When a Foreign Government Interfered in a U.S. Election — to Reelect FDRRoundup
tags: FDR, election 2016, Trump
Steve Usdin is the author of "Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley." This article is adapted from Usdin's forthcoming book, Spying Between the Lines.
Covert intelligence operations, propaganda, fake news stories, dirty tricks—all were used in a foreign government’s audacious attempt to influence U.S. elections. It wasn’t 2016; it was 1940, and the operations were employed not by a hostile adversary, but by America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom.
Though technology has advanced, and the two nations’ motives could not have been more different, critical aspects of Russia’s alleged covert efforts to bolster the campaign of Donald Trump echo the tactics that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service pioneered seven decades ago. In 1940, as war raged in Europe, British intel officers in New York and Washington worked to elect candidates who favored U.S. intervention, defeat those who advocated neutrality, and silence or destroy the reputations of American isolationists they deemed a menace to British security. Scores—perhaps hundreds—of Americans who believed that fighting fascism justified unethical and, at times, illegal behavior, worked for British intelligence or cooperated with London’s efforts.
Winston Churchill’s goals were as clear Vladimir Putin’s motives are murky. Churchill, the U.K.’s savvy wartime prime minister, knew that Britain could survive and repel an anticipated German invasion only if it received massive amounts of aid from the U.S., and that ultimate victory over the Nazis would require American military involvement. He also knew that decisions to send food, fuel and weapons across the Atlantic, and to dispatch troop ships to follow in their wake, lay in the hands of the president and a hostile Congress. To pull the U.S. into Britain’s efforts would require first winning public opinion—making newspapers and radio programs the front lines in the battle to persuade Americans to elect politicians willing to back Britain over those who promoted an “America First” agenda. SIS, the British intelligence agency, flooded American newspapers with fake stories, leaked the results of illegal electronic surveillance and deployed October surprises against political candidates.
Over the 18 months between Britain’s humiliation at Dunkirk and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the scale and intensity of the SIS’s efforts in the United States were without parallel in the history of relations between allied democracies.
The SIS and its American collaborators went to great lengths to obscure the ties between their activities and the British government. These links have since come to light largely because William Stephenson, the Canadian businessman who headed British Security Coordination (BSC), the official front for SIS operations in North and South America from 1941–1945, commissioned a history of the organization's operation. Declassified in 1999, that history provides a remarkably candid picture of London's espionage and propaganda activities.Alongside other documents available in the U.K. National Archives, this history shows that, as it sought to shift America out of neutrality, British intelligence was restrained only by the certainty that the blowback from public exposure would have been disastrous.
The story of British government efforts to influence American elections and public opinion is a cautionary tale, providing a lesson that is all too relevant today about the power of propaganda and covert operations to alter history. It also demonstrates how difficult it can be to differentiate in real time between legitimate concerns and imaginary conspiracy theories—and, perhaps, provides a glimmer of hope about the resilience of American democracy. ...