A president colluding with a foreign power during an election. Agents of that foreign government pumping fabricated news into the American media.
The president lying to the American people about the secret foreign policy he was conducting. Surely the case for impeachment is open and shut. So why is Franklin D. Roosevelt consistently rated as one of America’s greatest presidents?
The question is inescapable as you read Henry Hemming’s Our Man In New York, the tale of how William Stephenson, a Canadian working for MI6, established himself in Manhattan in 1940 with the goal of securing America’s support for Britain’s war effort — and ideally America’s own entry into the war.
Stephenson’s story has been told before, most profitably in the 1976 yarn A Man Called Intrepid. But that account was, politely, embellished well past the point of reliability. Which seems strange given the astonishing nature of the truth: that from 1940 Britain established a huge espionage and influence operation in the US, aimed at deceiving and outraging its citizens.
America’s route into World War II is so well known that it seems ridiculous to question it: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 roused the sleeping giant to a vengeance that ended with Berlin and Hiroshima flattened. But every now and then we find ourselves reading the answer to a question we realise that we hadn’t thought to ask. Hemming’s book offers such a moment, and the question is: why did America respond to a Japanese attack in the middle of the Pacific by sending millions of men across the Atlantic to fight Germans in Eu- rope?
The answer is that Roosevelt had long believed America had to fight Hitler. But he was well aware that public opinion wasn’t with him. Ahead of the 1940 presidential election, he had no intention of revealing his true views. Instead he promised voters that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars”.
The president’s style of leadership was to wait until people’s minds were changing and only then put himself at their head. Stephenson saw it as his job to do the changing of minds. His view seems to have been that he was trying to help Americans reach a conclusion that they were bound to get to in the end. “They’re our friends,” he told his staff soon after he arrived in New York. “They’ll help us. And we need them if we’re going to win.”
That feeling of friendship didn’t translate into an obligation to play by the rules. Some of Stephenson’s reports were considered so sensitive in London that they were kept out of the regular government records system, and only opened this decade.
When you read what his team got up to, the surprise is that the files were opened at all. On Stephenson’s instructions, news stories were fabricated and sold into the American press through an agency that was on a British retainer. Phones were tapped. Gallup polls were manipulated. Pressure groups were infiltrated and funded. Violent confrontations between pro- and anti-war groups were provoked. All of this took place on the soil of the country whose support was essential to Britain staying in the war.
The risk was huge. If the British operation had been exposed, it would have provoked outrage. But nothing seems to have been off-limits to Stephenson’s team. Hemming even finds them discussing possible assassinations — though he un-earths no evidence any were carried out.
On the other side of the argument from the British and the duplicitous president was an all-American hero. Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic had made him a global celebrity. The kidnap and murder of his infant son had touched the nation’s hearts. With Europe in flames, Lindbergh put aside his loathing of publicity and set about using his fame to try to keep America out of the fight.
The pilot was a powerful advocate: a man of action urging inaction, a hero arguing that getting into the European war would be folly. America, Lindbergh said, didn’t need to fear the Nazis — they were 3,000 miles and an ocean away.
In reaching that conclusion, it probably helped that he wasn’t very troubled by the Nazis even when they were closer at hand. Lindbergh had visited Germany in the years before the war and got on well with his hosts. Indeed, he was in sympathy with some of their views about the real causes of the world’s problems.
Trying to understand why what he regarded as civilised countries were going to war with each other, and why there were calls for his own government to get involved, the pilot lit upon a familiar group of people who he thought stood to benefit. Lindbergh might not have thought of himself as antisemitic. He believed that in small numbers, Jews could help a country, but that when there were too many they started to cause problems. As he waded deeper into the political battle eld, he began to see “Jewish influence” behind the opposition he encountered. After one speech in which the crowd had become overheated, he even suspected Jews of having turned off the ventilation in the building.
An intensely stubborn man, Lindbergh responded to opponents by hardening his own position. To the idea that US neutrality made a German victory likely, he replied that that this might be for the best. There would be benefits to a “Europe dominated by Germany”, he told a crowd of 40,000 in Chicago. They should ignore wild “accusations of aggression and barbarism on the part of Germany”.
As 1941 progressed, Lindbergh became more outspoken, building up to a speech, broadcast across the nation, in which he accused the Jews of conspiring to get the US into the war. But if he had hoped to provoke outrage against his target, he in- stead found himself facing a backlash from Americans shocked by what they’d heard.
Lindbergh was right to suspect that he was the target of secret forces. He was just wrong about who they were. Hemming argues that the naive pilot was an unconscious agent of influence of the Nazis, who used intermediaries to put suggestions before him. The British, meanwhile, were wondering how he could be neutralised, and assiduously cultivated his opponents.
As Britain and Germany fought a hot war in Europe, they were fighting a covert battle in the US. On one side was Stephenson, overseeing a growing staff based in the Rockefeller Center. On the other were German diplomats and their agents, equally determined to keep America neutral.
Neither side was going to let questions of ethics get in its way. The Germans subverted congressional processes to have their propaganda sent to hundreds of thousands of Americans, paid for by the US government. They put ideas in the minds of allies who were in direct contact with Lindbergh, and planted stories hostile to Roosevelt in the American press. But when it came to influence operations, the Germans couldn’t hold a candle to the British. After all, while the Nazis could count on some sympathetic congressmen, Stephenson had the president on his side.
In October 1941, Roosevelt revealed to the world that he had in his possession — from secret sources — a map that showed Nazi plans to “reorganise” Central and South America. “This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself,” he explained. The map was a British forgery, carefully produced by a secret unit based in Toronto, and then passed to Stephenson’s US liaison, “Wild Bill” Donovan.
That sounds like a horrific breach of trust by MI6, but Hemming argues that both Donovan and Roosevelt had every reason to know exactly what they were being given, and that they didn’t care. He quotes Stephenson telling his superiors that his actions against American isolationist groups were approved by the president.
The forgery wasn’t a minor jape. The Nazis were, understandably, outraged at Roosevelt’s brandishing of the map. It helped to convince Hitler that the president was determined to get America into the war, and wasn’t troubled about how he did it.
In this, Hitler was quite correct. By this stage the US Navy was being ordered to put its ships into harm’s way, an order given, according to Winston Churchill, in the hope that a U-boat might re on one and give Roosevelt the excuse he wanted. It was Pearl Harbor that brought the US into the war, but Stephenson helped ensure that the American people were ready to fight it in Europe as well as the Pacific.
The President’s behaviour was in many ways appalling. He worked with the British to hoodwink his own country. And yet the world has every reason to be grateful that he acted as he did. As for Stephenson, the parallels with modern fake news organisations and troll farms leap from the page, but whereas those efforts provoke our out- rage, his work seems to merit our approval.
In the years before the war, the Lindbergh baby kidnap helped inspire Agatha Christie’s most famous novel, Murder On e Orient Express. She presented her detective, Hercule Poirot, with a moral dilemma: what if the murderer was in the right? Should the detective then protect the criminal?
Neither Roosevelt nor Stephenson seem to have had any difficulty with the question of whether a great right justified a little wrong.
But the high regard that historians have for Roosevelt provokes to a troubling thought: per- haps we don’t mind a leader perpetrating a fraud on voters so long as we agree with their goal.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe