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Book Review: Desperate Deception

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Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44
by Thomas E. Mahl (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1998); 256 pages; $22.95.

Imagine that the United States were in a war with a strong and determined foe. Imagine that it had become clear to American foreign policymakers that the United States were unable to militarily defeat its enemy on its own. Suppose that those policymakers looked around for a possible ally in the war, and concluded that Great Britain was the most desirable candidate. But suppose that a major stumbling block to obtaining British participation in the war on America’s side were a strong noninterventionist sentiment among the British people and an unwillingness on the part of the members of the House of Commons to vote for entering the war as long as Great Britain was not directly under attack.

Now imagine that the United States government were to undertake a comprehensive program of deception and manipulation in Great Britain to create support for entry into the war on America’s side, including smearing British members of Parliament who advocated British neutrality and distorting their positions; made up falsehoods about the actions and intentions of America’s opponent in the war; used a network of respected British writers, correspondents, and media figures to exaggerate the American case; and wrote speeches and prepared position papers for members of the British government to use almost word for word while making it appear as if they had been written by those British.

It is easy to suppose that if information about such a campaign were to become public in Great Britain it would cause a national scandal and a violent reaction against the United States. And it is easy to imagine that even some Americans might be shocked and angered that their own government would resort to such subterfuge against a neutral country normally considered friendly and sympathetic to the United States.

Well, that is exactly what the British government did in the United States beginning in 1939 to win first American support for its war with Nazi Germany and then to obtain American entry into that war on Great Britain’s side when a British victory without American participation appeared impossible.

The story of the British government’s war campaign in America is told in great detail in Thomas E. Mahl’s recent book, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44. Shortly after the beginning of the war in September 1939, the British set up the British Security Coordination service (BSC), with headquarters in New York City. Its director for most of the war was William Stephenson, whose code name was “Intrepid.” The methods and tactics used included the following:

Ž The falsification of information. For example, in October 1941, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a nationwide address in which he said that he had in his possession a captured German map of South America tracing out the planned Nazi invasion of Brazil. The map had been skillfully created by a British team in Toronto and passed on to the White House. It was used by Roosevelt for pressuring Congress to repeal some of the neutrality legislation. In November 1941, the British government decided that there were not enough dramatic photographs of Nazi atrocities. The BSC arranged for a studio in Canada to create such photographs using actors, stage-sets, costumes, and dummies for the manufacture of war scenes in which actors dressed up as Nazi soldiers were shown mass-murdering innocent people. These photos were widely circulated in the United States.

The use and manipulation of the press and public figures. The British obtained the covert and implicit support of such leading public figures of the press and the news media as Walter Winchell (radio commentator); Dorothy Thompson (author and columnist); Walter Lippman (author and essayist); Robert E. Sherwood (author and screenplay writer); Paul Patterson (publisher of the Baltimore Sun) ; Marshall Field (businessman and founder of the Chicago Sun ); Henry Luce (publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune); Harold Guinzburg (cofounder of Viking Press); and many others to bias news and commentary towards the British and in favor of American entry into the Second World War. Some of them were used through British-sponsored or -supported “front” organizations; some consciously participated in a covert campaign for the British cause.

The BSC also gave covert support for the writing and use of school textbooks that would present Great Britain in a positive light and America’s unity in values and beliefs with the British cause. The British even went so far as to manipulate comic strips; they successfully pressured Ham Fischer, creator of “Joe Palooka,” to give his comic-strip story line a pro-British slant.

The destruction of political opponents. British intelligence also targeted noninterventionist members of Congress for defeat. They focused on Hamilton Fish of New York for destruction. A British agent wrote to an American collaborator, “If … we can defeat Fish, who has been considered invincible for twenty years, we will put the fear of God into every isolationist senator and congressman in the country.” The British went to work accusing Fish of Nazi sympathies and even of being subsidized by the German government (neither of which stories had a grain of truth in them). Only in 1944, did the British finally succeed in bringing about Fish’s defeat. They also had a hand in influencing the Republican nomination of Wendell Willkie for the presidency in 1940, because Willkie was clearly pro-British, while other possible Republican candidates, such as Robert Taft, were firmly noninterventionist.

Distorting public opinion. The British positioned people in the Gallop Poll organization and other public-opinion survey groups. They manipulated the questions and wording of polls taken at labor union conventions and veterans’ organizations to make it appear that a large number of people supported Great Britain’s war effort and American action in behalf of the British. In fact, public opinion before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was overwhelming noninterventionist.

The British had successfully influenced public opinion and political decision-making in getting the United States into World War I on the side of Great Britain. But never was there such a master plan so comprehensively applied as the British covert propaganda activities leading up to America’s participation in the Second World War. Many of the facts that Mahl narrates have been told before; they are not completely new revelations. But his access to records, documents, and other papers offers a much clearer picture of how America was manipulated by a “friendly” nation into the biggest war of the 20th century.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).