Blogs > HNN > Part Eight: Politics and Break-ins

Oct 21, 2010 1:45 pm

Part Eight: Politics and Break-ins

The break-in at the Vichy Embassy began June 19, 1942 and ended successfully four days later on June 23. The dates coincide neatly with the Second Washington Conference. The British first called for the Vichy operation three months earlier in March. The OSS mirrored British plans a month later. At the same time, in April, America's Ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William D. Leahy was recalled. By June they had joined forces. Each nation may have had its own purposes for desiring France's naval codes, but the British purpose appears self-evident. Six months after Pearl Harbor, no serious decision had been reached on America's route into the European theater. American plans for a cross-channel invasion were taking form, and the British lobbied gently but relentlessly for a different approach. Churchill wanted an end-run against Germany through Africa, against France's colonies in around Casablanca. In the coming negotiations over invasion plans, the French naval ciphers could make a potent debating point. 

  Though Cynthia's story casts a long shadow, it contrasts neatly with the early shape of the recently minted American Office of Strategic Services, OSS. Without the successful intervention of America's first independent spy apparatus, General Eisenhower and Army Chief of Staff General Marshall might have gotten their way, and there would have been a cross-Channel invasion before the Atlantic Wall was built. And more, the decision to invade North Africa might not have gone into history as a political choice rather than strategic decision.

In late 1941, Tennessee Democrat Kenneth Douglas McKellar drove a bill through Congress to strengthen the foreign agents registration act. McKellar's bill had the effect of stifling an agreement worked out by the military, the State Department, and the FBI allowing British agents to operate on US soil under the supervision of J. Edgar Hoover. Several studies of this agreement give credit to name the British Secret Intelligence Service, operating in the U.S. to Hoover, who is said to have come up with the benign and workmanlike British Security Coordination (BSC). From the start, as we shall see, the British went to work circumventing, not a man to let such adventures go unnoticed and unrequited.

For Cynthia and the BSC, the McKellar Act created a serious obstacle. The only way forward with the Vichy operation was through the American OSS. which, in theory was to confine its operations outside the outside the Western Hemisphere. But until just days earlier, there had been no OSS. Before that, it was the Coordinator of Information, which was unrestricted and provided a way around the McKellar Act.

Whether Cynthia was actually an American agent, or an American operator reporting to the British is not clear. What is apparent, is that where her initial preparations for the break-in began under the auspices of the British Security Coordination, she was now working in the twilight status of the OSS.

That William Donovan's organization, the OSS, was  a creation of British intelligence, there can be little doubt. CIA historian, the late Thomas Troy, dispelled any questions about the origins of the agency in his book entitled, Wild Bill and intrepid. Less well understood were the effects of this collaboration in the days leading up to America's entry into the war and the months that followed, culminating in the invasion of North Africa, the historic landing code-named “Operation Torch.”

The cast of characters that seemed to pass by osmosis between British intelligence and COI/OSS portends the outcome of the debate taking place at the second Washington conference, and reveals the lengths Winston Churchill was prepared to go to preserve the British Empire, as well as the deep desire on Pres. Roosevelt's part to maintain an alliance crucial to victory over the Nazis.

So it was a British and American rogues gallery of illegal and extra-legal operaators who conspired -- not very consciously, it appears, on the American part -- to help the stage for invasion of North Africa. And to risk an international incident in the process.

Part Nine: Constructing Cynthia

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