British Security Coordination was an umbrella organization active during the years 1940 to 1945 which represented MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) throughout North and South America and the Caribbean during World War II.
The birth of British Security Coordination
On the 21st June 1940 a Canadian by the name of William Samuel Stephenson (1896-1989) arrived in the United States to take up the position of Passport Control Officer at the British embassy in New York City. A veteran of the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, Stephenson had later made his fortune back in Canada, and as a millionaire industrialist it might have seemed strange that he should be taking up such an apparently lowly administrative position. In truth of course the post of Passport Control Officer was merely the cover for an operative from the Secret Intelligence Service and Stephenson's real task was to head the British Security Coordination and launch what has been described as "one of the largest covert operations in British spying history".
Stephenson had earlier visited the United States in the spring of that year and made contact with J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, with a view to gaining his support. Hoover was happy to co-operate with the British SIS, but given that the United States was officially neutral at the time he felt that he could only do so if expressly approved by the President. Approached on the matter Franklin D. Roosevelt decreed that "There should be the closest possible marriage between the FBI and British Intelligence" and further accepted Hoover's other stipulation, which was not to inform the State Department or indeed anyone else in the US government, who thus remained in blissful ignorance of this arrangement.
Stephenson set up his operation at the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, and with the active co-operation of the FBI rapidly building up a network of agents. His terms of reference included the investigation of enemy activities, the protection of British property against the threat of sabotage and the organisation of American public opinion in favour of supporting Britain, and ultimately of joining the war on Britain's side. Exactly how these ojectives were achieved or what indeed were the precise activities of the BSC were shrouded in mystery for many years.
The Secret History
At the end of the war Stephenson decided that it would be a good idea to "provide a record which would be available for reference should future need arise for secret activities and security measures of the kind it describes". The BSC files were all transported from New York City to the Special Training School (otherwise known as Camp X) maintained by the SOE at Oshawa near Toronto in Canada. There the first draft of the report was produced by Gilbert Highet, but subsequently rewritten by Thomas Hill, editor of the trade journal Western Hemisphere Weekly Bulletin, with assistance provided by Roald Dahl, who had been the assistant air attache at the Washington Embassy. Once the report had been completed the entire BSC archive was destroyed.
Twenty copies of the report were printed by a local Oshawa printer and bound in leather by a Toronto bookbinder. Ten were placed in the vault of a bank in Montreal where they remained until Thomas Hill was ordered to burn them in 1946. Stephenson kept a copy himself, another was given to Winston Churchill, the rest were distributed amongst the senior members of the SIS. Since that time various extracts and copies from this report were circulated amongst a few favoured researchers and academics, but it was not until 1998 that Nigel West felt able to publish the whole report under the title British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-1945. According to West "Some photocopied versions of Sir William's personal edition have circulated among a small circle of intelligence cognoscenti, but this present edition is the first time the whole document has been published without editorial comment".
It has been asserted that the report tells "the whole story of Britain's US infiltration in great detail", but it is worth noting that since the entire BSC archive was destroyed in 1945 there is no way of knowing whether or not the report is indeed a complete and accurate record of that organisation's activities. Neither is the provenance of the 1998 publication as secure as it might be and we cannot be certain that it is indeed the "whole document". No one knows to what extent some of the details of BSC's activities may have been expunged from the historical record along the way.
The activities of British Security Coordination
Amongst the activities that British Security Coordination were involved in was an operation codenamed 'Vik' which was a programme of harassing and annoying Nazi sympathisers, supported by a printed booklet which detailed the ways in which this could be achieved. In effect this involved nothing more than playing a series of practical jokes on their selected targets, such as letting air out of car tyres, arranging for deliveries of unwanted goods, placing dead rats in water tanks and so on. This was no doubt great fun, as indeed was the escapade during the summer of 1941, when the BSC had their own fake Hungarian astrologer named 'Louis de Wohl' going on tour across the United States predicting doom and disaster for Hitler.
There was of course a more serious side to the BSC's activities, such as counteracting German propaganda in the United States and stopping any attempts by German agents to sabotage British economic interests, but the major task undertaken by British Security Coordination was simply to manipulate American public opinion.
The major problem the British government faced after the fall of France in June 1940, was the widespread belief that it was simply a matter of time before Great Britain was either invaded or forced into accommodation with the new masters of Europe. Certainly the dominant mood in the United States at the time was one of isolationism - the America First Committee for example had more than a million paid-up members - and the last thing most Americans wanted was to get involved in another European war. British Security Coordination was attempting to change all that; to persuade the American people that Britain was right to resist to Nazi Germany, to assist them in that endeavour, and ultimately to join the war.
It was in pursuit of this end that the BSC set up its own own press agency, the Overseas News Agency, its own radio station WRUL, and acquired the services of such influential columnists as Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, all of which were responsible feeding a steady diet of Anti-Nazi and pro-British stories to the US news media. Perhaps their greatest coup was forging the South America map, supposedly stolen from the bag of a German courier in Buenos Aires, which showed how the Nazis planned to divide up the continent into five new states, with details of the proposed Lufthansa routes from Europe to various destination in the Americas. The map certainly impressed Roosevelt, who referred to it in a speech of the 27th October 1941 and claimed that it "makes clear the Nazi design, not only against South America but against the United States as well."
Reviewing the evidence of BSC's activities Charles C. Kolb of the National Endowment for the Humanities concluded "that British intelligence activities were both active and effective in reforming American public and political opinion", while the Washington Post noted the "exquisite moral ambiguity" involved in the BSC's operations and the fact that the "British used ruthless methods to achieve their goals; by today's peacetime standards, some of the activities may seem outrageous." The author William Boyd (whose novel Restless is based on the BSC story) has described the whole episode as "deeply embarrassing" and noted how the BSC was "explicit and condescending about American gullibility". Although its worth remembering that British Security Coordination acted with the full knowledge and support of the FBI and the tacit co-operation of the president.
In the end of course the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, 7th December 1941 rendered the whole question of American neutrality entirely academic, as Germany ended up declaring war on the United States in accordance with its prior agreement with the Japanese. Whether the BSC propaganda campaign would have been sufficient to have enabled Roosevelt to otherwise declare war is simply one of the unanswered questions of history.
- Charles C. Kolb. "Review of William S. Stephenson, ed. , British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas 1940-1945, H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews, December, 1999.
- William Boyd, The secret persuaders, The Guardian, August 19, 2006
- The excerpt (forward and introduction) taken from an unabridged version of the secret history of the British Security Coordination