"For Special Services" – on James Bond's creator, his closeness to the CIA, and the real spy gadgets he inspired
It's one of the most memorable moments in perhaps the best James Bond film, From Russia with Love: SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb, posing as a hotel maid, drops her gun, and appears to be at a disadvantage as she goes toe to toe with Sean Connery's imposing Bond. That is until she deploys her iconic poison-tipped dagger shoes, which have gone on to be copied in other notable action films … and Wild Wild West. But as kitsch as Klebb's cleaver clogs might seem, the CIA attempted to replicate them, and another classic Bond gadget, in real life, according to research by Dr. Christopher Moran of Warwick University. At the heart of the story is the close friendship of Bond author and Ian Fleming and former CIA Director Allen Dulles. Gizmag spoke to Moran about 20th century Intelligence, and its peculiar relationship with the fictional British spy …
Gizmag: I suppose the first thing to ask you is what your area of interest is.
Christopher Moran: I'm an Assistant Professor in US national security in the Department of Politics and International Studies [at Warwick University.] Three or four years ago myself and my long-time mentor, Professor Richard Aldrich, successfully bid to the Arts and Humanities Research Council to undertake a project that looks at and considers the public profile of the Central Intelligence Agency, thinking about how does the public come to know about the CIA, which is a secret organization. It declassifies documents but certainly it's not putting them out into the public domain willy-nilly. And especially thinking about how the public came to know about the CIA at the height of the Cold War.
So what we've been doing as a project team is considering the various mechanisms of cultural production that talk about the CIA. So we've been looking at what journalists have to say about the CIA. Needless to say they tend to fall into one of two categories. You've got loyalists, some of which have worked very closely with the CIA historically in the cultural Cold War writing quite damaging articles about Moscow, the Russians and all that sort of thing. On the other hand you've also got the muckraking investigative journalists. I've also been looking at memoirists, CIA officers who, in their retirement, decided to write about their lives at Langley and within the agency.
But then of course another aspect of this is fiction. To what extent has fiction influenced public perceptions of the Central Intelligence Agency? Our contention is that it's quite considerable.As much as us historians and scholars like to think that our books are read widely, they certainly don't have the sort of coverage that a bond film or a bond novel does.
And this is especially the case in the 1950s, the sort of period I was looking at. In the 1950s the CIA is a publicly avowed agency (it was inscribed in the National Security Act of 1947), but nobody talks about it. Hollywood didn't talk about the CIA in the 1950s. Why? Because a lot of them were scared stiff in the context of McCarthyite witch hunts, of going against the government and talking about things that they really shouldn't. They were also focused more on sort of homeland subversives, the workery, FBI and "Reds under the bed" – that sort of thing.
Journalists didn't write stories about the CIA. A lot of the prominent ones were hand in glove with the Agency. They were being fed information by the CIA. They didn't want to cut of a key source of their news stories. Historians certainly weren't writing about the CIA. The US Freedom of Information Act didn't come in until '66.
So in other words there was a real public vacuum in terms of knowledge about the CIA. So who came along to fill that vacuum? It was a British spy fiction writer. It was Ian Fleming. So he's operating outside of the jurisdiction of US law. Ironically, he was forbidden from explicitly mentioning in the James Bond novels that his hero, James Bond, worked for MI6 or the Secret Intelligence Service. Fleming, as a former Naval Intelligence officer, had signed the Official Secrets Act. MI6, its initials, were just not known by the public. They were forbidden initials; completely taboo.
So Fleming couldn't say that, but what he could use was the name CIA. And he knew about the CIA. He knew about it dating almost right back to the Second World War. Fleming was very very good friends with the head of the immediate predecessor of the CIA, William Donovan who was the Head of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. And we have lots of evidence from testimonials from people like Norman Denning, who worked in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War; also Admiral Sir John Godfrey, who was Fleming's boss at Naval Intelligence. Both of these authorities, Godfrey and Denning, confirm that Donovan and Fleming got on extremely well because Fleming worked in Naval Intelligence.
And they also testify to the fact that Donovan asked Fleming to write a sort of blueprint, to write a charter based on British experience outlining what a peacetime foreign permanent Intelligence service in the United States would look like. Fleming did this, and Godfrey, in one of his testimonials, said that Donovan donated a gift to Fleming for writing this report, and it was a .45 Colt revolver inscribed with the words For Special Services.
Allen Dulles and Fleming met for the first time in 1959 at a dinner party arranged by MI6 officers. The relationship between Dulles and Fleming, and the information I've managed to ascertain about that, comes from several sources. One is an article, a really overlooked article (I just don't think anyone really knows it exists) that Dulles wrote in his retirement for Life Magazine in April 1964. Another source: Dulles wrote a book called Great Spy Stories from Fiction in 1968. He published it 6 months before he died, and it was a real commercial flop. But in those two sources he says, you know, "I was just completely seduced by Fleming, and I was completely seduced by his gadgets and gizmos."
Dulles freely admitted that the CIA at the time didn't really have a kind of tech laboratory. They just weren't doing the kind of stuff that Fleming had seen the Brits do during the Second World War. Fleming worked very closely with SOE, the Special Operations Executive. He'd seen the exploding rats and the briefcases with daggers and gas canisters and all this kind of stuff.
But Dulles was relatively new to all of this. He would ask his engineers at CIA to try to replicate some of Bond's technology, and he admits in both of those places that the CIA managed to replicate Rosa Klebb's poison-tipped dagger shoe, but completely failed to replicate the tracking device, the homing beacon, which James Bond uses in the film Goldfinger to try to track the whereabouts of Goldfinger's Rolls Royce. And Dulles admits that the CIA built the device but it just didn't work in a city. It sort of got me thinking about my own GPS. Whenever I go into a built-up area the GPS just kind of shuts down, really.
Gizmag: By the time Fleming's meeting with Dulles, he's been writing novels for some years?
CM: He has. The first one came out in 1953. It's around book eight or nine that his relationship starts to blossom with Dulles. And that's when I think the representation of the CIA takes a little bit more of a favorable turn in the novels. I think it takes a favorable turn because the two men have become great friends. If you look at the correspondence that the two men had between each other, correspondence that you can see in the Allen Dulles papers at Princeton, but also the Ian Fleming papers at the Lilly Library in Indiana, these are two friends. These are not two professionals communicating with each other. They address each other as "My Dear Ian" and "My Dear Allen."
Dulles, I think, plays an absolutely pivotal role in convincing Fleming to actually keep the series going. Dulles writes Fleming a letter in 1963. He says "My Dear Ian, I've just finished reading On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I absolutely love it. It looks like Bond's wife is a goner, but please, whatever you do, don't kill off my beloved James Bond."
Because Fleming, at the time, was at a bit of a low ebb in his life. His marriage was falling apart. He was concerned that his novels wouldn't commercially successful in an era where people were just a bit fed up with the Red-baiting, and, you know, the bashing of "Commies." He was a little bit worried that they just weren't commercially viable any more, and Dulles comes along and cheers his spirits.
I've had a researcher working for me in the Russian newspaper archives in Moscow, and she's found some fascinating stuff. The Communist Party newspapers from that era, things like Pravda, were commenting on the relationship between Dulles and Fleming, and what they were saying was "how bad must Western Intelligence be? How utterly utterly useless must these individuals be, where you have a scenario where the head of the CIA is taking advice from a fiction writer?" And they tried to use it for their own propaganda.
Gizmag: Is there any suggestion that Dulles fed Fleming plot ideas?
CM: I haven't seen any evidence of that. I haven't seen any evidence where Dulles is saying "can you change this in the script?" or "could you possibly include this story line?" I confess I haven't seen any evidence of that. It's really a citation ring. At the end of The Man With the Golden Gun, Bond is recovering from a duel with Scaramanga, and Fleming says "Bond is sat in his hospital bed and he's reading a copy of Allen Dulles' The Craft of Intelligence. In his retirement Dulles wrote a book, and you've got Bond reading it in the novels. But sadly no evidence of manipulation of Bond plots, though that would be very interesting.
Gizmag: Is Fleming's portrayal of the CIA accurate, would you say?
CM: It's a little bit of a mixed bag, isn't it? The CIA in that era did have a lot of money, there's no question about that. Was their trade craft any good? I think it would be a disservice to say that it wasn't very good. This was the "golden age" of CIA covert action. I guess it depends what you mean by the word success, but from a CIA perspective, they successfully orchestrated the coup d'etat in Iran in 1953. Whether you and I think toppling a democratically elected government is a success remains to be seen, but from their vantage point that was certainly a success.
I think the early 50s, the 50s in general, in terms of UK–US Intelligence relations, are interesting because first the Brits are very much the teacher, but then the relationship starts to turn and be inverted, and, if you like, the student becomes the teacher. And it happens really because of moles. In '52 and '53 revelations start emerging about [Guy] Burgess and [Donald Duart] Maclean being Cambridge spies [for the Soviet Union], and obviously Klaus Fuchs, the atomic scientist, was revealed as a traitor.
The Americans, who really had been trying to model themselves on the British, suddenly were like "wow, you guys need to get your house in order. You are leaking like a sieve. You are leaking from the top." And the mutual trust and respect, I think, started to break down, certainly by the time you got to the Suez Crisis in 1956.
Gizmag: Did Fleming borrow most of his gadget ideas from things he'd seen during World War II? Did he also come up with his own?
CM: I think it's an element of both, really. He was a clever man who clearly could come up with his own stuff but I think Fleming was always inspired by the world around him. He was like a sponge, accumulating information, remembering things that he'd seen. He'd see one gadget, he'd see another gadget, he'd splice them together, and he'd come up with a new one for a Bond novel.
Things like the briefcase in From Russia with Love,the attaché case with the dagger … there was a handbook released about 10 years ago by the National Archives. It was called something like The SOE Handbook of Special Devices [it appears to have been called The Secret Agent's Handbook of Special Devices] which was edited by a guy called Mark Seaman, and it includes photographs of, I would say 30, 40 or 50 gadgets that were used by SOE officers in the Second World War. And you can pretty much go through a lot of them and say, yep, that appears in a Bond novel, or that's pretty close to what Bond was using. It's fairly close to the mark, actually. I think by the time you get to Pinewood Studios in the early 1970s having Lotuses that can go into the ocean … Fleming wasn't doing that. He was basing his gadgets on very doable things from the Second World War that were done.
Gizmag: Were the poison-tipped dagger shoes and vehicle tracking the only two gadgets referred to by Dulles?
CM: Sadly that's it. They're the only two we have conclusive evidence of. There was a guy called Robert Wallace who in the 70s, 80s and 90s was a CIA technician. He was director of the CIA's Office of Technical Service, and a couple of years ago he wrote a book called Spycraft, co-authored with a guy called Keith Melton. And in that book he said that quite often Case Officers, Operations Officers, Analysts would come to him and say "We've seen a Bond novel. Can you give us that? We've seen something. We think it would be cool, we think it would work, we think it would be beneficial. Can you do it?" And Wallace would always have to turn round and say "I'll have a go, but it's highly unlikely." But even he doesn't give examples of ones that the CIA successfully managed to copy.
Gizmag: Is there any suggestion that the dagger shoes might have been used in the field?
CM: Sadly not. I would love to know if the shoe was used in the field, but alas, I don't even have weak evidence of that.
Gizmag: Are you a fan of the Bond novels yourself?
CM (adopting a qualified tone): I am. They need to be taken as relics of their age, so I regard them as historical texts or historical documents, really. Some of it's quite crude. There's no doubt that the portrayal of women and Fleming's handling of race relations is incredibly crude and would be completely unpalatable to audiences in the 21st century. But if you just take them for what they are, which is rattling good yarns which were produced in an era that was emerging out of the Second World War, in an era that was still experiencing rationing, in an era when Britain was contracting as an Imperial power, they're a very very interesting window onto developments on postwar British society.
Source: University of Warwick