A Man Called Bill

Some news

My next book will be about the undercover British campaign to bring the US into the Second World War, and the enigmatic man at the heart of it, Bill Stephenson (pictured above). This is the same Stephenson made famous by the book A Man Called Intrepid, or infamous, you could say, on account of the book’s endless exaggerations and inaccuracies.

I’ve been wanting to write this book for years, partly because I’ve heard stories about Stephenson since I was a child. As I’ll explain in the book, shortly before the Second World War he saved my Dad’s life.

I’d know about that for a long time, but it was only in the wake of the last US presidential election, and the subsequent revelations about a nationwide Russian influence campaign, that I felt now was the time to write about this earlier British operation.

It turns out that the largest influence campaign ever launched on American soil was not run from Moscow. It was run out of the Rockefeller Center, it was British, and it peaked in the weeks before the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The book will be published in Autumn 2019 by PublicAffairs in the US as Agents of Influence, and in the UK as Our Man in New York, where it will be published by Quercus.

Now I’ve just got to write it.

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Your Comments

  1. 1

    Hi Henry, I came to your book-signing at Frome last year. The
    book opened my eyes to an aspect of WW2 that had been in my peripheral awareness, but which is now front and centre! Loved it, and I’m singing it’s praises to my friends.On a separate issue, and I’m sure these have now been picked up, but I found a couple of typos. 1) p.255 line 8, “dished up BY his predecessor 2) p.299 line 27 “Japan”. I know these are details but anyway thought I’d mention them. Comes of being a teacher for too long!! Also, I have in my possession three of Lindbergh’s addresses as the original pamphlets.If they are of any interest I shall be happy to share them. It was good to meet you in Frome, and all the best with you present and future projects. Cordially, Louis.

  2. 2

    Dear Mr. Heming,
    I read your book with interest and enjoyment. Like you, I have a personal connection to Bill Stephenson. He tried to recruit my father in 1941. My father was a Harvard man in the wool trade and hence enjoyed superb cover for assignment to Buenos Aires. He turned Stephenson down twice and entered the U.S. Army instead. This story came to light in the 1970s when he glimpsed a picture of Stephenson in A Man called Intrepid. He said at the time: “He was once the most secret man in America.”
    Perhaps for this reason, I have followed the historical controversies surrounding Stephenson for some time. With that in mind, I venture to offer some observations.
    First, Stephenson did not turn to misinformation in extremis in 1941. He tried it out in April 1940, when visiting his dear friend Errett Cord . Cord — an automotive and later aerospace pioneer — became very close to Stephenson in prewar London. Cord and he invested together, entertained each other and swapped extravagant gifts. Indeed, a nice Bouguereau oil Stephenson gave Cord was recently sold by his heirs at Sothebys. In any case, after meeting with Hoover in April 1940, Stephenson traveled to California and in a meeting with Cord, told him a tall tale about tens of thousands of Spanish civil war veterans deployed to Mexico under joint Soviet/Nazi auspices. We know this because Cord’s briefing to Army Intelligence was memorialized in a memorandum which has survived. He may have been testing his sealegs with an old friend. (By the way, Stephenson and Cord remained close; David Bruce’s OSS diary records Cord attending a dinner for senior SOE and OSS folks in London in 1942.)
    Of course, the nub of the historical controversy is the nature of his relationship (if any) with Churchill. Despite the best efforts of the British intelligence fraternity, the surviving record suggests that relationship was indeed close. First, he was of a type Churchill was drawn to — Beaverbrook and Bracken come to mind. Second, he was close to Beaverbrook, as attested by multiple sources and evidenced by Beaverbrook’s papers at the House of Lords. In those papers is a revealing note from Stephenson to Beaverbrook. Stephenson in 1944 had supplied Beaverbrook a Tennessee ham from his own farm along with detailed cooking instructions. He says further: “As you know, your friend the prime minister is very fond of this particular ham…” and enjoins Beaverbrook to save hime a slice if at all possible. (Beaverbrook pledged to do so.) This is an extremely odd remark to make to one of Churchill’s oldest and closest friends if Stephenson did not even know the prime minister.
    Third, Thomas Troy questioned how Stephenson survived bureaucratically in London given the deep friction among the parent agencies of BSC. Part of the answer lies in the recently declassified Liddell diaries. In the unedited originals (omitted from Nigel West’s published version), Liddell says that Stephenson implied in August 1943 that the “highest quarters” intended he remain as sole representative of British intelligence in the Western Hemisphere. Other (omitted) entries note how “extremely cleverly” Stephenson had played his cards, with “Brendan Bracken and other high spots in the American world” supporting him. In any case, Liddell morosely notes his continued frustration in securing a direct MI-5/FBI liasion.
    Fourth, Stephenson’s bureaucratic autonomy continued into 1944. He and Donovan briefed the Jedburgh teams before D-Day. He continued communicating outside SIS’s orbit throughout the war; his cables to Beaverbrook went via SOE, often with a cover note from Lord Selborne. His position as “the all powerful” protector of OSS against SIS hostility is attested by Fisher Howe’s oral history.

    All this fits well with Philby’s observation that Stephenson was the “most politically powerful” of the intelligence chieftains. It is further evidenced by a remarkable memorandum from Cavendish-Bentinck on 31 May 1945. As Whitehall was considering plans for the postwar organization of British Intelligence, Lord Lovat of Commando fame suggested bringing over Stephenson for consultations. Cavendish-Bentinck scoffed at the suggestion because Stephenson was “angling” to consolidate all British intelligence functions under his command. With whom could he have been “angling”, one wonders? Not the foreign secretary (who would lose both SIS and GCHQ) nor the home secretary (who would lose the Security Service); it must have been the prime minister himself.
    Stephenson certainly reported (much of the time) to Stewart Menzies; he did not answer to him entirely. He enjoyed direct support from Churchill himself.

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