Henningsen: Scoundrel Or Patriot

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(HOST]) There’s been much debate about the actions of Bradley Manning, the army enlisted man alleged to have furnished Wikileaks with top-secret documents.  Defenders hail him as a hero; detractors call his alleged actions treason.  Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen recalls an earlier case that raised similar issues.

(HENNINGSEN)  On May 20th, 1940, as Hitler’s panzers rolled through northern France and the embattled British army retreated to Dunkirk, British security agents raided the London apartment of Tyler Kent, the American embassy’s code clerk. They found over a thousand classified documents Kent had stolen with the apparent intention of releasing them to the press.

The most explosive were secret letters between President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, recently named British Prime Minister.  To Kent, a political conservative who considered himself a staunch patriot, these letters proved that Roosevelt was lying to the American people.  While publicly proclaiming American neutrality, Roosevelt had been in secret contact with a member of the British government, supposedly conspiring to bring America into the war.

If this became public, Roosevelt’s isolationist opponents would have a field day.  The president’s developing plans to run for an unprecedented third term would have been seriously complicated, if not overturned entirely.

So it’s not surprising that the Roosevelt administration waived Kent’s diplomatic immunity and permitted him to be tried in secret by a British court.  He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for actions "prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state."

But which state?  As it turns out, British security had found something much closer to home.  Kent was known to be friendly with right-wing Englishmen and in his apartment Scotland Yard discovered the so-called "Red Book" of the Right Club.  This was the membership list of a secret society of anti-war and even pro-Nazi activists.  The most well-known figures – like Oswald Mosley, leader of Britain’s fascist movement – were immediately jailed.  

Most, however, were not – because they were pillars of the British establishment. Eleven were sitting Members of Parliament; four were peers of the realm, including the Duke of Wellington.  Far better to keep them under discreet surveillance than to expose the extent of anti-war sentiment to an anxious public at a moment when Britain’s back was to the wall.

Both the U.S. and Britain had reason to suppress the Kent story.  As late as the 1970’s each government actively impeded scholars seeking access to case files.  But historians today regard Kent as a right-wing extremist and believe that publicizing his stolen documents would have compromised the war effort.  In that sense, Kent wound up on the wrong side of history.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, wound up on the right side of history – because most Americans regard the Vietnam War as a disaster that should have been avoided.  

Historical judgment is levied in the long run because it depends greatly on long-term consequences.  From an historian’s point of view, the Bradley Manning case is interesting at the moment for what it reveals about current public opinion.  As to a final assessment of Manning’s alleged actions – was he a true patriot taking a moral stand or a scoundrel subverting the national interest?  Which side will history take? – it’s simply too soon to tell.

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