Ken Young, “Trust and Suspicion in Anglo-American Security Relations: the Curious Case of John Strachey”
“Trust and Suspicion in Anglo-American Security Relations: the Curious Case of John Strachey”
Ken Young, School of Social Science and Public Policy, King’s College, London
Professor Ken Young, AcSS, FRHistS
Professor of Public Policy
Department of Political Economy
King’s College London
London WC2R 2LS
+44 (0)207 848 2708
When Socialist intellectual John Strachey was appointed as Secretary of State for War in 1950, his pre-war record as a Marxist writer with close connections to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) became a matter of public debate. A bitter campaign was run against him in the Beaverbrook press, and some members of the US defence and nuclear establishment pressed for an embargo on sensitive information being passed to the UK War Office. American suspicion of the political reliability of the Labour government was heightened by the appointment, but this does not explain how and why some Americans were so hostile to Strachey. The FBI’s dossier on his pre-war activities, circulated amongst his American critics, documented Strachey’s supposed secret membership of the CPGB’s Central Committee. MI5 and Special Branch files show that this supposition was based on faulty intelligence. The readiness of American anti-Soviet protagonists to lend credence to such suspicions contrasts with the relaxed view of Strachey’s past that was taken in Whitehall. Both positions were characteristic of their time, and of this stage in the Anglo-American alliance. This paper explores the ways in which an American culture of insecurity and a British climate of tolerance shaped the way that episode played out.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Keywords ANGLO-AMERICAN COLD WAR SECURITY
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The special relationship between United Kingdom and United States reached its apogee in essentially personal relationships: between Kennedy and Macmillan, between Reagan and Thatcher and between George W Bush and Blair. Its ‘special’ nature remains to this day both an elusive quality and a matter of continuous questioning. An invitation to rhetorical restatement whenever national leaders meet, it has been punctuated by episodes in which goodwill and mutual regard have been less in evidence than wariness and suspicion. This was fed sometimes by what was seen as British reluctance to be resolute in defence of Western security, sometimes by doubts that the British could deliver on their commitments, sometimes by residual Anglophobia and anti-imperialism.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The periodic American expression of the political unreliability of the British echoes events of the early Cold War, when some members of the Labour government were regarded by influential Washington figures as excessively tolerant of communism, and British security as excessively lax. Revelations about the penetration of the Manhattan project by Soviet intelligence in the person of British physicist Klaus Fuchs shook Anglo-American co-operation to its foundations. When immediately followed by the appointment of Marxist intellectual Evelyn J. St Loe [John] Strachey as Secretary of State for War, the darkest fears about the political unreliability of the British were evoked in crucial corners of Washington. This paper examines how those fears arose, and with what consequences, before going on to consider how different were the politics of national security in America and Britain at that time.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The twilight of trust
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The revelation in early 1950 that leading British nuclear physicist and Manhattan project member Klaus Fuchs had for some years been a Soviet agent, passing important scientific material to his handlers, reverberated through Washington. Fuchs’ recruitment to the Manhattan project in 1943 had given him access to a wide area of the most vital weapons information. He was thereafter in a position to pass information on technical issues regarding the design of nuclear weaponry to his Soviet controllers. Fuchs returned to the UK in 1946 to become head of theoretical physics at the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. MI5 investigated Fuchs, but although his record showed pre-war involvement in Communist Party activity, it was not deemed significant enough to remove him from his post. Then, on January 24, 1950, Fuchs volunteered an admission about his activities before confessing fully under interrogation to MI5’s William Skardon that he had passed atomic information to the Soviet Union during and after the war. He was arrested and charged on 3 February.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 An immediate and potent response to the Fuchs revelations in the United States came from Lewis L. Strauss, banker, republican fund-raiser, reserve Navy Admiral and fervent anti-Communist who ‘dominated the atomic policy of the United States to a greater extent than any other man in the formative years of the atomic age, 1946-58’. A member of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) from its inception in 1947 to his resignation in 1950, and later Presidential adviser on atomic energy and AEC chairman, Strauss was from the outset deeply suspicious of co-operation with Britain on atomic matters, which he saw as carrying the potential for future threats to the security of the United States.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strauss had received the news of Fuchs’ confession in a telephone call from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on 1 February and it was he who broke the news to his fellow commissioners. He had worked closely with the FBI and so knew of the Bureau’s investigation into Fuchs in the late summer of 1949. In October that year Strauss asked the FBI for information on the British members of the Los Alamos team. Later that month he had a discussion with FBI Director Hoover following which he asked Major-General Lesley Groves for a more detailed report. Fuchs’ arrest and confession simply confirmed his pre-existing suspicions. Strauss’ security contacts were remarkably close. Even after leaving office he was able to see notes of meeting between MI5 and other British and American officials in London at which the Fuchs case had been discussed.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In the days following Fuchs’ trial and sentencing, a surge of anti-communist feeling portrayed Britain as an atomic partner who had too often betrayed the US. This concern was taken up by the press and, at the AEC, by Strauss, who ensured that information was fed to those several correspondents with whom he enjoyed close relations. Truman’s nuclear negotiator Bernard Baruch wrote him that ‘the Fuchs incident shows how correct you were in denying the English further information.’ The damage done by Fuchs was beyond recovery, but Strauss was keen to identify future threats. He was convinced that he had found one when the appointment was announced, just weeks after the Fuchs story broke, of John Strachey as Britain’s Secretary of State for War.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strauss v Strachey
Permalink for this paragraph 0 From 1947 Strauss had pursued a relentless campaign against possible leaks of nuclear information and materials to Britain. Later, his concern for national security would lead him, in his first act as chairman of the AEC, to launch the investigation which brought to an end the government career of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Meanwhile, he fought stubbornly against the exchange of information with other countries for fear of information ending up in the wrong hands. For Strauss, the Labour government stood ‘far to our left’ and their security procedures were too lax. Apparent confirmation came when, on March 2nd, 1950, London’s Evening Standard ran as its lead story a claim that the newly-appointed Secretary of State for War, John Strachey, ‘has never disavowed communism’. Beaverbrook’s morning paper, the Daily Express, continued the story. The following day a New York Times ran an article entitled ‘Laborites dispute Strachey is a Red’ but noted that Strachey had made comments suggesting Communist leanings including, in 1938, that ‘Like all Socialists, I believe that the Socialist society evolves in time into the Communist society’.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Following immediately upon the Fuchs affair, the story played to a receptive press in the United States and Canada, where Strachey was portrayed as ‘an enthusiastic Communist’. Of particular concern, not least to Strauss, was the (false) report that Strachey had been appointed by the prime minister to investigate the Fuchs case. Coupled with lurid allegations about a Communist past, this led a furious Strachey to contemplate a suit for criminal libel, a course from which he was dissuaded only with difficulty. Strachey weathered calls for his resignation, Attlee for his dismissal. On 6 March the prime minister rebutted charges of negligence in the Fuchs case, denying that an enquiry had been set up into the efficiency of the War Office Intelligence Branch and affirming that Strachey had no responsibility for any such investigation. The immediate casualty was Norman Barrymaine, diplomatic correspondent of the Evening Standard. Barrymaine enjoyed close relations with key civil servants and, on being privately briefed by ‘the principal private secretaries of two leading cabinet ministers, a very senior civil servant in the war Office and certain officials at the Foreign Office’, learned that Attlee had ordered an inquiry into security. He filed his material, only to discover it merged by his news editor into a separate story on the Strachey allegations in a manner that compounded their seriousness. Barrymaine was understandably accused by his Whitehall informants of collecting material about the security response to Fuchs in order to attack Strachey. Doors would have closed on the hapless diplomatic correspondent had he not been summarily dismissed, apparently to protect the Standard and its owner.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The denials of a link between Strachey and the Fuchs affair did not play across the Atlantic. The Washington Post caught the British Embassy there by surprise with a hostile editorial on 4 March, which diplomats advised ‘should not be disregarded… especially when you remember Washington Post is the paper that the senators and congressmen read at breakfast.’ Struggling to cope with this new outbreak of anti-British accusation, officials advised philosophically that ‘the effect of the Fuchs case… and Senator McCarthy’s current sensational charges of communism in the State Department, is to make Americans think that no man who has ever been a Communist or professed Marxist views, is to be trusted, even if he publicly recounts his Communist beliefs.’ Many Americans were now unwilling to trust with secret information ‘persons who have once had communist leanings and associations. This is not to say that most Americans would consider such persons were necessarily to be regarded as traitors or guilty of espionage, but merely that they were not good security risks, and that therefore no chances should be taken with them.’ However, ‘the criticism in the Daily Express over Mr Strachey’s appointment was widely noticed over here. In the places where one would have expected it, and even one or two other places, there was some criticism of the appointment. The whole matter died down very quickly, however… we should do everything we can to induce oblivion as rapidly as possible.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Oblivion would not be found. Strauss had spotted an opportunity to recapture ground lost on the earlier security issues. Armed with a dossier on Strachey supplied to him by FBI Director Hoover, he pounced. On 14 March, he read into the Commission record a memorandum he had drafted:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Recent disclosures that Mr John Strachey, principal Minister for War in the British cabinet, has been an active communist, and Mr Strachey’s statement to the effect that the charge was true as recently as 1940, although he has since become a Socialist, raises an immediate question for this Commission…the disavowal of Communist affiliation by Mr Strachey could be self-serving. In any case, he is on record as having written that the justification of Socialism is that it is a stepping stone to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’…. It is not conceivable that we would clear an American citizen to access to classified information if he had a similar record… under present conditions, we are continuing to pass classified information under the technical co-operation program….
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strauss’ comparison with how an American citizen would be treated was disingenuous. He was well aware of the close parallels between the pre-war political allegiances of Strachey and J. Robert Oppenheimer, both pro-Soviet intellectuals, neither of them actually members of their respective Communist parties. In time, Oppenheimer, too, would be in his sights.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Meanwhile, concerned that Strachey would have access to atomic information, Strauss recommended that technical cooperation with the British be temporarily suspended: ‘regardless of how great the damage already done by the treachery of Fuchs, it is prudent not to continue to place classified data in danger of compromise’. He alternatively suggested a possible more limited programme of co-operation with the British under which they would receive nothing that would cause harm if it fell into Russian hands. His fellow Commissioners argued that the AEC did not have the authority to renounce co-operation – this was a matter for the Combined Policy Committee. Positive proof of danger would be needed to suspend the programme, and when the vote came Strauss was in minority of one.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strauss did not abandon his campaign against Strachey after this setback. The FBI dossier which had been passed to him gave great detail about Strachey’s writings and other public statements as well as judgements about the organisations which had published his work in the United States and the individuals associated with them. Strauss took upon himself to obtain a copy of Strachey’s recent Socialism Looks Forward, from which he made detailed notes and extensive excerpts. These he then forwarded to his fellow commissioners, to Senator Brien McMahon, now back in the chair of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, to Arthur Krock of the New York Times and, so far as can be judged, to others.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 No sooner had the furore over Strachey’s appointment to the War Office died down then the flames were fanned into life again by United States Defence Secretary Louis A. Johnson, who similarly sought to undermine Strachey as politically suspect. Johnson, a prominent American Legionnaire and close ally of Strauss, was the loose cannon in the Truman administration, and much given to histrionic scenes and violent outbursts in his self-appointed role as hammer of the State Department. One such, in August 1949, had been noted with alarm by State Department officials when, in the course of discussions about the forthcoming tripartite talks on nuclear collaboration
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Johnson stated in effect that our position… was quite wrong and that he did not feel he should go along with it. He said that the United Kingdom was finished, there was no sense in trying to bolster it up through the ECA, MAP, NAP, or assistance in the field of atomic energy. Even the Canadians, and he said he had talked with the Canadian Foreign Minister just recently, were disturbed with the prospect that we might give atomic secrets to the British. He felt that while we would be glad to use any part of the British Empire that was valuable to us in joint defence plans, as the empire disintegrated we should write off the United Kingdom and continue cooperation of those parts of the empire that remained useful to us.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Given these views, the irascible Johnson – who worked closely with Strauss – could be relied upon to address himself to the Strachey affair. During the course of a North Atlantic defence ministers meeting at The Hague in April 1950, he made ‘non-attributable’ comments in an off the record interview with the International News correspondent, Kingsbury-Smith, to the effect that that sensitive defence-related information was to be withheld from the UK Secretary of State for War. Johnson had claimed that ‘the presence of Strachey as War Minister… had forced the US to withhold all top naval and military secrets from Britain’. The revelation attracted intense press interest, and gave an impression that the US government had brought pressure to remove Strachey or ensure that he was denied access to secret information. Some journalists made much of the story, an obscure French language paper describing in detail Shinwell’s equivocation over whether such a request had been made, and referring specifically to a plan to keep information about atomic bomb developments from the War Minister. Specific leaks to the American press that ‘Anglo-American military chiefs have agreed to withhold secrets from Mr Strachey’ were angrily attributed to ‘a highly placed official who was ‘taking refuge in a thinly veiled anonymity, leaving the newspaper men to sort out fact from fiction in an atmosphere of intense rivalry and recrimination.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Johnson (for it was he) had earlier stoutly proclaimed that ‘he was dammed if he would be told by anybody what information he should or should not give to British ministers and would act as he thought fit about passing on information to Mr Shinwell and Mr Strachey’. On his return from The Hague he reported himself satisfied with British security but, free now from the immediate constraints of diplomatic nicety, he clumsily remarked that ‘it was up to Mr Shinwell whether Atlantic Pact military secrets are passed on to Mr Strachey’, so re-igniting the controversy. He was then obliged to back-track, conceding that no such arrangement had been made with Shinwell to withhold specified types of information from the War Minister and that no assurance had been sought or given. British officials reasonably thought Johnson ‘devious’ and were not pleased to hear that he had personally asked the biographic information division of the State Department to carry out a searching enquiry into the political pasts of both Strachey and Shinwell.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The American reservations about Strachey had been circulated by the Associated Press diplomatic correspondent in Paris, claiming the authority of ‘extremely well-informed sources.’ In London, British officials brusquely dismissed the claims made at The Hague and made it clear to the press that any such agreement would in any event be unthinkable for a minister who held Cabinet rank and enjoyed the full support of the Prime Minister. British government spokesmen, with the apparent backing of Downing Street, launched a blistering attack on AP for circulating this ‘obviously untrue’ story commenting that ‘the Associated Press boasted love of facts is nothing but hypocrisy’, a comment that was later deleted from the published press statement, only to be reinstated later. TIME magazine, dismissing the idea that Strachey might ‘grab a few top secret documents from his desk and pass them to the Russian ambassador’, nonetheless queried whether ‘a man who can write (and apparently still believes) such drivel about Soviet Russia has any business being Britain’s War Minister at a time when all the West… is fighting for its life.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strauss was monitoring the press coverage and unwilling to let such a promising issue die. He now primed Arthur Krock, Washington correspondent of the New York Times, to question the Washington Post view that there was nothing in Strachey’s record ‘of recent years’ to show a pro-Soviet orientation. He cited Socialism Looks Forward, arguing it was written after May 1945 – ‘how recent is recent?’ – complaining once again that ‘whatever information on our military planning is given to England may be presumed to be available to the Minister of War and his confidants’. Using the dossier that Strauss had sent him, Krock – ironically a three-times Pullitzer prize winner celebrated for his journalistic independence – ran a piece the following day, reproducing as his own not just the actual words of Strauss’s letter but also the passages from Strachey’s writings that he had been sent.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This campaign notwithstanding, Strachey received a good deal of sympathy on both sides of the Atlantic. The journalist Arthur Schlesinger sought to interview him on his political views in order to ‘lay the ghost of the Beaverbrook nonsense of a few months ago.’ ‘I think’ he added, ‘it would be helpful in the US.’ But the issue had by this time exhausted itself. Strauss left the AEC in April, to return three years later as chairman, where almost his first act was to exclude Oppenheimer from sensitive material. Johnson, who had alienated the President as well as the State Department and many others, hung on until September, when Truman dismissed him. And so the Strachey affair came to an end, the final curtain falling when Strachey lost office (but not his own Dundee seat) with the defeat of the Labour Party in the general election the following year.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Why Strachey?
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Where did these concerns about John Strachey and the security of the West originate? As Strauss and Johnson knew well, he had a long personal history to the left of the Labour Party. In the 1930s, John Strachey was a well-known former Labour MP who, following the loss of his seat in the political crisis of 1931, associated himself briefly with Oswald Mosely’s New Party and the Independent Labour Party, and subsequently became a prolific writer of books, tracts, and political journalism. Of these, his contributions to the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Daily Worker achieved the widest readership. What today would be called a ‘public intellectual’, Strachey was in great demand as a writer and lecturer. His pre-war activities were closely monitored in Britain by MI5 and his connections in the United States were noted by the original House Committee on Un-American Activities, then chaired by Representative Martin Dies Jnr.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strachey’s pre-war political loyalties had been indulgently described by his biographer as ‘experimental’ and – by MI5, no less – as ‘mobile’. Others on the social-democratic left have been less kind: witness the coruscating assessment by Bernard Crick, of Strachey’s political journey as driven to follow ‘one… prophet after another’, through ‘lack of political morality and conceit’. However judged, by the late 1930s Strachey was a prominent Marxist writer, producing a substantial stream of closely argued books, pamphlets and articles anticipating the collapse of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society. A leading figure in the CPGB-inspired Left Book Club, he was also a regular contributor to the Daily Worker. In the fervid atmosphere of Washington in 1950, his literary reputation would have been enough to condemn him as at least a fellow traveller. As he came under fire in the American press and in the Beaverbrook press at home, his writings, in which he set out his sympathies for the achievements of the Soviet Union drew fire. But while they provided ammunition for anti-Soviet critics, they were not the precipitating factor in this affair. That was provided by his pre-war lecture tours of the United States, the first of which led to a deportation order and the second to a block on his admission to the country. The first of these visits ensured that his political beliefs were rehearsed in public and committed to the record for future reference. What lay behind that second episode, and explains the vehemence with which he was attacked in United States, was his alleged secret membership, not just of the Communist Party, but of its executive committee.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In March 1935 Strachey had been arrested in United States during the course of a lecture tour, with a view to his deportation. The Hearst press had run editorials across the US demanding his deportation on the grounds of his Communist beliefs, and he was arrested at the conclusion of a lecture in Glencoe, Illinois. The charge was that he advocated views which rendered him liable, as an alien, to deportation, having ‘entered by means of false and misleading statements’ as to his beliefs and intentions. The hearings, held in public, attracted wide attention, and centred on whether his published analyses of the doomed condition of capitalism, his teachings as a lecturer, and his ‘affiliation’ with an organisation (the CPGB) committed to these aims amounted to advocating the overthrow the government of the United States by force. Over the two days of the hearing, lengthy extracts from Strachey’s books were read into the record by the Department of Immigration’s Inspector. Strachey rebutted the accusations with characteristic elegance and cogency. In the event, having been released on bond with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, he left the United States on his planned departure day and the Department of Labor dropped the proceedings. He was not cleared; and the extracts from his writings, however selective, were on the record and would be used against him in the future.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strachey planned a return to the United States in 1938 and applied to the American consul in London for a visa. He anticipated difficulties, given his earlier experience, and took care to make an early application. He was called to the US Consulate and required to make a declaration on oath that he was not a member of the Communist party or of any affiliated organisation, was not connected with the Third International and did not advocate the overthrow of any government by force or violence. Nevertheless, while he was en route to New York, the Consul General in London cancelled his visa to prevent his entry into the United States. Strachey was detained on arrival on Ellis Island, pending a hearing, after which he cancelled his tour and returned to the UK.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 As a former MP, Strachey was counted a prominent Englishman and as such generated more interest in the Foreign Office than would his activities as a lecturer alone. The British ambassador in Washington reported that Strachey’s exclusion from the United States had made front page news in the press. The Embassy lamented that Strachey ‘has again been in trouble’ with the US authorities, but officials in London variously thought the action of the US authorities discreditable, having ‘little justification’ and ‘absurd and really indefensible’. One indignant official questioned whether a ‘100% bellowing fascist or Nazi was ever refused admission to God’s own country?’  The grounds for Strachey’s exclusion were described as ‘disingenuous’, officials noting sympathetically the contradiction between the treatment accorded to ‘the parlour pink’ Strachey and the failure of the authorities to deport other, more dangerous figures. The feeling in New York ‘is that the authorities with an eye to politics have yielded to indirect pressure by the American Legion and similar groups’. Even so, a Foreign Office minute commented presciently that ‘we have not heard the last of this’.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The State Department, though, had acted in good faith. Their case was that while Strachey had declared under oath that he was not a member of the Communist party or any affiliated organisation, the Consul General in London had been given information that Strachey was indeed a member of the party and had been elected a member of the ‘secret executive committee’ at its annual convention in Birmingham a month before. Strachey had already embarked before this information was received and, having earlier warned him that he might not be allowed to land, the Consul General revoked the visa prior to his arrival. To the chagrin of the American authorities, the Court upheld Strachey’s appeal, on the procedural grounds that the Consul General had no power to revoke Strachey’s visa. In November 1938 Strachey gave the case wider airing with an article in the New Republic, giving a detailed account of the actions of the American authorities and of the court hearing and dealing with the specific allegation that he was a member of the Communist Party: ‘I am not and have never been a member of the British Communist Party, it was utterly inconceivable and impossible for me to have been elected at the recent convention of that party or at any other convention, to its Central Committee.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The question remains as to how the American authorities came to believe, on the basis of events in Birmingham previous year, that Strachey was indeed a secret and significant member of the CPGB. As Strachey himself suggested, their information could only have come from a British government source. But which? MI5 and Special Branch files provide an answer.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strachey and MI5
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, Communist Party leaders worldwide were obliged to perform ideological gymnastics that some members and supporters found impossible to follow. Strachey confessed himself ‘staggered’ by the party line in a letter to his friend Robert Boothby. He confessed that ‘if… the Soviet Union were to go into benevolent neutrality to Germany, my whole political position would be shattered. I should have to reconsider everything.’ And that he did. From then on Strachey sought a new and defensible political position, one that became all the more urgent with the outbreak of war in September 1939. His break with the Communist Party line of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ came with the German invasion of Norway. In a letter to the New Statesman on 27 April 1940 Strachey disowned the Daily Worker line with an attack that would have led to his expulsion from the Communist party – had he been a member.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In the wake of the Pact, the British security authorities intensified their monitoring of Communist Party activities. MI5 remained predominantly concerned with counter espionage, and it was left to the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch to monitor the subversive activities of the Communist party membership. But there was fairly free exchange of information between them with, for example, Roger Hollis, MI5’s principal authority on British Communists, later providing Special Branch ‘from a completely reliable source’ the full membership of the wartime Central Committee and Politburo of the CPGB. While Special Branch had their own informants among the party activists, much of their information was derived from distant observation of meetings of the party’s central executive committee, with a bevy of plain clothes policemen noting who arrived and when, and who left. MI5 would have been well aware that Strachey’s name never appeared on these lists, although they would also have known of a CPGB policy, determined in 1937, that party members who obtained positions within the Labour Party should hide their allegiance and, if challenged, claim to have resigned from the Communist party.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 MI5 kept a file on Strachey from 1935, when his apparent close relations with the Communist party first attracted interest, with Special Branch passing on to MI5 information collected earlier. In 1940 Strachey was called up and commissioned into the Royal Air Force, where he served on information duties. Enquiries about his reliability were soon being made by the Air Ministry. His file was reviewed, and Strachey received clearance on the advice of Roger Hollis that ‘Strachey and the Communist Party had definitely parted company’. In 1941, the RAF Intelligence Directorate was making its own enquiries of MI5, questioning whether Strachey’s pre-war reputation disqualified him from a commission. His involvement in Victor Gollanz’s Left Book Club and the Anglo-Soviet Public Relations Committee similarly generated comment in his file through 1941, while telephone taps of CPGB headquarters as late as 1943, when Strachey had reached the rank of Squadron Leader, recorded his continuing cordial relations with Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The tenor of this continuing security traffic was one of reassurance that, whatever his past proselytising, there were no concerns about Strachey’s loyalties during his wartime service. This changed dramatically as the end of the war approached. Then, new enquiries were provoked when Strachey, with an eye to demobilisation and the coming General Election, resumed his journalism, notably publishing Socialism Looks Forward. For the Intelligence Directorate, Group Captain Archer stood by the advice given to the Air Ministry in November 1940, explaining that ‘We must distinguish between the unreliability of a man who is in wholehearted support of the Communist Party, and so a likely source of leakage to Russian sources, and activities in the way of articles published in the press of this country bearing on strategy and the conduct of the war.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 A new and surprising consideration then arose, as RAF Bomber Command raised urgent enquiries, emanating from Commander-in-Chief Sir Arthur Harris, as to any past Fascist or Nazi sympathies Strachey might have had. In early 1943, Strachey had joined the Directorate of Bomber Operations, under Air Commodore Bufton. The Directorate staff were a thorn in the side of Bomber Command, not least by questioning the contentious policy of area bombing. The C-in-C was incensed by his political past and sought to have him removed as a political risk. This was for MI5 a new and particularly implausible line of enquiry, but in the light of the source of the request, RAF Intelligence and MI5 officers diligently reviewed the evidence, only to come to the firm conclusion that ‘there is nothing to suggest that Strachey was ever sympathetic to Fascism or Nazism’. Indeed, it was a bizarre suggestion, given Strachey’s record of anti-Fascist writing and agitation in the 1930s. Yet it was to touch upon a still more curious episode. When, at the 1945 General Election, Strachey was again elected to Parliament, he immediately joined the government as Under-Secretary for Air. Sir Arthur Harris, who had failed in his attempts to secure a campaign medal for Bomber Command’s air and ground crews at the end of the war, claimed – in the vitriolic spirit for which he was well known – that Strachey had taken revenge for the security charge by persuading Attlee to block the former C-in-C’s advancement to the peerage. This animus towards his bête noire continued, and in old age Harris was prepared to peddle the suggestion that Strachey may have been connected to one or more of the Soviet agents Burgess, Maclean, Philby or Blunt.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The following year, on Strachey’s promotion to Minister of Food, his file was again reviewed, this time to see if there was any justification for keeping it. MI5 officials were ‘horrified’ to discover that Strachey’s name was still on the ‘special file’ list at the Passport and Permit Office and asked for it to be removed. Indeed, with Strachey now a senior minister, officials wondered whether they should still maintain a file on him at all. Given his security clearance in 1940 and its further confirmation in 1944, ‘the retention of his file would… seem to be justifiable only on historical and not on security grounds.’ However, ‘a character with his particular antecedents is bound to come to our notice from time to time and… it is convenient to have available material which enables us without making new enquiries to express a favourable opinion about him.’ Hollis, who had monitored Strachey’s activities over the years, anticipated that questions about Strachey’s past might well arise and need to be answered.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 They did so in 1950, when Strauss in the United States, and the Beaverbrook press in London, pushed the question of Strachey’s political record onto the front pages, galvanising the Foreign Office into seeking checks on the record. Security Service officials were sure that Strachey had not been a party member. Information gleaned from telephone tapping and secret recording at Communist Party headquarters in King Street over the years picked up number of conversations between party officials and visitors as well as with casual telephone callers – some press, some political – which confirmed that Strachey had never been a party member. Indeed, recorded remarks by one Party official revealed that Strachey in the 1930s had been regarded as too independent to be allowed to join. On the other hand, as recently as 1946, just days before he was promoted to senior ministerial rank, he had been prepared to use his influence to assist CPGB General Secretary Pollitt to travel to a Communist Party congress in Stockholm.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Curious officials turned back to 1938 to see how the Strachey affair had arisen. In that year Special Branch had an informer present at the secret session of the party congress, held in Birmingham from 17-19 September. It was this agent who reported Strachey’s election to the ‘central executive committee [sic]’. Albert Canning, Chief Constable of Special Branch, passed the information to the US Consul General, later justifying this to MI5 that the Branch ‘get a good deal of very useful information on police matters from the Americans and that they like to keep up their interest by giving them small pieces of information from time to time that were likely to be of use.’ MI5 were ‘immensely relieved’ that they themselves had not been asked for this information, which turned out to be quite incorrect, and declined to tell the Foreign Office what they now knew.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 For his part, Strachey had some awareness of what had happened at Birmingham:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 …a particular local of that party, having seen my name signed to articles in either Communist or left-wing newspapers, had jumped to the extraordinary conclusion that I was a member of the Communist Party and had nominated me for the Central Committee. According to my information, one of the spokesmen of the Communist Party at the Birmingham Convention immediately rose and pointed out that this nomination was entirely invalid as I was not even a rank-and-file member of the Communist party.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 He was not to know how this episode found its way to British and US government records, to be misinterpreted with consequences quite disproportionate to its substance. Nor would he have been aware that the Evening Standard in 1950 was making enquiries among its own Party sources, discovering that a written nomination to the 1938 Congress by the ‘Journalist Group’ of the CPGB, had been rejected by the Party’s Panels Commission on grounds of his lack of eligibility.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Trust and suspicion in Anglo-American security relations
Permalink for this paragraph 0 What, then, was the wider context of the Strachey affair, with its seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the American and British reactions to it? First, it occurred in the context of a climate of insecurity that prevailed in the United States from around 1947. The special character of atomic relations, as they took shape in the aftermath of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, coloured the way in which Britain, an erstwhile partner, was regarded in the new Cold War world. This atomic isolationism was compounded by a mounting anti-communist climate in the United States in which Labour Britain was regarded with deep suspicion. Anti-Communism in America took the form of ‘hyper-patriotism’ – a term coined by Edward Shils. Its absence from Britain sustained sharp differences in what might be termed the ‘security cultures’ of the two nations, with British standards of security seeming woefully inadequate to concerned Americans. In that context, the appointment of an apparent communist sympathiser as war minister boded ill.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Perceptions of British reliability on defence were profoundly coloured by atomic matters in 1950. Post-Fuchs, it could hardly have been otherwise. British science had contributed to the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos, but the 1946 Atomic Energy Act made it a criminal offence to release information to a foreign power, abruptly ending co-operation. Henceforth, the American nuclear monopoly was something to be jealously guarded, notwithstanding the wartime framework of agreements to share information between the United States, British and Canadian governments, which were now regarded as overtaken by post-war events. American determination to maintain that monopoly was threatened by Britain’s own ambitions in the atomic field – for both power and bombs – and by a perception that its scientists, officials and even members of its government might provide channels through which secrets could leak to the Soviets.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 For these reasons, the Fuchs and Strachey affairs played out in an atmosphere of mounting Congressional concern about the nature of the Anglo-American relationship. Opposition to atomic partnership with Britain was led by the then Republican chairman of the powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Iowa Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper was implacably opposed to the State Department’s and Atomic Energy Commission’s urging of full partnership on atomic matters with the British. He warned that
Permalink for this paragraph 0 we had an element of time during which our exclusive possession of atomic information might give us some more power to find some solution for world military problems, but I thought a very vital factor involved was that once the British were taken into complete partnership, that they would thereafter and for all time in the foreseeable future be ‘our responsibility’ and that they could sit back and simply attach themselves to us for protection and support in both the military and economic way.… I suggested that once Britain became versed with all our knowledge of atomic weapons, etc, that they would be entitled to receive all knowledge of future expansion into this unknown field, and that we would be constantly at their mercy. This is especially true and especially ominous in as much as we can’t tell what the complexion of the British government will be a few years hence.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The prospect of a further shift to the left in Britain at the coming General Election was viewed with trepidation. Hickenlooper’s Congressional colleagues warned the AEC that ‘there is no present authority [for the executive] to exchange weapons information with the United Kingdom’. Hickenlooper himself told the American Legion that the United States should keep ‘atomic secrets’ from England and Canada ‘as long as we can’. Much of the American press shared Hickenlooper’s concerns, playing on fears of espionage and the latent (and sometimes manifest) distrust of the British and their government. In a national opinion survey carried out in September 1949, 72 per cent of those polled thought the United States should not ‘share our atomic energy secrets with England’ while 81 percent opposed the deployment of atomic bombs to England.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Concern about Britain’s dependability spilled over into non-nuclear defence issues, heightening the sense of insecurity that with the declaration of the Truman doctrine, had become more widespread. For the United States, the wartime relationship with the Soviet Union had been one of wary and temporary co-belligerence, while for some British policy-makers providing material help to the Soviet Union during the post-war period of reconstruction was a natural extension of the fraternal alliance. But the British government’s grant of export and manufacturing licences for jet aircraft engines to the Soviet Union was fiercely criticised in America.  The Air Intelligence Division of the USAF warned that these sales harmed the security of the United States by enhancing the capabilities of the Soviet Air Force at the expense of the RAF, whose ability to defend the UK was reckoned to be weak.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The issue – which became inflamed in 1950, when Soviet Mig-15s, powered by an adapted version of the Rolls Royce Nene, out-ran and out-climbed western aircraft over Korea – was taken as confirmation of the political unreliability of the British. US officials criticised pro-Soviet sentimentalism on the part of the responsible Cabinet ministers, singling out Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, in particular, for his ‘personal sympathy for the Soviets.’ While the Foreign Office attempted to act as a brake on the Board of Trade’s ambitions, the Security Service had been highly critical of the sales, the enviable performance of the Mig-15 leading MI5 deputy director Guy Liddell to reflect ‘how stupid we were to sell Nene engines to the Russians… At the time we recommended against this proposal on the ground that it was teaching the Russians the ABC in jet propulsion.’ As junior Air Minister Strachey had played a part in promoting these exports, reportedly summoning a Foreign Office official to the Air Ministry and demanding to know why he was ‘trying to sabotage British sales of Rolls Royce engines to Russia’.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 While the raucous attack on Strachey focused on the prospect of a war minister who was himself a security risk, discreet and persistent pressures to improve British security continued to be applied after the episode had subsided. A State Department paper lauding ‘intimate’ collaboration and strategic co-operation with the UK was substantially watered down at the insistence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Members of the Combined Policy Committee, the key forum for atomic collaboration (which, ironically, Soviet spy Donald Maclean attended), were warned that ‘in light of the Fuchs case, Congress would not accept any tripartite arrangement unless it was satisfied that British security standards were comparable to those of the United States’.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The American view was solidly in favour of full investigation of officials in sensitive positions through ‘positive’ vetting to prove reliability, in contrast to the relaxed default system that prevailed in Britain. The Labour government had tightened security in 1948 with the introduction of a controversial ‘purge procedure’. Despite considerable distaste and reservations within government, ministers and civil servants ‘carried out the terms of the program with a sense of reluctant necessity’. Yet Whitehall and Westminster had little time for fervent anti-Communism of the American right. Parliamentary proposals to establish a similar loyalty inquisition into ‘Un-British activities’ were sharply and contemptuously rebuffed.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Even so, the Attlee government, conceding that Whitehall ‘had not so far taken security seriously enough’ established a Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities. Far from being excluded from the inner circles of decision-making as a security risk, Strachey, as War Minister, was a central figure in this exercise. The outcome was a listing of key posts, those which ‘make the holder privy to the whole of a vital secret process, equipment, policy or broad strategic plan, or to the whole of an important section of that process, equipment, policy or planned, where disclosure would be of crucial value to an enemy or potential from the enemy strategically or politically.’ In these posts, ‘a conscious and positive effort’ to confirm reliability would be required.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 While Strachey had survived investigation of his political record in 1946, he might not have done so a few years later, as the chill of the Cold War led to the tightening of British security through positive vetting, in the introduction of which, ironically, he played a key role. Under the proposals adopted in 1951, the Security Service would inform Departments ‘whether any particular individual… appeared in the lists of persons possessing a Communist record of greater or lesser gravity.’ Conceivably, Strachey, never a Party member, might have been considered to fall within that category. Positive vetting was not applied to Ministers of the Crown, although Hennessy records that later in the Cold War years ‘it was the practice of the head of the security service to pass to the PM a file telling him anything he needed to know when making his ministerial appointments.’  A former MI5 officer, reviewing Strachey’s file for this author, commented that ‘someone with his background seeking security clearance for sensitive work in the post-war era would have been very lucky to achieve it. …the Americans did seem to have a case in objecting to JS as War Minister…’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Ironically, the record shows Strachey to have been the most tough-minded member of the Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities. While the War Office had as many as 20,000 cases a year vetted under the 1948 arrangements, he argued for more intensive vetting being applied to a limited category of persons. And when such arrangements were later proposed to the cabinet committee, he protested that the list of positive vetting posts in his department was not sufficiently extensive. Strachey, minister and apostate revolutionary was, in British parlance, unquestionably ‘sound’ on security.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Strachey might have had continuing connections which would at a later time been considered more than politically unwise, but there is no evidence that his loyalty fell at any stage under serious suspicion other than in the fevered imagination of Sir Arthur Harris. Rather, he was widely regarded with trust and tolerance. MI5’s founder and long-serving Director-General, Sir Vernon Kell, admiringly judged Strachey to be ‘a man of considerable ability and intelligence’. The resident expert on domestic Communists in the 1930s and 1940s was Roger Hollis, who would himself later rise to become Director-General (and whose career gave rise to accusations of being a Soviet ‘plant’). Hollis had a fund of knowledge about ‘subversive individuals’ and, whenever enquiries about the Strachey file reached his desk, he endorsed him as reliable. Security Service sources apart, Hollis would have been acquainted with Strachey through his brother Christopher. Strachey and Christopher Hollis were at Eton together; Christopher then served as an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force, in a post not far from Strachey’s. And, like Strachey, the scholarly Hollis (who served in Parliament with Strachey, but as a Conservative) was a prolific author.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 For Hollis and his intelligence service colleagues, there was a distinction to be drawn between political argument and political action. Strachey’s pre-war interrogators in Illinois seemed baffled by his repeated assertion that an analysis of the coming collapse of capitalism did not equate with action to overthrow the capitalist state. In Britain, by contrast, a climate of tolerance extended to almost any expression of view, acceptance stopping short only at extra-constitutional action. It ran through the British approach to security where, at least in 1948-50, ‘reliability’ was construed in terms of loyalties, and thus potential actions, rather than opinion. For example, in September 1950 – a peak time in security anxieties – cabinet secretary Sir Norman Brook had occasion to interview a Marxist civil servant (with a Communist wife) serving in the Cabinet Office, and reported to MI5 that he was satisfied the man’s convictions ‘would have no influence on his actions’. His position at the heart of government was therefore safe.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This acceptance was not untypical of the approach even to Communist Party membership, as few in the Whitehall establishment believed membership of the CPGB in itself translated into a potential security threat. A contemporary assessment of civil liberties and security in Britain in the early Cold War noted this same tendency ‘to differentiate between speech and action and between security and loyalty’, as political leaders of that time ‘distinguish[ed] between Communism as a political movement from Communists who serve the Soviet Union by engaging in espionage.’ Speaking for the intolerant strand in American opinion, those American policy makers who, like Strauss and Johnson, made national security their first concern, failed to grasp the British inclination to differentiate between argument and action, between democratic socialism and communism. When Strachey died, a young 61, the predominant tone of the obituaries would stress neither his Marxist past, nor his one-time supposed threat to national security, but his place in the mainstream of Labour Party politics.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  J. D. McCausland and D.T. Stuart (editors), US-UK relations at the start of the 21st century, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College, 2006. More generally, see John Charmley, Churchill’s Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995, and Oliver Franks, Anglo-American Relations and the ‘Special Relationship’, 1947-1952, Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1990.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  David Reynolds, ‘A “Special Relationship”? America, Britain and the International Order since the Second World War’, International Affairs, 1986, pp. 1-20; David Reynolds ‘Rethinking Anglo-American Relations’, International Affairs, 1989, pp. 89-111.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  AEC press release, 3 February 1950, cited in Richard Pfau, No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984, p.124
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Michael S Goodman, ‘Who is Trying to Keep What Secret from Whom and Why? MI5 – FBI Relations and the Klaus Fuchs Case’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 7 (3) summer 2005, pp. 124 – 146.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  ‘Notes of a meeting at Perrin’s London home 10 July 1951’. Michael Perrin was deputy controller for atomic energy at the Ministry of Supply. Those present included Roger Hollis of MI5, and LeBaron for the AEC’s Military Liaison Committee, a Strauss ally. Hollis deprecated proposals for US style background security investigations in Britain, while Perrin and LeBaron agreed that there were security concerns about Oppenheimer. LLS box 487.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  The detailed summary of Strachey’s life and activities lodged in Strauss’ files and passed to his allies appears to be the FBI original provided by Hoover, annotated by Strauss. LLS, AEC series, box 108.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  State Department officials noted glumly that ‘In sum, it appeared that our worst fears [of the Defense Secretary] had been fully justified’. 12 August 1949 discussion of an outburst from Johnson.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  For the alliance between Strauss and Johnson, see Ken Young, ‘The hydrogen bomb, Lewis L. Strauss and the writing of nuclear history’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Spring 2013.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Arthur Krock, ‘The dispute over Britain’s war minister’, New York Times, 6 April 1950. Other critical comment appeared in the Washington Evening Star on 3 April, and New York Times, 4 April.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Le Petit Marocain, 5 April 1950 in UKNA FO 371/80671. Published in Casablanca, Le Petit Marocain was French-staffed and took a generally progressive, anti-colonialist line.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  American Civil Liberties Union, The Attempted Deportation of John Strachey: Abstract of the Proceedings before the District Director of Immigration at Chicago, New York, ACLU, May 1935.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Hollis gave Canning, head of Special Branch, a full account of developments in the CPGB that took place in October 1939, when the party line on the war had been determined and a small executive committee formed to direct party activity. Hollis to Canning, 7 July 1940, TNA, MEPO 38/54.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  For example, attendance at a March 1939 meeting of the Party’s Central Executive Committee was observed by a Special Branch Inspector, one sergeant and two constables; report, 19 March 1939, TNA, MEPO 38/54, copied to MI5. Despite this level of scrutiny, Special Branch files at the National Archives contain no records of the Birmingham Congress.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  According to this information, ‘they will not attend party meetings and, in order to maintain contact, they will be secretly called together from time to time, when the Party line will be explained to them.’ Report by Canning, 8 December 1937, TNA, MEPO 38/54.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Saward uncritically relays Harris’ conviction in ‘Bomber’ Harris, p.435. A fuller and more rational assessment is given by Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times, the Biography of Marshal Of The Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the Wartime Chief of Bomber Command, London, Greenhill Books, 2001, pp. 349-51.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  CPGB official Leo Gollhard told an Evening Standard journalist who telephoned that Strachey had applied for membership pre-war but had been judged ‘politically unreliable’. Telephone recording, 15 March 1950, TNA, KV2/787). Worley records that ‘[d]espite numerous applications, Strachey was not allowed to join the CPGB, although he propagated the party line’, Matthew Worley, ‘Left Turn: A Reassessment of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the Third Period, 1928-33’ Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 11, No. 4,2000, p. 377, n.58. For Crick, while not ‘trustworthy enough to be a Russian under-cover agent’ Strachey was ‘something more than the ordinary intellectual fellow-traveller.’ Crick, ‘Intellectual bell-wether’, pp. 94-5.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Herbert Gunn to Beaverbrook, 17 March 1950, Beaverbrook papers, BBK/H/251. His report listed the paper’s assiduous and continuing enquiries to establish the facts of the nomination.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945-1952, Vol.1, Policy Making, London, Macmillan, 1974; John Simpson, The Independent Nuclear State: The United States, Britain and the Military Atom, London, Macmillan, 1983; John Baylis, Anglo-American Defence Relations 1939-1980: The Special Relationship, London, Macmillan, 1981; John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964, New York, Clarendon Press, 1995.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Memorandum of meeting with William Webster, chairman, Military Liaison Committee, 19 July 1949, Hickenlooper papers AEC series, box 20, Hoover Presidential library.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Public Opinion News Service September 8 1949, in NARA, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, Office of the Secretary, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, General Records Relating to Atomic Energy Matters, 1948 – 1962, box 58.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Spokesmen for manufacturer Rolls Royce came grumbled that it was ‘very easy to be wise after the event… two years ago both the US and Britain officially still regarded Russia as “our glorious ally”’. Aviation Week, 9 August 1948, p. 15.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  NARA, RG 341, Air Force Plans 1942-54: England, box 747, 11 July 1947. RAF Fighter Command was judged inadequate to the defence of UK airspace and the engine exports slowed the production of aircraft for home defence. Other concerns were the admission of Soviet officials to British aircraft factories and the possible leak of US classified data supplied to the British.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  H.H. Wilson and Harvey Gluckman, The Problem of Internal Security in Great Britain, 1948-1953, Garden City, NY, Doubleday and Co.,1954, pp.32, 16-23; Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5, London, Allen Lane, 2009, pp. 380-383.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Positive vetting was finally agreed by Attlee’s cabinet in October 1951, but remained to be introduced by the Churchill government in January 1952. Hennessy and Brownfeld, ‘Britain’s Cold War Security Purge’, pp.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Peter Wright, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Heinemann, Victoria, Australia, 1987; Chapman Pincher, Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage, Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing, 2012.