Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States Tricked Into War


Professor Mahl’s excellent monograph helps clear up a historical mystery. As everyone knows, Americans before Pearl Harbor opposed, in overwhelming numbers, entry into World War II. So much the worse for the American public, say some historians, such as the eminent Thomas Bailey.

Roosevelt saw that the defeat of the Axis was necessary to save the world. Only American entry into the war could secure this goal. The President accordingly had to resort to deception to inveigle America into the conflict. While promising peace, he provokes war. Roosevelt’s policy, it is claimed, was vindicated by the Allied defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945.
Not everyone convinced that isolation from war in 1941 was wrong adopts this bold line. Some historians, such as Dexter Perkins, reluctant to embrace Machiavelli so openly, argue that Roosevelt and the American public were not so far apart as first appears. True, the great majority of the public opposed entry into the war. But the public also favored aid to Britain of a sort that risked war. Roosevelt thus acted to secure what the public “really” wanted.
As Louis D. Rubin, Jr., has expressed this position: “But public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of Britain; an opinion poll taken in July 1940 indicated that seven out of ten Americans believed a Nazi victory would place the United States in danger, and so were in favor of assistance to the embattled British” (p. 85).
An obvious problem with this interpretation is that it ascribes to the public views that quickly generate tension, if not outright inconsistency. People believed, it is claimed, both that the United States should stay out of the war and that the country should adopt policies liable to produce just the undesired outcome.
Given this tension, would not people be apt to revise their beliefs to restore equilibrium? That is to say, would they not either reject unneutral policies or abandon the resolve to stay out of the war? Certainly, people sometimes hold beliefs that ill comport together, but this problem was glaringly obvious. Were we that stupid?
Mr. Mahl disposes of our problem through a simple stroke. The polls that showed American support for violations of neutrality were rigged by British agents. “British intelligence had `penetrated’ the Gallup organization…. British intelligence officer David Ogilvy later wrote about his days at Gallup: `I could not have had a better boss than Dr. Gallup. His confidence in me was such that I do not recall his ever reading any of the reports I wrote in his name'” (p. 75). By careful manipulation of the questions asked, results could be contrived to order. “In 1940 and 1941, BSC [British Security Coordination] rigged a series of polls…to project the notion that the members of prominent organizations were pro-British, avidly in favor of intervention, and intensely antagonistic toward America First” (p. 77).
Mr. Mahl’s argument seems to me a vital contribution to World War II historiography. Further research is needed, though, to consolidate his thesis. What exactly were the questions asked in the various polls? Had they been phrased differently, would the respondents have answered in a way more consistent with non-intervention?
The balance of evidence suggests strongly that they would have done so. Although a Gallup poll taken August 1940 showed an “astounding figure” of 70 percent in favor of conscription, Congressional mail “overwhelmingly” opposed the draft (p. 83). Further, a poll sponsored by Robert Hutchins, a strong opponent of the war, showed that only 34 percent of the public favored entry into the war, even if Britain was defeated. (Incidentally, one wonders whether polls still are rigged. A careful examination of the polls that showed a rise in popularity for President Clinton whenever a new act of his malfeasance was disclosed seems warranted.)
Professor Mahl offers a comprehensive account of British intelligence activities designed to involve the United States in war. The single most striking example of the effectiveness of the British effort is this. Before the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was established, a presidential directive in July 1941 set up a preliminary group called The Coordinator of Information (COI). Not only was this group, which devised the plans for the OSS, organized at the behest of British Intelligence; its head was a British agent. Colonel Charles Howard “Dick” Ellis, an assistant to the principal British intelligence agent in America, Sir William Stephenson, “actually ran [William] Donovan’s COI office and produced the blueprint for the American OSS” (p. 194).
I cannot describe in detail the vast range of episodes which Mr. Mahl discusses. Rather, I shall confine myself to two additional examples of British influence. The first relates to the crucial US election of November 1940. In order to win the war, Britain needed the support of the United States as a fighting ally. But, if the Republicans ran a strong noninterventionist campaign, not even the machinations of Franklin Roosevelt would suffice to accomplish this. “The first peacetime draft law in American history, Burke-Wadsworth, and the Destroyer Deal would not have received Roosevelt’s endorsement had a genuine opposition candidate stood ready to make it a political issue in the 1940 election” (p. 164).
To secure the British goal, then, the Republican candidate had to be solidly in the interventionist camp. How could this be achieved? Mr. Mahl answers his question by pointing to an anomaly: the unexpected surge of support for Wendell Willkie in the months before the Republican convention, and at the convention itself.
The stampede toward Willkie, the quintessential dark horse candidate, puzzled informed contemporaries. H.L. Mencken “wrote, after watching the nomination: `I am thoroughly convinced that the nomination of Willkie was managed by the Holy Ghost in person'” (p. 156). Our author essays a more down-to-earth explanation. The boom for Willkie was contrived with heavy British support; the banker Thomas W. Lamont played a key role in the endeavor. Whether Mr. Mahl’s account is successful must be left for readers to judge.
In any event, once nominated Willkie enabled the British strategy to proceed apace. Mr. Mahl cites in this connection a telling remark of Walter Lippmann, himself an ally of British intelligence: “Second only to the Battle of Britain, the sudden rise and nomination of Wendell Willkie was the decisive event, perhaps providential, which made it possible to rally the free world when it was almost conquered” (p. 164). Willkie was if anything more interventionist than Roosevelt; non-interventionist voters in 1940 were in effect shut out of the presidential election. The other incident selected for discussion will, I fear, evoke memories of The Starr Report. (May I reiterate what is said elsewhere in these pages: The Mises Review has no connection with that salacious document.) Again the key issue involves the paralysis of isolationist opposition to British plans. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a protégé of the isolationist William Borah, ranked among the foremost non-interventionists during the 1930s. He executed a sudden volte-face in July 1940 and supported the crucial Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941.
Mr. Mahl attributes the change of heart to the influence of Mitzi Sims, Vandenberg’s mistress, who had strong ties to British intelligence, and of another woman, Betty Thorpe Pack (“Cynthia”), also romantically linked with him. Our author admits he cannot prove that Vandenberg’s relationship with those women changed the senator’s views; but his conjecture certainly helps us understand Vandenberg’s otherwise inexplicable behavior.
But is Vandenberg’s change in fact a strange phenomenon that requires special explanation? One might object that it is not: if the interventionist view of the wartime situation is accepted, then Vandenberg’s support for Lend-Lease responded realistically to grave threats to America’s interests. Perhaps, to echo A.J.P. Taylor on Lord Halifax, Vandenberg “heard the call of conscience in the watches of the night.” More generally, why need we invoke British intrigues to explain American policy? Once more, will not the national interest suffice?
The imagined rejoinder fails. It begs the question by assuming the correctness of interventionism. No doubt, Lend-Lease was in the national interest-but only if one accepts the interventionist account of that interest. The point at issue is that only a minority of people in the United States held this view before Pearl Harbor. On the isolationist position, Lend-Lease and similar measures did not serve our interests. Why then were these policies instituted? Mr. Mahl’s study gives us indispensable aid in answering this question.
DESPERATE DECEPTION: BRITISH COVERT OPERATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1939-44 By Thomas E. Mahl, Brassey’s, 1998, xiv + 256 pgs.
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