The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, by Jennet Conant
It is a curious fact, not enough appreciated, that the qualities which make men successful entrepeneurs — imagination, courage, energy, ambition and so on — can be nearly useless in politics, diplomacy and war. Thus, William Stephenson, a rich Canadian businessman, was set up in New York (or set himself up) as one of Britain’s leading intelligence agents during the second world war. His principal achievement, for good or ill, was his contribution to the establishment of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan was a close friend. He got a knighthood for his services, and a medal from the Americans, but he was never satisfied with either the recognition he received or the record of his rather humdrum activities as The Man Called Intrepid (after his wartime telegraphic address). Starting in 1945 he spent the rest of his life (which was long) fantasising about his services and feeding tall tales to gullible scribes. He had longed for the world of John Buchan and deeds of derring-do; since all he had attained in reality was a large office-suite in the Rockefeller Center (his predecessor had been content with a cubby-hole at the British consulate) he invented freely. It is doubtful if sober historians will ever succeed in correcting his fantasies effectively, so avid is the reading public for thrilling spy stories.
The latest victim of his yarn-spinning is Jennet Conant, an American freelance who makes a good living from books about what she calls the secret history of the second world war (she has also written on Robert Oppenheimer and Los Alamos, for example). She writes extremely badly: her grammar, syntax and vocabulary are as slovenly as her mental processes, but her real defect is the lack of any training in documentary criticism. Thus she makes extensive use of the archive of Charlie Marsh, another romantic businessman (a Texan) who hovered hopefully in the antechambers of wartime Washington, always hoping for a job in the government and never getting one. He was a close friend of Vice-President Henry Wallace. Conant quotes him extensively, but she never notices that his utterances are almost always vacuous and inconsequential. He was rich, charming and a good host, but that was all. It was left to his chum and protégé, Roald Dahl, to make him out to be something more, and to Jennet Conant to believe Dahl.
Dahl served as a junior air attaché in the British embassy; his job was to be as friendly as possible to the Americans on whom his country’s survival depended, and to pick up any useful titbits of information that came his way. Mostly he reported to the embassy but when anything slightly sensational turned up, to William Stephenson. It was the usual work of an attaché, but Conant excitedly calls it ‘espionage’ and uses the word ‘spy’ whenever she can. She does not pause to consider that in a society as open as the United States, even in wartime, intelligence-gathering is absurdly easy, especially for allied officials; and anyway the US government knew exactly what was going on. There was little or no subterfuge, and that, surely, is the essence of espionage. A. J. P. Taylor went too far when he remarked that the Foreign Office didn’t know any secrets, but there were only two important secrets in Washington: the making of the atomic bomb, and the date and place of D-Day. Both were successfully kept from the Germans, and the British, of course, knew about them from the start.
Dahl’s real business in Washington was to launch himself as a writer, which he did by publishing a highly fictitious account of the plane crash in the Western Desert which eventually got him invalided out of the R.A.F. He was a man after Stephenson’s own heart, and in 1945 they collaborated with others in producing the so-called Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-1945, which Conant invariably refers to as the official history, but which was never approved, or perhaps even seen, by the British government. After it was finished Stephenson buried all the documents on which it was based. It was this book which launched the ‘intrepid’ myth and which unfortunately Jennet Conant has swallowed whole. Caveat lector.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 22, 2008