THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Thank you for your time Henry – our traditional first question, where in the World are you from?
Until very recently I'd say London and leave it at that. But last week I found at the back of a drawer in my desk a laminated form stating that I am also a Canadian citizen. This was news to me. Although my Dad is Canadian I have only been there once. But this does at least take me closer to North America, which feels relevant in an interview with theamerican.co.uk. So let's say I'm from London but with a Canadian connection, similar, in some ways, to the figure at the heart of Our Man in New York.
Your book, Our Man in New York, is coming out in paperback this May. What inspired you to write this book about British covert operations in America during the Second World War?
The main inspiration was reading about the *alleged* Russian influence campaign during the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential election, both as it played out and in the months that followed. As a historian the obvious question running through my head was: what can we learn about this from the past? It turns out that the British influence on the campaign in the US during 1940-41 was not only larger than the more recent Russian one, based on what has emerged so far, but it appears to have had a greater impact. Another inspiration for Our Man in New York was the release of previously classified material from the archives of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Plus, I have a small family connection to this story which I had been wanting to explore for years. Now felt like the right time.
How did William Stephenson, the protagonist of the project, come to be working for MI6 and on this operation in New York?Stephenson was anything but a professional spy. At around the time this story starts, in 1939, he was a Canadian businessman living in London, what we would call today a venture capitalist. To give him an edge over rival investors he had recently set up his own informal intelligence network, which he used to gather information on the economic situation in Europe. It had a particular emphasis on Germany. (One of the people who contributed to this by telling him about what he saw during his regular business trips around Europe was my Canadian grandfather, hence the family connection to the story.) Several weeks before the start of the Second World War, wanting to help the British war effort, Stephenson offered the use of his network to MI6. This was how he first appeared on the radar of British intelligence. The following year, 1940, the head of MI6 gave him an unusual mission. Stephenson was asked to go to the United States to meet the FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, on behalf of MI6, and persuade him to open up a channel of communication between the FBI and MI6. Stephenson duly made his way to Washington DC to meet Hoover. They got on famously – their meeting lasted more than eight hours – and Hoover agreed to a new relationship with MI6. The head of MI6 was so impressed by Stephenson's work that he made the bold decision to give this Canadian businessman, someone he had met only a handful of times, one of the top jobs within MI6. In June 1940, just days after the evacuation from Dunkirk, Stephenson was installed as the new MI6 representative in the US, also known as 'our man in New York', with the task of trying behind the scenes to win over the American public to the idea of going to war.
The book explains how Stephenson worked with the FBI during the '40s, how close were co-operations between the US and UK during this time?
Although it's hard to imagine today, by the start of 1940 co-operation between the two countries on security and intelligence was almost non-existent. Both sides were suspicious of each other, though not in equal measure. There was more wariness on the part of the Americans, for the obvious reason that Britain was by then desperate for the US to come into the war. Many Americans felt that during the last war the British had worked covertly to drag the country into the conflict, and that allowing themselves to be won over like this had been a mistake, never to be repeated. Stephenson would help to mend that relationship, and in doing so lay the foundations of a new kind of alliance between the two countries.
How careful did Stephenson have to be to avoid detection by those opposed to American involvement in the war?
Extremely. Those opposed to American involvement in the war – known as the anti-interventionists or isolationists, two fractionally different terms often used interchangeably in the US press at the time – were convinced that there was collusion between the British and the White House, and that the British were secretly trying to bring the country into the war. Had those campaigning against American involvement in the war obtained evidence of this, then President Roosevelt's efforts to bring round the American people to the idea of entering the war would have suffered a major setback
Do you have a particular favorite story or moment from Stephenson's time in the US on this project?
Probably the moment on October 27, 1941, when Roosevelt told the nation in a live radio broadcast that he had proof of Nazi plans to invade and colonise South America, adding defiantly that this was another reason why the US must take on Hitler. The proof he referred to was a Nazi map obtained by US intelligence. When Hitler heard about this speech he was furious. He denounced the map as a fake and called the president a war-monger (and worse). He was so angry about the map that he appears to have changed his thinking on how soon to go to war against the US. From Hitler's point of view, if Roosevelt was willing to use fake or fabricated documents to bring his country into the war, then very soon America might suddenly declare war on Germany. Hitler had always imagined that he would be the one to declare war on the US, not the other way round, which may explain why he made what has been described as one of the costliest mistakes of the war by choosing to declare war on the US on December 11, 1941, despite having no legal obligation to do so. Hitler was at least right about the map of South America. It was a fake. It did not come from Berlin, but had emerged out of Stephenson's office in New York. Did Roosevelt know that it was a fake when he made that speech? Was this technically an impeachable offence? I'll leave all that for the book.
The book discusses 'Rumour' as an effective way of changing public perception, how did Stephenson deploy 'Rumours' in the US to change opinion on the war?
All sorts of ways. By the summer of 1941 Stephenson had an office devoted to spreading rumours within the US. Soon it was transmitting up to 20 rumours a day. Each rumour was called a 'sib', from the Latin sibillare, meaning to whisper. Many of these 'sibs' ended up as news stories in US newspapers or they were reported on an American radio station. Stephenson had various techniques, but the most effective was to have the 'sib' broadcast to Europe by the American news agency to which he had secret access, or by the radio station WRUL, based in Boston, where again he had a clandestine arrangement with one of the owners. In Europe, the story would be picked up by numerous journalists in neutral European cities, who would rewrite it and then broadcast it back to the US, where it was picked up by US news editors, who would then run the story afresh in their newspapers, magazines, or as part of a bulletin on the radio. Stephenson had discovered, and as many others have done in the years since, that there are three basic elements to spreading a rumour, or what was also referred to at the time as 'fake news'. You need to have the message coming at your target from a variety of sources, those sources need to be trustworthy, and the rumour needs to sound slightly different each time, as if you are hearing different eyewitness accounts of the same event. That basic philosophy underpinned the British rumour operation throughout 1941.
There's been a lot of disinformation over the years about the extent to which America knew about the lead up to Pearl Harbor, your book looks at this particular question doesn't it?
As you say, many people have argued that Roosevelt must have known in advance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The problem with this theory, and it's a big one, is that there is no evidence to back it up. Nothing. Not one document showing that Roosevelt, Churchill, or anyone in their administrations had prior knowledge of the location and date of the attack, or the nature of it. Having said that, Roosevelt could have done more to delay or prevent a Japanese attack, and he certainly knew that there would be some kind of Japanese attack around that time. But it is clear that he did not know when or where the attack would take place.
How might the Second World War have been different if Stephenson hadn't been successful in his mission?
For one, Hitler might have heeded the advice of those around him and held off declaring war on the US. That would have led to a very different conflict. Stephenson's mission helped to foster a new level of cooperation between US and UK intelligence agencies, which again changed the way the war was fought. His mission also helped to shift American public opinion on the question of whether to go to war against Germany. When Stephenson first arrived in New York, in the summer of 1940, the majority of Americans were doggedly against going to war. On the eve of Pearl Harbor most Americans agreed that Nazi Germany was the country's biggest threat and needed to be taken on. This shift made it easier for Roosevelt to announce, as he did in January 1942, that the US would go after Germany first, rather than Japan. On the face of it, this made little sense. America had just been attacked at Pearl Harbor by Japan. Surely Japan should be defeated first? But going after Germany first, which was what Churchill and Roosevelt had planned for, was by then politically possible because American public opinion had already come round to the idea of defeating Hitler.
The final line of the book alludes to how the work of Stephenson led, in part, to the Special Relationship that we have today. How do you reflect on Stephenson's work in the context of the modern US-UK relationship?
The Special Relationship today is only really special when it comes to intelligence and security. The modern history of the US and the UK sharing secrets in this way begins, essentially, in 1940, with William Stephenson. Not only did he open up a new channel of communication between the FBI and the British, he also had the idea for a new centralized American intelligence agency, which he then worked to bring into existence. This new agency would later become the CIA. During the first four months of this agency's existence Stephenson did everything he could to keep it alive, supplying it with intelligence, expertise and personnel, which is why you'll find a statue of Stephenson today in the atrium of the CIA Headquarters in Langley.
What projects are next on the horizon for you?
I am working on another story to do with intelligence, which is both closer to home and more contemporary. I'll leave it at that for now!
Finally, what's the best thing about being Henry Hemming?
Yikes. Not much to choose from right now. Trying to work from home during the Coronavirus lockdown while also looking after our two kids is not easy. But had you asked me the same question a month ago I would have waxed lyrical about being able to write for a living, and to do so by investigating real life spy stories.