Men in the Back Channels of World War II

“My job was to try and oil the wheels between the British and the Americans.  After that first dinner with the President, I used to go out to Hyde Park at weekends.  There were always Roosevelts there, and people like Henry Morgenthau.  I was able to ask pointed questions and get equally pointed replies because, theoretically, I was a nobody.  For instance there might be some argument officially between London and Washington about future operations.  I could ask FDR over lunch what he thought, and he could tell me quite openly, far more than he could say in a formal way.[1]

Raoul Dahl (1916-1990) was a British air attache based in Washington and a former RAF fighter pilot who came to Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention as the author of The Gremlins, which she had read to her own grandchildren.

“Given the time, the situation, and the mood, it is not surprising however, that BSC [British Security Coordination] also went beyond the legal, the ethical, and the proper. Throughout the neutral Americas, and especially in the U.S., it ran espionage agents, tampered with the mails, tapped telephone, smuggled propaganda into the country, disrupted public gatherings, covertly subsidized newspapers, radios, and organizations, perpetrated forgeries – even palming one off on the President of the United States – violated the aliens registration act, shanghaied sailors numerous times, and possibly murdered one or more persons in this country.”[2]

Ernest Cuneo (1905–1988), was a lawyer and retired professional athlete who became a top aide to New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the Democratic National Committee.  A sometime journalist, he worked as a conduit between the worlds of journalists, spies and the White House.  Cuneo claimed to have written many of the columns of journalist Walter Winchell as “a service to FDR.”[3]

British officials assigned to the United States during World War II were an eclectic ménage.  British playwright Noel Coward was approached by spy chief William Stephenson in mid-1940 to become a British spy.  “My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot,” Coward later admitted, “a merry playboy.”  Coward noted: “Nobody…considered I had a sensible thought in my head, and they would say all kinds of things that I’d pass along.”[4]  Former RAF fighter pilot (and future U.S. children’s book author and screenwriter) Roald Dahl was nominally a British military liaison officer in Washington, but he doubled as an intelligence officer for Stephenson.  Oxford don Isaiah Berlin was first posted to Moscow and eventually settled in Washington as first secretary of the British embassy, compiling summaries of U.S. media that Winston Churchill highly valued.  Future spy novelist Ian Fleming was a key intelligence operative who came to the U.S. in 1941 to help Donovan set up the first American spy agency.  Another novelist working for Stephenson was  C. S. Forester, who encouraged the writing talent of Dahl.  Hungarian-born film producer Alex Korda also worked for British intelligence and helped provide cover for other agents.  Pollster David Ogilvy, later one of the world’s preeminent advertising executives, joined the British Intelligence Service in Washington in 1944.

Longtime British spy Charles Howard “Dick” Ellis, an Australian native, was Stephenson’s deputy in Washington; skeptics have speculated that Ellis was a double agent, working also for the Russians during the war.[5]  Among the British Foreign Service officers posted to Washington was Donald Mclean, a Russian spy who in a spectacular defection fled to Moscow in 1951.  Historian David Stafford noted that Churchill’s “growing dependence on Roosevelt meant that he needed to know more than ever.”  Stafford wrote that Stephenson’s operation “spent much of its energy surreptitiously reporting on American affairs as well as exposing German influence on isolationists.”[6]

The web of American and British officials inside and outside government was a tangled one – especially the exchange of information among government officials and journalists.  Dahl was a Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilot had been disabled in the air battle over Greece in early 1942, He had become a close friend of Texas businessman David Marsh, who owned a Washington home which Vice President Henry A. Wallace often visited late in the afternoon.  As a result of Dahl’s children’s book, The Gremlins, he  became a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and became a welcome visitor at the White House and Hyde Park – very useful for British intelligence.  That was understandable because as Churchill observed, “the President liked meeting young heroic figures.”[7]  Sitting with FDR, Dahl often heard the President comment on the war, Churchill, and politics, as well as the opinions of visiting cabinet members such as Treasury Secretary Morgenthau.  Many of these comments Dahl not only passed on to Stephenson (as FDR probably expected) but also to Marsh who passed them to Vice President Wallace, who worried correctly that FDR intended to dump him from the Democratic ticket.

Former airman Dahl tried to fit into the culture of the British embassy but his outside activities repeatedly affronted his nominal RAF chief at the embassy, who twice ordered Dahl removed.  Dahl’s boss discovered that Dahl had powerful mentors in New York (William  Stephenson) and London (Max Beaverbrook).  Dahl had become acquainted with Beaverbrook when he was reassigned to London.  Dahl became a key lieutenant to Beaverbrook, who would negotiate the future of international civil aviation after the war.  On his return to Washington, Dahl played an important role in 1944 as a conduit for British intelligence regarding the activities of Vice President Wallace, whom the British government viewed with distrust and disdain.  (Roosevelt himself so distrusted Wallace that when the Vice President visited Russia and China in mid-1944, he was not allowed to meet with Stalin.  FDR “thought that the Vice President’s liberal influence might do some good with Chiang.  But he was taking no chances of confusing Stalin about American policy.”[8])  It was Dahl’s job to maintain friendly relations with Wallace and brief him on what the Roosevelt Administration was thinking – even as Wallace knew that Dahl was a British spy informing on him to the British government – not an uncommon irony in the world of spies and their targets.

Before Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden arrived in Washington in March 1943, Dahl used his well-connected friend David Marsh to answer questions submitted by his British spymasters about American attitudes.  In his long, written response, Marsh wrote: “Eden is respected by Roosevelt as a good political workman who thinks post war more like he does than any other Englishman of power, but Roosevelt recognizes Churchill and not Eden is boss, so has his tongue in his cheek.  Wallace believes Eden is top British mind on post war and would be invaluable in any semi-final late 1943 conference at Moscow.”[9]  Vice President Wallace was a liability in Anglo-American relations; British officials distrusted his leftist ideas and Russian connections.  Wallace recorded a White House meeting on May 23, 1943 at which Churchill talked “about the postwar organization.  Churchill said he thought there ought to be three regional organizations and one supreme.  He envisioned the U.S., British Empire, and Russia really running the supreme show.”[10]  The previous day, Churchill had discoursed at the British embassy luncheon on the postwar world. Churchill wrote in his memoirs: “Mr. Wallace said to the Ambassador as he left that it was the most encouraging conversation in which he had taken part for the last two years.”  Churchill wrote: “The Vice-President at luncheon with the President and me next day seemed a little anxious lest other countries should think that Britain and the United States were trying to boss the world.”[11]

A few days later, Wallace wrote: “Charley Marsh told me that it had just come to him during the last few days that the British had their fingers crossed so far as I was concerned.  Apparently my frank talking with Churchill at the Saturday and Monday luncheons has caused the British to reach the conclusion that I am not playing their game of arranging matters so that the Anglo-Saxons will rule the world.  Frankly I am glad to know where they stand and they know where I stand….I am quite sure, in spite of all his protestations to the contrary, that Churchill is capable of working with Russia to double-cross the United States, and with the United States to double-cross Russia.  Perhaps the United States and Russia are equally willing to shop around within the triangle.  It seems to me important, however, that there should be a really honest accord and a complete understanding.  It is important not to forget the Chinese, the small nations, or the Latin Americans.”[12]  Wallace was not only the prototype of one-worlders but he had almost no influence on Roosevelt Administration policy.

Roosevelt had obliquely pushed Wallace’s nomination as Vice President in 1940 – over the strong opposition of many Democratic Party leaders.  In October 1944 after Wallace had been denied renomination as Vice President, one friendly Australian diplomat met with Wallace who “wished I would be a little more careful about putting my name on poorly considered statements.  He referred to the pamphlet Our Job in the Pacific [in which Wallace had proposed ‘emancipation of…colonial subjects’]…Later on I talked with Charles Marsh and asked him if he had any repercussions from his British friends on the pamphlet.  He laughed and said that Flight Commander Dahl…had been very much excited.  Apparently while I was gone, the entire British Secret Service was shaking with indignation as well as the British Foreign Office.  Dahl said to Marsh at the height of his indignation, ‘This is very serious.  You know Churchill is likely to ask the President to get a new Vice President.’”[13]

Dahl had in fact obtained an early copy of Wallace’s controversial booklet at Marsh’s home.  Dahl had it transcribed and sent on to the British spy headquarters.  As Dahl recalled: “I saw immediately its importance from the British point of view and excused myself saying that I was going downstairs to read it.  I quickly phoned the only contact I knew in [British Security Coordination] and told him to meet me on the road outside Marsh’s house fast.  I handed the draft through his car window and told him he must be back with it in fifteen minutes.  The man buzzed off to the BSC Washington offices, and duly returned the manuscript to me on the dot.  I returned it to Marsh without comment.  A copy of the pamphlet went to Stephenson and thence to ‘C’ [British spymaster Stewart Menzies] and then to Churchill and I was told later that Churchill could hardly believe what he was reading.”[14]  Dahl later recalled that the pamphlet concerned civil aviation and how American officials “like Adolf Berle were conspiring with Pan Am…to take over the commercial aviation of the entire world after the war was over.”[15]  Working on post-war aviation agreements was one of Dahl’s responsibilities.  The extent of British hostility to Wallace was reflected by William Stephenson: “I came to regard Wallace as a menace and I took action to ensure that the White House was aware that the British government would view with concern Wallace’s appearance on the ticket at the 1944 presidential elections.”[16]

More useful for Anglo-American relations was the defeated 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, a businessman and erstwhile Democrat.  His nomination insulated FDR from a presidential campaign in which he might have come under attack from a more isolationist Republican.  Thomas E. Mahl argued that as “spokesman for Fight for Freedom,” Willkie “performed numerous chores  the BSC needed done.  For one he defended American moviemakers at congressional hearings when they stood accused of cooperating with the British in producing pro-interventionist propaganda movies.”[17]  Fight for Freedom’s headquarters was located, as were the offices of British Security Coordination, in the International Building of Rockefeller Center; conveniently, American intelligence coordinator Allen Dulles had an office on the same floor as the BSC.  Willkie, who visited London in January 1941 and subsequently toured the world, brought to Churchill a letter from FDR with the words from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Sail on, O ship of State!  Sail on, O Union, strong and great!  Humanity with all its fears, With all the hopes of future years, Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”[18]  Willkie’s later anti-imperialist comments infuriated Churchill – especially when Willkie’s “Report to the People” issued from China in October 1942 declared that “no foot of Chinese soil” should remain in foreign hands.  Willkie added that “mankind is on the march.  The old colonial times are past.”[19]  A few days later in London, Churchill declared in a never-to-be-forgotten speech at Mansion House: “Let me…make this clear lest there be any mistake about it in any quarter: we mean to hold our own.  I did not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”[20]   Churchill had no intention of giving up control of Hong Kong.

FDR himself regretted making fun of Willkie at a press conference in the fall of 1942.  He reproved Hopkins, as if to remind himself, when the aide made his own disparaging remarks: “You of all people ought to know that we might not have had Lend Lease or Selective Service or a lot of other things if it hadn’t been for Wendell Willkie.  He was a godsend to this country when we needed him most.”[21]  Willkie ceased, however, to be a positive link in Anglo-American relations.  At a dinner in December 1942 at the home of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Hopkins talked about Willkie’s trip.  Vice President Henry Wallace wrote: “I said that I had understood from Gardner Cowles that Willkie found at both Moscow and Chungking very strong feeling, first against the British and, second against the United States.  Hopkins then spoke up to say that too much importance should not be attached to what was said to Willkie by either Stalin or the Chiang Kai-sheks.  He said flatly that Stalin knew all about the North Africa offensive whereas no one on the Willkie trip knew anything about it.  He said Stalin for purposes of his own had taken WIllkie for a ride, that both Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek used words not to portray their thoughts or tell the truth but merely to get the desired effect.”[22]  On May 22, 1943, at a White House luncheon, Vice President Wallace told Churchill: “‘It appears that Willkie does not like you, Mr. Prime Minister.’  The Prime Minister said that Willkie reminded him of a Newfoundland dog, rushing into the water and coming out again, shaking himself, wagging his tail and sweeping all the dishes off the table at the same time.  He said, of course, it might be all right to have a Newfoundland dog around to save a child that might fall into a lake occasionally.”[23]

Businessman Charles Marsh also provided insight into Assistant Secretary of State Adolf  Berle, whom Eden wanted to invite to Britain in 1943 – perhaps to mitigate Berle’s confirmed Anglophobia.  Justice Frankfurter called Berle  “almost pathologically anti-British.”[24]  Marsh wrote: “Berle may go to England if he gets the President at the right time and place which in Berle’s language, is the late afternoon, alone, after the President had had a couple of Old-fashioneds and is willing to take on a couple of new ideas.  Berle will spring his best ideas at the proper time and place hoping that the President will then say, ‘Jump on a plane for London,’ which is all he needs against a Hull or a Welles blockade.”[25]  Secretary of State Hull, however, blocked Berle’s trip.  It was not until early January 1944 that Berle was allowed to go to London to discuss controversial postwar aviation policy.  “The British…had long anticipated Berle’s arrival in London.  They had read his bitingly sanctimonious notes and they knew how difficult an adversary he could be.  For years they had heard so much about his olympian brilliance and his irascible Anglophobia that British visitors to Washington like Anthony Eden and Richard Law were astonished to discover that this reputed demon was charming,” wrote Berle biographer Jordan Schwarz.[26]

In the games that British and American political leaders played, the media performed a key role.  There were press barons like American Frank Knox [Chicago Daily News] and British-Canadian Max Beaverbrook [Daily Express, London Evening Standard] in both governments, but it was in America that newspaper columns were used against key FDR aides like Hopkins or cabinet members like Hull.  Throughout World War II, the British were disturbed by the freedom with which American journalists reported on and criticized sensitive military questions.  The British kept columnist Walter Winchell supplied with information but they had less control of Drew Pearson.  British diplomat Isaiah Berlin called Pearson “one of the most malicious and irresponsible political muckrakers in the United States.”[27] Assistant Secretary of State Berle, whom Berlin detested, wrote: “Mr. Pearson has been characterized by the President as a chronic liar.  [One particular article] merely lives up to his settled reputation.”[28]  After Harry Hopkins was married at the White House in July 1942, a series of malicious rumors were floated about the supposed misuse of government resources for his honeymoon.  One rumor was that Lord Beaverbrook had given Hopkins’ new wife an expensive set of emerald jewelry in gratitude for Hopkins’ aide with Lend-Lease.  Although the story first appeared elsewhere, Pearson revived it in 1943.[29]

Pearson was useful to Berlin’s embassy colleague Roald Dahl.  “We became very good friends and we exchanged information openly.”  Dahl fed Pearson information about Churchill’s government and Pearson gave Dahl information about Roosevelt’s government.[30]  The “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column by Pearson was important because FDR read his column religiously and the public listened to his NBC radio show.  Several Roosevelt cabinet members – including Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau – were key sources of Pearson’s information.  So too was the colorful Ernest Cuneo, the onetime Democratic party official who became liaison among the State Department, Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services and British intelligence.  Among Cuneo’s legal clients were both Pearson and Winchell.


Such were the strange relationships that defined the Anglo-American alliance in World War II and helped propel the Allies to victory.

[1]  William Stevenson, A Man Called Intrepid, p. 179.

[2]  Thomas E. Mahl,  Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44, p. 16.

[3]  Thomas E. Mahl,  Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44, p. 53.

[4]  Stephen Koch, “The Playboy was a Spy,” New York Times, April 13, 2008,

[5]  Chapman Pincher, Their Trade is Treachery, pp. 161-172.

[6]  David Stafford,  Roosevelt & Churchill: Men of Secrets, p. 45.

[7]  Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring: The Second World War, Volume III, p. 63.

[8]  W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941-1946, p. 331.

[9]  Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, p. 60.

[10]  John Morton Blum, editor, The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946, pp. 201-202 (May 22, 1943).

[11]  Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate: The Second World War, Volume IV, p. 721.

[12]  John Morton Blum, editor, The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946, pp. 212-213 (May 25, 1943).

[13]  John Morton Blum, editor, The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946, p. 385 (October 3, 1944).

[14]  Donald Sturrock,  Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, p. 216.

[15]  Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, p. 122.

[16]  Anthony Cave Brown, “C” The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill, pp. 483-484.

[17]  Thomas E. Mahl, Desperate Deception, British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-41, p. 180.

[18]  Sir John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 40.

[19]  Ellsworth Barnard, Wendell Willkie: Fighter for Freedom, p. 371.  U.S. Ambassador William H. Standley, wrote that Willkie’s visit “caused me plenty of trouble.  His activities and maneuvers in the Russian capital had left me in an untenable position; although the only officially accredited American Representative to the Soviet Government, I had been by-passed so frequently, my prestige was so low, that it seemed obvious to everyone in Moscow that I no longer enjoyed the confidence of my own government.”  William H. Standley, and Arthur A. Ageton, Admiral Ambassador to Russia, pp. 76-77.  As a consequence, Standley insisted on returning to Washington for consultations.

[20]  Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire, p. 230. FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood wrote: “Churchill had waited a long time for an opportunity to say just that.  He had suffered and seethed when Roosevelt urged him to establish an independent, federated India, when Roosevelt proclaimed that the principles of the Atlantic Charter extended also to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and everywhere else on earth, when the Australian and New Zealand Governments insisted on withdrawing crack divisions from the Middle East; he had even consented now and then to refer to it as the British Commonwealth.  But now, with the wine of victory coursing in his veins, he hurled at all and sundry, at friend as well as foe, the defiance that he never for one instant had abandoned: ‘Here we are and here we stand, a veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world.’”  Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, p. 656.

[21]  Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, p. 636.

[22]  John Morton Blum, editor, The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946, pp. 147-148.

[23]  John Morton Blum, editor, The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946, pp. 207 (May 22, 1943).

[24]  Jordan A. Schwarz, Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era, p. 181.

[25]  Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, p. 61.

[26]  Jordan A. Schwarz, Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era, p. 227.

[27]  Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, p. 221.

[28]  Jordan A. Schwarz, Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era, p. 187.

[29]  Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, pp. 146-147.  When Hopkins and his wife visited Moscow in May 1945, Russian officials presented her with an array of furs and jewels.  Hopkins ordered all but one jewel returned to the Soviets. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, p. 285.

[30]  Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, pp. 146-148.

Posted in Essays