What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
In short: drama, intrigue, fascinatingly flawed characters and some historical revisionism. I’ll be telling the story of how a lovestruck composer, a failed US politician, a senior MI6 officer and the president of the United States came together in October 1941 to dupe the American people, and the effect this had on the course of the Second World War. There will also be a bit of music and a game to find out how good everyone is at spotting ‘fake news’.
Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
The book I’ve been writing over the last few years is the story of the vast, undercover British campaign to shift American public opinion during 1941 and to provoke Hitler into a declaration of war on the US. I find it fascinating for all sorts of reasons, mainly because it’s a pivotal yet sometimes overlooked point in the Second World War. I’m also drawn to the many parallels with modern-day influence campaigns. It turns out that there’s nothing essentially new about fake news.
Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…
In the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt worked alongside the senior MI6 officer in the US and the director of the precursor of the CIA to feed fake news into the American news cycle. It was referred to as ‘fake news’ at the time, just as it is today.
Another surprising fact: on the day that Roosevelt was sworn in for his third term as president in January 1941, his defeated opponent, Wendell Willkie – who wasstill leader of the Republican Party – was in conclave with a senior MI6 officer.
Where is your favourite historical place to visit?
Roosevelt’s residence in Hyde Park, upstate New York, and the excellent archive attached to it. I’ve been lucky enough to go there for research twice in the last few years, and hope to be back again soon.
Which history book made the most impact on you?
What is History by EH Carr (1990). I remember reading this book as a teenager and was affected by his line about how millions of Italians crossed the Rubicon before Caesar, but these crossings were ignored by historians. That book was the first to open up for me the nature of historical writing.
Which area of history would you like to see made into a film or television series?
I’m obviously more than a bit biased here, but I’d love to see the subject I’ve been immersed in over the last few years turned into a television series. I’m thrilled to say this might actually happen. Our Man in New York was optioned earlier this year by an independent production company, so, with a bit of luck, this story might soon be on a screen. The characters, the setting, the period, the stakes – everything about this story lends itself to a dramatic television production, and I hope it gets the go-ahead.
Henry Hemming is the author of six works of non-fiction including the Sunday Times bestseller M, the New York Times bestseller The Ingenious Mr Pyke, and Misadventure in the Middle East, which was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book Award.
He will be sharing the eye-opening story of how the British used ‘fake news’ to help bring the United States into the Second World War at our 2019 History Weekends