The circumstances surrounding Marguerite Harrison’s decision to travel to Asia are shrouded in the thick mist of time and the secrecy of the intelligence service.
Marguerite later wrote that she decided to go to Asia because she was looking for fresh material for her lectures. She also wrote that she had contracted with Cosmopolitan magazine to write articles about her travels.
Yet a few surviving letters point to other motives behind this trip, which would again lead to her falling captive to Russian Reds.
In April 1922, Marlborough Churchill contacted her to make a mysterious proposition. Churchill no longer headed the Army’s Intelligence Division, but he continued to use his personal connections to secure intelligence information, which increasingly relied on a network of individuals and companies operating overseas.
His letter is lost, but Marguerite’s reply was placed in her MID file: “Your letter was forwarded here from Baltimore and I received it this morning. I am interested in hearing what you have in mind.”
Churchill responded, asking her to meet him at the ladies’ dining room of the University Cub in Washington, D.C., at one o’clock on May 1. “I will arrange at the same time for the interview which I referred to,” he told her.
Marguerite later revealed that before her Asian trip she met with Maj. Robert L. Eichelberger, who had served as the Army’s assistant chief of staff with the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia and had led the American intelligence mission in China. More significantly, at the time she met him, he was helping run America’s spy network in Asia.
Although the public accusations that Marguerite was a spy would have seemed to end her espionage career, letters in her military file indicate this was not the case. And yet, what was her mission?
The United States was keenly interested in China’s valuable ports and mineral deposits. Korea and Japan were gaining strength. And Marguerite had reported on Russia’s vast propaganda network in the region. Yet is it possible her mission extended beyond Asia?
Churchill’s letters reveal that he knew that the trip would bring her to the edges of, if not inside, Soviet Russia. Three weeks after their meeting, he dispatched four identical letters to the military attaches in Canton, Peking, Tokyo, and Chita. His message was as perplexing as her mission:
This is to advise you that Mrs. T. B. Harrison (Marguerite E. Harrison) will probably visit the Far East in the near future and may ask you for indorsements or letters setting forth the fact that she at one time was employed by the Military Intelligence Division. This is to advise you that, although it is a fact that Mrs. Harrison was employed by the Military Intelligence Division during the war and for a short time afterwards and did excellent work for us, it has not been deemed expedient to give her any letters in Washington, either in this office or the State Department. This decision is based principally on the fact that, if such letters were found in her possession, they would militate against her in the eyes of Soviet authorities. ”
Churchill went on to add that, “Mrs. Harrison is a woman of great refinement and excellent education and thoroughly reliable so far as I know. There is no reason why you should not extend to her such courtesies as may be appropriate, but you should politely decline to give her anything in writing in the way of indorsements or to indicate to anyone except members of the diplomatic service that she was ever in our service.”
Marguerite’s request for letters attesting to her work for MID was highly unusual. She knew the United States rarely, if ever, acknowledged an intelligence agent. Possessing such documents could be extremely dangerous. And if her trip was merely to gather material for a book or magazine series, she did not need letters saying she had once worked as a spy.
Churchill’s letters raise other questions: Why did he fear the Soviets might catch her with the documents? Did he suspect she would return to Soviet Russia? Was he beginning to distrust his prized agent? His letters indicate that Washington already had denied Marguerite’s request for the documents, and yet he felt compelled to warn the military attaches that she might try to acquire them anyhow. What was he to make of a woman who wanted to go back to Russia a year after being released from a Soviet prison and carrying documents that she had been an American spy? Was her goal to be arrested again? Or were Churchill’s letters part of an elaborate ruse meant to confuse the moles he knew were planted within the American secret service? Was she on a mission so secret that only a few high officials were aware of it?