How the British spymaster used 21st-century spinning and fake news to lure America into World War II
Sir William Stephenson was later praised by Fleming as one of his sources of inspiration for Bond. Indeed, it was Stephenson's special recipe for a gin martini that inspired the "shake not stir" catch phrase
The raid on the canal town of Berck-sur-Mer in occupied France was a welcome boost for morale in the dark days of 1941. & # 39; A party of parachutists heavily armed with Tommy guns and hand grenades overpowered the airport guards , burst into the control room and grabbed the passengers & # 39 ;, according to a newspaper report on June 18.
"A second party attacked the barracks and captured a number of German pilots. Meanwhile, the third group spread across the airport and destroyed approximately 30 aircraft. & # 39;
It was clear that the operation had been a blinding success – quickly, efficiently and without casualties.
But an important detail was missing in the coverage of the raid, which found its way to Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States: the Berck-sur-Mer operation was a complete manufacture.
Every convincing piece of information was invented in New York by MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, as part of the largest state-sponsored propaganda campaign ever.
His brain, Sir William Stephenson, used the best minds – including the boisterous young fighter pilot Roald Dahl and the future maker of James Bond, Ian Fleming – for the express purpose of changing American public opinion and bringing the United States into World War II. .
"Bill" Stephenson was later praised by Fleming as one of his sources of inspiration for Bond. It was indeed Stephenson's special recipe for a gin-martini that inspired the "shaken, not stirred" expression.
He was also my father's godfather.
It is only now, with the release of released British records, that it is possible to tell the full extent of Stephenson's US operation in the months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
In a campaign well ahead of its time, Stephenson recruited a secret army of 1,000 agents, analysts, journalists, and campaigners to deliver a steady drop of fake news in the US media.
On April 23, 1941, a woman walked in the middle of New York & Eighth Avenue to a crowd of men. She was carrying a sign calling on the United States to go to war. Just behind her came a like-minded crowd, thousands of strong ones. For them, 15,000 supporters of America First, the anti-war organization supported by Charles Lindbergh, the aviation pioneer who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, blocked
They manipulated polls to misrepresent public opinion, subsidy groups to take to the streets, produced convincing fakes, harassed opponents of the America First campaign that promised to keep the US out of the conflict and even persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tacitly return the operation.
These days it is often forgotten that the majority of Americans were deeply opposed to participating in the war. Shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940, a poll suggested that only eight percent of American citizens wanted to stand up against Germany.
But within 18 months there had been a seismic shift. At the end of 1941, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than two-thirds of Americans had changed their minds and decided it was time for the US to fight the Nazis. Stephenson, who arrived in New York on June 21, 1940, played a crucial role in this shift.
He was 43, small in stature, but with a calm intensity. He grew up in poverty in Winnipeg, Canada, before serving heroically in the First World War with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and then with the Royal Flying Corps. He received the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He later settled in London, where he earned a fortune in developing and selling radio sets.
My grandparents, who were also Canadians in London, met him in the 1930s and were regular guests in Stephenson's small weekend cottage in Buckinghamshire.
There he saved the life of my three-year-old father in September 1938 by pulling him out of his pond. My grandparents would not have known it, but Stephenson was already drawn into the world of secret intelligence.
His business interests gave him a network of contacts throughout Europe and, in the run-up to war, he agreed to share the information they had provided with MI6.
Then, in 1940, he was asked to go to America and meet the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.
The charismatic Lindbergh was about to make one of his many spectacular speeches against the American entry into the war at the Manhattan Center. His reasoning, widely shared in America, was based on isolationism – the principle that the US should stay out of all foreign wars unless they spread to America.
Stephenson's job was to open a communication channel with the FBI. It turned out that the two men were warming up so well that it was decided that Stephenson – who later would be nicknamed Intrepid – would have to perform all MI6 operations in the US.
It became increasingly clear in Westminster and Whitehall that with much of Europe falling to the Nazis, we became more dependent than ever on supplies from the United States. Furthermore, there was growing concern that without the support of the American people, the flow of American supplies could slow or stop, and that this would not allow Britain to fight.
A campaign had to be of influence to stimulate the British cause in America. Why don't you give the job to the new MI6 man in New York?
On April 23, 1941, a woman walked in the middle of New York & Eighth Avenue to a crowd of men. She was carrying a sign calling on the United States to go to war. Just behind her came a like-minded crowd, thousands of strong ones.
For those who blocked their way stood 15,000 supporters of America First, the anti-war organization supported by Charles Lindbergh, the aviation pioneer who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic.
The charismatic Lindbergh was about to make one of his many spectacular speeches against the American entry into the war at the Manhattan Center. His reasoning, widely shared in America, was based on isolationism – the principle that the US should stay outside of all foreign wars unless they spread to America.
At the time, few Americans saw their country as a superpower. Even less in this country of immigrants from all over Europe saw Great Britain as a natural ally.
However, President Roosevelt understood the risk that Hitler posed. He knew that the American public was overwhelmingly opposed to war, but came up with more creative ways to help the British war effort, including Lend-Lease, in which the Allies received food, warships and other weapons in exchange for leases for the army and naval bases in Allied territory. .
A huge crowd gathered outside the Manhattan Center. Some were pro-Nazi extreme right-wing activists. Others were America First isolationists who shouted: & # 39; We want Lindy! & # 39; Before they sing The Star-Spangled Banner.
The female demonstrator insisted, fearless by shouting "Go away or we will kill you!". A man ran to her and slapped her face and knocked her to the ground.
Then it started. Both sides tore apart. The street became a violent blur.
In the background, Lindbergh's speech was broadcast through the speakers, but the demonstrators had done their job. Reports in the following day's newspapers focused on the violence, with most articles also including a list of the different intervention groups involved in the march and what they had to say about Lindbergh and America First.
Some activists used the same language, almost as if they were reading the same script. If it happened, some of them were.
Stephenson had instructed British agents to infiltrate the American pressure groups and force them to intervene in the war.
These agents had to influence these groups from within and secretly coordinate them so that they simultaneously attacked the same goals – including tricky press questions about Lindbergh & # 39; s ties with Berlin.
The agents would also ensure that pro-war activists would never run out of money.
With a new sense of purpose and vitality, the campaign to join the war was galvanized.
In June 1941, Stephenson had also set up an office dedicated to spreading false, distorted or inaccurate stories.
His fake news factory was so large and so busy and published an average of 20 different stories a day that he registered it as a legitimate news agency with the cover name British And Overseas Features. Some stories came from London, while others were produced in-house.
The propaganda included reports that the Sicilian Mafia took over the fascists; that the Germans had almost no men left; that ersatz-morphine caused thousands of deaths in the German army; and that Nazi generals spied on behalf of the Soviets.
They also adopted a more imaginative method of spreading the message with the help of what would now be called "influencers."
Eric Maschwitz, the British songwriter behind the hit A Nightingale Sang on Berkeley Square, was one of Stephen's officers. His first task was to look after Louis de Wohl, a Hungarian refugee, British secret agent and astrologer of celebrities.
British wartime secret services had various astrologers around the world, including De Wohl. In the summer of 1941 they were told to predict the sudden death of the Nazi leader.
Knowing that Hitler was obsessed with astrology, he hoped the rumors would haunt him. For those who took astrology seriously, including millions of Americans, it could also help to undermine their ideas about the invincibility of the Nazis.
It was around this time that a British intelligence officer named Ian Fleming was sent to New York to help Stephenson convince the US to set up its own centralized intelligence agency. Fleming used Stephenson's office at Rockefeller Center as the location in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, which was published ten years later.
He later described Stephenson as "one of the great secret agents of the last war," a man with "a magnetic personality," who mixed "the most powerful martinis in America." They were so good that Fleming noted Stephenson's recipe: & # 39; Booth & # 39; gin, high and dry, easy on the vermouth, shaken, not stirred. & # 39;
Over time, Stephenson's tactics became even more cunning. He decided to forge a letter from Major Elias Belmonte, the Bolivian military attache in Berlin, and an avid pro-Nazi who outlined a planned Nazi coup in the Latin American country.
For this task he turned to Maschwitz, who was not only a writer, but also a gifted forger.
Maschwitz carefully changed the keys on a typewriter to produce a letter that appeared to have been typed on a German machine. No one who has seen the document, including Roosevelt and Hoover, seems to have doubted its authenticity. When it was published, the American public was furious.
The modified typewriter was thrown into the East River.
Maschwitz was then sent to Toronto to set up a special counterfeit department and create his most extraordinary work: a Nazi map showing what they wanted to do with South and Central America – including a plan to get rid of all religions to purchase.
Roosevelt gave his most provocative and angry speech since the beginning of the war as a result of the documents. But did he have any reason to suspect that they could be British counterfeits? Declassified cables from Stephenson to his superiors in London reveal that British & # 39; operations of any interest against isolationist groups were pre-approved by President Roosevelt & # 39 ;.
It is hard to believe that Roosevelt thought these documents were real, but he needed incidents that could make the US war and was willing to do everything he could to make "the right things" happen.
Towards the end of 1941, Stephenson used a final tactic, demonstrably more effective than all others.
He used the Market Analysts polling company to gauge public opinion about Americans who joined the war. They ensured that the formulation of each question led the respondent to certain answers. The order in which the questions were asked mattered, as did the emphasis that pollsters gave to each question. For example, the researchers discovered that 92 percent of their sample "favored America's access to the war against Germany."
Meanwhile, Lindbergh's reputation had become poisonous as a result of the infamous speech he gave in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941, in which he suggested that Jews were pushing the US to wage a war that was not in the national interest. It was generally labeled as anti-Semitic. America, it seemed, was finally ready.
On December 7, 1941, at 7:00 am, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began, killing 2,335 US soldiers. Roosevelt declared war on Japan the following day and on December 11, Germany declared war on America.
Stephenson was knighted in 1945 at the request of Churchill. He then ordered four staff members, including Air Attache Roald Dahl, to make a definitive history of his office records.
In 1976 he was immortalized in the biography A Man Called Intrepid, which sold more than two million copies. The book was popular, pacy – and so inaccurate that the American publisher later reissued it as fiction. It created a mythical figure, an iconoclastic spymaster with unlimited power.
It may seem strange that Stephenson was not continued by MI6 when the war was over, but not all of his operations and techniques were officially sanctioned and he had burned bridges with London's colleagues. So instead of returning to Britain, he settled in Bermuda, where he lived until the age of 92.
It may be appropriate that in the days before his death in 1989 he managed to perform a final act of manipulation of the press. Fearing that a media circus would follow the news, he made sure that the announcement was withheld for three days so that his funeral could take place in peace.
His instructions were followed and Sir William Stephenson successfully received the silent broadcast he wanted until the end.
Our Man In New York, by Henry Hemming, will be published by Quercus on Thursday for £ 20. Order for £ 16 before September 30 on 0844 571 0640 or via mailshop.co.uk.
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