Tuesday, 26 November 2019
Our Man in New York - a review
Hear the words ‘America First’, ‘fake news’ and ‘agents of influence’, we would probably think of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, the pernicious spread of disinformation via traditional news outlets and social media, and Russian interference in the US presidential election. To Ian Fleming, these phrases would have meant one thing – the British campaign, led by William Stephenson, to bring the United States into the Second World. In his new book, Henry Hemming reveals the full story of MI6’s head of station in New York and his audacious campaign, which till now has only partially been told.
By June 1940, Britain was in trouble. France had fallen to the German forces as thousands of allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Merchant shipping, carrying vital supplies to the country across the Atlantic, faced constant threat from U-boat attack, and a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Winston Churchill knew that Britain would not win the war without America’s help. President Roosevelt was sympathetic to the cause, but his hands were tied; America was officially neutral and its population heavily anti-interventionist. Britain somehow had to overcome public opinion and break down powerful lobby groups. One man, MI6’s agent in New York, recognised that it had to be done by any means necessary.
William Stephenson, a Canadian businessman and unlikely-looking spymaster, having brought himself to the attention of ‘C’, the head of MI6, was appointed to run an influence campaign in America. The work began uncertainly, but soon Stephenson knew what he had to do and in time built up an organisation – eventually given the cover name ‘British Security Coordination’ – that occupied an entire floor of New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Henry Hemming has trawled through the archives and examined recently declassified files to reveal the full extent of Stephenson’s racket. The organisation run by Stephenson began rumours to discredit individuals sympathetic to Germany, devised opinion polls so that the results would appear more favourable, fed propaganda (and entirely false) stories to newspapers and radio stations, infiltrated campaign groups, set honey-traps and faked plans that seemed to put the Nazi threat on America’s doorstep. Stephenson himself cultivated a friendship with people close to the president, most importantly William Donovan, who would head-up the forerunner to the CIA.
As personal assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence, Ian Fleming weaves in and out of the narrative. Fleming’s part in the creation of what would become the CIA can be overplayed, and though Fleming was a key player, Hemming duly sets the record straight.
Hemming has not forgotten the Bond connection either. One of the two kills that earn James Bond his double-O status takes place at the Rockefeller Center. It’s worth noting, too, that William Stephenson would often meet people at the St Regis Hotel; James Bond stays there in the novel of Live and Let Die (1954).
There’s room, too, for other individuals who in time would leave a mark on James Bond lore. Ivar Bryce, Fleming’s friend and financial backer of the early attempts to bring Bond to the big screen, used his South American expertise during his time with BSC to fake a map that was almost decisive in bringing America into the war. (Interestingly, the same map is described as genuine in Room 3603, an earlier account of William Stephenson and the BSC. It’s fascinating to consider that Ian Fleming wrote a foreword to a book that he knew was far from the full story, as had been claimed on the dustjacket.) Roald Dahl, responsible for the screenplays of You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, also worked for the BSC. I would like to have read more about Roald Dahl’s knack for digging out scandal that could be used to Britain’s advantage, as well the adventures he and Fleming enjoyed during their time together in New York and Washington away from the office, but perhaps that’s another story.
Our Man in New York is a fascinating read as thrilling as any work of fiction. There aren’t many history books that you’ll want to read in one sitting, but this is one of them. Henry Hemming has written a superb book that deserves a place on every Fleming aficionado’s bookshelf.
Our Man in New York by Henry Hemming is published by Quercus in the UK and in the US (as Agents of Influence) by PublicAffairs.