Britain’s World War II spying on U.S. isolationist groups and its propaganda efforts against them were revealed in secret archives published for the first time today.
The declassified documents at the National Archives in London show how Winston Churchill was sent a report on a 1940 private phone call between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Joe Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to London, during which they discussed options “if Europe is overrun” by Nazi Germany.
The following year, British agents in the U.S. compiled a four-inch-thick dossier on America First, a group urging the U.S. to stay out of what was then a European war. It included private correspondence and mailing lists. Meanwhile, British diplomats paid for propaganda on the other side of the argument and considered secretly funding sympathetic groups.
The money spent in the U.S. was nothing to the sums authorized by Churchill to be spent keeping Spain out of the war. At least $14 million was passed to a group of Spanish generals as a bribe to persuade the dictator General Francisco Franco to stay neutral, the archive files show.
When U.S. officials began inquiries into Juan March, the conduit for this cash, British agents resolved the Americans should be told “as little as possible.”
The documents released today cover Britain’s intelligence work from 1903 to 1951. They also include discussion of whether to assassinate German officials working in France ahead of the D-Day invasion in 1944, a plan that was rejected.
In the files is a memo, apparently from Jacques Chambrun, a New York literary agent offering to sell articles from prominent Britons putting their side of the argument for fighting Germany into U.S. magazines. He wrote that this would raise $30,000 a month for Britain, if he was given pieces by Churchill and King George VI -- and if he was given a fee of 10 percent.
“In many cases an article dull, weightless, seemingly pointless to read can be transformed into a vigorous and unforgettable message by the judicious cutting and substitution of words to meet the American tempo,” Chambrun wrote.
While the Secret Intelligence Service and British diplomats were enthusiastic about the idea, it’s not clear what came of it. Chambrun became notorious after the war for stealing from his clients.
In early 1941, a memo was sent to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, proposing the U.K. channel $10,000 to a sympathetic American businessman who wanted to lobby in favor of the Lend-Lease Bill, which Roosevelt used to send support to Britain. Eden replied, in a message coded “most immediate, most secret,” telling officials not to hand over the money.
“I feel gravest apprehension at action taken which if it ever became known must surely have most serious repercussions,” Eden wrote.
The question of whether the U.S. would enter the war was settled neither by America First nor by British propaganda, and instead by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.