When ‘Fake News’ Was a Force for Good

Average Reading Time: 2 minutes

“Agents of Influence” sets the record straight on the man called Intrepid

Peter Eisner

Agents of Influence is Henry Hemming’s engagingly reported story about an audacious British clandestine propaganda campaign to draw the United States into World WarTwo.

Agents of Influence Henry Hemming.

On one level, it’s a story of the life and times of William Stephenson, a Canadian with no espionage training who becomes Britain’s unlikely key operative in the United States as well as MI6’s direct intermediary with the FBI, including J. Edgar Hoover, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.

Sound familiar? The British author makes the connection quite explicit: While Hemming is concentrating on Hitler and Roosevelt and Churchill, he is thinking all the while about Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. 

At the same time, unseen by the Americans, and disregarding his orders from London to keep a low profile, Stephenson mounts an aggressive secret underground disinformation operation to systematically coax a resolutely neutral America into the fight on Britain’s side. This is a story of manipulating public opinion, producing, and promoting, well, fake news while duping public figures into being useful idiots to get the job done. 

“Strip away the technology involved, the names and the dates, and there are some surprising similarities between the Russian operation which ended in 2016 and the British one which began in 1940,” he says up front.

The British campaign was a matter of survival. The Nazis were at the door in France, assembling an invasion force. And  so Stephenson was allowed to disregard orders, it turned out: a desperate Churchill was willing to accept all means necessary to bring the United States into the war—lies and fake news be damned. Or as the British prime minister later said: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”


Article written by Peter Eisner
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