What part does bribery play in politics? The buying and selling of opinions and decisions is almost entirely invisible, and the glimpses we obtain into this murkiness are usually not to be trusted. But it happens. When I was writing about the German occupation of France in the world war, a collaborating editor from that time explained to me how the Germans had secretly subsidised the French press. In France, he said, free speech was always for sale. The Soviets were to pay similar subsidies in the Cold War. Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB defector, revealed for instance that Moscow had given money to the left-wing paper Tribune, (which has just closed after a long and misguided ideological run). An excellent French investigative journalist, Jean Montaldo, one day came across heaps of bank documents that were being discarded in Paris, showing the secret payments that Moscow was making to all sorts of Frenchmen whose Communist affiliations were otherwise unknown. A former member of MI6, the British intelligence service, once told me how his wartime job had been to suborn the government of an important country to keep it from joining the German Axis — I had better not say which country. In detail, he described transporting boxes of gold sovereigns packed in straw, and how he had handed them out. By the end of the war, he said, he had every single member of that government on the take.
A persistent rumour from the world war is that Winston Churchill was bribing the Spanish to stay out and not become allies of Nazi Germany. It makes sense. Had General Franco, the Spanish dictator, allowed the German army into the country, and then to capture Gibraltar, the British could have been shut out of the Mediterranean, losing Egypt and the oil coming through the Suez Canal, and might well have lost the war. In October 1940 Hitler met Franco at Hendaye on the frontier with France in order to pursue this strategy. Franco haggled, and Hitler afterwards said he would rather have teeth pulled out than go through that negotiation again. All Franco would eventually allow was landing rights to Axis aircraft, access to ports for submarines, and spying look-outs near Gibraltar. Most oddly, in the middle of the war Churchill caused a rumpus by telling parliament that Franco was “a gallant Christian gentleman.”
In 2005 the British writer Richard Bassett published a life of Admiral Canaris, Hitler’s spy master, saying that Churchill was paying Franco. Now Pere Ferrer, a Spanish historian, goes further in a biography of a shady Spanish buccaneer by the name of Juan March. It seems that a British officer called Alan Hillgarth advised Churchill that the Spanish generals were so poorly paid that they could be bribed. Among the evidence is a letter from a U.S. agent, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Solberg, to his boss Wild Bill Donovan then in charge of a proto-CIA intelligence outfit, telling him that March had been chosen as the conduit for payment. Ten million dollars were paid into a New York bank, and as many as 30 Spanish generals were approached and received up to half that sum. Just to add to the confusion, Ferrer thinks that March may also have been in the pay of the Germans.
The facts may have been invented to fit the conspiracy, of course, or the conspiracy invented to fit the facts.