tv Book Discussion on The Irregulars CSPAN February 22, 2015 8:00am-8:36am EST
borders bookstore hosted this event in 2008. it's about 30 minutes. >> thank you for coming. this is a hometown book for you washingtonians. writing about spies is a tricky business. the undergoing of any spy work is full of murky doings. making matters much worse in the case of this story was the point that these were all accounts muttled by exaggeration, misdirection, and lies, official and unofficial. that made tracking the truth a very slippery business. the history of british spies
working in america. friends spying on friends is a story a lot of people wanted to forget. both countries wanted to suppress. so it's a particularly tangled mess. in working on this book i was frequently reminded of a line of one of my favorite westerns, the man who shot valense. in the movie, they asked the newspaper editor if the truth of what happened would ever come out. he said, no, sir, this is the west -- when the legend becomes fact print the legend. my experience with intelligence reports, they're the same. and a certain glossy version, sanctified version if you want emerges. that sort of remains the case of any inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet.
in the case of the story of the irregulars the history of the british security coordination that's a very clumsy name that edgar hoover, the head of the fbi gave to the british spy operation in america, they preferred a code name that had its root in sherlock holmes' street urchins the gifted amateurs that aided sherlock holmes in the inquiries, the baker street irregulars the british preferred that and they referred to themselves as the irregulars. the truth is it's tricky to write about because you're writing about spies so you're writing about people who are gifted liars would be a polite way to put it. to say that they were trained in the arts of deception and would
be a polite way to put it. they varied wildly and meandered often from the truth. it was difficult to take anything they said at face value. i couldn't take the transcripts of the interviews and rely on them as wholly responsible. it lies with the head of the baker street irregulars, the british security coordination. a careful colorful character named stevenson. he was a canadian sent to america in 1940. his name, william stevenson, famous to many of you for his code name, "interested," they were a series of best sellers after the war. a man called interested was one
of them. he took a great hand in embroidering his own legend. he was clever enough at the end of the war to commission his own quote/unquote official awards so the official irregular activities in america, unofficial, official, it's gift to tell what's what. how difficult was it to clean up in 1945 and 1946 let alone later in the '50s, '60s, and '70s in america in england wrestled over that period of history. a particularly colorful trio, raul dahl, ian fleming, the author of the james bond books and david ogilvy. they didn't go out of their way to exaggerate or mislead people
about their own spying careers. i think it was more a case of the fact that reality fell sort of sadly short of fiction. i think that it's no coincidence that all three of those men made their postcareer fame as fabulous as the story tellers of one sort of another. and i think because james bond's outsize flames, their own exploits in the war pale by comparison. they were not like flemings' daring creations. they did not drop behind enemy lines and slit the throat. they were intelligence. rather than front line operatives, they were behind the scenes hunters and gatherers, more pedestrian, but effective task on finding out dirt on
american politicians and officials and forwarding it back to their superiors in england. all of this was done throughout the war between 1940 and 1945. and it had a great influence why do the british need to spy on us? most americans forget in 1940 when churchill first sent stevenson over here to start building the secret notework-- network, it was unpopular in america. called the european conflict in the american newspapers.
people were adamantly opposed to becoming involved in the war. the lend lease bill didn't look like it was going to pass. roosevelt, friendly with churchill, who wanted to help churchill and wanted to send aid to england couldn't be seen as lifting a hand to aid england without risking re-election. the british desperately needed america's help. hitler had marched across europe. it was two or three months away from invading england. literally, their only hope would be that america would choose to intervene and churchill could not let that fall to chance. he decided to send in a group of operatives to prod the reluctant ally to action. probably the most irregular of them all was dahl. he was not someone who set out the be a spy.
he only landed in washington because as a very young and inexperienced ref pilot he managed to get lost, run out of fuel and crash his pain. he was badly injured badly burned. he was invalid out of the war at the age of 25. he wanted to do something. his friends were all still fighting and he found a post in washington as a sort of goodwill ambassador. he was very good looking. he was 6'6", handsome very charming, well spoken articulate. breathtakingly smashing in his ref uniform and gold braid. he was a poster boy for the british war hero. he was supposed to come here, shake politicians' hands, kiss their wives, and raise money for the war orphans back home. a morale booster. he got caught in a cocktail
problem here in america. he wanted no part of it because people were so well fed and safe here. he was rude and insulting and badly behaved that he got fired and about to be sent home when william stevenson decided to hire him and recruit him as a spy. stevenson had become aware of his antics but decided to take a chance on dahl. someone once remarked that one reason he decided to hire dahl he thought no one that badly behaved would be suspected of being a spy. stevenson also could not afford to be too choosy. remember, by 1940, europe had been in war for several years. the secret service types. we're already working in europe. breaking the enigma code.
group and have to impress him with the wear withall and cleverness. he in turn looked for people like himself, academic, industrialists that were well connected for businessmen. he hierped journalists. he also hired actors and artists. as a result, you've got people like fleming, a former journalist who had begun working in naval intelligence. you have ogilvy who worked in advertising and working for the british. the british decided to infiltrate the gallup poll organization then like today did
election results and turned ogilvy first to spy and outright public opinion in america. they also hired noel coward, a playwright and entertainer. he travelled country to country, met many heads of state. he met leslie howard, one of the stars of the wind. get different documents and he thought the death would be bad for british morale. he was an air attache, as i said.
all of his early story, the stories of the escapades as a pilot, they were all straight out propaganda. he wrote them, he submitted them to his bosses. they passed through the british information services signed off to the british officials and sent to the saturday evening post ladies' home journal and things like that as propaganda. their purpose was to rouse sympathies inflame people against the nazis and make americans want to fight on england's behalf. dahl came in in '42 six months after pearl harbor. america was fighting on two fronts. they had them worried the american anger towards the japanese would mean more ships, manpower, and money would be sent on the pacific war than the european war. the blitz had taken a huge toll in england. the cities were being bombed nightly. they needed america's help. and they were fighting for every
airplane, for every ship, for every submarine. and so they did everything they could to turn american sympathies to the british and keep america focused on britain. his daily jobs were to seduce the politicians. he was incredibly charming. an outspoken critic of roosevelt's. he was outspoken of the british. time and life kept running
tirades against the british. churchill hated luce. he was as at the top of the enemy's list. and when claire booth luce made a pass at dahl's embassy dinner, dahl's superior said go for it and he did. there's a joke that he complained to friends that he was 13 years older than him. you know, the line, close your eyes and think of england. but anyway. he became friends with walter winchell. they were the most powerful and influential gossip columnists of the day. he would meet with them regularly and trade aye tells with them. an unscrupulous line of work but effective. there were a lot of prominent americans like charles lindbergh and others who were supportive
of germany and anti-intervention. he might give them items that would smear those individuals. the same would go for senators, congressmen that were outspoken against roosevelt's war policies. they would investigation whether or not those gentlemen had mistresses. they would provide the gossip columnist with blackmail items. they were desperate measures but they were desperate times and the british were going to take the people out one-by-one. there were u.s. cooperations doing business with the third reich. if you were a major american corporation in an oil company or a chemical company and you fully expected that the third reich would march into england in three months and you would be doing business with them because they would be the major controller of european oil and economy, you continue to do business with them. it was a good bet. and they would expose these companies and they would do stories about how standard oil
executives were supporting the nazis. these would make headlines. they would lead to congressional investigations and embarrassment and so forth. so in a -- at the same time, the -- the american gossip columnists would benefit by getting a lot of juicy items and their own blackmail material. and in dahl's diaries and letters, he details how he met with drew persson and how he exchanged the aye tells and bragged that he became so close to drew persson in particular that he became regarded as one of the family. so he was very effective in that regard. in his role, dahl starts to make a name for himself in washington and his short stories started earning him quite a bit of acclaim as a young writer. one of them in particular sort of particularly affecting a fable he wrote for children in the ladies' home journal was about the little gremlins that
tinkered with the pilots' planes meant to appeal to others and sympathy for the british ref pilots. it appeared to eleanor roosevelt who read the story to her grandchildren. in short order, young dahl started to get back to dinner on a regular basis and started to go to hyde park on the weekends with the roosevelt family. unknown to eleanor roosevelt was the fact that he was filing detailed intelligence reports back to england on everything he heard and saw. the british were obsessed with roosevelt's health. remember in '40, 1940, roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term. in 1944, he ran for an equally unprecedented fourth term. his health was failing. while the american newspapers didn't report too much on his appearance and the fact that he was growing weaker and weaker, the british were obsessed with
the fact that he might not live through the fourth term. they were terrified that henry wallace would become president. henry wallace was extremely left wing. he was virulently anti-empire. the top top of the enemies list. the british did not want him on the ticket. he had been vice president during roosevelt's third term. they needed him off of the ticket in the fourth term. they could not risk henry wallace becoming president if anything should happen to fdr. the british maneuvered endlessly behind the scenes to black and wallace's name. they leaked every bit of dirt as they possibly could. it ran in the papers, it was the talk of washington. he had all kinds of strange religious beliefs. he one time dabbled in a mystical cult. they dug it all up. saw it got a lot of press. henry wallace was boot in a democratic ticket in a controversial republican convention in chicago in 1944. the british in their papers and
files congratulated themselves for having tinkered with the american political process in their favor. needless to say that this was a very effective counterespionage propaganda operation, arguably one of the most effective in the history of espionage. over 2,000 british agents working in north america. he became the oss which would
later morph into the cia. all of this amounts to a shadow force that waged war within this country breaking in some sense every law of the land to fight for england by means of sabotage propaganda, and political subversion. had congress or the american public known at the time that roosevelt invited the spies in. instructed hoover to look the other way, he would have opened himself up to impeachment proceedings. history proved him right. we looked back on this as a just war, a war we should have entered. we looked back on roosevelt and the british "irregulars" despite the underhanded means as on the side of the angels. so it's a case of doing wrong for the right reasons. but it is a very fraught piece
of history as a result. one of my favorite lines about this period of history was uttered by earnest cunio. he was a pivotal figure. he goes through when chel's wartime columns and he was an operative who basically was the go-between between the british intelligence and roosevelt's brain trust. and he said, well, it was well known that the british were there in america to trick america into the war. and he said and i quote, of course the british were trying to push us into the war. but if that be so, we were indeed a pushover. it reminds me of chauncer he fell upon her and would have raped her but for her ready acquiescence. one thing, i say do you write the books with the eye to the relevance of current history. you do. history has an awful habit of
repeating itself. you cannot look at this period of espionage and not look at our own weakness in the intelligence we had, in entering the war we find ourselves embroiled in now. and also our need, i suppose, for greater vigilance and the necessity of paying close attention to the role of our own media, its vulnerability to propaganda, and the super lobbyists who would conspire to get us in to wars and keep us there. thank you for coming. [ applause ] are there any questions? >> so many years ago, there was a bio about -- that he was anti-semetic and a racist. did you find anything in your research to be true?
>> that took account his full life. in his waning years, in the late 70s, early 70s he became a kwerl louse old man. he fought with his publishers, journalists, he picked a find with salman rushdi. but a lot of them did. he did utter some anti-semitic comments. he had a reputation of not a nice older man. all i would say is he saw a lot of death as a young man. he came out of the war badly injured. he had eight or nine spinal surgeries when they were not a pretty thing. he took a lot of pain killers and on top of that self-medicated from the 40s to the end of his life with booze. that can make you a mean drunk and make for regrettable statements. but, yes he did say some
unfortunate things. >> you mentioned fdr asked hoover to look the other way. how many americans on the senior level looked the other way and didn't want to know or actively knew and took part and assisted the irregulars? >> that's a very good question. it's incredibly complicated. there's a 50-foot shelf of books on the oss the cia, and the british secret service and from different perspectives and sort of who said what when and who knew what when. certainly when they were invite in in 1940 it was with a wink and a not. few people knew and hoover was asked to look the other way. in short order, by certainly the end of '41, so many british spies in washington that senior state department officials knew
one of them the assistant secretary of state was completely up in arms about it. a lot were up in arms about it. constant memos saying the british have what amounts to a secret army in this country. it's in violation of the monroe doctrine. if this comes out, you know, heads are going to roll. it's going look horrendous for this administration and for all of us who look the other way. we've got to do something. and these memos go on and on. the trouble is stevenson was just a slick political operator that between the support roosevelt had for him, that churchill had for him, the need that the british had -- the need the americans had for the british foreign intelligence because he didn't have their own foreign intelligence yet meant that the irregulars managed to keep staying. they're on the edge of being kicked out. the state department made endless inroads in attempts to curtail their power. they passed various bills.
they would put them up, roosevelt would undercut them. and the spy stayed. but the minute the war came to an end, they were booted out of this country and they purged the oss of spies and there was a huge turning against the british in the newly formed cia. >> they were interesting people and not very trainable. >> that's a well put statement. i don't think they were very trainable. they were clever and charming and hired in part because of the built-in cover. ogilvy was at gallup. dahl was already at the embassy. they were already well fixed and well connected socially. ivar pryce was married to walter lipman's sister. he was charming and good looking. he was in good place. a lot of them hired because of
their social connections and background. they had very little training. as a result, stevenson built himself something he called camp x in canada. it was a quick flight from new york to right outside of toronto. it was a finishing school for spies. ogilvy and fleming would go here for six weeks in the sticks and go nowhere. learn about safe cracking and code. but they got a crash course in spies. and the recollections of learning how to kill man with a newspaper or with one blow nothing that ogilvy who i think weighed about 110 is something he could every do. they had a sort of a sabotage school in the canadian wilderness. it's got all kinds of myths and legends attached to it called
camp x. >> maybe you want to tell the audience about your own grandfather and his role during the manhattan project. he was here in washington, probably had some intersection. did you uncover that? >> fbi files. >> my grandfather was in charge of administrating the manhattan project. he did that with the elder bush, the head of mit. they had all of the oversight of the wartime categories. my grandfather's area was the atom bomb. spies were something they were paranoid about and vigilant about. one of temperature reasons it's in the new mexico desert. so my grand phatever was obsessed with spies. they were worried that the germans would find out about the
bomb because the fbi was flowing oppenheimer, the germans had steady access to the russians to a enormous amount of our nuclear secrets not only the atom bomb but the hydrogen bomb. those records are still coming out and we'll learn about how damaged that espionage was. in the 60s as my grandfather became interested in his own fbi file. he, too, was followed and used the freedom of information act to get his own file. it was of great interest because it was completely purged and documents were missing. it was a constant topic of conversation and i became fascinated with the whole period and it led me to be interest in this topic.
>> beating up nazis with no due process and hoover was sort of cleaning up the mess. but that would have been the main area of sabotage which was -- >> the germans. >> the original mandate was really to come in here and identify nazi sympathizers and german organizations in this country. they vastly overstepped that and did all kinds of spying on our politicians and meddling in our own political process before they were done. that what happens when you invite your allies in. >> i found a copy of the official history of british
intelligence in north america before i read it and i'm looking forward to it, how -- i guess you relied upon -- when you wrote the book. how reliable is it? >> that's by williams stevenson. in the laster parts of the war he said you commission the protection of your own ass. he was married to the mystery writer, helen mcguinness. it was interesting because she was writing anti-sort of novels that made the most of nazi atrocities which was also propaganda in the form of fiction.
raul dahl wrote several chapters of that history. i believe they're quite recognizable in the style. it's fairly academic and dry. you'll come across a chapter that begins, he looked like a goat in terms of one politician and the other politician looked like a horse. this would be raul dahl writing what he i guess trying to liven up an official report. it would be an overstatement. they're more reliable than others. the dahl section, i had all of his diaries and letters. i had henry wallace's i had charles marsh and other publishers. i know what he was doing the other day. i knew where he was and what he was lunching with. i could compare it, sort of track it with the entry and the history and substantiate many of his claims.
willing to use those there. other claims, i don't mention in the book. i don't think they can be substantiated. certainly not with any records we have now. they claim to do all kinds of accomplishments that are more controversial. i tried to stay with what i could prove and try hang late with other documents. but it's a fascinating record. you know, the british have enormous amount of records. they come before parliament and people petition for them to release them. parliament goes, well, no. they lock them up again. i'm not sure we'll ever see them so -- any other questions? thank you for coming, everybody.
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