Reading Chronicles has provided me, in equal parts, education, philosophic inspiration, and new words to add to my vocabulary—until now. Justin Raimondo’s review (“The British Were Coming!” December 1998) of Thomas Mahl’s Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 is one of the best examples of misinformation, damning indictments unsupported by facts, and illusions unsupported by facts, and illusions billed as “intelligent history” that I’ve ever seen crammed into a mere two and a half pages of a magazine.

Raimondo claims that “the evidence is in, and it turns out that [John] Flynn was right. At the center of the web [of propoganda, intrigue, and calumniation] was the British Security Coordination (BSC), the American arm of British intelligence . . . charged with coordinating a British fifth column in this country.”

History—which Raimondo implies may not be his strong suit—records that “fifth column” was coined during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War when, as four columns of Generalissimo Franco’s “Insurgents” marched on Madrid, a “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs inside the city helped mess up the Loyalists’ defenses. Do Raimondo and Mahl suggest that the Brits were our enemy in 1939?

As Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto documented in his diary in 1941, our real “enemies” were American “isolationists” who effectively vetoed any effort by President Franklin Roosevelt to build up the U.S. armed forces, thus convincing Hideko Tojo that he could attack Pearl Harbor because “Americans have no stomach for war.” (Ironically, while President Clinton commits our military forces to all sorts of “police actions” around the world, his reduction in defense spending have convinced the Husseins of this world that we still have “no stomach for war.”)

Raimondo further claims that “The BSC . . . had its tentacles in Hollywood and among the literary set . . . movie mogul Alexander Korda . . . playwright and presidential speechwriter Robert Sherwood, and mystery writer Rex Stout . . . ” Setting aside the fact that communists had infiltrated that crowd far more thoroughly than the BSC by 1939, the BSC doesn’t seem to have been very effective in Hollywood. For instance, four of the plays that Sherwood wrote between 1936 and 1940 (two of which won a Pulitzer Prize) were anti-war of anti-Soviet Union (supposedly our friend back then).

Raimondo quotes from a memo by Ernest Cuneo, who claims that the BSC “violated the aliens registrations act, shanghaied sailors numerous times, and possibly murdered one or more persons in this country.” Though the standard is much lower and more politicized now than when I was a journalist, back then my editor would have slapped me with a pay cut, at best, if I’d failed to demand answers to the following questions: How did they violate the Registration Act? Which sailors, where and when? Whom did they murder, where and when, and what’s your evidence?

“Of all the operations conducted by [the BSC] in this country, none had a more long-range effect than the turning of Senator Arthur Vandenberg,” which Raimondo “explains” was accomplished by getting Vandenberg from “isolationist” to “interventionist” (Raimondo’s labels) was the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Vandenberg became convinced that the security of the United States requires us to be a strong player on the international stage. (Incidentally, Raimondo’s use of “anti-interventionist” in place of “isolationist” is, in my opinion, about the same as “pro-abortion” people using the more palatable label “pro-choice.”)

Finally, “How an unknown lawyer [Wendell Willkie] . . . could come to be the GOP presidential nominee is a mystery pondered long and often by conservative commentators over the years.” What commentators? What mystery? Even my little old Family Encyclopedia of American History notes that Willkie was a “well-known courtroom lawyer and chief executive of a giant utility holding company in New York . . . bitterly opposed to Roosevelt’s New Deal, making him much admired by conservative Republicans . . . switched from ‘isolationist’ to backing Britain after the Nazis conquered Western Europe.”

When I read that Mahl’s book “penetrates the propagandistic pieties promulgated bv the court historians and exposes the . . . utter immorality of ruling elites,” I thought, “This guy was trained in the disinformation office of the old Soviet KGB.” In my opinion it is not court historians (whatever they are) but Raimondo (and Mahl, too?) who deserves indictment for “propagandistic pieties.”

        —C.W. Borklund
Locust Grove, VA

Mr. Raimondo Replies:

If only I had been “trained in the disinformation office of the old Soviet KGB,” as Mr. Borklund would have it: Perhaps then I would be a respected writer for the New York Times—or maybe even a neoconservative. Alas, my alma mater is much less prestigious, and so I am stuck answering crank mail.

Mr. Borklund claims to have been educated and inspired by Chronicles, but his polemic leaves me with the impression that he is shocked that anyone would question the conventional explanation of the origins of World War II. I am by no means the only writer to offer an alternative view who has appeared in the pages of this magazine. Perhaps Mr. Borklund has mistaken Chronicles for National Review.

Mr. Borklund does not believe in the existence of a British fifth column in this country, despite the memoirs and memos of its own overseers and agents, cited in the review. The point of Desperate Deception is that the truth is far worse than the memoirists suggest. The etymological history of the phrase “fifth column” is very interesting, and yes, the British and their American supporters were our enemies in 1939. In a coordinated covert propaganda campaign, the Brits bought off politicians, smeared their opponents, and interfered extensively in the American political process. The Brits were our enemies because they had mobilized their wealthy and influential American supporters on behalf of a cause that was not in American interests—and, as Mahl shows, they would stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

As for Mr. Borklund’s journalistic concerns, the answer to his questions about murder are to be found by looking under “M” in the index of Desperate Deception. The Registration Act properly requires that agents of a foreign power register as such, but somehow the dozens of BSC fronts ensconced in Rockefeller Center failed to do so. Regarding the names of those sailors who were shanghaied—according to the testimony of BSC agent Ernest Cuneo—I must admit he’s got me there. While Cuneo’s memo does not name names, perhaps Mr. Borklund would like to contribute to Chronicles’s investigative journalism fund so we can pursue the matter.

As for the turncoat Vandenberg: I think another kind of pearl turned the senator away from his previous stance. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was instrumental in imposing an economic embargo on Japan: While historian Wayne S. Cole, in Roosevelt and the Isolationists, contends that Vandenberg’s key role “unintentionally” aided the war party, Mahl’s book places the randy Vandenberg in a new light.

Since it was the interventionists who worked tirelessly to get us into a war that needlessly slaughtered millions, Mr. Borklund’s contention that using “anti-interventionist” instead of “isolationist” is equivalent to the pro-abortion crowd coopting die word “choice” is grotesque. The “isolationist” label was originally meant as a smear, and vet some opponents of globalism came to wear it as a badge of honor. I prefer to call myself an “insulationist—one who advocates insulating what remains of our old republic against the fatal temptations of empire.

Mr. Borklund will be glad to know that President Clinton has raised the “defense” budget—currently bigger than the military budgets of the rest of the world combined. However, this will no doubt fail to satisfy Mr. Borklund, the conservative establishment, and congressional Republicans, who object to all forms of socialism except the militarist variety.