Ernest Cuneo

Ernest Cuneo

Ernest Cuneo was born in Carlstadt, New Jersey, on 27th May, 1905. He studied law at Penn State University. He also studied under Adolf Berle at Columbia University. A talented sportsman, he played for in 1929 for the Orange Tornadoes in the National Football League. The following season he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. After retiring from football he worked as a journalist for the New York Daily News.

In 1932 Cuneo became law secretary to Fiorello LaGuardia, a congressman from New York City. The following year he was elected mayor of the city. In 1936 James Farley appointed Cuneo associate general counsel of the Democratic National Committee and an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cuneo also became the attorney to the journalists, Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson. In her book, The Irregulars (2008), Jennet Conant has argued: "Ernest Cuneo, the affable, Falstaffian attorney and sidekick to Winchell, who was known to be a member of Roosevelt's palace guard and a behind-the-scenes operator bar none... A college football star gone to fat, he was almost as wide as he was tall and was a much-beloved figure in media circles."

Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940. He realised straight away that it would be vitally important to enlist the United States as Britain's ally. He sent William Stephenson to the United States to make certain arrangements on intelligence matters. He made contact with Ernest Cuneo. According to Stephenson he was the leader of "Franklin's brain trust". Cuneo met with Roosevelt and reported back that the president wanted "the closest possible marriage between the FBI and British Intelligence."

On Stephenson's return to London he instructed Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, to appoint Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). Menzies told Gladwyn Jebb on 3rd June, 1940: "I have appointed Mr W.S. Stephenson to take charge of my organisation in the USA and Mexico. As I have explained to you, he has a good contact with an official (J. Edgar Hoover) who sees the President daily. I believe this may prove of great value to the Foreign Office in the future outside and beyond the matters on which that official will give assistance to Stephenson. Stephenson leaves this week. Officially he will go as Principal Passport Control Officer for the USA."

As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase (British Security Coordination) is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention." An office was opened in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan with the agreement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.

Thomas E. Mahl, the author of Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States: 1939-44 (1998), has argued that Cuneo was "liaison between British Security Coordination and several departments of the U.S. government". He later wrote to Charles Howard Ellis, assistant-director of the British Security Coordination: "I saw Adolf Berle at State Department, Eddie Tamm, J. Edgar Hoover and more often the Attorney General; on various other matters Dave Niles and the White House and Ed Foley at the Treasury, but as far as I know there wasn't a sentence recorded. I reported to Bill Donovan and George Bowden, but never in writing."

Cuneo was such an important figure to the British Security Coordination that he was given his own code name, "Crusader". He later admitted that he passed important information obtained from his government position to the BSC: "Friendly and neutral powers are quaint and laughable terms unrecognised in the world of international intelligence. Every major nation taps every other major nation, none more than its Allies."

Jennet Conant, the author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008) argues that Cuneo was "empowered to feed select British intelligence items about Nazi sympathizers and subversives" to friendly journalists such as Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, Walter Lippman, Dorothy Thompson, Raymond Gram Swing, Edward Murrow, Vincent Sheean, Eric Sevareid, Edmond Taylor, Rex Stout, Edgar Ansel Mowrer and Whitelaw Reid, who "were stealth operatives in their campaign against Britain's enemies in America". Cuneo also worked closely with editors and publishers who were supporters of American intervention into the Second World War. This included Arthur Hays Sulzberger (New York Times), Helen Rogers Reid (New York Herald Tribune), Paul C. Patterson (Baltimore Sun) and Ralph Ingersoll (Picture Magazine).

Cuneo later recalled: "Given the time, the situation, and the mood, it is not surprising however, that BSC also went beyond the legal, the ethical, and the proper. Throughout the neutral Americas, and especially in the U.S., it ran espionage agents, tampered with the mails, tapped telephone, smuggled propaganda into the country, disrupted public gatherings, covertly subsidized newspapers, radios, and organizations, perpetrated forgeries - even palming one off on the President of the United States - violated the aliens registration act, shanghaied sailors numerous times, and possibly murdered one or more persons in this country."

Cuneo met Ian Fleming in New York City in the summer of 1940. Fleming criticised Admiral Ernest King, Chief of US naval operations for not supporting the Russian convoys forcefully enough. Cuneo responded by claiming that Fleming was only a junior officer who was unlikely to know enough about the subject. Fleming commented: "Do you question my bona fides?" Fleming asked angrily. "No, only your patently limited judgement." Despite this exchange the two men soon became close friends.

Cuneo described Fleming as having the appearance of a lightweight boxer. It was not only his broken nose but the way he carried himself: "He did not rest his weight on his left leg; he distributed it, his left foot and his shoulders slightly forward." Cuneo liked Fleming's "steely patriotism" and told General William Donovan that he was a typical English agent: "England was not a country but a religion, and that where England was concerned, every Englishman was a Jesuit who believed the end justified the means."

In July 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under the leadership of General William Donovan. Roosevelt arranged for Cuneo to become Donovan's liaison officer with MI6, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of State.

Cuneo was also friends with Drew Pearson. He leaked several stories to Pearson including one concerning General George S. Patton. On 3rd August 1943, he visited the 15th Evacuation Hospital where he encountered Private Charles H. Kuhl, who had been admitted suffering from shellshock. When Patton asked him why he had been admitted, Kuhl told him "I guess I can't take it." According to one eyewitness Patton "slapped his face with a glove, raised him to his feet by the collar of his shirt and pushed him out of the tent with a kick in the rear." Kuhl was later to claim that he thought Patton, as well as himself, was suffering from combat fatigue.

Two days after the incident he sent a memo to all commanders in the 7th Army: "It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards and bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades, whom they heartlessly leave to endure the dangers of battle while they, themselves, use the hospital as a means of escape. You will take measures to see that such cases are not sent to the hospital but are dealt with in their units. Those who are not willing to fight will be tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy."

On 10th August 1943, Patton visited the 93rd Evacuation Hospital to see if there were any soldiers claiming to be suffering from combat fatigue. He found Private Paul G. Bennett, an artilleryman with the 13th Field Artillery Brigade. When asked what the problem was, Bennett replied, "It's my nerves, I can't stand the shelling anymore." Patton exploded: "Your nerves. Hell, you are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch. Shut up that goddamned crying. I won't have these brave men here who have been shot seeing a yellow bastard sitting here crying. You're a disgrace to the Army and you're going back to the front to fight, although that's too good for you. You ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. In fact, I ought to shoot you myself right now, God damn you!" With this Patton pulled his pistol from its holster and waved it in front of Bennett's face. After putting his pistol way he hit the man twice in the head with his fist. The hospital commander, Colonel Donald E. Currier, then intervened and got in between the two men.

Margaret Watson and Ernest Cuneo
Margaret Watson and Ernest Cuneo

Colonel Richard T. Arnest, the man's doctor, sent a report of the incident to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The story was also passed to the four newsmen attached to the Seventh Army. Although Patton had committed a court-martial offence by striking an enlisted man, the reporters agreed not to publish the story. Quentin Reynolds of Collier's Weekly agreed to keep quiet but argued that there were "at least 50,000 American soldiers on Sicily who would shoot Patton if they had the chance."

Eisenhower now had a meeting with the war correspondents who knew about the incident and told them that he hoped they would keep the "matter quiet in the interests of retaining a commander whose leadership he considered vital." Ernest Cuneo, who was fully aware, now decided to pass this story to Drew Pearson and in November 1943, he told the story on his weekly syndicated radio program. Some politicians demanded that George S. Patton should be sacked but General George Marshall and Henry L. Stimson supported Eisenhower in the way he had dealt with the case.

After the war Cuneo joined with Ivar Bryce and a group of investors, including Ian Fleming, to gain control of the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). Andrew Lycett, the author of Ian Fleming (1996), has pointed out: "With the arrival of television, its star had begun to wane. Advised by Ernie Cuneo, who told him it was a sure way to meet anyone he wanted, Ivar stepped in and bought control. He appointed the shrewd Cuneo to oversee the American end of things... and Fleming was brought on board to offer a professional newspaperman's advice." Fleming was appointed European vice-president, with a salary of £1,500 a year. He persuaded James Gomer Berry, 1st Viscount Kemsley, that The Sunday Times should work closely with NANA. He also organized a deal with The Daily Express, owned by Lord Beaverbrook.

Ivar Bryce and Ian Fleming
Ivar Bryce and Ian Fleming

On 11th April, 1950, Drew Pearson wrote in his diary that Cuneo had tried to persuade him to leave Joseph McCarthy: "Cuneo thinks that I am nuts to go after McCarthy, claims the tide is in the opposite direction and that the entire country is determined to clean out the Communist. I agree except I think that the Communists have been pretty well cleared out. Now it has got to a point where anyone who was sympathetic to Russia during the war is in danger of being called a Communist."

Fleming considered the possibility of writing detective fiction. In December 1950 he travelled to New York City to meet with Cuneo and William Stephenson. Fleming's biographer points out: "With William Stephenson's and Ernie Cuneo's help - Ian spent a night out on the Upper West Side with a couple of detectives from the local precinct. On previous trips he had enjoyed visiting Harlem dance clubs, where he delighted in their energy as much as their music. Now his eyes had been opened to a seedier reality. He met a local crime boss and witnessed with alarm the hold that drug traffickers were gaining in the neighbourhood." Cuneo took the opportunity to tell Fleming that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a communist front.

Fleming often visited the United States to be with Cuneo. This included doing research in Las Vegas for a novel he was planning. Cuneo argued that Fleming was "a knight errant searching for the lost Round Table and possibly the Holy Grail, and unable to reconcile himself that Camelot was gone and still less that it had probably never existed." Fleming's novel, Casino Royale, featuring the secret agent James Bond, was published to critical acclaim in April 1953. Later, Fleming admitted that Cuneo provided him with the basic plotlines for Goldfinger (1959) and Thunderball (1961).

Gaeton Fonzi, the author of The Last Investigation (1993), argues that Cuneo employed pro-CIA journalists like Virginia Prewett and Priscilla Johnson. In his book, Oswald and the CIA (1995) John Newman explores Johnson's relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald. The journalist Anthony Summers argues in his book, The Kennedy Conspiracy (1980): "For many years, Prewett wrote for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), a syndication organization founded by prewett's friend Ernest Cuneo, a veteran of the CIA's forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services... In 1963 NANA was severely criticized in a Senate Committee Report, for syndicating pro-Chiang Kai-shek propaganda written by a paid American lobbyist".

Cuneo was a strong opponent of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary government in Cuba. He joined forces with Henry Luce, Clare Booth Luce Hal Hendrix, Paul Bethel, William Pawley, Virginia Prewett, Dickey Chapelle, Edward Teller, Arleigh Burke, Leo Cherne, Sidney Hook, Hans Morgenthau and Frank Tannenbaum to form the Citizens Committee to Free Cuba (CCFC). On 25th March, 1963, the CCFC issued a statement: "The Committee is nonpartisan. It believes that Cuba is an issue that transcends party differences, and that its solution requires the kind of national unity we have always manifested at moments of great crisis. This belief is reflected in the broad and representative membership of the Committee."

He was also editor-at-large of the Saturday Evening Post and for many years he wrote a syndicated column, Take It or Leave It, which appeared three times a week. Cuneo sold the North American Newspaper Alliance in 1963.

Ernest Cuneo, who lived in Arlington County, Virginia, died after suffering a heart attack at the National Hospital for Orthopedics and Rehabilitation in Washington, D.C. on 1st March, 1988.

Primary Sources

(1) Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008)

Ernest Cuneo, the affable, Falstaffian attorney and sidekick to Winchell, who was known to be a member of Roosevelt's "palace guard" and a behind-the-scenes operator bar none... A college football star gone to fat, he was almost as wide as he was tall and was a much-beloved figure in media circles. When Roosevelt was elected to office in 1932, Cuneo had followed his Columbia Law mentor Adolf Berle to Washington and served as the administration's troubleshooter, eventually becoming associate counsel of the Democratic National Committee. When war broke out, he added to his portfolio the duties of White House liaison officer with British Security Coordination, the OSS, the FBI, and the Departments of Justice and State.

Cuneo had such close ties to the BSC that he was considered a member of the club, had his own code name - CRUSADER - and was empowered to "feed" select British intelligence items about Nazi sympathizers and subversives to Pearson, Winchell, and other handpicked outlets. At the time, he was actually ghostwriting many of Winchell's columns and radio broadcasts, which parroted the British propaganda line of the day. For the BSC, journalists like Ingersoll, Lippmann, Pearson, Reid, and Winchell, and the facilitator Cuneo, were stealth operatives in their campaign against Britain's enemies in America.

(2) British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45 (1998)

The conduct of political warfare was entirely dependent on secrecy. For that reason the press and radio men with whom BSC agents maintained contact were comparable with subagents and the intermediaries with agents. They were thus regarded.

(3) Drew Pearson, diary entry (11th April, 1950)

Cuneo thinks that I am nuts to go after McCarthy, claims the tide is in the opposite direction and that the entire country is determined to clean out the Communist. I agree except I think that the Communists have been pretty well cleared out. Now it has got to a point where anyone who was sympathetic to Russia during the war is in danger of being called a Communist.

(4) The New York Times (5th March, 1988)

Ernest L. Cuneo, lawyer, writer and former owner of the North American Newspaper Alliance, died Tuesday at the National Hospital for Orthopedics and Rehabilitation in Washington after a heart attack. He was 82 years old and lived in Arlington, Va.

He acquired the Newspaper Alliance in the mid-1950's and was its president until 1963, when he sold it. The news service discontinued operations in 1980.

Mr. Cuneo worked as a law assistant to Fiorello H. La Guardia in 1931 and 1932, when the future New York City Mayor was a Republican Representative. Mr. Cuneo was the author of ''Life with Fiorello,'' published in 1955, which served in considerable part as the basis for the Broadway musical ''Fiorello.'' Mr. Cuneo was admitted to the New York Bar in 1932.

From 1936 to 1940, Mr. Cuneo was associate counsel to the Democratic National Committee.

During World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services under Gen. William J. Donovan as liaison officer for the White House, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and British intelligence. He worked with the Italian underground and handled special operations in the Western Hemisphere and North Africa.