The names alone are chilling, a litany of murderers, extortionists, thieves, and racketeers. Lucky Luciano. Albert Anastasia. Meyer Lansky. Vito Genovese. Federal agents of the FBI spent millions of dollars and countless man-hours seeking ways to arrest and convict these men. So did state investigators and prosecutors. Through each other, and through their allies in crime, these men and others controlled what was known as the rackets. They carried labor unions in their pockets, ran smuggling operations which cost the taxpayers thousands upon thousands of dollars, controlled prostitution, purchased protection from police, and when it suited their business model, murdered with relative impunity.
Hard as it is for some to believe, when the United States entered the Second World War it actively sought the cooperation of organized crime. Mafia organizations, and in some cases other organized crime groups, were approached to work with the government to prevent sabotage, identify subversives, control labor unions, and offer protection of docks and other infrastructure. The cooperation between the government and organized crime, implemented through the OSS – predecessor of today’s CIA – the FBI, and offices of military intelligence established a precedent which lead to further cooperative ventures well into the 1960s. Some speculate it continues to this day, citing the case of Whitey Bulger as an example. Bulger remained hidden in plain sight for 16 years, twelve of them on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, after working as an FBI informant.
Not until the Kefauver Commission in 1951 would the government admit the existence of what it called a “sinister criminal organization” known as the Mafia. Here are ten examples of the United States government knowingly doing business with it, and why.
The Normandie and Lucky Luciano
The French ocean liner Normandie was moored in New York when World War II began and was immediately interned by the United States government in September 1939, with the French crew remaining in board and in control of the ship. During the German attack on France, the US Coast Guard placed a crew onboard to keep an eye on the French sailors as prevention against sabotage, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States seized the ship, disembarked the French crew, and began preparations to convert the liner to a troop transport ship under the name USS Lafayette.
While Lafayette was undergoing conversion a fire broke out, and although all of the 1,500 personnel aboard but one was evacuated safely the ship capsized at its pier due to the huge amount of water pumped into it fighting the fire. Sabotage was suspected, and the Navy recognized the need to ensure security around the docks and port facilities of New York and other ports. An investigation soon revealed that the Normandie fire had been an accident, but that did not deter the Navy from approaching the organized crime figures who had long controlled New York and New Jersey port facilities for their help.
They didn’t need to look far for Lucky Luciano, he was in Clinton Prison doing a thirty to fifty-year sentence for compulsory prostitution. The Navy approached Luciano through Meyer Lansky, asking for the former’s assistance in providing security to ensure agents for the Germans or Italians were prevented access to the critical shipping facilities. The Normandie lying on its side in the harbor mud was a daily reminder to Navy officials of the potential damage which could be done. Luciano was happy to oblige.
In return for commuting his sentence, Luciano agreed to provide organized crime assets to ensure the docks and warehouses remained free of Axis-leaning agents. Luciano also guaranteed that the docks would be free of labor stoppages for the duration of the war, a promise he extracted from his organized crime associate Albert Anastasia. Finally, Luciano gave information to the Navy regarding known organized crime contacts in Sicily, to be exploited when the Allies invaded that island in 1943.
When the Normandie/Lafayette burned, Albert Anastasia spread rumors through the docks that his organization, though his brother Anthony, had been responsible for starting the fire. The rumors helped compel the Navy to seek Luciano’s help, unaware of the working relationship between Anastasia and Luciano. The official investigation revealed no sabotage or arson in the Normandie’s destruction, leading one to infer that Luciano took advantage of the accident to extort his freedom from prison. In 1946 he was deported to Europe having served less than ten years of his sentence.