Racy spies em­bed­ded for Bri­tain

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Philip Terzian The Ir­reg­u­lars By Jen­net Co­nant Si­mon & Schus­ter, 390pp, $ 59

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.

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