Before Pearl Harbor, there was an elaborate British influence operation of forged documents, fake news, and manipulation.
A World War II era poster showing portraits of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill with the title “Liberators of The World”. The poster also shows the flags of the Allies, and the sinking of the Japanese battleship Haruna. (Photo by David J. & Janice L. Frent/Corbis via Getty Images)
eventy-eight years ago, on December 6, 1941, the United States was at peace with world. The next morning, local time, the Empire of Japan bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Nazi Germany issued a declaration of war against the United States. The American people were now unalterably involved in a global conflict that would take the lives of over 400,000 of their native sons.
But before Japan opened this door to war, the United States had been the target of an elaborate, covert influence campaign meant to push public opinion, by hook or by crook, into supporting intervention on the side of the British. Conducted by the United Kingdom’s MI6 intelligence service, it involved sometimes witting (and often unwitting) collaboration with the highest echelons of the U.S. government and media establishment.
In the early summer of 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dispatched intelligence agent William Stephenson to North America to establish the innocuous-sounding British Security Coordination (BSC). The Canadian-born Stephenson was a World War I flying ace and wealthy industrialist who had been a close Churchill confidant for several years. Adopting the codename “Intrepid” during his operations, spymaster Stephenson served as the main inspiration for James Bond (whose creator, Ian Fleming, worked with the BSC).
The BSC’s base of operations was the 35th floor of Rockefeller Center in New York City, which it occupied rent-free. The influence campaign began in April 1941, employing hundreds of agents, including well-placed individuals in front groups, the government, and polling organizations.
Intrepid had his work cut out for him.
Entering 1941, upwards of 80 percent of Americans opposed U.S. intervention in the war in Europe, a sentiment expressed through the America First Committee. Founded in September 1940 by a group of Yale students (including Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart), at its peak the organization had 800,000 dues paying members and 450 local chapters spread across the country.