Ian Fleming and his scriptwriting clones have trailed clouds of British glory. By creating an image of undercover British omnipotence they covered up the impotence of a declining power. Spinning clandestine myths, they told porkies in plain daylight about an empire of influence that no longer existed.
The durable Bond is back once more in Spectre. Little has changed and there has even been reversion. M has come back, morphed into a man, Judi Dench giving way to Ralph Fiennes. 007 still works miracles, and not the least of these is financial – Pinewood Studios hope for another blockbuster movie. Hollywood: roll over and die.
That exhortation is cousin to a connected urge to compete with America’s spies for the prize of fame. Lancing with his pen, John Le Carré was dismissive of what he portrayed as America’s intelligence parvenus. Just at the time when it became plain that the Cambridge spy ring had wrought havoc, he shouted out the improbable message that we were the best. Graham Greene had already written The Quiet American explaining how terrible those CIA people were. The Bond fictions are a populist version of the same prejudice. Ian Fleming, their author, cultivated the American market, yet his CIA character Felix Leiter is no more than a 007 sidekick, rather like Holmes’s Dr Watson (acted by an American female, Lucy Liu, in the CBS adaptation Elementary).
Fleming was just being nationalistically British. He was not anti-American and meant no harm to America, a nation to which he had every cause to feel commercially grateful. Yet by accident, he and his imperial hubris visited three misfortunes on the United States.
He invented the CIA – or so he said. The too literally minded might be tempted to take him at his word. For he did, when a wartime aide to Admiral John Godfrey of Naval Intelligence, draft a memo recommending stronger central coordination of US intelligence – and ultimately the CIA materialized in 1947. Fleming was an obscure and junior officer at the time, and much more important people and causes were behind the creation of the CIA. But he contributed to a pernicious myth, that the British, trailing those old familiar clouds of glory, had come to rescue a nation that had almost criminally neglected to equip itself with an appropriate intelligence apparatus. Certain US intelligence expansionists have been feeding on that myth ever since, valuing quantity over quality and allowing themselves to be deluded into the Bondian belief that an intelligence agency should behave like a mob of gangsters.
Then there was the notorious aftermath of Fleming’s dinner with Senator John F. Kennedy on 13 March 1960. Cultivating his ‘cool’ image, Presidential candidate Kennedy had publicly professed himself to be a Bond fan. He now asked Fleming, what would Bond have done about the troublesome Fidel Castro? Fleming rattled off some exotic ways of liquidating the Cuban president, adding that the administration of a depilatory drug might strip the revolutionary of his machismo by making his beard fall out. Though he may have enjoyed dispensing imperial advice, our author was also trying to amuse. Unfortunately there was a humourless guest at the dinner party. The CIA’s John Gross hastened to brief his boss, director Allen Dulles, what Kennedy would require if elected. In the course of Kennedy’s presidency the hapless agency duly tried out the beard trick, the exploding clamshell, the poisoned cigar, all to no avail and to the long-term detriment of American-Cuban relations.
As if this were not enough, Fleming can be blamed for Watergate. Jealous of James Bond’s fame, future CIA director Richard Helms got hold of a CIA operative with a track record of operational incompetence, and asked him to invent an American 007. E. Howard Hunt had already written a pulp novella, Bimini Run, a kind of poor man’s preview of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Wishing to make himself useful he now entered the realm of pop spy fiction and, using the pen name David St. John, wrote the Peter Ward series of spy novels. Though the result was uniformly awful, the exercise kept Hunt on the horizon of potential employers. He became a leading “Plumber” in the criminal gang hired by President Nixon to burgle the Democratic Party’s office in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. That and the ensuing cover-up and presidential resignation were an endnote to the Bond glory-story.
Poor old MI6 and Ian Fleming. Cuddly bears to our Soviet rivals, accidental liabilities to our American friends. But that’s not our dreamland. Come movie-time at least, we remain in happy Bondage.
Featured image credit: MI6 Vauxhall Cross, by Ewan Munro. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.