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When the British Interfered in American Elections

Lessons for the debate over Trump and Russia

TimeTimeThere 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 FoundationAmerican Legacy Foundation3. 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.

Photo Credit: Time

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  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I didn't realize this was actually a thing:

    Seattle is expected to host the third-largest resistance gathering in the country this Saturday, with organizers expecting more than 50,000 people to attend the Womxn's March on Seattle in solidarity with a similar march on the nation's capital.

    So they're learning nothing from this election. Nothing at all.

  • Citizen X||

    How do you pronounce "Womxn"?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Beatch.

  • BearOdinson||

    These uppity broads need to learn a lesson!

  • PBR Streetgang||

    I think its pronounced "stoo" - "pid"

  • R C Dean||

    Chicks?

  • BearOdinson||

    "resistance" gathering.

    Because a bunch of smelly "womxn" with unshaven arm pits and legs gathered in Seattle yelling stupid rhymes is like French underground members plotting to blow up the local Gestapo headquarters.

    Tip: if 50,000 people can gather downtown and yell profane things at and about the leader of the executive branch of the Federal government without worrying about being shot or reprisals, IT ISN'T A RESISTANCE!

  • ||

    If you asked them I, I bet they'd tell you they fear reprisals. It won't happen, but just their fear alone will validate every proggie's anxiety about Amerikka.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'm getting daily... daily reports on how the local members of the transgender community are building panic rooms.

  • BearOdinson||

    There is a euphemism in there somewhere, but I am too tired to dig it out

  • R C Dean||

    Something about redecorating the panic room, perhaps?

  • Stevecsd||

    Well, think of all the contracting jobs this will create! They are going to prove Trump right about creating more jobs!!!

  • josh||

    there are legit threats to anyone who dares to be different in the world for sure. but what's amazing is how it doesn't dawn on some people that making it appear as if there's always someone lurking around the corner who will destroy everything you care about might not exactly be making it better.

  • Chili Dogg||

    It's like that old story about the transgendered boy who cried "Wolf!".

    On a serious note, I heard some young black people being interviewed on the radio and they had been scared to death into thinking that every cop is stalking them and that cops will make up any excuse to stop them and shoot them. It's hard to imagine that helping the situation when they are pulled over for a legitimate reason. I'm sure everyone here is up to speed with the considerable problems with some of the things that police do, but over-hyping (is that word?) the situation causes its own problems.

  • paranoid android||

    You almost have to feel bad for them--how did they manage to print all those posters without realizing they had misspelled "Women"?

  • Pan Zagloba "The Stickler"||

    Please allow me to top that.

    Vancouver, Victoria events planned to coincide with Women's March on Washington

    It's not billed as an anti-Trump protest, but the Women's March on Washington wouldn't exist had it not been for the U.S. president-elect.

    Organizers expect between 2,000 to 3,000 to attend a Vancouver march on Saturday Jan. 21 in solidarity with their sisters in D.C., a day after Donald Trump's scheduled inauguration in Washington.
    ...
    Similar marches are planned across the world, including Victoria, Toronto, Montreal and other Canadian cities, while at least 10 busloads of women from Ontario and Quebec are due to travel to the U.S. capital. (And at least one woman from the Yukon is spending her 2017 vacation budget to attend.)
  • BearOdinson||

    Fucking Canadians. Seattle is getting 50,000 women out there, and Vancouver is only getting 2,000. Shit, it is almost as if these women aren't real Americans!

  • ||

    Canadians are retarded. On one end they react incredulously when compared to Americans and then do stupid shit like this that solidifies the reality of us being a branch plant society or off-shoot of American culture.

    With shittier showmanship.

  • Citizen X||

    +1 hat

  • paranoid android||

    With shittier showmanship.

    Well, you'll always have Celine.

    (I mean in spirit, since I understand she spends most of her time in Vegas).

  • R C Dean||

    So, a bunch of foreigners are going to protest a President who is illegitimate because a bunch of foreigners interfered in our politics?

    Got it.

  • SugarFree||

    People made fun of "womyn." People made of "wimmin." No one will make fun of "womxn."

  • Citizen X||

    That's because it's too confusing.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    From what I hear about Seattle, most of the city's inhabitants are leftists. So this strikes me as pointless. The people in Red counties couldn't give a fuck less about what happens in Seattle.

  • paranoid android||

    From what I hear about Seattle, most of the city's inhabitants are leftists. So this strikes me as pointless. The people in Red counties couldn't give a fuck less about what happens in Seattle.

    Entirely correct. In fact, there's rumblings from both sides of the Cascades about splitting Washington into two states. East Washington doesn't like that they pay taxes to a state government almost entirely run by people that hate them, and West Washington thinks that having even a single opposition voice in government is an insult to common decency.

    On the one hand, it makes no sense from pretty much any perspective that these two civilizations have to share one state with a common government; on the other hand, as someone who lives in the western part of the state, I appreciate whatever minor checks on progressive lunacy the Republicans can occasionally provide.

  • Tuan Jim||

    Roughly a mirror of Oregon too. Now...you could try splitting both states down the cascades and you'd have one more coastal liberal haven and another mountain/farming conservative powerhouse like Idaho/Wyoming/Montana.

  • Tuan Jim||

    That is to say, you'd combine portions from each state.

  • Threedoor||

    I'm totally for this. Just as long as there is never a merger with Idaho that includes Spokane.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    Dear unhinged leftoids: More of this please!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Win on the alt-text in second pic.

  • ||

    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.

    Hiss? As in Alger Hiss? Russian connection confirmed, British are pawns of Putin.

  • kbolino||

    There are only two kinds of people. Putin, and puppets of Putin.

  • Citizen X||

    In post-Soviet Russia, Putin is YOU!

  • Pan Zagloba "The Stickler"||

    To quote Alexei Sayle on The Young Ones

    I mean, you look at statistics, right.
    83% of top British management have been to a public school and Oxbridge, right?
    93% of the BBC have been to a public school and Oxbridge, right?
    98% of the KGB have been to a public school and Oxbridge.
  • grrizzly||

    Even the Soviet spy cell was called Cambridge Five.

  • Citizen X||

    Fun fact: a team of British spies was active in the U.S. throughout World War II, working to tamp down isolationist and anti-imperialist sentiment and maintain political support for the Allies. One of these spies was a young fellow named Roald Dahl, who'd been invalided out of the RAF after surviving a spectacular plane crash in Egypt. In the course of his duties, he seduced congresswoman Clare Booth Luce, probably in order to blackmail her into giving up her anticolonialist views on India; he later reportedly begged his handler to let him break it off with Luce, saying he was "fucked out."

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    let him break it off with Luce, saying he was "fucked out."

    Well, he was British.

  • Citizen X||

    During preparations for the invasion of Normandy, many Brits complained about American soldiers being "overpaid, oversexed, and over here." The American response was to mock the Brits for being "underpaid, undersexed, and under Eisenhower."

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    My mother was British, she married an American flyboy (my father) after WWII. She knew where her crumpets were buttered.

  • Citizen X||

    That is a pretty sexy euphemism. Pics?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Nothing online... I could link you to my dad's info for Stalag Luft 1, but my mother was about *taps on calculator* 13 yrs old at that time. Yes, Dear old Dad married younger.

  • Citizen X||

    That's... troubling. I don't want pics anymore.

  • Citizen X||

    "She said she was 16, but i'd swear she was actually 20."

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Well, he married her after the war, so she was in her early 20s by that time. But the age difference was not insignificant.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    so she was in her early 20s by that time.

    *resumes fap*

  • Crusty Juggler||

    13 yrs old at that time.

    *stops fapping*

  • Citizen X||

    Crusty Juggler's boss: "You're fired. Finish up and get out of here."

  • R C Dean||

    "What? You never complained before!"

  • Pan Zagloba "The Stickler"||

    We established in previous threads that she did that as a form of Lend-Lease, trying to bring some class and propriety to the colonies. A noble, if doomed, errand.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It was. She came here to class up the place. I mean, think about it... if you want to bring civilization to the colonies, are you going to do it from a coldwater walk-up in the East end, married to narrow shouldered British man working for the National Service, or are you going to do it from the front seat of a Hudson with the top down on an American Officer's pay?

    DO I HAVE TO SPELL EVERYTHING OUT FOR YOU PEOPLE?

  • PBR Streetgang||

    What a great story about Dahl. Thanks, I never knew about this.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    Good stuff.

  • paranoid android||

    You know what I've heard absolutely nobody mention during all this?

    That time Ted Kennedy begged the Russians to help sway the 1984 election against Reagan.

  • PBR Streetgang||

    Totally different.

  • Aloysious||

    ^explains everything

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Believe it or not... there may be an argument for that.

    Ted Kennedy was a drooling retard and in addition to that, utterly incompetent. Not only did his proposal fail, I suspect it was met with howls of laughter inside the halls of Soviet power.

    *said in thick russian accent*

    Operative one: Who is this... Theodore Kennedy?

    Operative two: He is brother of that other one... who was it... John. This "Teddy" is disappointment to family. He is laughing stock.

  • R C Dean||

    "He is the, how you say, Fredo Corleone of the Kennedy family."

  • josh||

    it being "different" is certainly how it was explained to me.

    when i asked "how?", i was informed i was the problem....and then i understood.

  • Juice||

    When will people stop linking to Forbes?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Ok, I'm not hip to yet another meme here, and I also don't read Forbes... what's the complaint with Forbes?

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    Yes, I am unaware of this Forbes issue too.

  • R C Dean||

    You can't get to the article without registering.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    I can. I just wait for the countdown timer and click the continue to site (or whatever it is) at the upper right.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Jesus, you dig deep enough in the archives and what was written off as paranoid hyperbole turns out to be absolutely true.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    Thank you. I came here to mention that too.

    Speaking of the success of Russian influence, how did President Ted Kenned work out anyway?

  • grrizzly||

    Barack Obama's America is such a banana republic, Russia was able to install its man as the US President.

  • GILMORE™||

  • bacon-magic||

    Good article.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Did anyone hear about this thing where the Democrats are annoyed at Republicans for tipping Iran off to the fact that their "Historic Deal" isn't binding?

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    One of them whiny Dems I attended HS with. He is now a lawyer in Atlanta. He was saying that the US Senators who posted the open letter to Iran on their Senate webspace needed to be jailed. He had a cite too.

    After that, I cannot fathom why anybody would ever hire anybody from his law group, for anything legal anyway.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    More recently:

    If the UK Parliament were to see fit to schedule a public debate by MPs as to whether Donald Trump is fit to receive a visa to enter the UK, and virtually all argumentation impugned Trump, I'd say that the UK government attempted to influence US elections. And, yes, they did do that.

    Several other European leaders insulted Trump as well, and thereby expressed their disapproval of his candidacy.

    These are matters of fact. The Russians' are only alleged to have been involved in obtaining and releasing documents that harmed Hillary. There's no real evidence -- no facts -- in the public domain. The recent DNI report was all opinion on everything that matters. The only facts in the pathetic DNI report that made the rounds last week were those in the juvenile TV Guide story about the RT nework. Even that part of the report failed to make a case that RT favored Trump over Hillary. I only watch TV news occasionally, but my own experience during the campaign was that CNN/ABC/CBS/NBC was far more pro-Hillary than RT was pro-Trump or anti-Hillary.

  • Number 2||

    FDR was an illegitimate president. He was voted into office thanks to British hacking of the 1940 election. I am therefore boycotting dimes.

  • buybuydandavis||

    3. This isn't a "Post-Truth Era." That would require a Truth Era that never existed.

    Whatever you want to call it, it actually was worse this year.

    The MSM was openly at war with Trump. I couldn't watch CNN because every discussion was premised on lies.

  • Bramblyspam||

    When people talk about foreign influence in US elections, the first nation that comes to mind for me is "Israel".

    I guess I'm an anti-Semite or something.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Nah, you just hate jews.

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