William Wiseman, the only son of a former naval officer, Captain Sir William Wiseman and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Langworthy, was born on 1st February 1885 at Hatfield Broad Oak, Essex. He succeeded to the family title in 1893, then attended Winchester College before going up to Jesus College in 1904.
A boxing blue, he left Cambridge University without a degree. He worked for the Daily Express and wrote three unperformed plays. In 1908 he married Florence Sams. According to his biographer, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: "The following year he went to North America to represent the London banking firm of Herndon's, which financed the Mexican government. He enjoyed modest successes in the Mexican meat-packing industry and in Canadian real estate."
On the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to England to serve with the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry. In July 1915 a German gas attack at Ypres affected his vision in one eye. While recovering from his injuries he met Captain Mansfield Cumming, who had served alongside his father in the Royal Navy. Cumming was responsible for for secret operations outside Britain. This organisation eventually became known as MI6. Cumming recruited Wiseman to be his representative in North America. This unit eventually became MI1(c). According to Christopher Andrew, the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Wiseman was just the sort of adventurous, resourceful, clubbable maverick who appealed to Cumming."
On 25th October, 1915, Wiseman arrived in New York City. Cumming was originally asked to work with Captain Guy Gaunt, British naval attaché to the United States since January 1914, who had already established a network of agents to collect intelligence in North America and also to counter enemy activities such as sabotage and propaganda. Gaunt objected to the arrival of Wiseman but Cumming insisted that he was the man to run the North American operation. Cumming also provided him with an assistant, Captain Norman Thwaites. He had also been wounded and invalided out of the British Army but before the war had been private secretary to the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and was very well connected in American press and political circles. In January 1916 the two men established themselves in North America, ostensibly as part of the Transport Department of the Ministry of Munitions.
Cumming instructed Wiseman to concentrate on "Contre-Espionage". This included the "investigation of suspects about whom the authorities at home required information", "a general watch on the Irish movement in the United States" and "investigation into Hindu Sedition in America". By the end of the war MI1(c) had ten regular officers, an office staff and ten full-time and some part-time agents (of whom two were German).
According to Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010): "The crucial subject about which the British were interested, of course, was that of the United States entering the war. Both British overt and covert publicity and propaganda efforts were focused on marshalling American political and public opinion behind the Allies, while a whole range of information-gathering resources - again, both overt and covert - was devoted to ascertaining the views of policy-makers and opinion-formers in Washington and elsewhere."
Wiseman and Thwaites became involved in several "dirty tricks" operations. For example, while at a party hosted by millionaire industrialist, Oscar Lewisohn, at his Long Island mansion. During the evening Lewisohn passed round some holiday photographs in one of which Thwaites recognized the German ambassador Count Johann von Bernsdorff in a swimming costume with his arms round two similarly dressed young women, neither of whom was his wife. Without Lewisohn's knowledge Thwaites managed to extract the picture, get it copied and then have it distributed to the press where it appeared, much to Bernsdorff's embarrassment.
Wiseman was also involved in what became known as the Zimmermann Telegram affair. On 16th January 1917, the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico City. This instructed the minister to propose an alliance with Mexico if war broke out between Germany and the United States. In return, the telegram proposed that Germany and Japan would help Mexico regain the territories that it lost to the United States in 1848 (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona). The telegram also informed the ambassador that Germany intended to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on 1st February.
The British, who suppressed the fact that they had acquired the telegram by intercepting American diplomatic communications) provided a copy to President Woodrow Wilson on 24th February, 1917. Wilson was shocked and angry at the German government's perfidy in plotting war with Mexico while still discussing peace moves with the United States. It was also leaked to journalists and when newspapers published it on 1st March, it gave a further powerful boost to anti-German feeling in the United States.
Wiseman also developed important contacts in America including Colonel Edward House, an important adviser to President Wilson. This proved very important when the United States joined the war on 6th April 1917. The two men worked closely together dealing with the upheavel in Russia in 1917. Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, made it clear that he was extremely worried about "revolutionary pacifists" becoming dangerously influential in Russia. Balfour cabled Cecil Spring Rice, the British ambassador in the United States to organize, as a matter of the "highest importance" the despatch of "messages from labour leaders, from Russian Americans, and from prominent men in the U.S. emphasising necessity of continuing the war in order to secure triumph of principles of freedom and democracy."
Wiseman was given the task of implementing this policy. He also devised a plan "to send to Russia parties of pro-Ally émigrés - Czech, Slovak and Polish, as well as Russian - who had 'made good' in America". Wiseman suggested to the British Foreign Office that they should "carry with them details of the German intrigues in America and warn their Russian comrades against similar traps". Wiseman got London and Washington each to allocate $75,000 (approximately $1.2 million in modern prices) to his scheme and approached Somerset Maugham (to whom he was related by marriage) in June 1917, to go to Russia. Maugham was "staggered" by the proposition: "The long and short of it was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war."
Maugham, who could speak Russian, was asked by Wiseman to "guide the storm". Maugham told Wiseman: "I was staggered by the proposition. I told Wiseman that I did not think I was competent to do that sort of thing that was expected of me." He asked for forty-eight hours to think it over. He was in the early stages of tuberculosis, had a high fever and was coughing up blood. Maugham later wrote: "An X-ray photograph showed clearly that I had tuberculosis of the lungs. But I could not miss the opportunity of spending certainly a considerable time in the country of Tolstoi, Dostoyevski, and Chekov; I had a notion that in the intervals of the work I was being sent to do I could get something for myself that would be of value; so I set my foot hard on the loud pedal of patriotism and persuaded the physician I consulted that under the tragic circumstances of the moment I was taking no undue risk."
Maugham was supplied with $21,000 (approximately $350,000 today) for expenses and travelling from the west coast of the United States, through Japan and Vladivostok, Maugham reached Petrograd in early September 1917. With him went a group of four Czechoslovak refugees headed by Emanuel Voska, Director of the Slav Press Bureau in New York City. Voska made contact with Tomáš Masaryk in the hope of mobilizing Czech and Slovak elements in Russia to work for the Allied cause. Maugham was impressed by his "good sense and determination" and helped set up a press bureau to disseminate anti-German propaganda.
While in Petrograd Maugham met a former mistress, Sasha Kropotkin, the daughter of Peter Kropotkin, who had a good relationship with Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government. Maugham entertained Kerensky or his ministers once a week at the Medvied, the best restaurant in Petrograd, paying for the finest vodka and caviar from the funds supplied by Wiseman. Maugham later recalled "I think Kerensky must have supposed that I was more important than I really was for he came to Sasha's apartment on several occasions and, walking up and down the room, harangued me as though I were at a public meeting for two hours at a time".
Somerset Maugham worked closely with Major Stephen Alley, the MI1(c) station chief in Petrograd. On 16th October Maugham telegraphed Wiseman recommending a programme of propaganda and covert action. He said that Voska and Masaryk could both conduct "legitimate propaganda" and act as a cover for "other activities" in support of the Mensheviks and against the Bolsheviks. He also proposed setting up a "special secret organisations" recruited from Poles, Czechs and Cossacks with the main aim of "unmasking... German plots and propaganda in Russia".
On 31st October 1917 Maugham was summoned by Kerensky and asked to take an urgent secret message to David Lloyd George appealing for guns and amununition. Without that help, said Kerensky, "I don't see how we can go on. Of course, I don't say that to the people. I always say that to the people. I always say that we shall continue whatever happens, but unless I have something to tell my army it's impossible". Maugham left the same evening for Oslo to board a British destroyer which, after a stormy passage across the North Sea, landed him in the north of Scotland. Next morning he saw Lloyd George at 10 Downing Street. After the agent told the Prime Minister what Kerensky wanted, he replied: "I can't do that. I'm afraid I must bring this conversation to an end. I have a cabinet meeting I must go to." On 7th November, 1917, Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution. Maugham later recalled: "Perhaps if I had been sent to Russia six months sooner... I might have been able to do something."
Wiseman continued to work closely with Colonel Edward House. It was claimed that Wiseman was the President's "confidential Englishman". Officially he was "liaison officer between the War Cabinet and any special representative they might send out to represent them in the United States". House understood that Wiseman was "now acting as liaison officer between me personally and the British Government". However, Mansfield Cumming refused his request to pass raw secret service papers "to show to Colonel H. for the President" was "far too dangerous"
At the Paris Peace Conference Wiseman served as chief adviser to Arthur Balfour on American affairs to the British delegation. In 1919 he left MI6 to work for the Wall Street banking firm Kuhn, Loeb & Company, run by Otto Kahn and Felix Moritz Warburg. He later became a partner in the company. In 1925 his first marriage was dissolved and he married Patrice Clark. They were divorced in 1933. According to Gill Bennett, the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009) has argued that Wi semen "spent the inter-war years dabbling on the fringes of Intelligence while pursuing a lucrative commercial career".
On the outbreak of the Second World War Wiseman approached Lord Lothian and Lord Halifax, and promised that for £100,000 he could set up "the best possible intelligence service in the United States" for the British. Lothian and Halifax, both strong members of the pro-appeasement group, now approached Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, with the offer. Menzies told a Foreign Office meeting that Wiseman was regarded with considerable suspicion by the US Embassy in London and that "both his predecessors (Mansfield Cumming and Hugh Sinclair) had very strong views about Sir William Wiseman and had recommended that he should on no account be employed by His Majesty's Government."
After Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, William Stephenson was appointed as as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). Menzies told Gladwyn Jebb on 3rd June, 1940: "I have appointed Mr W.S. Stephenson to take charge of my organisation in the USA and Mexico. As I have explained to you, he has a good contact with an official (J. Edgar Hoover) who sees the President daily. I believe this may prove of great value to the Foreign Office in the future outside and beyond the matters on which that official will give assistance to Stephenson. Stephenson leaves this week. Officially he will go as Principal Passport Control Officer for the USA." Menzies insisted that any scheme put forward by Wiseman had to "placed before Stephenson in detail before any steps are taken".
On 6th June, 1940, Wiseman had lunch with Lord Halifax in London. According to Jim Wilson, the author of Nazi Princess: Hitler, Lord Rothermere and Princess Stephanie Von Hohenlohe (2011): "Halifax briefed Wiseman to assist Lothian and help him to find some way to starting peace negotiations that would be effective. Before the outbreak of war a substantial number of the British Establishment (prime movers in political, aristocratic and financial circles) many egged on by the princess' activities, were totally opposed to the coming conflict. When, despite their efforts, war broke out, these people continued to believe that it should be resolved as quickly as possible through a negotiated peace." Interestingly, Joseph Goebbels was that month recording in his diary that Adolf Hitler had told him that he had been approached by the British about peace negotiations. Hitler had told them he was willing to negotiate but only with Lord Halifax.
Scott Newton, the author of Profits of Peace: The Political Economy of Anglo-German Appeasement (1997) has argued that Wiseman represented a group that included Lord Halifax, Lord Rothermere, Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, Ronald Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket, Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, 8th Duke of Buccleuch, Charles McLaren, 3rd Baron Aberconway and Henry Betterton, 1st Baron Rushcliffe. "All its members shared a profound fear that the domestic and international order which had sustained liberal-imperialist Britain was about to be irrevocably changed... With some justification it was believed that total war meant the socialization of Britain and a ruinous conflict in the heart of Europe from which only the Soviet Union could benefit."
Research by German historian, Martha Schad, confirms that in 1940, Wiseman was working on behalf of a group headed by Lord Halifax: "Sir William Wiseman was known to be the mouthpiece of a political group in Britain headed by Lord Halifax. These individuals were pinning their hopes on being able to bring about a lasting peace between Great Britain and the German Reich." The FBI became aware of Wiseman when he began meeting the Nazi spy, Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe and Fritz Wiedemann, the German Counsul-General in San Francisco.
On 27th November 1940, Princess Stephanie, Wiedemann and Wiseman had a meeting in suite 1024-1026 of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. The meeting was bugged by the FBI. It was recorded on tape and transcribed as an 111-page document. On 13th January 1941 J. Edgar Hoover sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a 30-page summary of the meeting. He claimed the object of this encounter was to work out a plan for persuading Adolf Hitler to make a separate peace with Britain. "The Princess stated that she had not seen Hitler since January 1939. Wiseman then suggested that Hitler might think she was going to Germany on behalf of the British. In reply to this remark, the Princess stated she would have to take that chance but that Hitler was genuinely fond of her and that he would look forward to her coming, and she thought Hitler would listen to her." The FBI leaked the contents of these undercover meetings to British intelligence. As a result, Wiseman was warned not to have any more contacts with Princess Stephanie and Wiedemann.
William Wiseman died in New York City on 17 June 1962.
Wiseman was well aware that in assuming a position as intermediary between the American and British governments he was moving beyond a mere intelligence role... The crucial subject about which the British were interested, of course, was that of the United States entering the war. Both British overt and covert publicity and propaganda efforts were focused on marshalling American political and public opinion behind the Allies, while a whole range of information-gathering resources - again, both overt and covert - was devoted to ascertaining the views of policy-makers and opinion-formers in Washington and elsewhere.
By the end of July, Maugham was fully prepared. He had one last question for Wiseman before he left New York: he asked if he would be paid for his mission. He said that his operations in Switzerland had been undertaken as a gentleman amateur, "and found afterwards that I was the only man working in the organisation for nothing and that I was regarded not as patriotic or generous but merely damned foolish." Wiseman took the hint and offered both a salary and expenses.
Maugham left for San Francisco carrying $21,000 of the money for Kerensky in cash. It was concealed in a belt hidden under his shirt. He was accompanied by Emanuel Voska, three American diplomats and three Czech emissaries. Once inside Russia, Maugham was to travel alone and incognito.
"The Czechs and I should appear to be entire strangers to one another," he wrote, "and communicate, if necessary, only with precaution." If anyone asked his occupation, he was to say that he was a journalist being sent to Petrograd to cover the unfolding revolution.
Halifax briefed Wiseman to assist Lothian and help him to find some way of starting peace negotiations that would be effective. Before the outbreak of war a substantial number of the British Establishment (prime movers in political, aristocratic and financial circles), many egged on by the princess' activities, were totally opposed to the coming conflict. When, despite their efforts, war broke out, these people continued to believe that it should be resolved as quickly as possible through a negotiated peace This belief did not necessarily make them pro-Nazi, although some certainly were. In November, as the Blitz was hitting Britain hard and the Battle of Britain had just been won, Wiseman, now back in the States, was contacted by Princess Stephanie. They had two meetings. The second and most important took place in Wiseman's suite at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco on 27 November 1940, at which Wiedemann was also present The three had a lengthy conversation which lasted from 7.30 p.m. until the early hours of the following morning. The FBI was suspicious of Wiseman's activities and had him under surveillance. Edgar Hoover, the FBI boss, had received a note from Brigadier General Sherman Miles which inferred Wiseman was a member of the same group of Englishmen in America who had attempted to negotiate with the Nazis in the past.
Unknown to Wiseman and the princess, the FBI had bugged Wiseman's apartment and recorded the entire conversation, which amounted to a detailed discussion of possible peace negotiations. Stephanie promised she could get any proposals direct to Hitler, and Wiseman Made it clear lie represented a group of Englishmen who believed a satisfactory peace arrangement could still be concluded between Britain and Germany.The next day Wiseman met Wiedemann and disclosed that Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, represented a group which had members in both Houses of the British Parliament and felt strongly that a negotiated peace was both possible and desirable.The FBI leaked the contents of these undercover meetings to British intelligence. The result was that Wiseman lost the backing he had originally had from influential sources in London.
At the Wiseman meeting, Princess Stephanie had put forward an audacious plan. She said she was prepared to travel to Berlin via Switzerland to intercede directly with Hitler. She was sure the Fuhrer would meet her given the affection in which he had held for her ill the past. If she failed to see Hitler, she would negotiate with Himmler. Stephanie believed that if her talks in Berlin were successful it would he possible for a Nazi emissary to see Lord Halifax, in London or in a neutral city, to confirm arrangements for a cease fire and an alliance between Britain and Germany. The princess had not changed her allegiance. It was her firm conviction that a pact between Britain and Germany against communism and the Soviet menace was in the best interests of Germany and the surest way of furthering Hitler's objectives.
The Princess stated that she had not seen Hitler since January 1939. Wiseman then suggested that Hitler might think she was going to Germany on behalf of the British. In reply to this remark, the Princess stated she would have to take that chance but that Hitler was genuinely fond of her and that he would look forward to her coming, and she thought Hitler would listen to her.
When asked by Wiseman just what she would say to Hitler, she replied, "I must say more than war is terrible and must stop". She stated she would make Hitler see that he was "butting against a stone wall" and make him believe that at the opportune moment he must align himself with Britain and that such an alliance would bring a lasting peace.
The Princess stated that she would set forth three powerful arguments: First that Hitler had failed to conquer Britain, secondly that the alliance with Russia and Italy was of little importance compared to an alliance with Britain which would bring about a lasting peace. She stated also that "Mussolini is a clown, the laughing-stock of the whole American nation".
She continued that the third point in her discussion with Hitler would be to point out the strength of the American nation and that "anybody that told Hitler that the German. Reich was stronger than the United States, was telling damn lies".
Stephanie pointed out to her colleagues that President Roosevelt was already technically in breach of US neutrality by sending fifty destroyers to Britain at America's expense. A few days later, on 8 December, Winston Churchill sent a long and historically decisive letter to President Roosevelt, asking for America's financial and material assistance in waging the war against Nazism. He ended the letter: "If, as I believe, you are convinced, Mr President, that the defeat of the Nazi and Fascist tyranny is a matter of high consequence to the people of the United States and to the Western Hemisphere, you will regard this letter not as an appeal for aid, but as a statement of the minimum action necessary to achieve our common purpose."
Roosevelt himself did not think much of the endeavors of Wiseman, Wiedemann and Princess Stephanie, yet he gave them some consideration. Firstly he thought Hitler unpredictable; secondly Sir William Wiseman was known to be the mouthpiece of a political group in Britain headed by Lord Halifax. These individuals were pinning their hopes on being able to bring about a lasting peace between Great Britain and the German Reich.
It emerged from the report to Roosevelt that none of the three 'peacemakers' trusted each other. It can be assumed that Wiseman wanted to persuade Wiedemann to sign a statement in which he would betray his frank opinion of Hitler. In the two reports that Wiseman had sent to the British embassy, he represented Wiedemann as a genuine and serious opponent of Hitler and an honourable Bavarian officer. Yet in the discussions Wiedemann seemed very inept and frequently lapsed into German, until the princess forced him to conduct this vitally important conversation in English. Towards the end of the meeting, it was agreed that they should bypass the British Ambassador in Washington, the Marquess of Lothian, and send their peace proposal direct to 10 Downing Street. The princess remarked that Churchill knew her personally and knew of "the other reports" that she had delivered in the past.
But, as we now know, events had already overtaken Stephanie and her well-intentioned peacemakers. Despite Britain's perilous position, Churchill's government had rejected all earlier peace feelers put out by Germany. Churchill believed that, even without direct military intervention by the USA, its economic support would gradually turn the tide. As he wrote elsewhere in his 8 December letter to Roosevelt: "If... we are able to move the necessary tonnage to and fro across salt water indefinitely, it may well be that the application of superior air-power to the German homeland and the rising anger of the German and other Nazi-gripped populations will bring the agony of civilisation to a merciful and glorious end."
Halifax and Butler's profound misgivings about continuing the war if there was any chance of escape with dignity placed them at the centre of a peace movement which was connected to all the core institutions of the Conservative Party. The presence within it of Queen Mary, the Dukes of Westminster and Buccleuch, Lords Aberconway, Bearsted, Brockett, Buckmaster, Harmsworth, Londonderry, Mansfield and Rushcliffe, as well as of at least thirty MPs, demonstrated the enduring nature of the lobby's links to the court, the City, large-scale industry and to the landowning aristocracy...
All its members shared a profound fear that the domestic and international order which had sustained liberal-imperialist Britain was about to be irrevocably changed... With some justification it was believed that total war meant the socialization of Britain and a ruinous conflict in the heart of Europe from which only the Soviet Union could benefit.