“The Secret War, 1939-45”

Jon Lellenberg

“Churchill’s North America,” 29th International Churchill Conference,

Toronto, October 13, 2012.

It’s a pleasure to be here for the first time, and to take part in this Churchill Society conference honoring the life and career of a lifelong hero of mine.

I am very conscious of being surrounded by distinguished historians and other scholars. Not to mention able orators. I’m here as, well, something different.

I spent thirty-five years in Washington D.C., almost all of it at the Pentagon. I was in what’s called the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Cluster, doing a wide range of work from the analytical to the pol-mil during the Cold War’s climactic decades, then policy planning for the post-Cold War era. After a National War College year, I returned to the Pentagon in 1996, and spent my last years in Special Operations work, as director of that bureau’s Policy & Strategy office.

Running through all this was the issue of intelligence, and its use by policymakers and strategists. Most of my education in it was on-the-job training, but it also included what’s optimistically called the National Senior Intelligence Course, plus some specialized ones. Just as valuable or more was relentless reading in intelligence history, especially before and during World War II, sometimes guided by several scholars whom I had the good fortune to know, notably the late Ronald Lewin.

I’m also a Baker Street Irregular. Churchillians are likely to think immediately of the wartime British Special Operations Executive. My BSI is the literary club devoted to Sherlock Holmes, founded in New York in 1934 by the writer Christopher Morley and friends of his, after a seven-year gestation in the back room of a speakeasy on East 45th Street. I am that BSI’s historian, with a series of volumes covering its 1930s and ’40s.

And this helped, actually, because the Irregulars, men prominent in areas of American life in the 1930s, were caught up in the turbulence of the run-up to the Second World War, and America’s desire to stay out this time. They had almost all experienced World War I directly and personally. One Irregular, a Briton by birth, had been the head of British Embassy’s code-room in Washington during that war. Another had been an army artillery officer. Another was a well-known military historian. Yet another was a foreign policy expert who became America’s most listened-to radio news commentator. And so on, including the BSI’s one Honorary, but contributing, member, Franklin Roosevelt. 

And in an obsessive-compulsive moment, my BSI history research and my Pentagon life ganged up to give me an idea for an historical novel,(1) central to which is the struggle over isolationism versus aid to war-besieged Britain in 1940-41, and the wartime creation of the modern U.S. Intelligence Community. And the research for it was often a revelation.

“The Secret War” of 1939-45 was an Allied phenomenon, and we’re fortunate Winston Churchill had long deep background in intelligence, because President Roosevelt thought about all anybody really needed was a familiarity with Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. America didn’t lack intelligence means of its own — the Army and Navy were developing significant SIGINT expertise from the 1920s on, and American cryptographers had begun breaking Japanese codes. But we had no overall intelligence organization, nor even much sense of a need for one.

By contrast, Churchill had been a, if not the, central figure in the development of 20th century British intelligence, counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence both, starting with his time as Home Secretary in 1910-11, then his immense experience as First Lord of the Admiralty before and during the Great War. As First Lord again in 1939-40, and as Prime Minister, he thoroughly integrated intelligence into World War II planning, while believing firmly in the subordination of intelligence to policy.(2)

So Churchill was the major user of intelligence among World War II’s principal actors. One can point to goofs, and what his intelligence advisor Desmond Morton called “funny ops,” but it was a considerable achievement, one America did not match despite amazing intelligence accomplishments of our own.

In the spring of 1940, the USA benefited from a Canadian export nearly as happy as Seagram’s products, Mr. William Stephenson of Winnipeg. Everyone here has heard of him. In fact much silliness has been written about him and his MI6 station in New York, dubbed “British Security Coordination” — the worst of it in A Man Called Intrepid,(3) but also more than I wish in his wartime subordinate H. Montgomery Hyde’s charming books The Quiet Canadian (4) and Secret Intelligence Agent (5)

One legend is Churchill personally exhorting Stephenson to go to New York, and to be intrepid. According to Gill Bennett, Foreign & Commonwealth Office Chief Historian for ten years, in her recent book about Desmond Morton and British intelligence, it didn’t happen. Churchill had delegated pre-Pearl Harbor intelligence relationships with America on the operational level to MI6’s chief Stewart Menzies, with Stephenson getting the assignment from him.(6) The BSC’s own 1945 end-of-mission report, declassified and published in 1998, says so explicitly also.(7)

But Stephenson was a good choice for it. A flyer in the World War, he had an American wife, and was a successful industrialist with interests in the USA as well as Canada and Britain. I’d enjoy knowing exactly what Menzies expected. Stephenson may have struck him and others as a Quiet Canadian, but the impression was misleading. In New York he exceeded his charter breathtakingly, violated U.S. sovereignty constantly, and suborned repeated violations of law by U.S. citizens useful to him. He operated on a Churchillian scale, and, in his quiet-canadian way, with Churchillian dash. 

And without that he might have failed, because Americans are an impetuous lot as well, and we usually respond to that sort of foreigner better than to the sort of Secret Service cold fish London might have sent us instead — something Menzies seems to have understood, or at any rate accepted. Stephenson deserved his postwar knighthood and U.S. Order of Merit, to me representing one of those peculiarly pleasant instances in national security affairs when self-interest and altruism coincide; and for once, on both sides.

I must say a few words at this point about the climate of American isolationism which greeted him upon his arrival in America, just as France was falling, Britain evacuating, and Churchill facing down Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, and others who wanted to seek terms from Berlin. 

For Americans, isolationism is a familiar factor in our history, and a sentiment still alive today. When my novel came out two years ago, I was interested to see some readers in Britain and Canada say, in reviews or private correspondence, that at last they understood what American isolationism in 1940-41 was all about. Perhaps. I still have trouble with it.

My protagonist takes a pretty harsh view of it, though, to the point of his marriage being ruined, and that wasn’t taking liberties with history, for the struggle for public opinion in 1940 and ’41 America was deep and severe. Even my anglophile Baker Street Irregulars were divided, with the founder’s own brother, Felix Morley, becoming a prominent isolationist spokesman — even though their parents had come from England, and all three Morley brothers had been Rhodes Scholars at Oxford.

Stephenson was deeply involved in this political struggle, clandestinely, and it was his greatest contribution to Allied victory. “British Security Coordination,” headquartered at Rockefeller Center, had three principal missions, the mentionable one being to protect British shipping against sabotage such as had occurred in U.S. ports in World War I.

A second one was “to investigate enemy activities” — a bland way of putting it, since Stephenson included not just actual Nazi fronts, like the German-American Bund, but the America First Committee representing the isolationist cause. America First arose in September 1940 at Yale University, among a number of bright young men some of whom had illustrious public careers in postwar America; but it quickly became a nationwide organization headquartered in Chicago with nearly a million members, and an authentic American hero, Charles Lindbergh, as its principal spokesman. Professionally speaking, targeting America First could be criticized as classic “mission-creep” on Stephenson’s part, but he saw it justified by circumstances: for while Americans were put off by home-grown Nazis, America First’s isolationist message resonated with large parts of the population, not to mention Congress.

The third and related mission was “to organize American public opinion in favor of aid to Britain.” What “organize” meant in practice was a vast panoply of “dirty tricks” deployed against what we have to acknowledge was a legitimate and largely conscientious sector of American opinion. Against America First, says one somewhat luridly phrased paragraph in the BSC’s end-of-mission report,

The counter-offensive was developed along three different lines. First, arrangements were made for press exposure of the society’s close ties with German activities. Secondly, pro-British American groups were approached and counter-attacks planned through them. Third, efforts were made to prove that the society was concerned with illegal, treasonous activities. All three lines of counter-offensive were successfully pressed home, while BSC remained in the background, drawing up new plans of battle and giving directions for carrying them out.

The means employed were, strictly speaking, an outrage. American politics may not have recovered from them yet. Yet it succeeded because, says the BSC’s report tellingly, it “could not have come into being at all without American approval on the highest levels” — and also because “the majority of those who, knowingly or unknowingly, served BSC — as intelligence agents, intermediaries, propagandists and political organizers — were not British but American.”

Who were the Americans? We shall never have a complete roster, but we do know who some of them were, and they demonstrate that “the secret war” involved far from spooks alone. One of them was an Irregular to whom I alluded earlier, Elmer Davis, on CBS Radio five nights a week explaining the war in Europe to the public, and later on, FDR’s Director of the Office of War Information. Davis was part of the Century Group, so-called because it met at the Century Association, a prestigious arts & letters club on West 43rd Street. The Century Group was launched by two Council on Foreign Relations directors, Francis Miller and Whitney Shepardson, and included, besides them and Davis, the Herald Tribune’s senior editorial writer, a retired Chief of Naval Operations, some prominent Protestant divines, syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, Washington D.C. lawyer Dean Acheson, a somewhat uneasy Henry Luce, and others with outlets for influencing public opinion.(8)

A Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies had recently started up, but Miller and Shepardson found it milquetoast, and launched their own effort with the goal of all aid to Britain short of war — and war as well, if that’s what it took. They were more or less up-front about this in a paid ad taken out in major newspapers on June 10, 1940, but Century Group activities thereafter were clandestine, and heavily interactive with BSC and Stephenson, in what we call influence operations today; plus devising ways around the Neutrality Laws, for example the Lend-Lease Act for which Dean Acheson made the legal case publicly in the New York Times.

And while the Century Group operated out of public sight, it spawned a very aggressive scion in April 1941 called “Fight for Freedom!” which took on isolationists directly and very, very personally. More than a few of its quite respectable leaders were clandestine Century Group members, and I’m pleased to say that its most obnoxiously strident spokesman was yet another Baker Street Irregular, the mystery writer Rex Stout, who went on to start and run a Writers’ War League after Pearl Harbor.

Stephenson had come with previous intelligence background. During the 1930s he’d been collecting industrial intelligence on Germany for MI6 official Claude Dansey’s Z network. It shared its information with the Committee of Imperial Defense’s Desmond Morton, who in turn shared secretly with the Right Hon. Winston Churchill. The information was critical for assessing German rearmament, and for Churchill’s speeches in Parliament in the late 1930s, even if Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain avoided the implications and shunned him.

Dansey, a turbulent personality in MI6, believed businessmen better than MI6’s operatives at collection of this sort. Businessmen understood the industrial and economic subject matter, were indifferent to MI6’s internal politics and feuds, often paid their own expenses, and were broadly networked with the business communities of target nations, Germany especially. By 1936, Z had over 200 businessmen providing information, many of them Americans.(9)

One of them being a useful example of the grotesque climate. New York in the 1930s sometimes seems almost cluttered with clandestine bands trying to help British intelligence. One called “The Room” was run by FDR’s well-connected friend Vincent Astor. The Ends of the Earth Club was a transatlantic band of exploration-minded Britons and Americans. The Walrus Club, of stockbrokers, bankers, and Wall Street lawyers, included 1917-18’s MI6 station chief in New York, Sir William Wiseman, a New York banker himself now. 

And then there was the Z-network ring that included a charismatic General Motors executive named James D. Mooney. Jim Mooney was fifty-three years old, a management expert with a technical education, and a Democrat in his politics, who from 1926 on was head of GM’s Overseas Operations division headquartered in New York. And he was in an excellent position to help Dansey, because GM’s largest Overseas Operation by far was the Opel Works in Germany.

To legitimatize this extracurricular activity in his own mind, Mooney, an Army officer in World War I, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1937, and shared information with it. The following year, as perhaps an additional cosmetic touch, he also joined the Army & Navy Club of Washington D.C., this time in tandem with a GM protégé of his named Edgar W. Smith, Overseas Operations’ vice president and director of institutional (including governmental) relations.

This Smith had come home from World War I with a French wife, and was both a keen anti-isolationist and a Baker Street Irregular, in fact in the process of becoming the club’s main factotum. So I like to think I know where this Z-network ring of Mooney’s got its name, when one source says it was known to its initiates and to MI6 as the Baker Street Irregulars,(10) the band of urchins in the Sherlock Holmes stories authorized to “go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone” in London’s streets and underworld.

Yet when war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Mooney stunned everyone — Edgar W. Smith especially, I imagine — by suddenly turning isolationist, and taking the bait when Hermann Goering suggested that a top neutral American businessman like him could help broker peace between Germany and Britain. In London, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy embraced the idea (no great surprise), and arranged meetings for Mooney at Halifax’s Foreign Office. There followed months of sheer folly in which Mooney scurried back and forth between London, Berlin, and Rome, but of course in the end it came to naught, and had probably been nothing but a ploy of Berlin’s in the first place.

During this Mad-Hatter season, however, Mooney was also reporting back to Washington, including FDR personally, through the U.S. Naval Attaché commo channel in London, messages which may be read today at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. He was deeply invested emotionally in this hare-brained scheme, and FDR, in a White House tête-a-tête in December 1939, let Mooney think he saw possibilities in it.

This all ceased abruptly in the late summer of 1940 when Mooney began advocating isolationism publicly, after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and continued to fight on alone. A well-reported speech of Mooney’s, saying the United States should use its power to compel Britain to seek terms with Hitler, was even more widely read in the Saturday Evening Post. PM, a tabloid daily, promptly attacked Mooney as a Nazi stooge, perhaps the service for which the BSC’s 1945 report lauds its editor Ralph Ingersoll’s sub rosa cooperation. Anyway, at this juncture, GM’s Chairman of the Board Alfred Sloan, whose own idea of how to deal with Nazis was to put the top twenty or so against a wall and shoot them, yanked Mooney out of New York and back to Detroit to help coordinate U.S. rearmament whether Mooney liked the idea or not.(11)

America First and the entire isolationist movement imploded on December 7th, 1941.  Nonetheless BSC political warfare activities remained important for both Churchill and Roosevelt, in order to win public support for a Germany-first U.S. war strategy. BSC also had much to do with America’s first national intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. Its chief William Donovan, a World War hero and a Wall Street lawyer, was Stephenson’s protégé, down to sending his early recruits to Camp X here in Ontario for training.

I have mixed feelings about this in connection with the U.S. intelligence community’s evolution. OSS had high regard for its wartime exploits, with its successor agency rightly stressing the lineage from OSS to CIA, partly as justification for the latter’s desired roles and missions. One facet of this was putting intelligence analysis and clandestine operations under the same roof — the historic DI/DO cleavage at CIA(12) — my view being that the ops tail has wagged the analytical dog too much for way too long. This sounds like inside baseball, but it matters.

I think it also true that in World War II, the most important areas of Allied intelligence were SIGINT, cryptography, and aerial photoreconnaissance, ones in which OSS barely operated, or was actually excluded from, by senior officials who distrusted its judgment and self-discipline. This division is also reflected in the U.S. Intelligence Community’s structure to this day, in which most of its components belong to the Defense Department, not CIA.

Two areas of OSS work did contribute significantly to the war effort in my opinion, its often unclassified open-source research division — which was folded into the State Department after the war — and its liaison activities with resistance movements, especially in France prior to D-Day. But Britain was also very active in this, and Churchill wise, I think, to keep MI6 and the SOE separate, even if for reasons not necessarily identical to mine. In the USA Stephenson represented not only MI6 and the Political Warfare Executive but, beginning no later than December 1941, SOE as well, a fusion of responsibilities Donovan replicated after OSS’s stand-up in July 1942.

Donovan was not, however, altogether the British pupil Britons often believe, nor under their influence (let alone control) as much as they may have wished, or that even I might have wished now and then. In a top-secret lecture about OSS at the U.S. Army & Navy Staff College in Washington, D.C., November 1st, 1943, Donovan remarked:

We go at it coldly like a business. I would like to say here that we have learned a great deal from the aid the British SIS have given us in this respect and we have modeled a lot of our methods upon them, but we have changed them to correspond to the peculiar characteristics of our own country, and at all the same time we have made clear to the British that while we have been grateful for all they have done, that the only healthy thing for both countries is to have a separate and independent intelligence service for each. That comes from the reason of security; it comes from the reason of control; and it comes from reason of verification. Sometimes there may be differences of opinion on that but we have asserted that right from the beginning, and I believe that our British colleagues respect us for it.

I have my own view of OSS’s usefulness in the war, and appropriateness as a model for CIA,(13) but I salute what Donovan was trying to do, and respect historians who appraise it more highly than I, especially the CIA’s late Thomas F. Troy, whose Donovan and the CIA, originally a classified Agency study, is worth your attention.(14) So is his book Wild Bill and Intrepid, an exercise in how hard it can be, even with the classified access Troy enjoyed, to sort out truth from legend, and downright myth, in the “Secret War” of World War II.(15)

What spirit animated all this? I want to leave you with the words of a newspaper editor named Herbert Agar, to his fellow Century Group conspirators in June 1940, as they crossed their own Rubicon:

This is a time for greatness, gentlemen. Great issues are at stake. War and peace, our nation’s security, even the survival of civilization itself. Think of it! The good and the bad, the terror and the splendor, seem almost too big for us, I know. But in evil times good men must act, and dare to trust each other. We cannot stand aside, and we must not fail. Our future, our children’s and grandchildren’s future, depend upon it. And our nation’s history demands it of us.

Whatever their faults and shortcomings, William Stephenson, the Century Group, and William Donovan were acting when too many others were not — when too many others were hesitating, or closing their eyes, or trying to appease Hitler, or even to accommodate evil when appeasement failed. If I may put it this way, they acted, and not at all unconsciously, in the spirit of Winston Churchill, and regardless of whether they were British, Canadian, or American. 


(1) Baker Street Irregular, Arkham House/Mycroft & Moran, 2010.

(2) David Stafford, Churchill and Secret Service, Overlook Press, 1998.

(3) William Stevenson, A Man Called Intrepid, Harcourt Brace, 1976. It figures heavily in Nigel West’s A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, Random House, 1985.

(4) Sub-titled The Secret Service Story of Sir William Stephenson, Hamish Hamilton, 1962, with a preface by David K. E. Bruce; U.S. edition, Room 3603: The Story of the British Intelligence Center in New York During World War II, Farrar Straus, 1963, with a preface by Ian Fleming.

(5) Sub-titled British Espionage in America and the Creation of the OSS, St. Martin’s Press, 1982, with a foreword by Sir William Stephenson.

(6) Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence, Routledge, 2009.

(7) The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45, Fromm International, 1998, with an introduction by Nigel West. Its final BSC editor in late 1945, Giles Playfair, attended and spoke at the Baker Street Irregulars annual dinner in New York in January 1946.

(8) Useful historical accounts have been few and a trifle obscure: Mark Lincoln Chadwin’s The Hawks of World War II, University of North Carolina Press, 1968; Thomas Mahl’s Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-1944, Brassey, 1998; Francis Pickens Miller’s memoirs Man of the Valley, University of North Carolina Press, 1971; and Whitney Shepardson’s papers at the Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C.

(9) Anthony Read & David Fisher, Colonel Z: The Secret Life of a Master of Spies, Viking, 1984. The authors identify James Mooney as one of Dansey’s Z-network sources.

(10) http://gmhistory.chevytalk.org/James_D_Mooney_by_David_Hayward.html.

(11) Mooney’s papers, including the suppressed text for a book written after the war to explain away his crusade, are at Georgetown University; finding aid: http://www.library. georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/fl/f98%7d1.htm. Henry Ashby Turner Jr.’s General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker, Yale University Press, 2005, covers the episode in considerable detail.

(12) Directorate of Intelligence/Directorate of Operations.

(13) A Baker Street Irregular who at the time in question held misgivings I came to share retrospectively, long after, was military historian Fletcher Pratt, in “How Not to Run a Spy System,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1947. During the war Pratt principally reported on U.S. naval campaigns, but clearly, given today’s awareness of the intelligence history, he also acquired knowledge of wartime intelligence activities beyond what would have been authorized.

(14) Sub-titled A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency, University Publications of America, 1981.

(15) Sub-titled Donovan, Stephenson, and the Origin of CIA,  Yale University Press, 1996.