Racy spies embedded for Britain
SPIES are not all romantic figures out of airport thrillers or James Bond movies. Celebrity chef Julia Child was once employed by the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s forerunner. But sometimes spies do live up to the stereotype, as Jennet Conant demonstrates in The Irregulars .
Conant tells the story of a handful of young, handsome, cosmopolitan British officers sent to Washington before Pearl Harbor — at prime minister Winston Churchill’s direction — to ingratiate themselves on the social scene, subvert US isolationism and advance the British cause through good manners. America at the time was officially committed to neutrality, though World War II was raging in Europe, not least in Britain during the Blitz.
The central figure of Conant’s volume, Roald Dahl, was a melancholy cad in the Royal Air Force who found later fame by writing exotic short stories and children’s books such as James and the Giant Peach . His colleagues included Ian Fleming, whose Bond renown was more than a decade away and who was in 1940 merely an old Etonian in his early 30s who had not yet figured out what to do with his life. David Ogilvy, the Scottish wizard of 1950s Madison Avenue, was just developing his knack for polling and advertising when he was sent to the US.
Conant draws a picturesque view of wartime Washington and relates the success with which Dahl and company spread out across the capital, attending soirees and adorning embassy parties. Their chief was William Stephenson, the Canadian spymaster who headed British Security Coordination in North America and whose intelligence exploits as a man called Intrepid have been chronicled elsewhere at length.
That the dour head of the Secret Intelligence Service in London, Stewart Menzies, thought little of Stephenson, and still less of his mission, only adds to the allure of the tale that Conant sets out to relate. Not only, she implies, did Stephenson, Dahl and their merry companions lay the groundwork for the wartime special relationship between Britain and the US, they did so in defiance of the espionage bureaucracy.
And what fun they had. Washington was a smaller place 70 years ago and the officers in question boasted impeccable social credentials. Their elan gave them access to all manner of boardrooms, legations and salons, including the White House of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They befriended journalists, dined at the tables of senators and cabinet members, even had sex with Clare Boothe Luce, admittedly not a rare achievement. It was all a movable feast that enabled them to whisper in appropriate ears and send informed gossip back to Downing Street. And it makes for pleasurable reading.
The problem, of course, is whether it amounted to anything, and the answer is probably not. Conant goes to great lengths to describe the rarefied circles in which Dahl and his colleagues travelled, the good causes they advanced ( the Lend Lease program by which the US helped Britain with loans and war materiel) and the intelligence they transmitted to Churchill ( news of who was up, who was down, for instance). But it is unlikely that anyone who mattered in Washington had any doubt that the small army of enchanting officers attached to the British embassy were engaged in anything other than gentlemen’s espionage.
Indeed, the unimportance of their contacts is striking. The name of General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff and ‘‘ organiser of victory’’, appears nowhere in Conant’s book, and the name of Marshall’s boss, secretary of war Henry Stimson, only once in passing. Evalyn Walsh McLean, of Hope Diamond fame, does appear in these pages and was a great Washington character who opened her stately home to visiting servicemen during the war and to the British irregulars, but she was of no political, much less strategic, significance.
Dahl’s close relationship with vice- president Henry Wallace would be impressive if vicepresidents had amounted to anything in those days, especially one like Wallace, who was universally derided and played no role of consequence in the war. Conant is much taken with the machinations of a socially ambitious Texas newspaper proprietor named Charles Marsh, who had a residence in Washington and who cultivated Dahl and company. But by comparison with the press barons of the day ( Robert Rutherford McCormick, William Randolph Hearst, Arthur Hays Sulzberger), Marsh was decidedly of the second rank.
I don’t mean to suggest that the efforts of the Baker Street Irregulars, as they called themselves in homage to Sherlock Holmes, were in vain. But it is difficult to ascertain what effect, if any, they had on the course of the war, much less AngloAmerican relations. Public opinion and congressional neutrality notwithstanding, the Roosevelt administration was favourably disposed towards Britain, in word and deed, and made little effort to disguise the fact.
It might have been useful, as well as a great adventure, to seduce the isolationist congresswoman Luce, but she whispered nothing in Dahl’s ear that Churchill hadn’t heard from the equally isolationist US ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy. It required little or no effort on the part of the British embassy in Washington to disenchant FDR with Kennedy, and it was Pearl Harbor, not the Baker Street Irregulars, that ended US isolationism.
Stephenson was an intrepid self- aggrandiser, and Dahl and Fleming were skilled fabulists. No doubt Churchill dispatched them all to Washington with the idea that they could do little harm and perhaps some good. But not much more. The evolution of US policy in World War II and the transformation of Washington from provincial capital to global headquarters was the result of historic forces and a thousand events. And the spy game is a little like Ogilvy’s profession of advertising: half the budget is wasted, but no one knows which half.