When the British Interfered in American Elections

Lessons for the debate over Trump and Russia



There is clear-cut evidence that a foreign power has interfered in our country's elections. It spied; it spent; it spread disinformation. It was the United Kingdom, and the campaigns it attempted to influence took place in 1940.

This story has been told in such books as Desperate Deception and The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, and now Politico has run an article about it. Hoping for help against the Germans, the British promoted candidates they found congenial to their interests. (They helped push Wendell Willkie for the Republican presidential nomination, for example, so that a pro-British internationalist would sit in the White House even if Franklin Roosevelt lost.) But most of their electoral efforts were aimed less at advancing politicians they liked than at tearing down ones they didn't. This was part of a larger program of espionage and propaganda that lasted well after Election Day.

As you've probably guessed, Politico's newspeg is Russia's alleged machinations in last year's presidential election. But the article doesn't say much about what we might learn from the '40s, preferring to tell the tale rather than tease out its lessons. So let's think about what exactly this story suggests, beyond the obvious point that yes, foreign nations have been known to influence our politics. Sometimes a bona-fide historical conspiracy can shed some light on a modern conspiracy theory:

1. The British gave covert assistance to candidates, but they didn't pull the candidates' strings. The takeaway from the Politico story should not be that Willkie or Roosevelt was some sort of British agent. They had their own reasons for wanting to back the U.K. in Europe's conflict, as did many other members of the American establishment. London didn't control them; it recognized them as allies.

That point may seem too obvious to bother spelling it out. Yet a great deal of the commentary around Moscow and the election leaps from looking for evidence of interference to assuming that Donald Trump is little more than a stooge—as Hillary Clinton put it, Putin's "puppet." This in turn yields commentary in which the central issue is whether Trump's allies or even critics are doing "what Putin wants," rather than whether there are good reasons for anyone else to want it. Which leads us to observation #2:

2. Whether a policy is a good idea is a separate question from whether a foreign power is pushing it. Needless to say, the fact that Britain worked behind the scenes to pull Washington into World War II does not tell us much about whether entering World War II was a good idea. The same goes for the Russia-friendly policies that Trump might pursue. The possibilities on the table include some notions that I like (such as rethinking NATO) and some that I hate (such as allying with Moscow in Syria). If it turns out that Trump's team had more contacts with the Kremlin than they're letting on, that isn't going to change my positions on those issues; the fundamental arguments are going to be the same.

Furthermore, it's not as though there's only one group of plotters at work here. Last year Ukraine tried to help Hillary Clinton. During the run-up to World War II, Germany made its own efforts to influence American public opinion. Sometimes you're going to have foreign conspirators on your side no matter where you come down on an issue. Better to pick your side on the merits.

American Legacy Foundation

3. This isn't a "Post-Truth Era." That would require a Truth Era that never existed. I know I keep hammering this point, but a lot of people out there seem to think "fake news" on Facebook is some radical departure from the past. So if nothing else, read Politico's feature for stories like this one:

[British Security Coordination (BSC)] created, funded and operated the Non-Partisan Committee to Defeat Hamilton Fish, which among other activities, circulated a pamphlet juxtaposing Fish, Adolf Hitler and Nazis. Another photo appeared to show Fish meeting with Fritz Kuhn, the "American Hitler" who led the German-American Bund and was, at the time, serving a prison sentence for embezzlement. Contrary to the caption—"Hamilton Fish inspecting documents with Fritz Kuhn"—the Republican congressman had never met privately with Bund leader. The photo had been taken at a 1938 public hearing that Congressman Fish had organized to discuss a proposed ban on paramilitary groups like the Bund.

Another bit of British-engineered fake news had an ironic twist, accusing Fish of being a pawn of a foreign power. They alleged that Nazis funneled money to Fish by renting his properties at inflated high rates as a means of subsidizing pro-German propaganda efforts. On October 21, Drew Pearson and Robert Allen reported the story in their hugely influential Washington Merry-go-Round column—a true October surprise.

Or this:

The British government had a well-oiled, coordinated, worldwide strategy during World War II for generating and disseminating rumors, which it called "sibs," short for sibilare, the Latin word for whisper or hiss. Many of the sibs were silly or outlandish—for example, rumors that man-eating sharks from Australia had been deposited in the English Channel to consume downed German aviators—but British intelligence took them extraordinarily seriously. "The object of propaganda rumours is in no sense to convey the official or semi-official views of H.M.G. [His Majesty's Government] by covert means to officials in the countries concerned," read one classified wartime report. "It is rather to induce alarm, despondency and bewilderment among the enemies, and hope and confidence among the friends, to whose ears it comes."

New sibs were approved by an organization called the Underground Propaganda Committee (UPC), which met weekly in London during the war. While rumors spread in Europe by word of mouth, in the U.S., they were disseminated through a network of friendly reporters and, starting in the spring of 1941, by the Overseas News Agency, a news service that received subsidies from, and was controlled by, the BSC.

The next time someone tells you we live in a post-truth age, remember the sibs. We've been floating in an ocean of disinformation for years. If it feels like there's more hoaxes now, that may be a sign that lies are more common. But it might merely mean we're more aware of the lying.