Friday 17 December 2010, 13:47

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst who is alleged to have leaked the thousands of state department cables, has often been compared to Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

But I have stumbled on a film in the archives that tells the story of another leaker in America who tried to do the same thing, but even earlier.

He was a young State Department diplomat who stole and copied thousands of Top Secret cables. Like Daniel Ellsberg, his aim was to release them to stop America's involvement in what he believed was a disastrous foreign war.

He was called Tyler Kent. He was a diplomat at the US embassy in London in 1940 and he wanted to stop President Roosevelt bringing America into the war to help Britain.

It is a fascinating story, but it also brings an odd perspective to the contemporary Wikileaks story.

Tyler Kent was a horrible man. He was a rabid anti-communist who believed that the Jews had been behind the Russian Revolution.

He was convinced that Germany should be allowed to destroy both Communist Russia and the Jews. And America should not get in the way of that being allowed to happen.

Looking back, most people now feel that Daniel Ellsberg was right in 1971 because the Vietnam War had become a horrible disaster that needed exposing.

Today, we are not sure of Bradley Manning's motives (and it hasn't been proven that he is the source of the leak), but again there is a general feeling that it was good thing because the cables have exposed an empty nihilism at the heart of America's foreign policy.

But the perspective the Tyler Kent story brings is the realisation that diplomatic leaks are not automatically a good thing. It just depends on who is using them. And why.

Back in the past Tyler Kent wanted to use secret information to destroy the things that the overwhelming majority of the British people believed in and were prepared to fight for.

Back in 1982, Robert Harris tracked Tyler Kent down. He was living in a caravan in a trailer park on the US-Mexico border. Harris persuaded Kent to be interviewed and then made a film for Newsnight that told the story.

It is a great piece of historical journalism. Kent explains how his aim was to release the secret cables during the Presidential election campaign in 1940. Over 80% of the US population didn't want to go into the war - and the cables showed President Roosevelt secretly promising Churchill help against Germany.

Harris makes a powerful case in the film that if Kent had succeeded America would not have entered the war. And history would have been completely different.

Tyler Kent himself is weird and mesmerising. But still unrepentently anti-semitic.

And the film also shows just how easily Tyler Kent found willing accomplices in the heart of the British Establishment. They wanted to get rid of the Jews and communists too, even at the expense of their own country.

The film begins on the morning of the 20th May 1940. Churchill had been sending secret cables to Roosevelt begging for American help.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I know that this post is really about the original leaker rather than the WikiLeaks conduit, but have you seen this interesting blog post about Assange's ideology concerning leaks, based on what he wrote a few years ago?


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    Comment number 2.

    "the cables have exposed an empty nihilism at the heart of America’s foreign policy."

    Huh? Oh right - Adam Curtis.

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    Comment number 3.

    bit of an Oxford graduate viewpoint, us normal folk are unable to handle the truth...we need our betters to hide disturbing things and make decisions for us.

    There's a big 'if' in your argument, maybe if Wikileaks was around in 1930s the goings on inside the German government would have been more apparent and Hilter would have never been able to grasp power, it might have been revealed that was Hilter short and needed glasses, or perhaps made Europeans more aware that Germany was making a awful lots of tanks, ....

    Do you have any examples of when too much transparency has actually destroyed a democracy (not just conjecture)? Of course transparency has disadvantages, I don't think anyone is arguing it doesn't, but I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.

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    Comment number 4.

    Definitely not trying to defend Tyler Kent, but many intellectuals in the early 20th century believed in "Nordicism" or the belief in a master race. It was a hot button issue just like Global Warming and was discussed at dinner tables.

    Just goes to show you how far we've come.

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    Comment number 5.

    Of course Kent's motives are deplorable. But the "what if" speculation by John Costello/Robert Harris/Adam Curtis that Kent's action could have prevented America's involvement with the war is weak. As if the Pearl Harbour bombing was not much more important in swaying the American public than concern for what was going on in Europe.

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    Comment number 6.

    @Vincent. If I've understood correctly, the "What If" speculation is the effect the leaked cables would have had on the 1940 US Election. The President was assuring the anti-war public that the US wouldn't become involved in the foreign war, yet, out of sight of his electorate, he was helping Britain.

    The cables could have proved he was lying to his electorate and, maybe, he wouldn't have been re-elected. Then, Britain wouldn't have had a sympathetic President in the White House.

    (If I may, an aside from the post:

    @KMan. And you can add the Malthus/Darwin inspired Eugenics, which is why many people weren't ashamed to support Hitler. Until he started killing "the wrong sort:"



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    Comment number 7.

    Oops! I posted a link to a youtube clip which might be copyrighted. My apologies.

    @Vincent. I think the "What If" speculation surrounds the 1940 US Presidential Election. The cables may have proved that Roosevelt was "lying" to his overwhelmingly anti-war electorate. He could have lost the election and another President, who was not as sympathetic to Britain, may have been elected.

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    Comment number 8.

    At the moment, my sympathies lie with people who want to give me information rather than people who want to hide information.

    What Tyler Kent was doing was information gathering and hiding it (in his flat) and then using that information for his own gains (and the gains of his political conspirators) and therefore his goals were nefarious.

    What Assange seems to be doing (correct me if I'm wrong) is collecting information and distributing it to everyone. His ultimate goal is undermine the ability of nefarious forces to maintain a coherent and sophisticate network of secret messages. Not only is this his goal, but he's willing to do so by placing his own life at risk.

    And so rather than expose security risks, or expose bad behaviour. Assange wants to actually attack nefarious activity itself, which I think is overall a good thing.

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    Comment number 9.

    Your distinctions are quibbling Egbert. Tyler Kent obviously believed in what he was doing and was indeed putting himself at risk. Manning had to hide the fact that he was stealing information in order leak it. What you are saying strikes me as a bit ridiculous.

    Furthermore, there IS no such thing as absolute transparency, in anything. The only thing that these leaks will definitely do is a)hurt US government's ability to conduct its foreign policy and b)ensure that the US government diplomats, officials, and others (and everyone everywhere) will find different ways to communicate and hide information.

    The effect of the huge onslaught of leaks by Wikileaks will be too numerous to ever be accounted for -- but no one is going to change the world for the better by it.

    I'd say overall the effect of a huge dump of leaks in any situation, generally speaking, will be to upset the powers that be and destabilize things. That will be advantageous to some people in some circumstances. But so many people -- people I would normally agree with -- all these people that are so gleeful about what they imagine the effects of this illusory 'transparency' shows to me simply their frustration with the way things have been going. This is just another idealism that's cropped up, people desperate (on the left mostly) to believe in a deux-ex-machina to rescue them from a reality too complex for Progressive ideals to thrive.

    This is why I really dig John N. Grey's writings, he seems to me a Social Liberal that is an anti-Progressive. However, these terms are actually antiquated so that seems like a contradiction, but its not if you read him. What he really is, he is not a Humanist, perhaps he is a Post-Humanist -- someone who sees mankind as a scourge on the planet, not believing that one day everyone is going to 'get it' and we'll all live in peace living Free.

    I don't find it surprising that most people who are drawn to Adam's work are sympathetic to Wikileaks. But Adam doesn't have an agenda, he just looks for what fascinates him, and in his films he creates a narrative as a way to understand. He doesn't avoid subjects because they contradict what he might have anticipated, in fact he seeks that kind of thing out. Well, that's what I think he does. Adam, thanks for this latest video and blog post.

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    Comment number 10.

    To dawghead above, post No.9,: "a reality too complex for Progressive ideals to thrive", I think I understand, you are saying the deceit and lies are part of a more complex truth only accessible to a select elite!? How arrogant and fearful that sounds. Do you suppose Bradley Manning is being tortured as we speak?

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    Comment number 11.

    PS post No.9, in your final paragraph you say; "But Adam doesn't have an agenda, he just looks for what fascinates him, and in his films he creates a narrative as a way to understand". I think you will find what facinates Adam is understanding and exposing the underlying "truths" that help us shape our perception of who we are.

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    Comment number 12.

    @moreram: I'm just saying reality is complex, idealism is oversimplification, and it takes many forms, this information libertarianism or whatever it is is just the latest form. I enjoin people to educate themselves, there's nothing elitist about that. I believe in universal education and access to information. And I believe information should generally be free and accessible to the people and openness in government. And 'Exposing underlying truths' is indeed what we are all seeking to do. So all in all, I'm not disagreeing with you in what you say, but you aren't really addressing my points.

    I will add to my previous comments that even though in a way I don't think Wikileaks changes anything, in another way it changes everything. If it's not Wikileaks, it seems like there will always be some way that people in the future will be able to leak information. But this just opens a new and different battlefield for the competing political, socilal, etc. forces. In fact it does seem to potentially be something of a leveler -- little countries that have some tech savvy people can do a lot more to shape events, and powerful countries like the US, that have interests across the globe and secrets to protect, will be compromised. Lots of people are cheering that, but personally I think that is an unsettling prospect, because it's not a good thing for the whole world to be destabilized. (Unless it creates a new, better order in the end... and currently I don't see any indication that it will.)

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    Comment number 13.

    I think perhaps there are two quite different views of International Relations. Journalists such as Christopher Hitchens take a paranoid realist or realpolitik view:

    "Then there is diplomacy itself. One of civilization's oldest and best ideas is that all countries establish tiny sovereign enclaves in each other's capitals and invest these precious enclaves of peaceful resolution with special sorts of immunity. That this necessarily includes a high degree of privacy goes without saying. Even a single violation of this ancient tradition may have undesirable unintended consequences, and we rightly regard a serious breach of it with horror. "

    His view is that independent nation states are out for their own interests and are essentially at war with other independent nations for resources. He thinks that this is the real point of diplomacy.

    But I disagree with this interpretation of international relations, which is rather similar to the paranoia shown in game theory.

    The alternative to the realist view is the cooperate view, in other words independent states cooperate like friends. I think the ancient view of diplomacy was about cooperation and friendship and not the post-Hobbesian view that gave birth to a kind of individualistic liberalism.

    It seems that Assange confuses the two, where his motivation is of the cooperative view of International Relations, and yet his actions can be interpreted as hostile, particularly to America.

    I suppose Assange's mistake is to force the world to freedom, using espionage to destroy the paranoia that lays at the heart of the realpolitik view of International Relations, but this has of course only reinforced their view while making them even more paranoid.

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    Comment number 14.

    Anyone else notice the similarity between Assange's philosophy and that of Gilles Deleuze:

    Plug! http://fixingtheeconomists.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-deleuzian-philosophy-of-julian-assange/

    (Thanks to Duncan C for pointing me in the direction of those fascinating documents).

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I don't think I need to point this out, my name is self-explanatory for many of you. As a Jew, I am beyond the stage where I can be bothered by Kent's Anti-Semitism merely from reading Curtis' mention of it. I feel that the questions raised by Curtis, are legitimate independently of whether or not the leak is done in the Nazi's favour or that of Anti-American foreign policy. and obviously I do not speak for Jews, just telling you that I am one who is behind knee-jerk reactions, so let me watch the segment and see if my opinion changes...

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    Comment number 16.

    First of all, it is absolutely ludicrous to bring the Jewish issue up at all. Do we really want to go down the road of poisoning the well? The insinuation being made by both Harris and Curtis is that this man is justifying the Holocaust. This is inane. At the time, no such thing had taken place. Most of the world hated the USSR, and certainly from Winston Churchill to Jewish circles which fought Communism, the facts of the mattered remained that a battle was being waged for the heart of the Jewish community, as the Commies gobbled it up. If you want to make a case for a pro-Nazi sympathizer, you might want to take on the 83% of the American people who did not want war at the time. Since that would be the same as making the case for Julian Assange, whose anti-war message is understood by majorities in the West,and may be as erroneous as that of Kent and the 83% majority of his time, and it may not. Depending on how you do your counter-factual. If we are going to go down the route of Ad Nazism arguments, then let's see some hardcore evidence, before we smear people with the Anti-Semitic schmata, shall we!?

    "Tyler Kent was a horrible man. He was a rabid anti-communist who believed that the Jews had been behind the Russian Revolution."

    *this is disturbing in its simplicity and almost stupid. Was he horrible because of his rabid anti-communism, or his suggestion that Jews had been central to the success of communism in the USSR. First of, left-wing Jews were in fact central in the rise of Communism in the USSR. This is a historical fact. Some of us are not proud of it, and are ardent anti-Communist Jews, such as myself. Second off, anyone who is anti-comunist isn't a horrible man, but already scores some positive karma!

    "He was convinced that Germany should be allowed to destroy both Communist Russia and the Jews."
    *I would like to see where Kent states this! This is pure invention Adam!

    "have exposed an empty nihilism at the heart of America’s foreign policy."
    *it's not clear whether this is Curtis' opinion, or his characterisation of the "general feeling".

    "But the perspective the Tyler Kent story brings is the realisation that diplomatic leaks are not automatically a good thing."
    *yes. And those who fail to see this point, are going to either have to make a strong argument for their point, or simply accept trouble with their IQs. No, I am serious. Because someone up here already quibbled with this. Claiming transparency is always good, and that Curtis has it wrong. Whatever my qualms with Adam's statements, his example is brilliant in making a case against the sophomoric view that "all transparency" is good. A view laden with astonishingly naive stupidity!

    "Back in the past Tyler Kent wanted to use secret information to destroy the things that the overwhelming majority of the British people believed in and were prepared to fight for."
    *This is a BAFFLING statement. Adam, you loose two points off your credibility if you cannot back this up with an explanation. First of all, Kent was looking out for American, not British interest. Second, nothing indicates the British people wanted a war with Hitler, and if anything, evidence indicates the British people were ill-disposed towards the Soviets and would have much more preferred a Nazi war on them, than a Nazi war on England. Many British people though Churchill a lunatic, for declaring war on Hitler, but didn't mind until the bombing of Britain actually began. Correct me if I am wrong, but it is only then that public opinion begin to turn in Churchill's favor.

    "And history would have been completely different."
    *yes, and do you really want a debate on what this difference would have been? No, I don't think so.

    "Tyler Kent himself is weird and mesmerising."
    *This is a highly reductionist eye. It's like watching animals in cages. For something to be weird, is to either deliberately take cover in "conventional" thought and warm up to your audiences prejudices, or for you to lack the historical depth to understand someone as simple as this fellow!

    "But still unrepentantly Anti-Semitic."
    *on what grounds do you assert this Adam? Winston Churchill held the same views. Read his paper about the international Jew. Not only Winston, but a virtual majority of elites and popular opinion at the time. Again, you are imparting to this man, something that is simply not there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Second of all. Adam, you are indeed brilliant, to bring this documentary to our attention. It exposes something most readers seem absolutely unable to assimilate. It's astonishing, in fact, and I hope that contrary to all your cop-out statements, you'll seize on their reaction to better grasp human nature! I'll explain what I mean later.

    The heart of this debate is this. Those who defend Assange's actions, are being put on the spot with the Kent episode.

    1940. Most of the Western world, sees no need to fight he Nazis, even if about 60 % of Westerners have a negative view of his actions. Not a single Western nation except Britain, declares war on the Nazis. Spain, France, and Italy, become Fascist regimes. The Soviets are out of the game, since they sign a non-Aggression pact with the Nazis. America has absolutely no issues with Nazi germany, and continues business as usual, with Nazi Germany! Neither are the Zionists upset. The Irgun, the Stern Gang, or Zev Jabotinsky, and nary a Zionist are anti-Nazi. Britain's declaration of war on the Nazi's is somewhat superficial, since it wont be another year before actual warfare against Britain commences.

    It takes a hell of a lot of ignorance and historical revisionism, to then turn on Kent and say, you dirty SOB Jew-hater. No really. There were quotas on Jews in establishment US universities, and white shoe firms, and elite clubs. Leo Frank was fresh in people's minds and Coughlin and Lindberg had quite a damn following. It was a general fact that Jews had been behind the Bolsheviks and damn it, again, as an Israeli who votes for Shas, I am not going to deny that left wing Jews were central to the rise of Bolshevism. Which is not to say they were instrumental or had any monopoly power, but yes, they were important. Nothing from Kent indicates holding views that went beyond this.

    For his time, this guy must have been nearly a hero. Imagine he would have leaked the documents, and the world would have been astonished to learn, and this is what I see readers missing - that Churchill was in fact actively conspiring with FDR to mislead the American people into a war with the Nazis.

    Adam, it seems that the very fact we all grow up learning in school, which the claims that it was the Nazis who started the war, is up for grabs!

    Basically, Blair and Bush mislead the American people into war in Iraq. This documentary seems to prove, that Roosevelt and Churchill mislead their people into war with Nazi Germany.

    Now for anyone who wants to argue that this was good, I am going to give you the Israeli treatment. Prove to me that the Nazi's had a plan to exterminate Jews prior to 1941.

    If you can, then good. But you wont. And all your arguments against Kent, are worthless.

    Now I sincerely hope BBC moderators don't have an apoplectic seizure here and decide to censor my comments for imagined infractions. But I sense this is possible, considering the general reluctance for healthy debate in the Surveilled Isles.

    One last point. Adam, I already sensed a revisionist in you, with your Living Dead. Now I am not sure ,do you take conformist positions so that you don't shock your readers and are not labeled something, or are you really that politically conformist? You do realize that if you want to perpetually stay int he middle, then you are inventing the greatest fantasy of all - that of the moderate, and you are subjecting objective reality to that greatest of tyrants, human cowardice aided and abetted by convenient fantasy justifications.

    Laila Tov.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Hi Avishalom

    With Kristallnacht (for starters) and this?


    "One thing I should like to say on this day which may be memorable for others as well as for us Germans: In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among many other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!"

    I'm not saying that's absolute proof but what was happening in Germany was widely known.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @ mcjohn1 - "bit of an Oxford graduate viewpoint, us normal folk are unable to handle the truth...we need our betters to hide disturbing things and make decisions for us." - I couldn't agree less. It's at the heart of my problem with the Newswipe piece Adam did about how we're all 'paranoid like Richard Nixon' because we'll no longer trust patrician elites. Do you really think that people in government are our betters? I think they should be but currently I think it would be hard to argue that's generally true. I mean there's an incredible amount of info in the world, there will be a filtering system....I don't really know how this could work without "elites"....that's something I haven't figured out any kind of opinion on yet, it's extremely complex I think. There's a guy who's written some stuff on this, he's associated with Blair and 'Third Way' politics, I've got check him out. Third Way sounds likea brand to me, but we'll see. Also - I don't think the problem with the rise of Nazism in the thirties was that people didn't know what was going on, it's what framed the German people's (and many others around the world) interpretation of what was happening which meant that it could happen.

    @Vincent Kane - I'd be inclined to agree that actual impact of the leak is debatable. One could make this argument - Pearl Harbour came after, and therefore the exposure of the leak might have led to altering of US foreign policy, which admittedly avoided explicit involvement in the war, but you had Lend-Lease and the embargos against Japan, that arguably (this is backed by documentary record) led to the Pearl Harbour attack (I'm not saying the US provoked PH by the way, but the Japenese knew what the embargos meant for them, it's was understandable, not morally justifiable). And the conventional account of the US vote to go to war is that this was massively influenced by Japan's attack, I don't know of a contrary analysis. I accept that is grossly simplifying a complex set of events, there's the role of the media in reporting the PH attacks in particular, but I think the point stands.

    You could go through a whole range of what-ifs. What if this leak had come out, and public opinion had become even more vehemently against entering the war? Would there have been a face off between isolationists and interventionists? Would Roosevelt have been forced to 'engage the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best"? To appeal to ideals greater that ones own self interest, to remind the American people that an even worse form of the persecution in Europe that lead to the formation of the US was going on some 170 years later? Would the polarised and simplified foreign policy ideas of 'Wilson vs Jackson' have been undermined, the complexity of such decisions more widely appreciated, the level of debate raised? Would subsequent US Cold War foreign policy have been so grotesque and amoral? Would the Cold War have even happened? That's the thing about revisionism, you can go absolutely divvy with it. You can argue Michael Jackson wouldn't have died if Kent got those leaks had got out. I'm not seriously suggesting that by the way.

    @dawghead - I don't think intentions should be separated from consequences. But I agree with point you are making, and that I think Adam is making - that we have no idea at the moment what the consequence of Wikileaks will be, not are we certain of the intentions of those behind them, not just Assange and perhaps Manning. I think we have a great clue to the latter in the analysis the first poster linked to. And although you attack progressive ideals (and I respect John Gray) I disagree with what I think is a slightly hopeless vision. The ideals Assange expresses have been latched onto by people, and I think this reflects someful hopeful about possibilities for positive changes in the democratic system. Only slightly hopeful, a tiny bit, I might be naive. And I agree with the danger of this, that some people are going to unquestioningly now view everything Wikileaks does as inherently good. But broadly this idea of transparency being good and right, if not possible to achieve in an absolute sense, I have to say I think it's a great idea. Part of the reason terrible crimes have been perpetrated by governments is because we didn't know about them. Just part of the reason. Another part, and perhaps more a more important one that I'm alluding to earlier, is that when people do know about them they can't make sense of them and understand them as part of wider philosophies, as part of history, relate them to their own moral frawework, or to their ideals, in a way that reveals what they really mean and what the consequences might be. I'm certain there's a limited extent to which any of us can do this, but certainly we live in a time where critical thought is deeply undermined. What Tyler Kent was doing was wrong not because it was for his own gains, but because his intention was to help allow masses of human beings to be exterminated, which I think is relatively easily to argue is wrong. What interests me is why fundamentally this was his intention.

    By the way - "The only thing that these leaks will definitely do is a)hurt US government's ability to conduct its foreign policy" - I suspect many would view this as the weakest possible argument against the leaks.

    I couldn't agree more with what you say about a certain type of idealism - that some ideals are simple and absolute, the world is not, therefore trying to fit one into the other leads to people warping one or the other, too frequently with disastrous consequences. I would say this is just as true of the right as the left ('necessary cuts' anyone?) and that undermining this simplification is the task at hand.

    @egbert - "I think the ancient view of diplomacy was about cooperation and friendship and not the post-Hobbesian view that gave birth to a kind of individualistic liberalism." - This is an interesting argument, on the face of it I find it hard to believe it's true, but when I get some time I'm going to try and do some reading on this.

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