Posts tagged Clare Boothe Luce

All’s Welles That Ends Welles

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Writing blogs about World War II (or even current events for that matter) can be a dispiriting enterprise at times. So much fear, anger, hate and death.  And for what?  I’ve tried on occasion to keep things a bit lighter by writing about such topics as oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon crullers, fish, and even Minnesota.

But every once and a while history itself provides some levity.  And so it was with the “peace mission” undertaken by Sumner Welles in March 1940 at the behest of his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Born Benjamin Sumner Welles in 1892, Sumner, as he preferred to be called (after his famous relative, Senator Charles Sumner of Civil War fame) came from the bluest of blue-bloods.  Like President Roosevelt, who was ten years his senior, he was a product of Groton and Harvard.  His second wife was painted by John Singer Sargent.  And his personal connections to the Roosevelts went deep: at Groton he roomed with Hall Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt’s younger brother.  He even served as a page in Franklin and Eleanor’s 1905 wedding.

Heeding FDR’s advice, young Welles joined the U.S. Foreign Service out of Harvard in 1914, and remained there until forced out by President Coolidge in the 1920s.  With Roosevelt’s election he returned to government service in 1933 as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, and was promoted in 1937 to Under Secretary of State.

Sumner Welles

Welles set off on his peace mission with no concrete proposals, no fixed agenda.  Rather, with all of Europe on the precipice of a wider conflagration, he was to listen to all the major players, in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain, to see if Armageddon could somehow be averted.

He departed for Europe by ocean liner, leaving on February 17, 1940 and arriving in Italy eight days later.  His itinerary would take him to Rome, Berlin, Paris, London, and back to Rome (to meet the Pope) from whence he departed by ship 82 years ago today—March 20, 1940.

His mission was a failure—Germany was already too far down the road to war to turn back. Hitler had wanted war, and by God, he was going to get one.  He had first instructed his generals as early as September 27, 1939 (before Poland had even been fully subdued), to prepare for an assault on France to begin less than two months later.  (This date was subsequently pushed back several times; the attack was finally launched on May 10, 1940.)

As William L. Shirer explains, Welles’s mission was doomed from the start.  The ambassador, Shirer writes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “must have got the impression [while in Berlin] that he had landed in a lunatic asylum—if he could believe his ears.  Each of the Big Three Nazis [Ribbentrop, Göring and Hitler] bombarded Welles with the most grotesque perversions of history, in which facts were twisted and even the simplest words lost all meaning.” As evidence, Shirer points out that during his March 2 audience with Welles, Hitler emphasized his aim was only peace, whereas just one day earlier he had given final orders for the invasion of neutral Norway and Denmark.

As part of Welles’s mission, he met with as many senior political figures as possible, including Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Churchill in addition to Hitler and his Nazi cronies.  In France that included President Albert Lebrun, Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Senate President Jules Jeanneney, and President of the Chamber of Deputies Édouard Herriot.

While Welles was in Paris, Jean Giraudoux, the Commissioner General for Information in the Ministry of Information, expressed major reservations about the American’s visit.  Giraudoux, a well-respected poet and playwright, had been appointed to this important post in the Ministry of Information by Prime Minister Daladier in July 1939.

Jean Giraudoux

One would think that one of the primary missions of the Ministry of Information, indeed, its raison d’etre (to borrow a French phrase) was to provide its government with up-to-date, accurate and relevant information.  Such information would permit French authorities to navigate in a dangerous, rapidly-changing world with maximum care and insight.

One would think.

But according to Clare Boothe Luce’s memoir, Europe in the Spring, the Ministry was “a vast place of labyrinthine confusions, organized, or rather disorganized, under . . . Giraudoux. . . .   It now seems that no one person in France in a position of authority . . . really knew all the true facts about the state of French armament.”

As noted, this M. Giraudoux had strong reservations about the very character of Sumner Welles, the man President Roosevelt had sent to promote peace in Europe.  Here’s how he expressed his concern to a friend:

“How very odd of America to send on a peace mission the man who had terrified the whole world by broadcasting a Martian invasion.” (Emphasis in original).

Is it any wonder, then, that France, with one of the largest armies in Europe, fell in only 45 days??

Whether the Welleses—Sumner or Orson—ever learned of this case of mistaken identity, and whether either ever got a chuckle out of it, remains unknown.

[With tip of the hat to that other Wells fellow, H.G., who started this whole imbroglio by writing about a Martian invasion in the first place.]

April 9, 1940: Norway Invaded

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Eighty years ago today German Armed Forces showed up in Norway—uninvited, unannounced, and unwelcome.  Despite holding out for longer than most other European countries overrun by the Nazis, Norway finally capitulated on June 10, 1940.  It would remain occupied for over five years—longer than any other European country, excepting only Czechoslovakia and Poland.

German troops in Norway

Germans employed almost 400,000 troops during their occupation of Norway, or approximately 1 soldier for every 7.5 civilians.  On a per capita basis, that would be the equivalent of America being occupied today by a foreign army totaling over 44 million soldiers—more than the combined populations of Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Jersey.

Notwithstanding this overwhelmingly heavy German presence, many people, of all ages, joined the Resistance—including 38-year-old Odd Nansen—activities that he would later describe in his diary as “wanton playing with fire” [July 14, 1942].  No less an authority than preeminent British military historian John Keegan once observed that the Norwegians “provided the SOE with its most dependable and spirited supporters in Western Europe.” The SOE, or Special Operations Executive, was a British World War II organization formed to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.  [I’ve previously written about resistance heroes here, here, and here.]

H7: The symbol for King Håkon VII, and widely used as a symbol of defiance to Nazi rule.

Many people are familiar with the unusual events in Norway preceding the invasion.  How, just days prior to their invasion, the German Embassy in Oslo invited many prominent Norwegian officials, and others, including America’s Ambassador to Norway, Florence Harriman, to a lavish reception and film screening of a “peace film.”  Rather than a pleasant nighttime social event, the guests were shown a shocking film of Germany’s recent blitzkrieg attack on Poland, together with a warning that this is what would happen to a country if it resisted the Nazis.  As a bit of psychological warfare it may have missed its mark.  As Harriman wrote in her diary: “The audience was shocked and—this seems strange now—still puzzled, as to why the film had been shown to them, to Norwegians.”

Clare Boothe Luce (whom I’ve written about here) also relates, in her highly readable memoir, Europe in the Spring, about another equally bizarre event which, in retrospect, explains much about the mindset of Europe at the dawn of World War II, and what can occur without collective security agreements between nations facing a common enemy.  Luce (an American ambassador to Italy and Brazil after the war, and the wife of publisher Henry Luce) found herself in Holland on May 7, just three days before it would be overrun by German forces.  That night she dined with Herr Snouck Hurgronje, Holland’s Permanent Secretary General for Foreign Affairs.  Naturally, Luce writes, she asked him about the impending crisis.  Here is their exchange:

“’The Germans are making troop movements,” said Mr. Snouck placidly, ‘which strongly suggests an invasion [of Holland].’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Are you sure.’

Ja,’ he answered cheerfully.  ‘The same sources have informed our government so which informed it five days before the German invasion of Norway.’

I said, aghast: ‘You knew five days before that the Germans were going to invade Norway?’

Ja!’ he affirmed proudly. ‘Our sources of information are excellent.  You see, a good Dutchman often can pass as a real German.’ (I thought: ‘And vice versa.’)

I asked: ‘You knew five days before? Did you—tell the English and the French about it?’

‘Certainly not,’ he said indignantly.  ‘Why should we? They are not our allies.’” 

Holland was technically neutral before the war.  Parts of the country were liberated by Allied forces in the second half of 1944; the remainder of the country was finally liberated on May 5, 1945.  As Luce mordantly records later in her book: “(Mr. Snouck ten days later was in London, a member of her exiled Majesty’s belligerent government.)”

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • October 7, 2022: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA*
  • October 11, 2022: The Village at Rockville, Rockville, MD
  • The Adult School, New Vernon, NJ
  • October 13, 2022: Tri-County BNC, Princeton Junction, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ
  • October 19, 2022: The Legacy at North Augusta, Staunton, VA
  • November 15, 2022: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT*
  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • * = Virtual

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