What do Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, Pan American Airways and James Bond have in common? Celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl.
Before writing his popular children’s tales including the above and others such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, Dahl was an RAF pilot in World War II. Early in the war he was injured and reassigned to Washington, DC where he worked undercover as a spy for the British Security Coordination with James Bond creator Ian Fleming and famous philosopher Isaiah Berlin, all under the direction of the “Intrepid” William Stephenson. The mission was to get the Americans into the war. All the details can be read in The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.
The book focuses on only a handful of years in Dahl’s life, but much of its content involves the activities of those who surrounded Dahl in wartime Washington. There is an amazing breadth of characters, comparable only to the high stature it reaches with the likes of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau, a young LBJ and writer Ernest Hemingway making appearances. Much of the story surrounds the eccentricities of vice president Henry Wallace and the problems they caused during the 1944 presidential election, and Dahl’s close relationship with Texas newspaper tycoon Charles E. Marsh. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the characters but the author, Jennet Conant, a magazine writer by trade, writes well and the story reads easily. Oftentimes it reads like one of the social gossip rags of the time, detailing the bawdy adventures of the moneyed movers and shakers of the political class in Washington.
A central issue in the book is the political battle over post-war air routes. The civilian air industry was a business taking off and companies like Pan Am wanted control over it. The negotiations involved many national representatives: some free marketers, some monopolists, some on the take. Be sure that the intelligence services had their hand in steering the negotiations to their own nations advantage. Dahl, as a pilot himself, was assigned to keep track of elite Washington opinion on the civilian aviation problem, and report back to the Crown.
It is amazing to think that such negotiations were taking place in the middle of a war that no one was sure when it would end. This book does an excellent job of showing us the kinds of things that were happening in the shadow of the war. Oftentimes, people think that when war begins — especially total war — everything else stops. Clausewitz warned that this was mistaken, and The Irregulars superbly illustrates: politics never stops, not even for war.