Thursday Book: Winning the propaganda war

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The Independent Culture

IN THE AMERICAS, 1940-1945


BRITISH INTELLIGENCE in America from 1940 onwards was organised into a single agency headed by a Canadian businessman, William Stephenson. He was the "Quiet Canadian" of H Montgomery Hyde's 1962 biography, and the "Man Called Intrepid" of the 1976 book by his near-namesake and fellow- Canadian, William Stevenson. Around his name have clustered an increasing number of myths, until there was hardly a single new revelation about British intelligence activities anywhere which was not followed by some claim that Stephenson had been its originator. In the last few years, refuting these claims has become a minor historical industry in its own right.

This book embodies what Stephenson saw as his Final Report at the end of the war. It requires the most careful reading. Naive Americans, both academics and press reviewers, have taken it as gospel. I have already seen one overheated study of "British propaganda" in the United States which claims that every American anglophile, every American opponent of Hitler in the years before Pearl Harbour, was a "British agent". Even Nigel West, in his otherwise valuable introduction, remarks on the "willingness of American radio commentators to publish foreign propaganda".

It is true that those concerned professionally with winning American support against Hitler preferred to let American publicists carry their message. But these were the same commentators who had been lambasting Britain for most of the 1930s for not standing up to Hitler. Today's young men - and many of their elders who should know better - talk of propaganda as if it had no persuasive content. They refuse to recognise that the contest with Hitler from 1933 was about beliefs at least as much as about interests or national identity - if not more.

Which brings us to the most important question any historian has to ask of a document. What was its originator's agenda? What audience was it aimed at? What result was it intended to achieve? Nigel West tells us that only a very limited number of copies of this report were made; that Stephenson so disliked the first draft that he had it rewritten by, among others, Roald Dahl, before his career as a children's author. And it is difficult to imagine anything less like an official report than this compendium of spy stories, Mata Hari-esque intrigues and wide claims to success, if not omniscience.

A careful study of Stephenson's own foreword suggests that the aim of his report was to promote the postwar establishment of a single British intelligence agency. This would unite MI5, MI6, Bletchley Park's decipherers, the intelligence services of the three armed forces and the industrial intelligence agencies under a single head. No prizes for guessing his name.

In pursuing this aim, Stephenson made at least one statement that he must have known was untrue. He argued that the success of American intelligence resulted from the concept of co-ordinated operations. Yet this was a country whose naval and military intelligence services divided their work on Japanese ciphers according to the day of the week of each intercept. They could only be induced to co-operate by the British signing separate agreements with the two agencies!

It really is about time for some serious debunking of this document, the origin of so much media oxen deposit. It would help, too, if it could have been critically edited by someone capable of correlating it both with the American records, and with the German documentation on diplomatic and political activities in Latin America, as well as in the US. In fact, the contribution made by British Security Co-ordination to the victory of the western powers is itself in need of the most serious re-evaluation - in a downwards direction.

Stephenson always liked to see himself in comparison with his First World War predecessor, Sir William Wiseman. But Wiseman acted as the main conduit for communications between President Woodrow Wilson and the British government. Then, there was a major German sabotage effort at work in America, and a large Germanic minority with German sympathies. There was nothing remotely comparable in the US in the Second World War.

In fact, to accept any of the claims made in this document at face value would risk the most serious distortion of the historical record. In the meantime, this book should be treated as Nigel West tells us William Stevenson's supposed biography of "Intrepid" was treated by American libraries. That is, it should be read as the historical fiction it is. As such, it makes a good read. But it should be treated as a historical curiosity, not as the unquestionable - let alone the unvarnished - truth.