Foreign meddling, FBI intrigue, political warfare: the 1940 U.S. presidential election had it all…
Convention Hall in Philadelphia, a mammoth art deco building on 34th and Spruce often used for prize boxing bouts, simmered in the glare of television lights as Republican delegates gathered there in the fourth week of June 1940 to choose their party’s candidate for president—and a plank on what, if anything, America should do about the war blazing in Europe.
The whiskey flowed freely, as at all such conclaves, but the war exerted a sobering influence on the proceedings. “Nazi fliers strike widely in Britain,” the New York Times reported in its June 25 edition, just three days after France’s formal surrender to Germany. Was it time, delegates asked themselves, to rally the party in favor of American intervention to put a stop to Hitler?
A full-page advertisement in that day’s Times, addressed to the convention-goers along with “American mothers, wage earners, farmers and veterans,” insisted the answer was no: “STOP THE MARCH TO WAR! STOP THE INTERVENTIONISTS AND WARMONGERS!” The missive was signed by a group calling itself THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE TO KEEP AMERICA OUT OF FOREIGN WARS.
Unbeknownst to the delegates, the ad was a propaganda plant, written by a German agent with close ties to Republican isolationists in Congress and paid for, in part, by the Nazi government in Berlin.
But two could play at this game. “Delegate Poll Says 60% Favor Help for Allies,” the New York Herald Tribune declared in a June 26 headline. The poll was said to represent a sampling of one-third of the delegates, conducted by Market Analysts, Inc., “an independent research organization.” In fact, Market Analysts was headed by an American secretly assisting a British intelligence unit operating out of Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Back and forth it went: a shadow information war waged on American soil, replete with “fake news” and dirty tricks, the Germans and the British targeting the United States and its political institutions in rival bids to sway the outcome of the 1940 presidential election—and in so doing, influence America’s policy and actions on the war across the Atlantic.
THE GERMANS WERE the first to strike in this inky theater of combat. In November 1938, as torched synagogues and ransacked Jewish shops in Berlin and other cities lay in ruin from the Nazi rampage known as Kristallnacht, Dr. Hans Thomsen took up his post as chargé d’affaires at the German embassy in Washington, DC. The title masked his true role as the mastermind of Nazi propaganda efforts in the United States. Tall and blonde, of Norwegian ancestry, Thomsen, 47, was accompanied by his wife, Bebe. The couple affected the role of “good Germans,” with Bebe, at diplomatic receptions, known to burst theatrically into tears in recounting the brute deeds of Nazi hoodlums in her beloved fatherland. He was handsome, she was beautiful, and they made for a luminous social presence on Embassy Row.
Thomsen was a shrewd observer of American politics. With Democrats having taken a pounding in the 1938 midterm elections for the House and Senate, and with a weak economy afflicted by the so-called “Roosevelt recession,” many analysts thought that incumbent president Franklin D. Roosevelt might shrink from a bid for an unprecedented third consecutive term in office. Even some of his fellow Democrats weren’t sure what Roosevelt, an interventionist at heart, would do. But Thomsen divined, correctly, that the president was merely waiting for the right moment to show his hand.
“The timing and strategy of the nomination will doubtless be so cleverly synchronized,” he told the foreign ministry in Berlin in a coded message in February 1940, “that not only will the wind be taken out of the sails of the Republicans but Roosevelt will also be able to take over the role of Cincinnatus, to whom his country appeals in its hour of need.” Thomsen was referring to the Roman patrician of legend, a self-sacrificing statesman who heroically vanquished Rome’s dire enemies only to relinquish power and return to his modest farm, and someone to whom, Thomsen was no doubt aware, America’s first president and eternal model for the job, George Washington, was often likened.
To counter Roosevelt and the interventionist cause, Thomsen proposed, in a subsequent dispatch, “a well-camouflaged lightning propaganda campaign,” secretly funded by Berlin. The essence of the strategy was to give disguised backing to the isolationist movement and its leading voices in Congress. Isolationism, especially resonant in America’s heartland, was animated by the conviction that nothing but grief would come from another entanglement in Europe’s seemingly endless strife. After all, the United States’ entry into Europe’s last war, the isolationists pointed out, had not made the world “safe for democracy,” as promised. It would be best, Thomsen advised Berlin, “if American politicians themselves provide enlightenment [his italics] regarding our political aims and the mistakes of Roosevelt’s foreign policy.”
Thomsen’s prized asset for executing this strategy was the hyper-energetic George Sylvester Viereck, 55, a native of Germany and an ardent admirer of Hitler (a “genius” in Viereck’s estimation). Viereck had lived in the U.S. since adolescence and was best known, to the degree he was known at all, as the author of a bizarre, semipornographic “autobiography,” My First Two Thousand Years, that blended male and female forms in an epic account of the “wandering Jew.” Placed on Thomsen’s payroll, Viereck churned out speeches and articles for Republican isolationists, who probably should have known, but apparently did not, that he was a Nazi agent.
Some of these materials bordered on the preposterous, as in an “interview” with Hitler—concocted out of thin air by the inventive Viereck—that a credulous Montana congressman, Jacob Thorkelson, an immigrant from Norway, inserted into the June 22, 1940, Congressional Record. Fears of a Nazi invasion of America are “stupid and fantastic,” Viereck’s Führer proclaimed. The fraud was on U.S. taxpayers, who paid for the delivery of hundreds of thousands of reprints of the rank propaganda to their homes by the post office, thanks to the franking privilege allowing members of Congress to dispatch “official” mail to their constituents at government expense.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL April 1940, seven months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, that the British moved in a systematic fashion to stymie Thomsen’s machinations. Whereas the Nazis targeted Congress as sympathetic ground for their campaign, the British focused on the executive branch, under friendly control of the Roosevelt administration. On the second day of the month, William Stephenson, a wealthy Canadian businessman, entered the United States, supposedly on behalf of the British Ministry of Supply. In fact, Stephenson was in America as a representative of British intelligence, to meet in secret with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. The appointment had been discreetly arranged by a mutual friend, former heavyweight prizefighter Gene Tunney.
Notwithstanding America’s official neutrality in the war in Europe, mandated by Congress, Stephenson proposed a secret collaboration between the FBI and British intelligence. He was seeking, in effect, the FBI’s permission to set up a base of British espionage operations aimed at undermining active Nazi propaganda efforts and advancing the interventionist cause. The turf-minded Hoover cautiously assented—so long as Roosevelt personally approved the arrangement and so long as no other government agency, the State Department included, was informed of it. Roosevelt gave his hearty endorsement, viewing a sullying of the isolationist movement and its mostly Republican leaders as in his political interest and the country’s, too. “There should be the closest possible marriage,” he said, “between the FBI and British intelligence.”
London had chosen its man well. Stephenson, 43, was clever and resourceful—a former World War I ace who, on being shot down and captured, took home from prison camp a new type of can opener for which he obtained a patent, so making his initial fortune. Known for serving killer martinis in quart glasses to his wide range of social contacts, including publishing baron Henry R. Luce and gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Stephenson was the inspiration, in part, for the debonair spy James Bond in novels by his friend, Ian Fleming. “He is a man of few words and has a magnetic personality and the quality of making anyone ready to follow him to the ends of the earth,” Fleming said of the “Quiet Canadian,” as the novelist dubbed Stephenson.
Stephenson operated under the cover of Passport Control Officer, his quarters at Rockefeller Center—cable address “Intrepid”—provided to him rent-free by the landlord, the Rockefellers themselves. His plan for “political warfare,” as he called it, was of the same character as Thomsen’s—only, in his case, the goal was “to bring the United States into the ‘shooting’ war by attacking isolationism and fostering interventionism,” as recounted in a “secret history” of the operation prepared at his instruction in 1945 (and published decades later). In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who took over for Neville Chamberlain in early May, backed Stephenson to the hilt.
The Quiet Canadian’s main idea was to plant stories in sympathetic press outlets to make the isolationists out to be puppets of Hitler—even though the truth, as he knew, was more complicated. Like Thomsen, Stephenson viewed the United States as a soft target for a propaganda campaign. Americans were yokels, in his estimation. “A country that is extremely heterogeneous in character offers a wide variety of choice in propaganda methods,” his secret history related. “While it is possibly true to say that all Americans are intensely suspicious of propaganda, it is certain that a great many of them are unusually susceptible to it even in its most patent form.”
According to the secret history, Stephenson’s shop “was able to initiate internal propaganda through its undercover contacts with selected newspapers, such as the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and the Baltimore Sun; with newspaper columnists and radio commentators; and with various political pressure organizations.” His outfit, for example, both wrote and “placed, through an intermediary” a series of front-page articles in the Herald Tribune about a Nazi agent, Dr. Gerhard Westrick. Arriving in the U.S. from Japan in the spring of 1940, Westrick leased a mansion outside of New York City, and met with American industrialists, especially in the oil business, to declare the war already “won by Germany” and to offer “business privileges in Axis-dominated Europe” for magnates backing the isolationist cause. The series resulted in “numerous editorials on Fifth Columnism in the United States,” the secret history boasted, and “even a proposal that the paper should receive the Pulitzer Prize for its good work.”
An angry mob gathered outside of Westrick’s house and he left the U.S. for Germany aboard a Japanese liner. A smoldering Thomsen told Berlin that Americans with business ties to Germany had been “compromised before the public” and “compelled to sever these relations.”
THE INTRIGUES NOURISHED an atmosphere in America’s political circles that went beyond healthy suspicion and crept into paranoia as the 1940 campaign got underway. In mid-May, during preparations for the Republican Convention, the head of the Arrangements Committee, Ralph E. Williams, died from an apparent heart attack while chairing a meeting of his panel at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. But was it truly a heart attack? Williams was the backer of an isolationist, Ohio’s Robert A. Taft, for president; his sudden death allowed a supporter of interventionist-leaning Wendell Willkie of Indiana to take over the committee. There was no real evidence of foul play—Williams, at 70 years old, was hardly a spring chicken—but was not assassination part of a spy’s tool kit?
For Hans Thomsen, the convention was an opportunity to mobilize the sizable anti-intervention wing of the GOP, as with his secret sponsorship of a visit by some 50 Republican isolationist congressmen to Philadelphia—their aim, as he told Berlin, to “work on the delegates of the Republican Party in favor of an isolationist foreign policy.”
Stephenson, though, did not lack for assets, as in Market Analysts pollster and British intelligence agent Sandy Griffith: “a cheerful confident American utterly devoted to awakening American Opinion” to the Nazi threat, a Stephenson aide conveyed many years later. The British proved cannier than the Germans in understanding that the new “science” of opinion polling could be weaponized for use in an information war. (George Gallup, the pioneer, founded his American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935.) Griffith, a Long Islander, had fought for the Belgians and then the French before joining the U.S. Army in World War I and later worked as a European correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and other American newspapers. As in Philadelphia, his polls consistently showed a high degree of support for the interventionist cause—almost surely more support than actually existed. Ordinary Americans, and probably even the journalists who wrote up the findings of such polls, seemed not to realize how easily poll takers could massage their surveys.
In Philadelphia, however, the polling failed to achieve its desired effect on the foreign policy plank. “The Republican Party is firmly opposed to involving this nation in foreign war,” the platform declared.
But in the climactic battle over the party’s standard bearer, the delegates, on the sixth ballot, picked Willkie over Taft. A disconsolate Thomsen immediately cabled Berlin: “Willkie’s nomination is unfortunate for us. He is not an isolationist…he belongs to those Republicans who see America’s best defense in supporting England by all means ‘short of war.’”
IT IS TEMPTING to imagine the adversaries in the same room at, say, some swank social function in Manhattan or Washington—the British Passport Control Officer, martini glass in hand, exchanging thoughts on American politics with the German chargé d’affaires. But there is no record of Stephenson and Thomsen having met, although Stephenson, through his sources at the FBI or elsewhere, likely had knowledge of Thomsen’s schemes.
Stephenson’s liaison with Hoover—along with Churchill’s own direct line to Roosevelt—were advantages Thomsen could not match. And when Democrats convened in Chicago in mid-July for their convention, a plan hatched by the Nazis to bribe Pennsylvania’s delegates to oppose Roosevelt’s nomination came to naught, as the state’s delegation stood behind the president, the overwhelming choice of the party.
Still Thomsen persisted, informing Berlin that “after lengthy negotiations,” he had persuaded Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota to distribute copies of an isolationist speech to “200,000 especially selected persons.” And “this undertaking,” Thomsen said in his cable, “is not altogether easy, and is particularly delicate since Senator Nye, as a political opponent of the President, is under the careful observation of the secret state police here.”
Another ray of hope was the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, America’s most famous isolationist of them all: the voice of the America First Committee, organized in September 1940, expressly to keep the U.S. out of the war. Thomsen obliquely told Berlin that he maintained “good relations” with Lindbergh’s outfit, and on one occasion, Lindbergh delivered a radio speech at the behest of the Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee, a group secretly funded, in part, by the Nazis.
But even as he labored to impress his superiors in Hitler’s regime, Thomsen must have felt beaten. The appetite for the isolationist message was diminishing as the Battle of Britain raged in Europe’s skies, with Hitler proving to be less than invincible in being made to put off an armed landing on the British Isles. In the final days before the election, the chargé d’affaires could find no prominent takers in the press for an article he sought to plant on how a malicious Roosevelt, even before Hitler’s attack on Poland, had plotted to get American boys into a savage European war. The best he could manage was publication of the piece in a weekly, the New York Enquirer, owned by an antiwar activist, William Griffin, later indicted for sedition. “Influential journalists of high repute will not lend themselves, even for money, to publishing such material,” Thomsen complained to Berlin.
On Election Day, November 5, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a resounding victory, though not quite as decisive as his blowout triumphs in 1932 and 1936. He took 55 percent of the popular vote, to 45 percent for Willkie, and 449 electoral votes, to 82 for Willkie, the winner of a mere 10 states.
THOUGH BUOYED BY Roosevelt’s performance, Stephenson did not let up. America was not yet in the war, after all. A prime British target was Republican congressman Hamilton Fish of New York, a leader of the anti-intervention camp. At a political rally in Milwaukee, a Stephenson plant presented Fish with a card that read, “Der Fuehrer thanks you for your loyalty.” Newspaper photographers, tipped by Stephenson to be on hand, captured the moment, flashbulbs popping. It was as deft a ruse as any he crafted.
Thomsen slogged on, but after Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry, at last, into the shooting war, he set sail for Germany on the SS Drottningholm, America behind him for good.
Stephenson remained stationed at Rockefeller Center during the war, working closely with the Americans to help them build their own espionage and counterespionage capabilities. The Quiet Canadian became known as Little Bill, in fraternal partnership with his larger-framed collaborator in the intelligence realm, Big Bill, aka “Wild Bill” Donovan, director of America’s Office of Strategic Services. At war’s end, King George VI knighted Stephenson for his work, prompting a letter from J. Edgar Hoover thanking the spymaster for his “very worthy contribution” to the Allied cause. Donovan presented Sir William with the Medal of Merit, at that time America’s highest civilian award. “Bill Stephenson taught us all we ever knew about foreign intelligence,” Donovan said.
THE NAZI-DIRECTED effort to manipulate American public opinion clearly failed. As for the British bid, historian Thomas E. Mahl, in his 1998 book, Desperate Deception, concluded that British covert operations to destroy isolationism and bring America into World War II “profoundly changed America forever, helping it become the global power we see today,” with isolationism itself becoming “a scandalous epithet, to be hurled at one’s enemies.”
Mahl has a point in crediting British spycraft with helping to make isolationism a seemingly permanent swear word in American politics. But otherwise his claim is overstated. Roosevelt may have been conniving in his secret alliance with British intelligence, but in hindsight his sweeping victory at the ballot box seemed assured whether the British conducted their deception campaign or not, as the voters were not of a mind to change presidents in the midst of a global crisis. And it was not British espionage in America but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that in the end spurred America’s full-bore entry into the war. Certainly Churchill felt that way. On the evening of December 7, 1941, he wrote in a draft of his memoirs, “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and the thankful.”
Still, the Quiet Canadian was not wrong in apprehending sprawling America, “extremely heterogeneous in character,” as innately suspicious of propaganda and yet vulnerable to it. Such is always the case in a mass democratic society of free-flowing information, and therein lies the real lesson of this episode. Foreign powers, whether bent on aggression, as in the case of Nazi Germany, or on sheer survival, as in the case of reeling Britain in 1940, will not scruple when it comes to advancing their core interests. The United States’ prized openness is, for them, an opportunity to exploit. But while the U.S. should be on guard against attempts to mold its opinions and influence its policies—for these efforts are real—the country should not succumb to undue alarm. For in the end the U.S. is not quite as easy to manipulate as meddlesome outsiders may imagine. ✯
PAUL STAROBIN is the author of Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860, and the Mania for War. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He is currently at work on a book about the gold rush in Nome Alaska.
This story was originally published in the June 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.