Author: Ray Bearse
Bearse, Ray (1991) and Anthony Read. Conspirator: The Untold Story of Tyler Kent. New York: Doubleday
Date Updated: October 16, 2015
Conspirator is a workmanlike reprise of a once-celebrated WW II espionage case, plus an assessment of its geopolitical implications. Drawing on recently declassified archival material, memoirs, interviews with surviving principals, and allied sources, Bearse, a journalist, and Read (coauthor of Kristallnacht, The Deadly Embrace, etc.) provide a comprehensive briefing on the strange career of Tyler Gatewood Kent.
The son of a globe-trotting consular official, Kent (a Princeton dropout) won a position in America’s Moscow embassy on the strength of his linguistic skills. Thoroughly corrupted during his sojourn in the USSR, Kent (who had been denied advancement to Foreign Service officer) was posted to London as a code clerk shortly after the start of WW II. A virulent anti-Semite with patrician pretensions, he had access to the ultrasecret correspondence between Churchill and FDR. He made copies of these messages and other documents available to Anna Wolkoff, a Russian émigré with pro-Fascist leanings who passed them on to Nazi Germany through Italian diplomats.
Apprehended by MI5 agents in May 1940 as Hitler was smashing through France, Kent was stripped of his immunity by the State Department. He stood trial in camera in the Old Bailey and was convicted on six counts of violating the UK’s Official Secrets Act. Sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude on the Isle of Wight, Kent returned to the States following his 1945 release. Shortly thereafter, he married a wealthy divorcee who kept him in affluent comfort until his death in 1988.
While Bearse and Read offer an oddly bloodless account of Kent’s treachery, they make a fine job of evaluating the potentially disruptive political consequences of his crimes, including potential damage to FDR’s bid for a third presidential term and to Joseph P. Kennedy’s diplomatic career. An intriguing footnote to the history of WW II, then, which is longer on global perspectives than human-scale insights.
Some comments by Roy Berkeley:
Go east on George Street past the monstrous Portman Towers—only 12 stories high but so alien to the special scale of London as to seem part of a different city. At Gloucester Place turn left. Halfway up this longish block, on the left, is 47 Gloucester Place. Imagine the surprise of Tyler Kent, a code clerk in the American Embassy in London, when his second-floor flat was broken into on the morning of 20 May, 1940, and the raiding party (composed of Maxwell Knight and representatives from Special Branch and the American Embassy) swept past him to search his two small rooms. Imagine the surprise of the intruders when they discovered no fewer than 1929 documents stolen from the embassy, including six top-secret messages between Churchill and Roosevelt.
Tyler Kent was a presentable young man (29 at the time of his arrest), well-educated, a descendent of the Alamo hero Davy Crockett, and the son of an American diplomat. Convinced that the world was being pushed into war by the Jews (whom he hated), young Kent wanted to use the stolen correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt to show that the two were conspiring to replace Chamberlain and bring America into the war. Even the full correspondence between the two leaders, published in 1985, could not support such a conspiracy theory. But anything could have happened in 1940 with the public release of Kent’s material. Britain was desperately weak, torn between those who would appease Hitler and those who would fight him. Europe was already overrun. America was still overwhelmingly opposed to intervention, and Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented third term.
Kent had started taking documents almost immediately after his arrival in London in October, 1939. He soon met Anna Volkov (see Site 41 18 Roland Gardens; and Site 45), a passionately pro-Hitler Russian émigrée; she took two of the documents to a photographer and gave the photos to an Italian diplomat to send to Berlin. Kent also met Captain Ramsay (see Site 39 24 Onslow Square), a vehemently pro-fascist MP; Ramsay planned to bring Kent’s material to the floor of the House of Commons.
But MI5, and particularly Maxwell Knight, had been interested in Kent since his arrival in London (a suspected German agent was seen visiting his hotel room). MI5 also kept an eye on Kent because of his sexual liaison with a woman named Danischewsky, one of many Russian émigrés believed to be working for the NKVD and GRU. Only after the cool-headed Joan Miller managed to infiltrate Ramsay’s Right Club, however, did Knight have what he needed for an arrest.
Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, presiding over the violated American Embassy, was furious at the British tor their delay in apprehending Kent (and for their delay in informing him of the matter), but he waived Kent’s diplomatic immunity and allowed the British to arrest Kent. Kennedy had not been informed because he himself was under suspicion—for his defeatism, his eagerness to “do business with Hitler” and his activity in pressuring for a negotiated peace. (His “every move” was “monitored” by the British authorities, writes Andrew Lownie in an essay on Kent in the recent book North American Spies.) Kennedy resigned upon Roosevelt’s re-election. Subsequent publicity about his hatred of Jews and of the British, and about his opposition to the war, destroyed any further political career he might have had.
Kent’s trial was held in camera in October, 1940, thus keeping his activities secret from American voters a month before they would i return Roosevelt to the White House. Pleading that he had merely wanted to give the documents to US senators in order to keep America neutral, Kent was nevertheless found guilty of giving documents to a “foreign agent” (as Volkov was shown to be). The jury deliberated only 24 minutes. At his sentencing, Kent again protested his loyalty and patriotism. There was no felony, he said, because there was “no felonious intent.” (His acts were felonious, of course, no matter what his intent.) He received a seven-year sentence and spent five years on the Isle of Wight before being deported to the US and released. He soon married an American divorcee 13 years his senior and spent the next four decades running through her considerable fortune (from Carter’s Little Liver Pills) in pursuit of his two abiding hobbies: yachting and publishing diatribes against Jews, Blacks and Franklin Roosevelt. He died in 1988, his last home. a caravan park in Texas.
And here the story might end: the story of a man who, like Daniel Ellsberg years later, simply attempted to unseat a US president through the release of certain information. This was Kent’s claim. But Kent did more, making his information available to Nazi sympathizers. And very probably he did even more. Before the war ended, the FBI had tentatively reclassified Tyler Kent as a Soviet agent, and both CIA and MI5 made it official soon afterward. “One of the factors involved in reaching that decision,” write Ray Bearse and Anthony Read in Conspirator: The Untold Story of Tyler Kent, was a CIA memo after the war analysing the documents stolen by Kent. Of almost two thousand documents; only six had originated in Moscow; Kent’s material was overwhelmingly of value to the Soviets, not the Germans. In fact, Kent had sought a posting to Berlin in February, 1940. Of critical importance, the Hitler-Stalin Pact had been in force the whole time Kent was taking the documents. As Bearse and Read tell us in Conspirator, Kent had worked for the Soviets earlier. He had been a clerk in the first US Embassy in Moscow. Arriving in that inhospitable country in 1934, he was by 1935 keeping company with an attractive woman whose NKVD connection he understood fully. “We used to lie abed mornings and Iaughingly discuss what she would tell her bosses that day,” Kent told Bearse and Read. With help from his NKVD girlfriend, Kent earned substantial sums for himself by smuggling furs and jewellery out of the USSR. Only two or three of the embassy staff in Moscow owned cars, Conspirator tells us. Kent was one of them. (Didn’t anyone notice?)
Did the Soviets force Kent to work for them (through the several holds they had on him), or did he volunteer? I can see it either way. He was an exploiter all his life: “a real rotter” as Tony Read described him to me. If Kent worked willingly for the Soviets both in London and Moscow, we need only reconcile his service to them with what Malcolm Muggeridge has called Kent’s “maniacally hostile attitude towards the Soviet régime.” This display could have been real—it apparently got him PNG’d from the Moscow Embassy and it persisted to the end of his life—or it could have been a façade. Alternatively, as Andrew Lownie suggests, Kent may have worked for the Soviets (in London at least) without being fully aware of it; their interests could simply have coincided with his. Some part of the Tyler Kent story remains untold.
This is one of many books on the Department of Energy Hanford counterintelligence reading list. The entire list is as follows (with links when appropriate.) The entire list is found at Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence
German Intelligence—Nazi Spies
Bearse, Ray (1991) and Anthony Read. Conspirator: The Untold Story of Tyler Kent