In 1939 a British businessman of my acquaintance was sent by the Department of Economic Warfare to Ankara. His mission was to buy up certain Turkish commodities of strategic value and thus deny them to the Germans. Generously supplied with cash, he went to work with a will. But he began to find his patriotic labors impeded at every turn by the British ambassador in Ankara, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, a person subsequently best remembered for having had the misfortune to employ a German spy as his valet. The businessman tried to explain to Sir Hughe the strategic importance of his activities. The ambassador brushed his explanations aside. “Don’t speak to me of commerce and finance, sir,” he impatiently exclaimed. “It goes in one ear and out the other.”
Recollection of what we might term the Knatchbull-Hugessen response is appropriate here since we are considering the swindler Robert Vesco. The sad fact seems to be that coarse details of financial speculation lack the general appeal of crimes of violence or even of political skullduggery. To put it another way, there is a market for stories about people violently robbing banks, less of one for stories about banks peacefully robbing people. Yet contemplation of banking practices would lead one to suppose the latter to be the more thriving and popular of the two industries.
Indeed the potency of the Knatchbull-Hugessen response seems to be readily conceded by artists and journalists. Alain Resnais recently managed to make a film about the noted swindler Stavisky with little more than the barest indication of what Stavisky actually was up to in the swindling line. His tedious love life, on the other hand, received copious attention. Resnais’s scriptwriter, Jorge Semprun, avoided examining French capitalism by making mysterious references to Leon Trotsky—loyal of Semprun but not very illuminating about Stavisky.
Accusations of vagueness on the topic of Robert Vesco cannot be leveled at Robert Hutchison. Hutchison, in his account of Vesco’s business career from its commencement in an East Detroit car repair shop to its current phase in Costa Rica, proves himself no devotee of the Knatchbull-Hugessen rule. He speaks of nothing but commerce and finance. For over 350 pages he unrolls a saga of unrelieved financial chicanery, culminating in this final citation of the central character’s achievements:
The total IOS swindle, therefore, clearly qualified as unprecedented and gigantic: More than $1 billion in unprotected investments had evaporated or been diverted. In cash and hard assets, Vesco and his group accounted for the removal of at least $500 million—although, obviously, no exact accounting existed. Concerted action by the [US government’s] inter-agency committee resulted in three-fifths of the plundered assets being blocked. By all accounts, that left the Vesco group with between $200 and $300 million secreted in offshore havens, in foreign banks, hidden trusts, and little known Hong Kong trading companies.
Should one allow oneself a tinge of admiration for Vesco for having engineered so colossal a theft? Actually it …