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Our Man In New York - a review

Our Man In New York

Henry Hemming, Quercus, 2019, 384pp, ISBN 978-1-78747-4826 by Trevor Moore

The thing about books about the Second World War is that I am of an age where, when I was a child, it was recent history. There were boys in my class whose fathers had fought in the war. My own father, who died in December aged 94, told me how when he was in what we called the Sixth Form, probably 1942 or 1943, he was detailed off to patrol the school grounds. For this purpose, and at the age of 17 or so, he was given a gun. I assume that someone expected that he might need to use it. Perhaps many of us can tell similar stories. One of things that struck me during the recent horrors of the bushfires is how dependent we are on information and how much we have got used to having it at our fingertips. As we discovered, when the power and comms went out in January, it’s not easy getting on without accurate information. Yet my parents, and their generation, presumably managed somehow not knowing what was happening. But I suppose they had the propaganda dished up by the newspapers and perhaps that was good enough for them.

Henry Hemming’s book tells a story that was really only possible because it was hard to get information. The converse of that is that it is easier to manipulate what information you have to a particular end. Hemming’s book is about how the British secret service, MI6, effectively manipulated the US into the war. The principal character in the book is one Bill Stephenson, a man with a murky past but a successful businessman, who was an unlikely recruit into MI6. He was posted to Washington to help bring the US into the Second World War. Hemming says that he is only able to tell his story because Bill Stephenson saved his father from drowning when he was three. Had his father drowned there would be no Hemmings and perhaps no story.

FDR (source: Wikipedia) The book is a ripping read even if Hemmings sometimes gets distracted from the main thread of the story. In the late 1930s the US was split into two groups. The interventionists believed that the US had a responsibility of some kind to the UK and its allies and that it should, at least eventually, fight. The isolationists believed the opposite: a European war was no business of the US. The US should leave Europe to its own devices. In May 1940 only 7% of Americans thought that the US should fight. By November 1941, only eighteen months later, that proportion had risen to 85%. This result was in large part due to the efforts of MI6 and its manipulation of fake news.

One example of this was the forgery of Nazi maps and plans that apparently indicated that the Nazis were about to colonise South America. It’s not altogether clear how much Roosevelt knew about the truth of the “facts” he was being given but he was an interventionist, so possibly he didn’t enquire too closely. Hemming tells how MI6 manipulated the US political system into creating the forerunner of the CIA and installing as its head an interventionist friend of the Brits. The Brits even managed to manipulate the Gallup polls.

Charles Lindbergh (Source: Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress) The main, but by no means the only, antagonist of the British objectives was Charles Lindbergh. Now Lindbergh is an interesting character. He was the first person to fly solo, in 1927, across the Atlantic and this brought him considerable public acclaim. People loved him. Then tragedy struck when in March 1932 his twenty-month old son was kidnapped. Although a ransom of $50,000 was paid the child’s remains were found in a wood nearby. A man called Hauptmann was arrested, charged, found guilty and executed in 1936. Lindbergh was regarded as being a Nazi sympathiser and eventually compromised himself, thanks to British intelligence, to the extent that he became discredited.

But there are more characters than Stephenson, Roosevelt and Lindbergh in this tale and, were it a series on Netflix, you would think that the story was made up. But we do not know whether the Brits would have ultimately been successful in creating a state of war between the US and Germany because on 7 December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. What I had not realised was that this gave Roosevelt a problem. On the one hand he was compelled to declare war on the Japanese. But he still had no reason to declare war on Germany; he needed Germany to declare war on the US. It was assumed that this declaration would follow immediately after the Japanese attack. But the Germans were taken almost as much by surprise as the Americans. They had known something was up but not what nor when it would happen. The attack on Pearl Harbor took place on a Sunday. By the following Wednesday there was still no declaration of war by Germany on the US.

I will not spoil things by telling you what happened. You can read it yourself though you know the ending. The Spectator commented that the book is “fast-paced history… a tale of difficult odds, brilliant ruses, espionage and good old-fashioned detective work” and they are right. Pop into see Janice in Moruya Books and she will order you a copy. You will not be disappointed.

Stuff to look at:

Pearl Harbor, Craig Nelson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 978-1-474-60564-9, 532pp. See my review in The Beagle

I read some time ago Traitor to His Class : The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H W Brands, Anchor Books, 978-0-30727-7947, 888pp. If you’re up for this, this is a good, easy (though long) read. Fascinating fact: just before he died, Roosevelt’s blood pressure was 300 over 190. You think you got problems?

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