I love reading spy novels, especially those by Alan Furst, who’s one of my favorite writers. No one is better at evoking the flavor of life — the danger and excitement — of such exotic locales as pre-World War II (and wartime) Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, Berlin, Budapest, and Salonika.
Furst has yet to turn his attention to the United States as a setting for one of his historical novels. But if he did, he would find wonderful material to work with, particularly in New York City. For, as it happened, New York, too, was a hotbed of spying, particularly in the turbulent days before America entered World War II. Its nerve center was the International Building, a Rockefeller Center skyscraper that faced St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. From there, the British government conducted an extraordinary covert intelligence operation, whose sole purpose was to force the United States into the war.
With the knowledge and tacit permission of President Roosevelt and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, this unconventional outfit, which employed more than one thousand people at its Rockefeller Center base, planted propaganda in American newspapers, spied on isolationist groups and pro-Axis diplomats, dug up political dirt on isolationists in Congress, and forged documents that, when brought to public attention, helped stir up anti-Nazi sentiment. Its intentionally bland name was the British Security Coordination, and its head was William Stephenson, a shadowy, secretive multimillionaire businessman from Canada whom Winston Churchill tapped to oversee this top-secret, “ungentlemanly warfare” organization. (Novelist Ian Fleming, a friend of Stephenson’s, would later use him as a model for Fleming’s famed fictional character, James Bond.)
At this point, the United States was still officially neutral, and the BSC’s activities were a clear violation of U.S. law. But the Roosevelt administration turned a blind eye, and the British took full advantage ot that. They joined forces with several American interventionist organizations, giving them information that British agents had uncovered and, in some cases, reportedly helping to subsidize them. One of those groups was called Fight for Freedom; its membership list was a Who’s Who of the East Coast’s business, academic, and cultural elites, and its offices were also in the International Building. Fight for Freedom joined with British operatives to disrupt and harass rallies and other gatherings of the America First Committee, the country’s most influential isolationist organization. Along with other private interventionist groups, it also placed spies inside the offices of America First, as well as those of isolationist members of Congress and organizations suspected of German ties, to eavesdrop on conversations and secretly photograph incriminating letters and other documents.
Nazi Germany had its own spies in New York and throughout the rest of the country, but compared to the British, they were pathetically inept and ineffective. Hans Thomsen, the No. 2 man in the German embassy in Washington, repeatedly complained to his superiors about how bad the Reich’s operatives were, fuming that their operations were “marked by naivete and irresponsible carelessness, and on top of that, lacked any kind of coordination.” Of course, they also faced problems that the British didn’t have: instead of being in league with the FBI as the British were, the Germans were spied on by both the FBI and the British.
In late 1940, a German-born U.S. citizen named William G. Sebold opened an office in the Knickerbocker Building in downtown Manhattan. The office actually was a meeting place for a couple of dozen spies working in the New York area for Germany’s military intelligence agency, the Abwehr; Sebold’s job was to transmit their reports back to Berlin. Unbeknownst to the German operatives, their conversations with Sebold about their past feats and future plans were being recorded by FBI bugs and cameras. Sebold, the ace radio operator, was, as it turned out, a double agent, who had been working with the FBI all along. In July 1941, the spies were rounded up by the FBI and later put on trial. The mass arrests were a debacle for Germany, a point underscored by an exasperated Hans Thomsen in an “I-told-you- so” cable to Berlin: “It can be assumed that the American authorities had long known all about the network, which certainly would not have been any great feat, considering the naïve and sometimes downright stupid behavior of these people.”
Yet the ineptness of the German agents went largely unmentioned by the FBI when it trumpeted to the American public its success in breaking up the spy network. According to Attorney General Robert Jackson, “the Nazis never had an extensively organized espionage or sabotage ring in this country.” Indeed, the United States never faced any serious threat of internal subversion before or during the war. But the American people never knew that; in fact, they were told the opposite. According to the FBI, the White House, and the British, the roundup of the German spies was inconvertible proof that swarms of fifth columnists and enemy agents were busily at work throughout the country — a belief that’s still conventional wisdom today.