Our Man in New York: The British Plot To Bring America Into The Second World War
By Henry Hemming
Quercus, £20
Review by Trevor Royle

FOR a man who valued secrecy and spent most of his professional life in the shadows, Sir William Stephenson had an uncanny habit of backing into the limelight.

Born in Winnipeg in 1897, he masterminded a top secret undercover operation to persuade the USA to enter the Second World War on the allied side, yet in middle age he co-operated in two accounts of his life which were little more than hagiographies designed to keep his name in the public eye.

One of them, entitled A Man Called Intrepid, was described by the eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper as “utterly worthless”. Bizarrely, the book sold over two million copies but had the misfortune of being marketed in the US as fiction.

Several theories have been posited to explain Stephenson’s behaviour. Perhaps he felt that his service had been overlooked even though he had been knighted and was the recipient of the American Medal for Merit. Perhaps he wanted to express his side of what was an extraordinary story. It could even be that he was suffering from an old man’s vainglorious desire not to be forgotten, but his self-promoted myth-making did his reputation no favours and ensured that outside specialist accounts his name and exploits have been largely been forgotten.

The latest writer to enter the lists on Stephenson’s behalf does not lack qualification. A bestselling author credited with several well-received books on the world of espionage, Henry Hemming also has a direct family link to his subject as in the 1930s Stephenson rescued Hemming’s father from drowning when he was “an accident-prone three-year-old”. It’s a cracking story even though the narrative thrust is driven by more than its fair share of conjecture.

When Stephenson arrived in New York, in June 1940, he had already led an adventurous if complicated life. He was also a millionaire who had friends in high places not least of whom was the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Stephenson also carried unusual orders from Stewart Menzies, head of the spy agency MI6, to set up and run an operation to change American public opinion at a time when Britain was fighting for its life in the war against Nazi Germany and facing invasion and defeat. It was a tall order. Not only was Stephenson unknown and inexperienced in spy-craft but the odds were stacked against him.

At the time of his arrival, American public opinion was firmly against intervention and the ruling Democrats, under President Franklin D Roosevelt, knew any attempt to send US forces to Europe would be stoutly resisted. Both the American Legion war veterans’ charity and the shadowy America First Committee were powerful and influential organisations whose main purpose was to maintain American neutrality and keep the country out of the war. The opponents of intervention enjoyed widespread backing across the US, including the support of high-profile celebrities such as the Hollywood actress Lillian Gish and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but their biggest star was the aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first man to cross the Atlantic solo and therefore an all-American hero.

Faced by that seemingly impregnable wall, Stephenson had to think laterally and his first step was to befriend two men of influence in Washington – FBI director J Edgar Hoover and William J (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, a self-made lawyer and war hero who numbered Roosevelt among his close friends. By forming these close alliances Stephenson placed himself at the heart of the US security community and took the first steps to creating a transatlantic intelligence alliance. In time Donovan became Roosevelt’s Co-ordinator of Information and founding father of the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the CIA.

To achieve his aims Stephenson employed a mixture of bluff, charm and astuteness but he was not above using dirty tricks to promote his cause and to denigrating those who opposed intervention. Manipulation of the media by planting what is known today as “fake news” became a staple of the operation, as was the forging of documents and maps to back up stories such as a fabricated leak that the Nazis were planning to infiltrate South America. Nothing was off-limits in this manipulation of public opinion to ensure the US joined the Allies. It worked, too, but only up to a point.

Although it is not within Hemming’s remit to assess the long-term effect of US assistance, recent research suggests that while Washington provided just enough money and munitions to keep Britain in business, it was not sufficient for the country ever to recover. For all his shrewdness and hard graft Stephenson could not have foreseen that outcome.