Douglas Hyde was the News Editor of the Daily Worker newspaper who broke with the Communist Party denouncing it in a 1950 book ‘I believed’. MI5 files just released to the National Archives show that he didn’t just cross over from being pro-Communist to anti-Communist. He went one step further and became in MI5’s own words a professional ‘brainwasher’ of Communist prisoners, on hire to Asian governments keen for his expertise. Hyde’s special technique was to live alongside the prisoners in what MI5 called the ‘squalor’ of their prison cells. And the files show he became so successful that MI5 wondered if his expertise could be of value back in Britain.
Douglas Hyde was born into a non-conformist Bristol family and originally planned to be a Methodist minister but in 1928 he joined the Communist Party at the age of 17. In 1939 he was told by the party to join the Daily Worker and while the paper was banned by the wartime Government he helped produce what were illegal editions. Once the Soviet Union joined the war against Hitler and public sympathy was with the Russians the ban was lifted and the Worker became successful, even respectable.
By the start of the Cold War Hyde was News Editor and a party ‘political commissar’ with an inside track on almost everything the Communist Party was up to. So when in 1950 he ‘defected’ and swopped Communism for Catholicism he had a lot of useful information to pass on, first publicly in his book and then secretly in a series of debriefings with MI5. For example he gave MI5 a list of Communists inside the BBC.
The files show that in the late fifties he was embarked on an even more colourful transition. There are documents from the colonial Government of Malaya, then in the final stages of its ‘Emergency’, a decade long guerrilla war with Communist insurgents; ‘The Federation Government want to enlist the services of Hyde ‘to undertake the rehabilitation (by brainwashing) of hard-core Communist detainees’ . The memo goes on to say that discussions are underway with MI6 about Hyde’s possibilities as a ‘brainwasher’.
The reply came back that ‘Hyde is agreeable in principle to the proposal’ but that the Malaya Government ‘would be expected to foot the bill- roughly estimated at 10,000 dollars’. Among Hyde’s conditions was that he wanted to spend time with the internees not with officials and that he would be allowed to use his own techniques without interference.
Hyde’s reputation had been built by his work in the Phillipines which had been having its own problems with Communist insurgents. A British intelligence visitor to Manila in 1958 reported back that he was ‘able to see something of Douglas Hyde during my visit and also of the prison squalor in which, at his own request, he was living’. A former Huk resistance fighter against the Japanese, Luis Taruc, had linked up with the Communists but then surrendered to the authorities. Living with Hyde in prison ‘brought Taruc round to a much healthier frame of mind’ and Hyde was even able to persuade Taruc to send the number 3 Huk a letter urging him to surrender too. Hyde had made ‘an enormous impact…by his guts in insisting on living exactly the same life in prison as those with whom he was dealing’. There had been ‘an extraordinary meeting alone with 175 Huk internees’ and Hyde had persuaded a group of young Chinese students to see ‘the error of their ways’ as Communist sympathisers.
No wonder that the British Foreign Office’s clandestine anti-Communist propaganda operation, the IRD (Information Research Department), wanted to help publish a book Taruc was writing with Hyde’s help,once it had been vetted by Maurice Oldfield, later the head of MI6. A MI5 memo on ‘the incipient cold war operation involving Douglas Hyde’ said it should be known as ‘Operation Baroque’.
No wonder too that the colonial Government in Malaya wanted some of Hyde’s valuable time. By July 1960 they were reported to be pleased with ‘a most profitable investment’. Two leading Communists had been released from prison- one after 12 years detention- ‘due to their successful brainwashing by Mr Douglas Hyde’ .
There had been one unexpected development on Hyde’s flight out to Malaya. A fellow passenger on the plane was a former Communist colleague, Harry Pollitt, once the General Secretary of the British Communist Party and by then its Chairman. Pollitt was on his way to visit New Zealand. The two men sat together on the plane and had a long chat which Hyde later reported in detail to MI5.
Douglas Hyde was becoming something of an international anti-Communist celebrity. He was invited to Venezuela and a lecture tour of America plus TV appearances with Sir Edmund Hillary and Hermione Badeley. He went on a trip to India paid for by MI6 and was said to be ‘under their control’. MI5 officer Dick Thistlethwaite retorted that ‘we have had a liaison with Hyde ever since he was interrogated after his defection’. In a classic piece of inter-agency rivalry he reported that ‘although MI6 help with his travel,his primary loyalty is to us’.
The relationship ‘continues to pay dividends’ and Hyde’s should be ‘the initial approach’ in the case of the interrogation of a Mrs Ellison .’We might keep Hyde in mind for counter subversion purposes at home and abroad’.
Thistlethwaite once wrote of Hyde ‘others regard him as ‘something of a turncoat. I think this attitude unjustified but understandable’.
Douglas Hyde died in England in 1996 aged 85.
It would not be possible to make this up?