In June 1940, MI6’s new man, Bill Stephenson, ‘a figure of restless energy… wedged into the shell of a more watchful man’, sailed from Liverpool to New York on the MV Britannic. Once separated from its protective convoy, ‘this elegant, ageing liner was on its own’, Henry Hemming writes, noting that the same was true of Britain and ‘salvation for both lay in the New World’.
Shortly after America entered the second world war in December 1941, a plane left for Britain carrying just a handful of passengers. Stephenson was among them. Over the intervening 18 months he had become Britain’s extraordinarily effective ‘Man in New York’. Not only did he set up a foreign intelligence service with unparalleled reach in the USA and help to establish the precursor of the CIA, he also achieved his ultimate goal of shifting American public opinion away from isolationism, towards support for direct intervention in the war, before Pearl Harbor provided the due cause.
It was said that Stephenson was ‘impossible not to like’. He certainly inveigled an extraordinary range of people to manipulate American public opinion, using every conceivable method — from forgeries, fake news and astrology to, possibly, assassination. Among the outstanding movers here was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Eric Maschwitz, perhaps most famous for the songs ‘These Foolish Things’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ — the latter written as a diversion from his MI6 work. The early days of the Battle of Britain had found him racing round Yorkshire in a car loaded with Molotov cocktails; but he was soon on his way to America, where he produced one of the most important forgeries of the propaganda war. (A man of seemingly inexhaustible creativity, as the BBC’s director of light entertainment in the 1960s he commissioned a new show called Doctor Who.)
Opposing Stephenson and his team were the heavyweights of the America First isolationist movement, including the legendary pilot and anti-Semitic campaigner Charles Lindbergh, often but not always indirectly supported by Nazi staff and budgets.
If this were not enough, Ian Fleming makes an appearance, his imagination ‘sweeping up details as he went’, as Hemming puts it. There is also a cameo involving the young Roald Dahl, already invalided out of the RAF, who would later write a classified history of Stephenson’s work, though not the famous A Man Called Intrepid, which was later republished as fiction because of its inaccuracies.
There is, of course, a long-established association between writers and spies. Reading this book it is impossible not to wonder about Hemming himself, who has a personal connection to this story because Stephenson — a man of action as well as persuasion — once saved the life of Hemming’s father. This episode is outlined briefly in the preface and, pleasingly, Hemming’s grandparents later play a minor role in Stephenson’s stateside influencing campaign.
So many accounts could make for a complex history, but Hemming is very much in control of his material. Bite-size chapters paint fascinating miniatures, often with a cliff-hanger to keep the pages turning. This battalion of short stories is marshalled into five sections, staging posts through the British campaign to bring America into the war, each headed with shocking statistics about British losses, and Gallup-poll results on slowly shifting American attitudes. The result is fast-paced history, reflecting the tension, intrigue and humour that we associate with British derring-do of the 1940s.
Yet this is also a serious study of populism and a major international influencing campaign by a foreign power at the highest levels of domestic politics. Did the outcome — America’s entry into the war — justify the means: the secret manipulation of public consensus, often by falsification? Certainly all those involved believed so, with British intervention helping to put the US on the right side of history. But this was not a democratic campaign, for all of the unofficial support it received from Democrats.
Hemming cannot resist a brief reference to Donald Trump when introducing the original America First campaign, but he rightly reserves to his afterword comment on other parallels, such as the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election. Even then, for all the historical echoes, he chooses to reflect on the differences of aim and circumstance, as well as the apparent similarities, striving to understand the past rather than to weaponise it. Bill Stephenson might have been disappointed.
What more fertile ground could there be for a book than such an important premise, with modern resonance, explored through a tale of difficult odds, brilliant ruses, espionage and good old-fashioned detective work. In Hemming’s sure hands, America’s uncertain progress towards direct engagement in the second world war becomes riveting history.