BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s Edward R. Murrow in 1940, reporting from London during a Nazi bombing campaign. [CLIP]: EDWARD R. MURROW: I'm standing on a rooftop looking out over London. I saw many flags flying from staffs. They simply feel like flying the Union Jack above their roofs. No one told them to do it, and no flag up there was white. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Murrow was a conscious reporter and an unwitting propagandist, pumping up the bravery of Britons for an audience of Americans skittish about entering Europe’s war. In fact, the British government was so cognizant of the power of public relations, they recruited a glittering group of witting propagandists and hastily-trained spies - among them, Ian Fleming, who would create James Bond, actor and playwright Noel Coward and Roald Dahl, best known today for his dark adult stories and beloved children’s books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.
As Jennet Conant tells the story in her new book, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, these men weren't typical spy material, but the British Government were willing to try anything if it meant winning American support.
By 1941, the Nazis had marched victoriously through much of Europe, and England believed their own defeat was imminent. JENNET CONANT: And they were running out of men, they were running out of arms, they were down to their last dollar and they were desperate for American aid. The war was so unpopular here, though, that Roosevelt, who really wanted to help the British, couldn't vote any kind of funds or military support without losing his chances of being reelected. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So public opinion was a matter of life and death. They had one huge ally in Edward R. Murrow. There was also an unlikely ally in Mrs. Miniver. JENNET CONANT: [LAUGHS] Well, Mrs. Miniver was the classic tearjerker. It was a huge bestseller. It brought the war home, really. It made people understand what it meant to live through these times. And the success of that book made England realize that if they could dramatize the war in ways that people could understand this would really drum up support.
So then they marshaled their forces and they brought over H.G. Wells, A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, C.S. Forester, who had written the famous Hornblower series. He began to write all kinds of heart-thumping tales of England’s naval victories. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So at this point, let's bring in Roald Dahl, an erstwhile pilot for the Royal Air Force, a dashing veteran and, most importantly, a gifted storyteller who ingratiated himself nearly everywhere he went. How was he employed when he was first sent to Washington? JENNET CONANT: Well, he was badly wounded as an RAF pilot and he was invalided out of the war, and the idea really was that he would be a sort of a propaganda tool. He was the classic wounded hero, and he was really supposed to parade around at British Embassy parties in Washington, shake the hands of politicians, appeal to politicians - housewives, and do that kind of glad handing.
He came to the attention of the British Security Coordination, which was the undercover network doing widespread propaganda and espionage work in the United States. They decided that Roald Dahl would be worth hiring. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, David Ogilvy, who went on to create one of the great advertising firms in the country, they were basically trained not just in regular espionage but in what we in America would call dirty tricks. JENNET CONANT: Well, Ogilvy, you know, was a fabulous hire. He was already in this country working for the Gallup Poll organization. And Gallup in those days was doing all of the premier political polling. And he had become something of Gallup’s protégé and constantly leaked all of the inside information about all the key election polls, and the British were more informed, really, about the state of the election, some people believe, than a lot of Americans were. BROOKE GLADSTONE: They didn't just traffic in information. They also trafficked in misinformation, personal smears about people who opposed them, who opposed the American entry into the war. JENNET CONANT: Yes, these were desperate times, they called for desperate measures. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And it wasn't always pretty. If an isolationist senator had a mistress and the British found out about it, this would be leaked to Drew Pearson, one of the preeminent gossip columnists in Washington or, worse yet, Walter Winchell, one of the most feared and powerful gossip columnists in the country.
Roald Dahl became such close friends with Drew Pearson, he worked so closely with him that he really became almost a member of Drew Pearson’s family. Every day they would meet for drinks at the Mayflower Bar in Washington and they would trade items. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The interesting thing about Dahl’s career, I think, is that when he first got to Washington, he made a splash. He came to people’s notice because he wrote up his exploits when he was a pilot. Now, as you note in your book, he was an indifferent student. He never saw himself as a writer. It was spying that got him into writing. JENNET CONANT: Yes, all of those stories were pure propaganda, ordered up by the embassy to help Britain’s cause. They would have been read by the British Information Services, the premier propaganda outfit that was vetting everything that was published.
And I think what happened was he discovered, quite by accident, that he had a sort of natural storytelling ability, and he began to entertain, for the first time, the idea of being a writer. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, as you say, desperate times called for desperate measures. And there was one out-and-out fabrication, and it involved a map. JENNET CONANT: They came up with this idea of forging a map that would be a Nazi map. This would show that this was the Nazis’ plan to take over part of South America. They'd planted it and then they leaked the fact that there might be something going on there to the FBI. The FBI raided the place, found the map, and this prize was then passed all the way up the chain, and Roosevelt talked about it in a very famous speech. They sort of got away with it and nobody quite pinned the tail on the donkey. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much do you think the activities of the British espionage and propaganda effort here influenced the development of similar American agencies and activities? JENNET CONANT: Well, to a huge extent, because we had no foreign intelligence at the beginning of World War II. And the British came in and they had all their spies doing foreign intelligence for us, and then they suggested we set up our own foreign intelligence shop. And, in fact, they recruited the guy to head it. And it was called the OSS. It would later be reorganized and become RCIA. But our idea of how it should be run all came from the British. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jennet, thank you very much. JENNET CONANT: Thank you for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jennet Conant is the author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.