In May 1941, Ian Fleming went to New York and met James Bond.
Or, rather, Fleming met William – Bill – Stephenson. Stephenson worked with the creator of Bond in the dark world of espionage during WWII and may well have been the inspiration for that quintessential dashing British spy who has now been serving Queen and Country for nearly 70 years.
Stephenson was not a career MI6 spy. In fact, he had made a fortune in Canada after WWI and then created his own private intelligence network. One of his most eager consumers of information was Winston Churchill, still a backbench MP seemingly destined for ever greater obscurity if Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler succeeded in keeping Europe at peace. It didn’t of course, and a small part of the reason for Churchill becoming Britain’s new war-time Prime Minister in 1940 was the valuable and unique information on Nazi rearmament supplied to him by Stephenson.
Impressed by freelance spy’s ability and dynamism, when the MI6 station chief left his post in New York Churchill tapped Stephenson for the role – and then greatly expanded it. Stephenson became head of Britsh Security Coordination, BSC, in the Americas, a powerful role overseeing MI6, MI5, and SOE.
A Canadian millionaire was an unusual addition to what had been a small and modest intelligence operation, dabbling in a relatively small-time influence work, propaganda and refugee affairs. Stephenson transformed the British intelligence operation in New York and North America and achieved feats of espionage that would – and perhaps should – have seen impossible.
Using his own money, the new station chief began much more ambitious, dangerous and potentially disasterous operations with an ultra-secret goal – get the United States into WWII as Britain’s ally as soon as possible. Stephenson was entrusted with this crucial task by Churchill himself and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fate of Britain depended on his success. Stephenson had no scruples about using any means necessary to fulfill his mission.
Reorientating the entire security policy of a foreign nation when the mass of its population was opposed to war was a Herculean task in itself. Stephenson, however, was not unopposed in his difficult endeavours. One of the great strengths and wonderful achievements of Henry Hemmings in Our Man in New York is that he opens our eyes to how very different a world the 1930s were and how our assumptions can be turned on their heads by the reality of that very different time.
For example, the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States did not exist in the 1930s- and indeed Britain was seen in mostly a negative light by most Americans and as an outright enemy by many. Opinion polls in the 1930s regularly found more public support for Germany than Britain, as strange as that might seem to us today.
This is what made Stephenson’s endeavour so intriguing. The wealth and power of the US was evident to Stephenson and Churchill but finding a way to inveigle those resources into supporting the British side would prove a difficult if not impossible task. Not the least of the problems were German agents of influence active in the highest levels of government- as well as undercover spies from the German Embassy – who had the help of many other ordinary Americans sympathetic to the Nazis cause.
It would be a shame to ruin such a marvelous book by giving away any more. Reviews of history books often refer to such works ‘breaking new ground’ and ‘shedding new light’ and this can come to seem a little overused. In this case, though, Henry Hemmings genuinely has done wonders to trace, analyse and synthesise a treasure trove of new material.
The result is a rollicking good read that achieves what is almost impossible – Our Man in New York entices in readers and then regales them with an exciting and significant story of WWII that has almost gone completely untold before now.
Do read it, you won’t be disappointed – it makes the average James Bond plotline seem humdrum in comparison!!!