How British spies influenced US policy during World War II

THOSE DARING BRITISH SPIES IN WARTIME WASHINGTON

In a 2019 book, Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II, British author Henry Hemming details the extraordinary efforts undertaken by Stephenson’s army of undercover agents. In action taken throughout the Western Hemisphere, they spread fake news, propagated rumors through whispering campaigns, forged documents, and vilified Nazi Germany through every available channel. Hemming’s book focuses on BSC’s first year and a half (May 1940 to December 1941). He chronicles its success in helping move American public opinion away from isolationism and toward a declaration of war.

THE IRREGULARS: ROALD DAHL AND THE BRITISH SPY RING IN WARTIME WASHINGTON BY JENNET CONANT (2008) 418 PAGES ★★★★☆

Roald Dahl in 1954. Ten years earlier, he was a British spy in Washington DC, where he bedded the city’s richest and most famous women. Image: Wikipedia

HISTORY VIEWED THROUGH BIOGRAPHY

Now, nearly 80 years later, many of the names that captured headlines in wartime Washington have faded into memory. And the city itself has greatly evolved since the tumultuous years of the New Deal and the Second World War. Then, Washington felt to many like a small town. “Everybody who was everybody” knew one another. And Roald Dahl, Assistant Air Attaché in the British Embassy, knew them all.

CASTING LIGHT ON ANGLO-AMERICAN TENSIONS

The Irregulars adds little to our understanding of the US conduct of World War II. Conant is more successful in depicting the shifting dynamics of power within the Democratic Party in that era. It was a time when FDR’s vice president, Henry A. Wallace, loomed as one of the country’s most polarizing political figures — lionized on the left, despised on the right. The fight over the vice presidential nomination in 1944, when FDR, already desperately ill, ran for a fourth term, kicked off a bitter and protracted fight that ultimately ended in Wallace’s departure from government. And Roald Dahl had a front-row seat on all the action. But the book may be most useful for the light it casts on the friction between the US and Great Britain.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennet Conant. Image: Atomic Heritage Foundation

FOR MORE READING

A decade later, another excellent nonfiction book appeared that recounted the work of the British Security Coordination, focusing on its activities before war was declared: Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II by Henry Hemming (British interference in American politics in WWII).

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