TREASON ON THE AIRWAVES: THREE ALLIED BROADCASTERS ON AXIS RADIO DURING WORLD WAR II
By Judith Keene
University of Nebraska Press, $21.95, 228 pages, illustrated
This exceptionally interesting book tells the stories of three individuals from Allied nations during World War II who were tried after it was over for treason against their respective countries. All had broadcast on Axis radio - an American, an Australian from Japan and an Englishman from Germany. Each person’s crime was similar, but the circumstances that led them to the microphone differed sharply, as did the punishment they received.
Judith Keene, a history professor at Australia’s University of Sydney, has not only made excellent choices in whom she has chosen to train her focus on, but shows an admirable penchant for illuminating the complex sets of personal and historical circumstances surrounding each case.
The best known of Ms. Keene’s trio is Iva Toguri,a Japanese-American student visiting Japan when war broke out in 1941, more recognizable under the infamous sobriquet “Tokyo Rose.”
Arrested after the American occupation, Toguri was harshly and unfairly treated in American custody both in Japan and after being brought to the United States - no surprise in view of the heightened emotions and the justified anger about Tokyo’s wartime brutality toward Allied POWs. But the mitigating circumstances allowed at a trial conducted with due process in San Francisco gave the jury so much pause that it was reluctant to convict her.
Under heavy pressure from the judge, the jury eventually found her guilty of a single charge of treason, and she was sentenced to a prison term from which she was paroled after only a few years. In the end, she was pardoned by President Ford on his last day in office, giving vindication and a happy ending at a time when emotions had cooled.
Australian POW Charles H. Cousens, who had been a popular broadcaster back home before the war, was heavily pressured by his captors to broadcast for them. While his decision to do so in order obtain better treatment is hardly admirable and contrasts most unfavorably to, say, Arizona Sen. John McCain’s behavior in Hanoi, it is understandable. That is perhaps why the Australian government declined to proceed with prosecution even after a prima facie case was found to answer. Despite the despicable nature of Cousens’ acts, his country decided not to seek retribution and took pity on the man because of what he had suffered.
John Amery’s native Britain showed no such mercy on him (he was swiftly hanged before 1945 had even drawn to a close) and Ms. Keene’s portrait of this particular case is far and away the most intriguing of the three, not only showing a great deal about retributive justice but about the twisted nature of influence heavily - perhaps too much so - brought to bear by pillars of the establishment.
Amery was not the only Axis broadcaster tried and hanged by Britain after the war; he was followed to the gallows by the much better known and more frequent offender William Joyce, called “Lord Haw-Haw” by scornful Britons on account of his almost ludicrously affected upper-class English diction and accent. Joyce’s case has attracted much more attention from analysts than Amery’s, including Rebecca West’s monumental “Meaning of Treason.” But Ms. Keene is not shy about taking on heavyweights, including West, and she has made a superb judgment in zeroing in on the too-little-known figure of Amery.
“Treason on the Airwaves” presents a memorable portrait of a despicable figure, truly the runt of a distinguished lineage, born to privilege and exposed to the best of influences in a family remarkable for public service and probity - all of which he sedulously managed to resist from an early age, launching himself on a career as a wastrel that led him through shady business practices to spewing forth anti-Semitic filth into Nazi microphones.
His father, Leopold Amery, was a contemporary of Winston Churchill’s at Harrow and a lifelong friend and colleague in Parliament and Cabinet. He held high office, specializing in imperial and colonial policy and was a staunch opponent of totalitarianism.
His younger son, Julian, shared his brother’s rabid hostility to communism and adherence to the cause of Franco’s Spain, but this did not prevent him from serving with distinction in British uniform during World War II. (He was to follow his father’s footsteps at Westminster as a longtime Conservative MP and, befitting his adherence to the establishment, married a daughter of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in whose government he served.)
In other words, the career of John’s brother vitiated the very justification - hostility to Britain’s ally, the Soviet Union - which led him to believe that he would be treated leniently if he pleaded guilty to treason, sparing also the spectacle of trying publicly and at length so well-connected an individual. The result was instead the swift imposition of the ultimate penalty that, despite a fervent campaign by all sorts of highly placed figures to obtain clemency, was swiftly carried out.
Perhaps the most interesting part of “Treason on the Airwaves” concerns the extent of this effort and explores the question of whether it was, in fact, counterproductive. Far from getting special treatment because of his connections, Amery was hanged by the postwar Labor government just because of it; and his family’s grief and anger seem to have overwhelmed the shame the family also felt. And, of course, they must have hoped or, indeed, known that had the death sentence been commuted even to life imprisonment, it was likely that he would have been released, perhaps even pardoned, once passions had ebbed.
Amery’s case, as discussed in “Treason on the Airwaves,” has many fascinating sidelights. Was he clinically insane, as his family believed and got senior medical figures to testify? Also, as it turns out, Leopold Amery’s mother was Jewish, something he took great pains to hide but which Ms. Keene speculates might have lain behind his fervent life-long Zionism.
Did his son know this secret? And if so, what effect did it have on his rabid anti-Semitism? And did the Nazis know? If they did and had ceased to find him useful, he might very well have ended up dying at their hands rather than at those of his fellow countrymen. One thing seems certain after reading about Amery in these pages. If there was anyone who typified the proverbial phrase “born to hang,” it was this truly repulsive specimen.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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