Claud Cockburn, the only son of Henry Cockburn, was born at the British embassy in Peking (Beijing) on 12th April 1904. His father was Chinese secretary in the diplomatic service and later consul-general in Korea. Claud was the great-grandson of Henry Cockburn, the famous Scottish lawyer.
In 1908 he was sent to Scotland with his Chinese nanny to be cared for by his grandmother. His father retired from the diplomatic service in 1909 and eventually settled near Tring, Hertfordshire. Cockburn was sent to Berkhamsted School where Charles Greene was headmaster. He became a close friend of the headmaster's son Graham Greene. According to Richard Ingrams, the boys "shared a liking for mischief-making and adventure stories, especially the yarns of John Buchan, in which brilliant but corrupted villains seek to overthrow the established order from within."
Cockburn went to Keble College where he associated with Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. He also did some teaching in his vacation. According to one of his students, Hugh Carleton Greene, he was the most brilliant teacher he ever encountered. Cockburn also edited the university newspaper, Isis. He obtained second classes in classical honour moderations (1924) and literae humaniores (1926).
In 1926 he won a travelling scholarship from Queen's College. He went to Berlin, where he was mentored by Norman Ebbutt, who worked for The Times. Ebbutt told him "you will write for the newspaper, and we will get as many pieces of yours in as we can, although naturally it will be necessary to pretend that I have sent them". While researching these articles he made important contacts, including Gustav Stresemann and Wolfgang zu Putlitz.
Eventually, Ebbutt told his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, about the talents of Cockburn. Dawson cabled Cockburn: "Return at once. Job waiting." Cockburn was assigned to the Foreign Editorial Room at the newspaper. He really wanted to work in the United States. After making repeated requests he was sent to work at the newspaper's bureau in New York City. He arrived in July 1929 and later that year reported on the Wall Street Crash. A friend who knew him well later commented: "Cockburn was a man of great charm, modest, unassuming, and possessed of a schoolboyish zest for life. His appearance was donnish and with his deep bass voice he spoke in staccato bursts."
Cockburn went to interview Al Capone in Chicago. Guarded by Jack 'Machine Gun' McGurn, Capone told him: "Listen, don't get the idea I'm one of those goddamn radicals... Don't get the idea I'm knocking the American system. My rackets are run on strictly American lines. Capitalism, call it what you like, give to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it." He was later asked by his editor why he never sent the article in for publication. Cockburn replied that "Capone's remarks were in essence identical with editorials of The Times itself, and he doubted whether the paper would be pleased to see itself in agreement with the most infamous racketeer in Chicago."
The Great Depression had a dramatic impact on Cockburn's political opinions. He now considered himself a Marxist and after marrying the left-wing American journalist Hope Hale, he moved even further to the left. Hope later wrote of Cockburn: "I wanted what a woman has traditionally asked of a lover going off to war - his qualities and his heritage." She was attracted to him for his "charm, gaiety, mischief and wit" and the way he made people laugh. But privately with her, she added, he would talk seriously about how "we could sweep away all these disgraces at once and build a new society that would rule them out forever". Hope gave birth to Claudia Cockburn but the marriage did not last.
In the summer of 1932 Cockburn decided to resign from The Times for political reasons. The editor, Geoffrey Dawson, replied: "It was foolish to give up working for The Times simply on account of one's political views... The Times was a vehicle which could be used by people of the most varied opinions... For myself, I have always regarded The Times as something of an organ of the Left... Though never, I hope, of the extreme Left... It does seem rather bad luck that you of all people should go red on us."
Cockburn now spent time in Berlin where he met Willi Münzenberg. The historian, Norman Rose, has pointed out: "Willi Münzenberg... one of the founders of the German Communist Party... Münzenberg was a propagandist of genuis. Adept in public relations, a fiery and irresistible public speaker, a gifted fund-raiser and a masterful organizer, he made converts from all sections of society... Dubbed as the 'Red Hearst', Münzenberg raised up media empires... that encompassed a publishing house, book clubs, newspapers, magazines, and the financing of movies (including some of Eisenstein's) and plays."
Cockburn now returned to London where he intended to start up his own business. He had originally got the idea while working in New York City where he saw for the first time a mimeograph machine. He later recalled: "A mimeograph machine is one of the few remaining weapons which still gives small and comparatively poor organizations a sporting chance in a scrap with large and wealthy ones."
This impression was reinforced in Germany where he had seen supporters of Kurt von Schleicher using mimeograph machines to produce political propaganda. Cockburn had also been inspired by the French satirical paper Le Canard Enchainé. He considered it "the best-informed publication in France" and although some of it was "in execrable taste" it carried no advertisements, received no subsidies, and still broke "a little better than even". Cockburn was also attracted to the way it exposed government corruption. Something that Cockburn was keen on doing in Britain.
Cockburn had decided to call his newsletter, The Week. As Richard Ingrams has explained: "Started on a capital of £50 provided by his Oxford friend Benvenuto Sheard, the paper, which was all his own work, was produced in a one-room office at 34 Victoria Street, and was obtainable only by subscription. Although he relied on information supplied by a number of foreign correspondents including Negley Farson (Chicago Daily News) and Paul Scheffer (Berliner Tageblatt), it was his own journalistic flair which gave the paper its unique influence. Cockburn was not an orthodox journalist. He pooh-poohed the notion of facts as if they were nuggets of gold waiting to be unearthed. It was, he believed, the inspiration of the journalist which supplied the story. Speculation, rumour, even guesswork, were all part of the process and an inspired phrase was worth reams of cautious analysis."
The first issue of the newsletter appeared on Wednesday, 29th March 1933. As Norman Rose has pointed out: "It was preceded by scenes of great editorial confusion. The actual production of the paper was left until Wednesday morning in order, Claud argued, to pre-empt the existing weeklies with as much hot ness as possible. Claud wrote the entire issue - a modest three pages of foolscap - and cut the stencils, touching up the material as he progressed, a routine that excluded any prospect of efficiency... The Week finally emerged in what would become its distinctive format, smudgy in appearance, lively in content." The first edition had as its lead story "Black-Brown-Fascist Plan". It told of how Benito Mussolini had sponsored a four-power arrangement to regulate the affairs of Europe. It revealed that a definite proposal had been forwarded to London and Warsaw that envisaged granting concessions to Germany in the Polish Corridor while compensating Poland with a slice of Russian Ukraine."
Cockburn relied on other journalists to supply most of his information. These were those stories that their own newspaper would not print. Important contacts included Frederick Kuh, Negley Farson, Paul Scheffer and Stefan Litauer. Another source was the secretary of Franz Von Papen. According to Jessica Mitford: "In the early thirties Claud Cockburn founded and wrote a mimeographed political muckraking journal called The Week which, in the period immediately preceding the war, had become extraordinarily influential. The Week was packed with riveting inside stories garnered from undercover sources throughout Europe - at one time, Claud's principal informant in Berlin (his Deep Throat, so to speak) was secretary to Herr von Papen, a member of Hitler's cabinet."
A close friend, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, claimed that many of the stories that appeared in The Week had already reached him in the "form of rumour" but unable to confirm their veracity, he would not risk publishing them. Cockburn did publish them. He once pointed out: "How can one tell truth from rumour in less than perhaps fifty years?" Cockburn was warned that this approach could get him into a lot of trouble. John Wheeler-Bennett warned him that very soon he would be "either quite famous or in gaol." Richard Ingrams has admitted: "In other hands it might have been a fatal approach, but Cockburn had great flair, and although many stories in The Week were fanciful, there was enough important information to win it an influence out of all proportion to its circulation."
James Pettifer has argued: "The Week... was almost exclusively concerned with the life of the ruling classes in the different European countries, and exposing inner machinations to a wider public, but they remained conspiracies that took place in drawing-rooms, in banks, in clubs and in the officers' messes... The Week... soon became famous for its exposure of the machinations of the Conservative government in the later years of the decade. More than anything else published at the time, The Week brought home to its subscribers the nature of Appeasement, and how a dominant section of the Conservative Party was assisting the foreign policy of the fascist dictators"
Cockburn was soon being monitored by MI5. In a report written on 2nd November 1933, an agent went to see Cockburn and claimed he wanted to write for The Week. He later reported: "He swallowed my story and asked for an article, which I shall prepare today. He is either very crafty or very gullible, for he invited me to have a boozing evening with him, which I cannot unfortunately afford to do, and therefore invented an appointment." A report written the following year states: "I am informed that so much is thought of the ability of F. Claud Cockburn that he could return to the staff of The Times any day he wished, if he would keep his work to the desired policy of this newspaper."
Cockburn's main target was those members of the ruling elite who were proponents of appeasement. He relied on people within the corridors of power for his information. One source was probably Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30th January 1933, Vansittart became his leading opponent in the Foreign Office. He wrote on 6th May: "The present regime in Germany will, on past and present form, loose off another European war just so soon as it feels strong enough … we are considering very crude people, who have very few ideas in their noddles but brute force and militarism."
Vansittart worked very closely with Admiral Hugh Sinclair, the head of MI6, and Vernon Kell, the head of MI5. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "Robert Vansittart, permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office, was much more interested in intelligence than his political masters were... He dined regularly with Sinclair, was also in (less frequent) touch with Kell, and built up what became known as his own private detective agency collecting German intelligence. More than any other Whitehall mandarin, Vansittart stood for rearmament and opposition to appeasement."
Robert Vansittart also recruited his own spies. This included Jona von Ustinov, a German journalist working in London. However, his most important spy was Wolfgang zu Putlitz, First Secretary at the German Embassy, and a friend of Cockburn from the time he worked in Berlin in the 1920s. Putlitz later recalled: "I would unburden myself of all the dirty schemes and secrets which I encountered as part of my daily routine at the Embassy. By this means I was able to lighten my conscience by the feeling that I was really helping to damage the Nazi cause for I knew Ustinov was in touch with Vansittart, who could use these facts to influence British policy." Putlitz insisted that the only way to deal with Adolf Hitler was to stand firm.
Using the name Frank Pitcairn, Cockburn also contributed to the Daily Worker. As he explained in his autobiography, In Time of Trouble (1957): "It was at about this time (September 1934) that Mr Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whom I had never met, was suddenly announced on the telephone - would I, he asked, take the next train, in twenty minutes or half an hour, and report a mine disaster at Gresford, North Wales. Why? Because he had a feeling that there was a lot more in it than met the eye. But why I in particular? Well, because, it seemed, Mr Pollitt - who was worrying at the time about what he believed to be a lack of'reader appeal' in the Daily Worker - had been reading The Week and thought I might do a good job."
Cockburn wrote a great deal in The Week about what became known as the Cliveden Set. The leaders of this group, Nancy Astor and her husband, Waldorf Astor, held regular weekend parties at their home Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. Those who attended included Philip Henry Kerr (11th Marquess of Lothian), Edward Wood (1st Earl of Halifax), Geoffrey Dawson, Samuel Hoare, Lionel Curtis, Nevile Henderson, Robert Brand and Edward Algernon Fitzroy. Most members of the group were supporters of a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The group included several influential people. Astor owned The Observer, Dawson was editor of The Times, Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax was a minister of the government who would later become foreign secretary and Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons.
In 1935 a Colonel Valentine Vivian, the head of counter-espionage at MI6, wrote to Captain Guy Liddell at MI5 saying he had sent MI6's man in Berlin to talk to Norman Ebbutt, who had worked with him at The Times in the 1920s. The agent reported the conversation: "Ebbutt has the highest opinion of Claud Cockburn's honesty and admires him for feeding on the crust of an idealist when he could obtain a fat appointment by being untrue to himself... Ebbutt says The Week has a large circulation among businessmen in the City. He gets his copy regularly. He very much regrets that Claud Cockburn has now completely fallen to the mad idea that all Imperialists dream of nothing but the destruction of Russia."
Norman Rose, the author of The Cliveden Set (2000) has pointed out: "Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German."
On 17th June, 1936, Claud Cockburn, produced an article called "The Best People's Front" in his anti-fascist newsletter, The Week. He argued that a group that he called the Astor network, were having a strong influence over the foreign policies of the British government. He pointed out that members of this group controlled The Times and The Observer and had attained an "extraordinary position of concentrated power" and had become "one of the most important supports of German influence". Over the next year he continually reported on what was said at weekends at Cliveden.
Claud Cockburn later admitted in his autobiography, I Claud (1967) that most of his information came from Vladimir Poliakoff, the diplomatic correspondent of The Times. As his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, was a member of the Cliveden Set, and would obviously not allow it to be published in his own newspaper, he gave it to Cockburn instead. Cockburn also revealed that Poliakoff received much of his information from "anti-Nazi factions in the British and French Foreign Offices... and were thus first-rate, and the stories that came from them had that particular zip and zing which you get from official sources only when a savage intra-mural departmental fight is going on." He also admitted that Winston Churchill and his supporters were also providing him with "inside information".
On a visit to the United States Anthony Eden was amazed when he discovered the impact on public opinion of articles on the Cliveden Set in The Week was having in the country. A horrified Eden reported to Stanly Baldwin that "Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and 90 per cent of the US is firmly persuaded that you (Baldwin) and I are the only Tories who are not fascists in disguise."
Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, asked him to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Daily Worker. When he arrived in Spain he joined the Fifth Regiment so that he could report the war as an ordinary soldier. While in Spain he published Reporter in Spain. Cockburn was attacked by George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia. In the book he accused Cockburn of being under the control of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Orwell was particularly critical of the way Cockburn reported the May Riots in Barcelona.
In the spring of 1937, Sir Vernon Kell, the head of MI6 wrote a note to a diplomat at the American Embassy saying: "Cockburn is a man whose intelligence and wide variety of contacts make him a formidable factor on the side of Communism." Kell complained that The Week was full of gross inaccuracies and was written from a left-wing point of view, but admitted that on occasions "he is quite well informed and by intelligent anticipation gets quite close to the truth". Kell was also concerned about some accurate reports that appeared in The Week about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
In November, 1937, Neville Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax in secret to meet Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in Germany. In his diary, Lord Halifax records how he told Hitler: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." This was a reference to the fact that Hitler had banned the Communist Party (KPD) in Germany and placed its leaders in Concentration Camps. Halifax had told Hitler: "On all these matters (Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia)..." the British government "were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today... If reasonable settlements could be reached with... those primarily concerned we certainly had no desire to block."
The story was leaked to the journalist Vladimir Poliakoff. On 13th November 1937 the Evening Standard reported the likely deal between the two countries: "Hitler is ready, if he receives the slightest encouragement, to offer to Great Britain a ten-year truce in the colonial issue... In return... Hitler would expect the British Government to leave him a free hand in Central Europe". On 17th November, Claude Cockburn reported in The Week, that the deal had been first moulded "into usable diplomatic shape" at Cliveden that for years has "exercised so powerful an influence on the course of British policy."
It was claimed that the circulation of The Week reached 40,000 at the height of its fame. Cockburn pointed out it was read by important people: "Foreign Ministers of eleven nations, all the embassies and legations in London, all diplomatic correspondents of the principal newspapers stationed in London, the leading banking and brokerage houses in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York, a dozen members of the United States Senate, twenty or thirty members of the House of Representatives, about fifty members of the House of Commons and a hundred or so in the House of Lords, King Edward VIII, the secretaries of most of the leading Trade Unions, Charlie Chaplin and the Nizam of Hyderabad." Other readers included Léon Blum, William Borah, Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's ambassador in London, who called for its suppression because of its anti-Nazi stance.
January 1938 Robert Vansittart was "kicked upstairs, assuming the high-sounding, but politically meaningless, title of chief diplomatic adviser to the government". His replacement was Alexander Cadogan, a member of the Cliveden Set. When Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary on 25th February, 1938, he was replaced by another Cliveden regular, Lord Halifax. Cockburn argued that the "appeasement coup" had been organised by the Cliveden Set. He later added that Halifax was "the representative of Cliveden and Printing House Square rather than of more official quarters."
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the government suppressed The Daily Worker and The Week, although they were both later allowed to resume publication once the Soviet Union became one of the allies. According to his biographer, Richard Ingrams: "The new situation, which conferred respectability on the communists, was not to Cockburn's liking, and his Marxist fervour began to wane. He was further influenced by an interview with Charles de Gaulle in Algeria in 1943, in which the general suggested that his loyalty to the communist movement might perhaps be ‘somewhat romantic’. Following the Labour victory in 1945 he became convinced that the communists were ineffective as a political force."
In 1947 Cockburn moved to Ireland with his second wife, Patricia Byron Cockburn, but continued to contribute to various newspapers and journals. This included Punch Magazine and Private Eye and in 1963 he played a role in the downfall of John Profumo. He also produced a weekly column for the Irish Times. He also published several books including Aspects of English History (1957), The Devil's Decade (1973), Union Power (1976) and Cockburn Sums Up (1981). Cockburn also published three volumes of autobiography, In Time of Trouble (1956), Crossing the Line (1958) and View From the West (1967).