Books Here's a good yarn: Roald Dahl and other British celebrities were secret agents in America. Matthew Price weighs their story.
The Irregulars: Friendly spies lead British charm offensive on America
The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
Simon & Schuster
In the very grim early days of the Second World War, when Germany looked set to conquer all of Europe and morale in Great Britain sank to rock bottom, Winston Churchill looked across the Atlantic. America, he determined, was England's only hope. But US intervention was anything but a foregone conclusion. While a sympathetic President Franklin Roosevelt steered money and material to the British war effort, many Americans, led by a vociferous isolationist bloc in Congress, refused to be dragged into another European war.
To change their minds, Churchill sent a group of British agents to America to engage in a concerted programme of manipulation, propaganda, espionage - and lots of wining and dining. The outfit charged with carrying out these tasks was a shadowy organisation known as British Security Coordination (BSC). The name is dull and bureaucratic, but the BSC's exploits were anything but.
The group's operatives, known among themselves as "the Irregulars" - in homage to Sherlock Holmes's gang of informal helpers - included actor and playwright Noel Coward, screen star Leslie Howard and two agents who later became famous for their writing: Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and Roald Dahl, author of beloved children's classics like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Headed by a wealthy Canadian industrialist, tinkerer, and electronics wiz named William Stephenson (code name: Intrepid) the BSC recruited agents to carry out covert operations in the United States targeting anti-New Dealers, Nazi sympathizers, corporations that did business with Germany and prominent isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh. They planted items in the press and worked up pro-British propaganda, conspiring to neutralise Britain's American critics.
It is a story that comes ready-made with colour, intrigue and glamorous cachet, even if the significance of BSC's accomplishments is difficult to gauge. Many of the group's activities remain enshrouded in myth and factual disparities. In her pleasurable account of BSC in America, Jennet Conant writes that it "remains one of the most controversial, and probably one of the most successful, covert action campaigns in the annals of espionage." Her claim is somewhat overblown. Whatever the group's successes, Conant doesn't quite convince you that BSC was as decisive factor in winning the war as she says it was. File
The Irregulars under the rubric "entertaining yarn"; it is just this side of being serious history. Still, Conant, a diligent researcher who acknowledges gaps in the record and the difficulties of writing about secret operations, has reconstructed their exploits with skill. From his "sprawling, highly mechanized intelligence empire" that occupied two floors of New York's Rockefeller Center, Stephenson presided over a vast network of operatives. Some of his operations were breathtaking, if not downright reckless. One scheme carried out in early 1941 sounds like something out of a spy film. A BSC agent fashioned a fake map of South America, purportedly showing Nazis plans to rule the continent, and had it planted in German safe house in Cuba. He then tipped off the FBI, which passed it along to Roosevelt, who told Americans in a radio address "that it makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States as well."
The prime mover of The Irregulars is Dahl. His BSC contact told him that "if you join us, you mustn't be afraid of forgery, and you mustn't be afraid of murder." Dahl wasn't ever involved in anything as nasty as that, but he probably had more fun than any other operative. A Royal Air Force fighter pilot knocked out of duty after crashing his plane over Libya, Dahl was first recruited to the BSC in 1942, after he arrived in Washington, DC to work as an air attaché for the British Embassy. Tall, handsome, and irascible, Dahl's embassy job gave him the perfect cover. Essentially, his mission was to charm and flirt his way into Washington's power elite and monitor their attitudes to the British. Though America had by this point declared war on Germany, there were still powerful currents of anti-British sentiment swirling in the capital. As befits a contributor to slick glossies like Vanity Fair and Esquire, Conant has a keen eye for the nexus of power and glitter in wartime Washington. Dahl was smash on the party circuit, where he dazzled society hostesses with his wit and irreverence.
Along the way, he met Charles Marsh, a millionaire newspaper publisher and "a walking, talking encyclopaedia of Washington life" who became Dahl's most important contact. The well-connected Marsh brokered introductions to leading columnists like Drew Pearson and to Roosevelt's Vice President, Henry Wallace. Dahl attended White House functions, corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt, and traded informal notes with the President about the progress of the war. Dahl was not a shy man. He had a sharp tongue and offered his opinions freely. At one dinner, Dahl took on Frank Waldrop, the isolationist managing editor of the anti-Roosevelt Washington Times-Herald. "Just why are you trying to create friction between the British and Americans? First will you answer yes or no, are you?" Dahl prodded Waldrop. "Yes, I am," Waldrop shot back. Responded Dahl: "So is Goebbels, carry on."
Some of Dahl's assignments bordered on the farcical. He was ordered to romance Claire Booth Luce - wife of Time magazine's publisher Henry Luce, Republican congresswoman and frequent critic of Britain - and find out if she might be persuaded to change her mind. The task wore him out ("You know it's a great assignment, but I can't go on") and did little to alter Luce's opinions. Of greater concern to the British was Roosevelt's increasingly unpopular Vice President, Henry Wallace. One evening in 1943, Marsh gave Dahl a rough draft of a pamphlet Wallace had worked up called Our Job in the Pacific. In it, Wallace outlined a postwar vision that included establishing international control of British airways and "the emancipation of colonial subjects" like Burma and India. Dahl passed the information onto his BSC contact, and when a report made its way back to Churchill, the prime minister was left sputtering with rage. Wallace was left off the Democratic ticket in 1944, but in many ways he was ultimately vindicated. The British era was over. After the war, the British lost their air routes - and an entire empire. Not even the clever Dahl could write a different ending to this story.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Financial Times.