From fake news to covert ops, aspects of Russia’s alleged efforts to boost Trump echo tactics pioneered in 1940.
Covert intelligence operations, propaganda, fake news stories, dirty tricks—all were used in a foreign government’s audacious attempt to influence U.S. elections. It wasn’t 2016; it was 1940, and the operations were employed not by a hostile adversary, but by America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom.Though technology has advanced, and the two nations’ motives could not have been more different, critical aspects of Russia’s alleged covert efforts to bolster the campaign of Donald Trump echo the tactics that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service pioneered seven decades ago. In 1940, as war raged in Europe, British intel officers in New York and Washington worked to elect candidates who favored U.S. intervention, defeat those who advocated neutrality, and silence or destroy the reputations of American isolationists they deemed a menace to British security. Scores—perhaps hundreds—of Americans who believed that fighting fascism justified unethical and, at times, illegal behavior, worked for British intelligence or cooperated with London’s efforts.
Winston Churchill’s goals were as clear Vladimir Putin’s motives are murky. Churchill, the U.K.’s savvy wartime prime minister, knew that Britain could survive and repel an anticipated German invasion only if it received massive amounts of aid from the U.S., and that ultimate victory over the Nazis would require American military involvement. He also knew that decisions to send food, fuel and weapons across the Atlantic, and to dispatch troop ships to follow in their wake, lay in the hands of the president and a hostile Congress. To pull the U.S. into Britain’s efforts would require first winning public opinion—making newspapers and radio programs the front lines in the battle to persuade Americans to elect politicians willing to back Britain over those who promoted an “America First” agenda. SIS, the British intelligence agency, flooded American newspapers with fake stories, leaked the results of illegal electronic surveillance and deployed October surprises against political candidates.
Over the 18 months between Britain’s humiliation at Dunkirk and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the scale and intensity of the SIS’s efforts in the United States were without parallel in the history of relations between allied democracies.
The SIS and its American collaborators went to great lengths to obscure the ties between their activities and the British government. These links have since come to light largely because William Stephenson, the Canadian businessman who headed British Security Coordination (BSC), the official front for SIS operations in North and South America from 1941–1945, commissioned a history of the organization’s operation. Declassified in 1999, that history provides a remarkably candid picture of London’s espionage and propaganda activities. Alongside other documents available in the U.K. National Archives, this history shows that, as it sought to shift America out of neutrality, British intelligence was restrained only by the certainty that the blowback from public exposure would have been disastrous.
The story of British government efforts to influence American elections and public opinion is a cautionary tale, providing a lesson that is all too relevant today about the power of propaganda and covert operations to alter history. It also demonstrates how difficult it can be to differentiate in real time between legitimate concerns and imaginary conspiracy theories—and, perhaps, provides a glimmer of hope about the resilience of American democracy.
American communists, fascists and isolationists complained bitterly and loudly in 1940 and 1941 that Britain was secretly manipulating the U.S. media as part of a campaign to pull America into the war. These accusations, confidently dismissed by liberal politicians and newspapers as paranoid ravings, were inaccurate only in that they were understated. Even the most alarmist commentators and conspiracy-mongers underestimated the depth and effectiveness of British covert activity.
British intelligence employed the full range of cloak-and-dagger techniques in America in 1940 and 1941: forgeries, seductions, burglaries, electoral dirty tricks, physical surveillance, intercepting and reading letters sent under diplomatic seal, illegally bugging offices and tapping phones. British intelligence even listened in on a telephone call in June 1940 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House and his ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. A report on the call was quickly relayed to Churchill, alerting him that the U.S. was making contingency plans in case the U.K. fell to the Nazis.
While the British government strongly backed Roosevelt, it hedged its bets by working behind the scenes to increase the chances that Republicans would pick a presidential candidate in 1940 who would join the fight against fascism.
The Republican Party, lacking a consensus about a standard-bearer or platform, was in disarray in June 1940 as its national convention approached. BSC worked behind the scenes to smooth the path for a nominee who favored intervention. One element of the BSC’s operations surfaced on June 25, when the New York Herald reported on a poll of convention delegates. Surprisingly, given the isolationist positions espoused by GOP stalwarts like Thomas Dewey, Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover, the poll—which the Herald wrote was “conducted by Market Analysts, Inc., an independent research organization”—found that three-fifths of GOP delegates supported helping the allies “with everything short of war.” In fact, Market Analysts, Inc., was anything but independent. Its head, Sanford Griffith, was an American who had secretly been working for British intelligence since the 1930s, and regardless of the population surveyed, its polls consistently advocated U.S. interventionism in Europe.
Among Market Analysts’ clients was the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, a group led by William Allen White, a nationally syndicated columnist influential among liberal Republicans. In his column, White wrote that the GOP delegate poll demonstrated that leading Republican isolationists were out of touch with the party’s members, and that Wendell Willkie—who had not run in the presidential primaries and had switched his party affiliation from Democratic to Republican only a few months ahead of the national convention—best represented Republicans’ views. While all of the other Republican contenders advocated steering clear of the war in Europe, Willkie argued that “America’s first line of defense is Great Britain.” It is impossible to determine exactly how influential BSC’s assistance was, but Willkie went into the convention an underdog and—to London’s delight, and the astonishment of the Republican establishment—emerged as the GOP candidate.
In addition to Griffith’s operation, BSC funded and coordinated the activities and messaging of a number of American anti-fascist organizations. One of these, an informal group of wealthy businessmen and journalists called the Century Group, operated during the campaign as a liaison between the British government, the White House and the Willkie campaign. It brokered an agreement from Willkie to refrain from criticizing a proposal that allowed Roosevelt to unilaterally authorize the transfer of scores of mothballed destroyers to Britain. As the first president to snub George Washington’s precedent of voluntarily stepping down after two terms, FDR was acutely aware of the threat posed by accusations that he was behaving like a dictator, so even the hint of such an accusation from the Republican candidate may have scuttled the deal. On August 30, 1940, BSC’s agents secured Willkie’s commitment to acquiesce to the transfer. Assured that he wouldn’t pay a devastating political price, Roosevelt announced the deal at a press conference four days later.
The BSC’s work on Willkie’s behalf was an exception. For the most part, it focused not on promoting candidates, but rather on defeating elected officials who opposed American intervention in the war.
Among those opponents was Rep. Hamilton Stuyvesant Fish III, a Republican and leading isolationist who had represented New York’s Hudson Valley in Congress since 1920. By picking a high-profile target, the campaign against Fish was intended to “put the fear of God into every isolationist senator and congressman in the country,” according to a letter a BSC agent sent in fall 1940.
To do this, the BSC created, funded and operated the Non-Partisan Committee to Defeat Hamilton Fish, which among other activities, circulated a pamphlet juxtaposing Fish, Adolf Hitler and Nazis. Another photo appeared to show Fish meeting with Fritz Kuhn, the “American Hitler” who led the German-American Bund and was, at the time, serving a prison sentence for embezzlement. Contrary to the caption—“Hamilton Fish inspecting documents with Fritz Kuhn”—the Republican congressman had never met privately with Bund leader. The photo had been taken at a 1938 public hearing that Congressman Fish had organized to discuss a proposed ban on paramilitary groups like the Bund.
Another bit of British-engineered fake news had an ironic twist, accusing Fish of being a pawn of a foreign power. They alleged that Nazis funneled money to Fish by renting his properties at inflated high rates as a means of subsidizing pro-German propaganda efforts. On October 21, Drew Pearson and Robert Allen reported the story in their hugely influential Washington Merry-go-Round column—a true October surprise.
Though Fish won reelection, his margin of victory was just 9,000 votes, half the size of his win in 1938. In an after-action report to BSC and since archived at FDR’s presidential library, Griffith stated that the local Democratic Party had put practically no effort into defeating Fish, and that an additional “$2,000 or $3,000 … a week or two ahead would have been sufficient to put it over.” Even after the U.S. entered the war, the BSC stayed on Fish’s case, planting scurrilous stories in 1942 that helped cut his margin of victory to 4,000 votes. In 1944, they finally beat him. Fish claimed it had taken “most of the New Deal Administration, half of Moscow, $400,000, and Governor Dewey to defeat me.” As the BSC history later crowed: “He might—with more accuracy—have blamed BSC.”
In addition to secretly intervening in campaigns, BSC funded and coordinated the efforts of pro-intervention American political organizations and of associations of emigres from Nazi-occupied countries that lobbied Congress and the public for a muscular U.S. response to Hitler.
BSC also tried to shape public opinion by feeding a stream of true, partially true and completely fabricated stories to sympathetic reporters and columnists. Some—like Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News and Ulric Bell of the Louisville Courier-Journal—worked directly with British intelligence officers, but most of the journalists who cooperated with BSC did so through American intermediaries. Among them was Walter Winchell, one of the most widely read columnists of the time, who routinely ran BSC items supplied by an intermediary.
Although few of the American reporters and editors who disseminated BSC propaganda were on the British payroll, it is not an exaggeration to characterize them as British agents or “subagents,” the latter being operatives directed by individuals who communicated with professional intelligence officers. In fact, this is precisely how the BSC thought about them. “The conduct of political warfare was entirely dependent on secrecy,” notes the BSC history. “For that reason, the press and radio men with whom BSC maintained contact were comparable with subagents and the intermediaries with agents. They were thus regarded.” In 1991, Edmond Taylor, an American journalist and active collaborator with the Brits during World War II, told a historian that British intelligence agents “connived“ with “Americans like myself who were willing to go out of regular (or even legal) channels to try to bend U.S. policy towards objectives that the British, as well as the Americans in question, considered desirable.”
One of the journalists in charge of BSC’s propaganda efforts described his unit’s activities in a 1942 memo to the British Foreign Office without mincing words. He wrote that his remit included “subversive propaganda in the United States for the exposure and destruction of enemy propaganda … [and] countering isolationist and appeasement propaganda which is rapidly taking on the shape of a Fascist movement, conscious or unconscious.” Weekly reports to London from British agents in New York tallied the number of stories that had been planted in American newspapers.
The BSC history draws a straight line from planting pro-British stories in American newspapers to Roosevelt’s decision to send destroyers to England. The transfer happened, according to BSC, because Stephenson had “means at his disposal for influencing American public opinion in favour of aid to Britain. In fact, covert propaganda, one of the most potent weapons which BSC employed against the enemy, was harnessed directly to this task.”
The British government had a well-oiled, coordinated, worldwide strategy during World War II for generating and disseminating rumors, which it called “sibs,” short for sibilare, the Latin word for whisper or hiss. Many of the sibs were silly or outlandish—for example, rumors that man-eating sharks from Australia had been deposited in the English Channel to consume downed German aviators—but British intelligence took them extraordinarily seriously. “The object of propaganda rumours is in no sense to convey the official or semi-official views of H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government] by covert means to officials in the countries concerned,“ read one classified wartime report. “It is rather to induce alarm, despondency and bewilderment among the enemies, and hope and confidence among the friends, to whose ears it comes.”
New sibs were approved by an organization called the Underground Propaganda Committee (UPC), which met weekly in London during the war. While rumors spread in Europe by word of mouth, in the U.S., they were disseminated through a network of friendly reporters and, starting in the spring of 1941, by the Overseas News Agency, a news service that received subsidies from, and was controlled by, the BSC. ONA articles appeared in newspapers around the country. Especially prior to Pearl Harbor, these stories were picked up by newspapers in Germany, Japan and occupied countries.
To cite a typical example, at a meeting of the UPC on August 8, 1941, a decision was made to release a series of sibs that, according to the meeting minutes, were “intended to suggest that the Fuehrer, who is alone responsible in the face of a good deal of opposition for the Russian campaign, is becoming more and more unbalanced as he realises that the vast gamble is miscarrying.” Eight days later, the New York Post ran an article supplied by ONA citing “circumstantial evidence for a belief that Hitler is not at the Russian front, but at Berchtesgaden suffering from a severe nervous breakdown.” The article went on to assert that the Fuehrer’s personal physician had recently traveled to Switzerland to consult with the famed psychiatrist Carl Jung to discuss “the rapid deterioration of Hitler’s mental condition,” which ONA asserted was characterized by delusional rages in which he confused the contemporary battle for Smolensk with a World War I battle in France.
On July 11, 1941, the UPC approved a sib for distribution in the U.S. newspapers, where Japanese diplomats would read it, indicating that if Tokyo attacked Indochina, the Soviet Union would attack Japan by air. The next day, the New York Times and other American newspapers ran an AP story that cited “reliable persons” reporting that Japan was poised to “make a move against French Indo-China soon.” The story noted that “Russia has a large air force within easy range of Japan’s vulnerable centers of population.”
In August 1941, the New York Times published ONA’s report that the death of a 130-year-old Bedouin soothsayer was seen in the Middle East as “a sign of a coming defeat for Hitler.” Also in the soothsaying business, the BSC sponsored a U.S. tour for Louis de Wohl, a Hungarian “astro-philosopher.” In press conferences and an appearance at the annual convention of the American Federation of Scientific Astrologers, de Wohl announced that the stars predicted doom for Hitler and success for Roosevelt. Newspapers credulously reported his statement that a “yogi once told me a man born on the date Hitler came into power would cause his downfall. Hitler rose to power on Jan. 30, and that is Roosevelt’s birth date.”
The BSC operations in the U.S. weren’t all frivolity and fake news; many were much more serious.
Using undercover agents, the BSC conducted a yearlong investigation of a scheme by congressional staff to insert pro-Nazi propaganda into the Congressional Record and to use congressional franking privileges to distribute it. The BSC then coordinated media exposés of the franking scandal and supplied federal prosecutors with information on the pro-Nazi plot, resulting in several convictions.
Elsewhere in Washington, the BSC targeted the embassy used by the Vichy French, illegally tapping its phones, burglarizing embassy property and deploying a female operative to seduce Vichy officials. That intel was then used as the basis for a series of newspaper articles revealing Vichy diplomats’ efforts to help Nazi Germany—stories that the BSC then arranged to be printed under the byline of an American journalist. The resulting public furor severely curtailed the Vichy government’s American activities.
With the clarity of hindsight, some may write off as a historical curiosity the extraordinary efforts by Britain to influence American public opinion and the results of elections, arguing that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s impetuous declaration of war vaporized notions of neutrality, rendering efforts to propel America into the war superfluous. But in fact, given the depth and strength of the opposition to FDR’s efforts to support Britain in 1940 and 1941—and the importance of that lifeline, which pro-British propaganda made possible—it is clear that the efforts of British intelligence officers and their American recruits helped change history.
In the summer of 1941, the Roosevelt administration strained its political muscles in an all-out push to persuade Congress to amend an emergency military conscription law and extend mandatory service from one year to 2½ years. After the White House exerted all its strength, on August 12, the House passed the extension by a one-vote margin. It is easy to imagine, though impossible to prove, that the efforts of the BSC’s operatives to bend the public and bully politicians away from isolationism, tipped the balance in favor of the law. If it had not squeaked through Congress, the U.S. military would have had to send tens of thousands of men home, substantially weakening the position of American forces on the verge of war.
America’s first experience of large-scale foreign interference in its elections holds lessons that are relevant today, including the fact that SIS continued to target its American political foes until at least 1944—long after the United States committed itself to the war. If history is any guide, Donald Trump’s inauguration may not mark the end of Russia’s attempts to sway American politicians and public opinion.
By Steve Usdin –