“It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted.”
—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Harry Elmer Barnes argued in the early 1950’s that the myths and folklore about America’s entry into World War II were more fantastic than the fictions produced about World War I. Honest debate about World War I occurred in the 1920’s, and it gave birth to one of the most significant developments in 20th-century historiography—revisionism. This congenial climate of opinion, however, was not to be tolerated after 1945. The opposition that revisionism encountered in the 1920’s was minimal compared to the smear campaigns, ostracism, and ad hominem attacks that were orchestrated against historians who rejected the party line on Franklin Roosevelt and America’s entry into World War II. And if Conspirator: The Untold Story of Tyler Kent by Ray Bearse and Anthony Read is any indication, the party line is alive and well and the campaign of misinformation continues to this day.

Tyler Gatewood Kent was born in 1911 at a mission hospital in Newchwang, Manchuria, where his father was the American consul. He spent his early years in Germany, Switzerland, and Bermuda, before attending school in Virginia in 1919. After two years at a prep school in Dublin, he returned to America and entered Kent School in Connecticut and then St. Albans in Washington. He entered Princeton in 1929 and quickly distinguished himself as a linguist. He left Princeton during his sophomore year, studied Russian at the Sorbonne and Spanish at the University of Madrid, and then attended George Washington University in 1933, where he prepared for a career in the foreign service with studies in history and economics.

In October 1934 he joined Ambassador William Bullitt’s first staff in the newly established American embassy in Moscow and in October 1939 was transferred to the American embassy in London. Responsible for encoding and decoding messages, Kent had access to all communications passing through the London embassy, including the secret exchanges that occurred in 1939 and 1940 between Churchill—then Lord of the Admiralty, not Prime Minister—and President Roosevelt. Convinced that Roosevelt was dragging the country into war, Kent saved and copied thousands of documents, particularly those directly dealing with the correspondence between a “naval person” and the President. His stated purpose for collecting these documents was to prevent Roosevelt’s reelection in 1940 by informing the leading isolationists in Washington of this secret correspondence. He lent some of these documents to Anna Wolkoff, a White Russian emigre he had befriended in London. He thought she might show them to Captain Archibald Ramsay, a Conservative member of Parliament who was, with Wolkoff, a member of a reactionary organization called the Right Club. Ramsay was in a position to break the story of the secret correspondence via a speech on the floor of the House of Commons. Wolkoff returned the documents to Kent the following day.

However, unbeknownst to Kent, Wolkoff had had the documents photographed and passed on to a friend at the Italian embassy, who in turn relayed them to Germany via Rome. The photographed documents revealed that Churchill had agreed to stop searching and seizing American ships—repeated incidents of which had seriously damaged British-American relations by January 1940—if Roosevelt in return would agree to keep this deal a secret from other neutral nations and agree not to carry cargo that Britain considered contraband.

On May 20, 1940, after months of investigation, Tyler Kent was arrested by Captain Maxwell Knight, head of the British Security Service. Nearly two thousand embassy documents were found in his possession. In what is considered the first major espionage trial of World War II, Kent was convicted under British law of violating the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in a British prison. He was released in late 1945, whereupon he returned to the United States. Kent died in Kerrville, Texas, in 1988.

Ray Bearse and Anthony Read have written not a historical account of the Tyler Kent affair but another chapter in the mythology of World War II. In fact, it is difficult to find a single argument in their book that is supported with anything but conjectures, guesses, and innuendos. They exhibit no concern whatsoever for an honest and evenhanded analysis of the evidence, and their bias against Kent is evident from the start. “Kent was endangering the very existence of a friendly power that was then truly fighting for its life,” they write in the prologue. “Had Britain fallen, the United States would have been left to fight the inevitable war against Nazi Germany.” Historical incidents are never inevitable, except to amateur historians like Bearse and Read, and there was certainly nothing inevitable about a war between America and Nazi Germany.

Like inveterate liars who over time come to believe in their own veracity, the authors conjecture something in one chapter and then resurrect it as truth later on, either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that they never proved the point in the first place. The authors’ “proof that Tyler Kent was an agent for the NKVD during his days in Moscow is a prime case in point. The authors begin by making much of the fact that Kent had “affairs” with a number of Russian women. Kent was only 22 years old when he arrived in Moscow, one of the dreariest capitals in all of Europe. With only one woman on the embassy staff during the entire five years of Kent’s stay in Moscow, it should not be surprising that diplomats and clerks alike ended up associating with Russian women. And this included Ambassador Bullitt, who was fond of mingling with ballerinas from the Bolshoi. Moreover, personal relations between Americans and Soviet citizens were not viewed as suspiciously as hindsight might suggest. Soviet Russia in the 1930’s was by no means perceived as the Cold War menace it would later become. On the contrary, Roosevelt had come to view it as an important potential ally, one worthy of America’s recent diplomatic recognition. William Bullitt, in fact, was one of the most pro-Soviet ambassadors to ever hold the post.

Ironically, the authors denounce Kent’s relationships with Russian women but see nothing unnerving in the fact that Ambassador Bullitt was bisexual and that Max Knight was sexually impotent or a homosexual; and it is the homosexual, not the heterosexual, foreign service officer who has traditionally been most vulnerable to blackmail. Nevertheless, Bearse and Read deem the young Kent a “womanizer,” a “wencher,” who was “obsessed with sex,” while the sexually confused or frustrated Knight was merely “remarkably complex.” The authors add that Knight was handpicked for the Kent case by Britain’s counterespionage expert Guy Liddell, a man “particularly good at spotting and encouraging talent.” Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby were two other promising officers spotted by the talented Liddell.

The authors contend that Kent’s relationship with Tatiana Ilovaiskaya, a NKVD informer, is enough to substantiate Kent’s work as a Soviet agent. Kent never denied his relationship with Tatiana, and he even admitted that they would “lie abed mornings and laughingly discuss what she would tell her bosses that day.” But Kent went to his grave denying that any of her information came from him or the embassy, and never have there been any evidence, any documents, any confessions to the contrary. Guilt by association, however, is all the evidence Bearse and Read need. “Kent must have passed substantial quantities of genuine information from the embassy.” The authors even provide a psychological justification for Kent’s alleged actions. “No doubt the knowledge [that Tatiana had ties to the NKVD] added spice to the relationship for Kent, enabling him to feel secretly superior to his fellows in the embassy. It would have been completely in character for him to have despised [fellow] Foreign Service officers.” After all, the embassy had once reprimanded Kent for having asked out the secretary of one of Bullitt’s guests, and “no doubt ‘the reprimand was stored in Kent’s memory as a score to be settled sometime.”

After stating that Kent “must have” passed papers on to the NKVD, the authors feel qualified pages later to state this as fact. “But Tyler Kent seemed to have no such qualms about cooperating with the Soviets, and went on happily supplying secrets to [Tatiana] and her masters in the NKVD.” The authors brush off the fact that they have no evidence for this contention by writing, “We must set his need for financial and sexual rewards against any protestations of innocence.” And like habitual liars who have finally lost all touch with reality, the authors then wildly conclude, “Given our current knowledge of Kent’s NKVD connections, it is entirely possible that Stalin received copies of the [Roosevelt-Churchill] signals through [Kent]”!

The authors’ allegiance to the no-doubt, probably-was, must-have-been school of historiography haunts this book from beginning to end. Not even the tangential matters of the narrative are substantiated. Moscow, for Kent, “must have been a great culture shock, and the prospect of a stay of six years quite daunting.” Concerning Kent’s penchant for copying documents, “Partly, no doubt, it was for his own satisfaction, like that of any collector of stamps or books or paintings. It must also have been partly to nourish his need to possess secret knowledge and thus assert . . . his superiority over those lesser beings who were in authority over him. But it is impossible to avoid the thought that he may still have been collecting information for the NKVD. Though there is no evidence that he ever passed anything to them directly in London, it is known that several of his friends and associates outside the embassy were Soviet agents or collaborators, willing or unwilling.”

Concerning his relationship with Anna Wolkoff, “There is no hard evidence that she and Kent were lovers, though with his tomcat morals and obsession with sex it is hard to believe that he did not add her to his list of paramours.” Concerning Kent’s association with members of the Right Club, “Kent, of course, was an enthusiastic member, though, strangely, his name does not appear on the list [of members].” And concerning the all-important question of whether Kent knew that Anna Wolkoff was going to have the documents photographed and sent to the Germans, “Kent may have been perturbed at the thought that the signals had been photographed. But the idea of their being passed to the Germans may not have been entirely unwelcome to him.” The authors cannot even resist accusing Kent of condoning terrorism. Regarding the IRA bomb that exploded in Coventry in 1940, killing five people and injuring fifty, “No doubt this terrorist act was welcomed by Kent.”

If any psychological interpretation is warranted, it is for an understanding of Bearse and Read, not of Kent. For aside from their delusion that they have written a work of history, the authors exhibit a strange preoccupation with things sartorial. They contend that ever since Kent entered Princeton with “a smart wardrobe from Brooks Brothers,” he suffered a lifelong obsession with tailored clothes, an obsession that somehow bespeaks Kent’s debauchery and deceit. Then there is Joan Miller, Britain’s beautiful undercover agent who infiltrated the Right Club to gather information on Kent and Wolkoff and who after “three sexually frustrated years of living with [Max] Knight” was seen “floating angrily around London in tent-like garments.” Of course, Kent’s relationship with Archibald Ramsay is easy to explain, for “both were immaculate dressers, fond of good clothes.” Kent’s mother—who spent every breathing moment attempting to free her son from prison—was particularly disgusting since she was “a chubby woman given to wearing hats and gowns of an earlier era.” Moreover, Kent “must have been” embarrassed when she visited him in prison, because when he was young and his mother would visit him at prep school, “there can be no doubt” that “he compared her dowdy clothes with the classic Peck & Peck uniforms of gray flannel or tweed suits, or gray flannel skirts with cashmere sweaters and a single strand of pearls, worn by the mothers of his classmates.”

Most disturbing, however, is the disingenuousness of this book’s title: Conspirator. That Kent illegally removed and copied confidential documents, no one denies. But a “conspiracy” is “an agreement between two or more persons to commit an illegal act,” and a “conspirator” is “one who conspires with others” to commit such an act. In other words, one person does not a conspiracy make, and never has anyone or any study ever proven that Kent acted in concert with anyone else in the collecting of documents; that he knowingly showed documents to an agent of a foreign government; or that he collected the documents for any reason other than his purported aim of getting them to the leading American isolationists of the day.

The one obvious conspiracy that did exist is the one the authors intentionally play down: the Washington and London conspiracy to silence Kent and to keep him imprisoned outside of the United States for the duration of the war. There was a reason why Kent remained calm throughout his arrest and interrogation. He was confident that once he had been deported, the Roosevelt administration would never make him stand trial for fear of disclosing the politically damaging documents that he would have at his disposal. What Kent did not realize is that Roosevelt had no intention of bringing him home. For after his arrest he was fired from his post, thereby erasing his diplomatic immunity and freeing him to be tried under British law. Nor had Kent considered that, in Britain, matters dealing with state security could be tried in camera, behind locked doors, with journalists excluded and all lawyers and jurors sworn to silence. Tyler Kent’s crucial mistake was not his stealing of top secret documents, but his failure to understand and to appreciate fully the political shrewdness of the Roosevelt administration.

The conspiracy to cover up the Tyler Kent affair was so brilliantly executed that it did not even become an issue until the 1944 election, and then only briefly. Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana, though unable to condone what Kent did, was outraged that an “American boy connected with the American embassy could be tried in a secret British court,” and that he could still remain in a British prison four years later. “What would have happened,” he asked, “if we should arrest a member of the British embassy here and endeavor to try him in an American secret court?”

In reply to Wheeler’s question. Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota said: “He would be sent back to England to be tried under the laws of England.” His answer, however, was perhaps overly optimistic. For given the cordiality of relations between Churchill and Roosevelt, the hypothetical Briton would probably never have been arrested. In fact, it is well-known that Britain had, with Roosevelt’s approval, an intelligence network headquartered in New York called the British Security Coordination, whose job it was to track and to frustrate every move of the leading American isolationists of the day. Senator Burton Wheeler was one of its prime targets. America’s anglophilia often stretches to great lengths, encompassing even British agents who spy on American citizens. Instead of being denounced as an agent for a foreign power, William Stephenson, the BSC’s famed Canadian-born leader, has been honored with lavish praise and lionized in book and film. Tyler Kent was a “spy,” but William Stephenson was A Man Called Intrepid.


[Conspirator: The Untold Story of Tyler Kent, by Ray Bearse and Anthony Read (New York: Doubleday) 332 pp., $24.50]