The Cold War is often dramatized as a conflict fought in the shadows between two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Bountiful films romanticize the period, portraying the work of spies and covert operations as violent high drama, with agents daringly improvising to save the day at the very last minute. Unfortunately for those who dreamed of becoming a spy, the reality was much more organized, with vast state bureaucracies infiltrating all corners of the globe, leaving no stone unturned in their quest to win eventual victory for their side. Britain was no exception to this sobering truth. Commonly known for the exploits of MI5 and the SAS (fictionalized through James Bond), perhaps the actual most effective anti-communist force was the Information Research Department (IRD), a secret propaganda wing of the Foreign Office. But what was the IRD, and how did it fit into the broader Cold War? Here are 10 key facts to better understand the Information Research Department.
1. The Information Research Department Was Founded in 1948
The Information Research Department was founded under the watch of Ernest Bevin, then Foreign Secretary for Clement Attlee’s recently elected Labour government. The Department was led by Christopher Mayhew and Christopher Warner, who had both served in the intelligence corps during the Second World War. Warner and Mayhew were tasked with establishing a secret wing of the Foreign Office, which would look to weaken communist support, both domestically and abroad.
The creation of the IRD was in response to the growth of the Soviet sphere of influence in the aftermath of World War II, as the Iron Curtain quickly closed across Europe. Worried this could extend further into the West, Attlee and Bevin took part in a broader rebuilding of the Foreign Office, one which looked to use soft power much more extensively. The IRD fit into this new mold.
2. The Department Was One of Britain’s First Attempts to Create a “Third Force”
The newly elected government wanted to distance itself from the emerging superpowers, realizing that they would then only form a minority part of whatever alliance they aligned themselves with. Therefore, Attlee proposed Britain position itself as a “Third Force,” independent from communism and capitalism under the banner of social democracy. While the nation causing the most concern was still the Soviet Union, this new ideology would lead independent nations away from the US and the USSR. This move was made to appease both wings of the Labour Party, which were critical of both ideologies in equal measure.
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3. It Built an Extensive Network of Secret Contacts
The Information Research Department was tasked with disseminating Foreign Office propaganda without revealing it had come from the British government, as it would look like interference in the business of other states. Primary targets for the IRD were sympathetic journalists and newspaper editors, who could amplify the message the British government wanted to pass along. International contacts were relatively easy to find, as there were plenty of centrist and anti-communist newspapers in need of material to stem the tide of local communist parties.
The IRD was also very prominent within the BBC, feeding newsreaders a consistent stream of information throughout their lives. The key for the IRD was to not appear to be openly interfering, instead giving its contacts the right information they could then translate and then publish to gradually mold the views of their audience without ever tying its source as the British government.
4. The IRD Used a Variety of Sources for Their Propaganda
Desperate for quality anti-communist material, the Department looked for whatever sources it could find, as long as it was easily translatable and focused on combatting communism. Favorite sources were writings from dissidents and news reports from communist countries. This information was usually taken and distilled into two forms of content: “Basic Papers,” which targeted broader issues like life in the Soviet Union or the state of Trade Unions in the East, or “Digests,” which were generally shorter and looked at current events, such as the invasion of Hungary in 1956. Internal IRD documents would quickly summarize the piece of information they had received and then expand on how it could be used within specific regions.
5. The Information Research Department’s First Test Was the Italian Election of 1948
Almost as soon as it was founded, the IRD was flung into action, trying to weaken communist support in Italy. The 1946 election had yielded a minority government to the Christian Democrats, with the communist and socialist parties unable to compromise and work together. Since then, left-wing parties had surged, making steady ground in Italy’s cities and industrial centers. The newly formed Department was tasked with helping the centrist parties, which were much more friendly to the British government.
The IRD’s experience in Italy was crucial for its development, as it gave it the opportunity to see which of its material was the most successful. Operatives in the region built on the work the Office of Strategic Services (later CIA) had done throughout the war, using its information to quickly build their network and send out as much information as they had available to local contacts. Another aid in this quick development was the existing prestige of the BBC, as agents were able to use World Service networks to find friendly editors and journalists.
The material deployed by the IRD encouraged both anti-communism but also pushed for minority socialist parties, which had recently split from the mainstream PSI, to abandon the USSR and instead work towards the direction of Britain’s proposed “Third Force.” The 1948 election was a resounding victory for Alcide de Gasperi’s Christian Democrats, nearly winning half of the vote nationwide.
While it is ultimately difficult to calculate the effect the Information Research Department had in the victory, it was a key win for the Department, as the government saw its actions in Italy as justification to continue to fund it further.
6. It Was the First Department to Drop the “Third Force” Idea
After Italy, the popularity of anti-communist material over “Third Force” propaganda was soon evident. The IRD subsequently switched to focusing on attacking the Soviet Union. The transition was less ideological but rather through a process of trial-and-error. Positive material towards Britain was still used where it was felt necessary (e.g., in Italy, it was found to be more successful in industrial areas like Turin.)
This counters the narrative that the IRD/Labour Party’s anti-communism overpowered the socially democratic side, instead seeing the switch as a pragmatic move. The inclusion of more polemic material among Basic Papers and Digests reflected the increasingly virulent nature of the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade, and the Korean War as formative moments in the IRD’s response to communism. A cut in funding in the 1950s and 1960s also signaled a greater transition towards anti-communist material, which was usually easier to produce thanks to the abundance of critics/dissidents.
7. Several Famous Figures Were Linked to the IRD, Most Famously George Orwell
In an attempt to broaden its appeal, the Information Research Department sourced articles from high-profile writers and dissidents, which it felt would add greater weight to its work and would make it easier to transmit to local contacts abroad. The works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Robert Conquest, and Bertrand Russell were very popular, with the latter two even working for the Department itself. Works like Animal Farm were translated into 16 different languages and sent to 14 countries over the course of the Cold War and were a cornerstone of IRD propaganda.
George Orwell’s involvement went even further. Soon before his death, he supplied the Information Research Department with a list of those he suspected of having communist sympathies. Only revealed in 2003, the list included such high-profile names as Charlie Chaplin, John Steinbeck, and E.H. Carr. Due to the secretive nature of the list, many were surprised when it was eventually published, with only one of the people on the list actually being arrested for working for the Soviets, the journalist Peter Smollett.
8. The Information Research Department Soon Expanded Beyond Anti-Communist Material
While the Cold War was still raging across the world, the IRD set a new target in the 1950s: the newly formed independence movements throughout Britain’s colonies. Still using the same tactics as they had in Italy and to combat other communists, the IRD tried to protect Britain’s prestige in the wake of successive international crises. The Department was involved in managing the fallout from several key events of the Cold War, including the Suez Crisis, The Troubles, the Mau Mau Uprising, and the Prague Spring, passing on the government’s official version of events to domestic and international contexts in an attempt to repair Britain’s image and discredit its enemies.
Trade Unions also came under attack, with any particularly radical members soon targeted in the press. The 1960s also saw a switch to “black” propaganda, which incorporated smear campaigns and fake organizations set up to discredit communism and opponents of the British government. Even leaders of the Black Power movement, like Stokeley Carmichael, were targeted, as they too were seen as a threat to British colonial dominance.
9. The Soviets Knew About the Department
With one of the most impressive spy networks ever assembled, it is of little surprise that the Soviet Union knew about the Information Research Department from the offset. Their primary leak came from Guy Burgess, a KGB spy who spent two months at the Department in 1948 before being quickly dismissed by Mayhew. Nevertheless, during that time, he was able to pass enough information to his KGB handlers for them to get a general picture of how the department worked, even potentially letting them know about the names on Orwell’s list. To counter this move, the Soviets set up similar contacts wherever they could but could never match the output and scope of the IRD.
10. It was Kept a Secret for 30 Years
Despite a number of declassified documents about the IRD’s activity, still little is known about the full scope of its operations. Although many editors were in contact with the Department, the majority of the press was in the dark about its existence, the first story concerning the IRD coming in 1977. British journalists managed to expose enough of the IRD’s operations that the then Foreign Secretary, David Owen, closed the Department almost immediately, seeing it as now obsolete. The existence of the Information Research Department was finally made public in 1978, but the majority of its records are still either classified or redacted.
The Information Research Department: A New Light on the Cold War?
With the potential for more information to be revealed, the IRD offers a promising insight into uncovering the extent of Britain’s propaganda network throughout the Cold War. How much will be revealed in the coming years will remain unclear but could lead to more revelations as influential as Orwell’s list.