaki was appointed Konoe’s special advisor, generating a gold mine of intelligence. Sorge also cultivated a military attache at the German Embassy, Eugen Ott, who was later promoted to ambassador. Ott relied heavily on Sorge’s analysis of Japanese politics and the China conflict, and in return gave him unfettered access to top-secret information and even his wife. Although Ott knew about his wife’s passionate affair with Sorge, ascribing it to the journalist’s irresistible charm, he didn’t intervene because he expected it would blow over and apparently valued the journalist’s insights and advice more than his wife’s fidelity.
One of Sorge’s coups was passing on the debriefing of a senior officer of the Soviet secret police in the Far East who defected to the Japanese military in Manchuria in 1938. A German Embassy contact gave him access to the debriefing Japanese authorities had shared, revealing widespread discontent and disarray in the Red Army due to Josef Stalin’s purge of senior officers. This document, along with German intelligence assessments, helped the Soviets to identify and address their apparent military vulnerabilities and weed out malcontents. This information also helped the Soviets in the 1939 battle of Nomohan won decisively by the Red Army against the Japanese.
This debacle for the Manchuko-based Kwantung Army exposed the limits of fighting spirit confronted with superior firepower and battlefield tactics, leading Japanese military leaders to abandon plans to invade the Soviet Far East and instead target the resource-rich, lightly guarded western colonies in Southeast Asia. By virtue of his access to German and Japanese foreign ministry cables related to the secret negotiations leading up to the announcement of the Axis pact (Germany, Japan and Italy) in September 1940, Sorge kept Moscow in the picture.
He also sent warnings that Germany was about to renege on its August 1939 nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and launch a surprise attack around June 15, 1941. In the event, the attack came on June 22, but Stalin had ignored the tip-off, doubting Sorge amid a wider paranoia about betrayal and treachery that lead to successive purges.
This riveting tale of espionage and betrayal ended with Sorge’s 1944 hanging at Sugamo Prison. Initially his remains were kept in nearby Zoshigaya Cemetery, but his body was not cremated due to wartime fuel shortages. After persistent hounding of U.S. Occupation authorities, Sorge’s Japanese lover Hanako Ishii recovered his skeleton and identified him by distinctive dental work and a poorly set broken-leg. She made a ring of his gold bridgework, had his remains interred at Tama Cemetery and erected a black marble tombstone bearing the epitaph: “Hero of the Soviet Union” etched in Cyrillic.
It was not until 1964 after years of denial that the Soviet Union finally acknowledged Sorge as its spy and awarded Ishii a posthumous pension. This was because Sorge’s ignored warning was an embarrassment to Stalin, and his capture and execution a setback for Soviet espionage.
Sorge has also been a source of embarrassment to the Japanese Communist Party due to allegations that a party member, Ritsu Ito, had informed on the spy ring. The JCP contends that U.S. occupation officials fabricated the evidence to discredit the party. Certainly this is consistent with the track record of Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, legendary Cold War crusader and close aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was chief of military intelligence (G2) during the U.S. occupation of Japan. He saw the Sorge ring as part of a global conspiracy and ensured the story was publicized in the States as a lesson in how Moscow operated by recruiting communist sympathizers and running false flag operations, ratcheting up the growing hysteria that fed the witch hunt of McCarthyism.
Ito later claimed he was framed, and denounced Sanzo Nosaka as the real informer. This is plausible since Nosaka was implicated in another high profile case of treachery leading to his expulsion from the party he helped found in 1922, and led from 1958 to 1992. Sorge was specifically instructed by his handlers to totally avoid the JCP and the Soviet Embassy, presumably because of security concerns.
The best book on Sorge is “Stalin’s Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring” (1996). The author, Robert Whymant, was a widely respected British correspondent based in Tokyo from the early 1970s who died in the 2004 tsunami while on holiday in Sri Lanka. Whymant’s prodigious research spanning two decades animates, but doesn’t overwhelm, a spellbinding thriller. According to Whymant, Sorge’s most significant impact on the course of World War II was his assurance that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union in the Far East. Knowing they didn’t face the risk of a two-front war waged by Axis partners, Soviet tacticians shifted forces from Siberia to the defense of Moscow in 1941 and, with the help of a fierce winter, thwarted Adolph Hitler and turned the tide of war. Had Moscow fallen, the outcome of World War II might have been very different. By helping to save the Soviet Union from what could have been a catastrophic defeat, Sorge enabled Stalin to continue a war of attrition that wore down Hitler’s forces and immensely helped the Allies.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.