This post is part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. I am grateful to Maurice Walsh, author of ‘who
A few of the American journalists who detailed the war between Irish separatists and the British government for U.S. newspapers also joined back-channel efforts to help resolve the conflict. Such an intrigue surfaced in June 1920, when Philadelphia Public Ledger correspondent Carl W. Ackerman reported that another American newsman had come to Ireland on behalf of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Ackerman’s June 1, 1920, story mentioned Grasty in the fourth paragraph.
“One of the most significant, undoubtedly, of all the recent developments in the Irish situation is the arrival in Dublin of Charles H. Grasty, a well-known journalist, a member of the staff of The New York Times, was frequently during the war an observer for the president,” Ackerman wrote. Grasty “is in confidential communication with the White House, and probability is that the president has followed his war custom of commissioning some journalist to make a special investigation for him, while ostensibly representing an American newspaper.”
Ackerman was correct about Wilson using journalists as scouts. The president sent pioneering muckraker Ray Stannard Baker (McClue’s, American magazine) to Ireland during the spring 1918 conscription crisis. “The extreme Ulsterman, it seemed to me, was exactly matched by the extreme Sinn Feiner, both for themselves alone,” Baker wrote. “There seemed to be no spirit of give and take: no desire anywhere for what Mr. Wilson called accommodation.”
Less than a year later, Wilson dispatched George Creel to Ireland. Creel (Kansas City World, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News) had just finished his duties as head of the U.S. government’s Committee for Public Information during the Great War. In a March 1,1919, memorandum to Wilson, he described the Irish in Ireland as more flexible than the Irish Americans. Creel said that Sinn Fein’s December 1918 election success had finished off the 40-year-old Irish home rule movement. He believed dominion status would be accepted immediately, otherwise sentiment in Ireland and America would harden in favor of an Irish republic. Creel also warned of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s duplicity and stressed settlement in order to placate Irish Americans.
Ackerman reported that Grasty arrived in Europe on a diplomatic passport, which he obtained about a month earlier. “Mr. Grasty admitted at the time, when questioned by customs officials, that he was on a special appointment by President Wilson,” Ackerman wrote. The U.S. State Department on April 9 stamped “SPECIAL” on Grasty’s passport, eight days before he boarded the Baltic to cross the Atlantic. The haste of Grasty’s application and departure is suggested by his sudden withdrawal from an April 14-16 business convention in Des Moines, Iowa, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech titled, “The New Balance of Power.”
Second-day iterations of Ackerman’s story contained a State Department denial of the special passport or any official connection to American diplomatic activities. The U.S. government “acknowledged that (Grasty) might have gone to Dublin under a ‘special’ form of passport such as is issued often by American embassies or legations to messengers charged with the duty of conveying diplomatic papers to consular agents.” Meanwhile, “the British government understands that (Grasty’s) mission to Ireland is purely one of observation on behalf of President Wilson.”
The Baltic‘s passenger records show Grasty, 57, arrived at Liverpool on April 27. Nothing on the manifest indicates diplomatic status. The word “Editor” is written in the space for occupation. On May 1, Grasty filed a dispatch from Paris about the just-concluded San Remo conference in Italy. His subsequent reports about Europe’s efforts to recover from the Great War included a long opinion piece from London dated June 1, the day he was named in Ackerman’s story. Under the headline, “Why Europe Must Be Cured To Keep America Safe.” Grasty’s view was: “The United States is in greater danger today than at the time of the German offensive in March 1918. … The feeling in Europe against America has grown, as the feeling in America against Europe has grown.”
Second passport, Wilson connection
On June 9, Grasty dropped by the U.S. Embassy in London to complete an “Emergency Passport Application.” He stated his occupation as “journalist” and “journalistic work” as the reason for his travel. Grasty was no stranger to the U.S. State Department. He had applied for and obtained several passports for Atlantic voyages in the previous decade. In 1920, the United States was beginning to standardize passports in the aftermath of the World War.
Charles H. Grasty, undated.
Grasty was a known Wilson supporter and confidante. The reporter detailed their relationship in a January 1920 piece for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, “The Personality Behind the President.” In 1912, as owner of the Baltimore Sun, Grasty used the newspaper to back Wilson as the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s national convention in that city. The newsman supported the candidate through his successful campaign against Republican incumbent President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt of the progressive Bull Moose party.
From 1912 to 1922, Wilson and Grasty exchanged at least four dozen letters, though none of the correspondence in two archives dates from 1920. The president and the reporter “were in intimate contact” during the 1919 Paris peace conference and in Washington, D.C., the Times reported at Grasty’s death in January 1924. Grasty “enjoyed the former president’s highest respect and confidence and was a warm personal friend of both Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.” The obituary also said that Grasty held the trust and confidence of Lloyd George, who relied on the relationship to send key messages to America during the war years and afterward. And the Times noted Grasty’s frequent interviews with London newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe.
Grasty confronts Ackerman
On June 12, Grasty confronted Ackerman at the latter’s office at Charing Cross, London. The men “argued” for about 90 minutes over the June 1 story, according to Ackerman’s three-page letter to his editor, John J. Spurgeon. Grasty showed Ackerman a copy of his own letter to Spurgeon “denying that he was in Ireland on official business.”
It seems undisputed that Wilson, his physician and confidante Dr. Gary T. Grayson, and U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby asked Grasty to undertake a special mission to Europe, including Ireland. Problems appear to have developed when Grasty told New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, who objected to the arrangement while he represented the newspaper.
“Grasty states that he told Mr. Ochs that he would not accept the President’s offer and that he wrote a letter to Mr. Colby refusing to undertake the work,” Ackerman wrote. “Grasty admits, however, that he did accept a special diplomatic passport from Mr. Colby … (but) could not afford to have the question of his special passport discussed in the press. … (He) admits that The Times accuses him of double-dealing and that Mr. Ochs is ‘sore.'”
Ackerman wrote that Grasty “did not telegraph anything to the New York Times while he was in Ireland, although he did begin to send messages as soon as he reached London.” It is unclear how Ackerman knew of Grasty’s telegraph activities, though he likely learned such information from British intelligence, as we’ll see a little later.
Before he updated his passport and confronted Ackerman in London, Grasty on May 26 “tea’d & supped” with Sir Horace Plunkett in Dublin, according to a diary entry by the Irish agricultural reformer and home rule supporter. This was not surprising, as the two men had known each other for years. “Wherever he goes he makes friends through his gentle optimism and sturdy character,” Grasty wrote in his 1918 book, Flashes from the Front. “For British patriot that he is, he is an Irishman to his heart’s core. His life has been a labor of love for Ireland.”
It’s likely that Grasty made multiple trips to Ireland between May and August. The four-part series he wrote for the Times, published in mid-August, shows datelines from earlier in the month. The headlines below are linked to a pdf of each story, followed by the dateline and publication date, and a select excerpt:
“I am just back from Ireland, whither I went to gather impressions of the present conditions there. My mental attitude was impartial and I shall try to report facts and opinions as I encountered them in my visit. If in transcribing my notes, made as I went along, the Sinn Fein viewpoint stands out less than the opposite one, it is because ‘of low visibility’ on that side of the fence.
“After talking with as many people on both sides as I was able to see, and getting the opinion of the few neutrals whom it was possible to find in Ireland, I came to the conclusion that the minimum that Sinn Fein would accept was full dominion rule like Canada, omitting the Governor General and including control of excise, customs and police. They will not consent to leaving Ulster out. That is the situation at this time. Of course, if some adversary should overtake the movement for independent Ireland, and especially if there should be a split with the labor union, the demand might be modified; of if, on the other hand, British helplessness continued and the Presidential campaign in America crystalized American sympathy, Sinn Fein might decide to go the whole hog.”
“I don’t believe that Ulster is as eager for British rule as you might think after reading one of Sir Edward Carson’s speeches. Ulster people do not want to have Dublin rule put upon them just at this stage, but they are looking ahead to a future when Ireland may become a great industrial kingdom, dominated commercially and financially by Belfast, the well-organized capital of Ulster. Indeed, it was often in my mind as I traveled through Ireland what great possibilities awaited Ireland when permanent order should come.”
“Judging by results, British rule in Ireland has been a failure. Britain cannot plead the peculiarities and shortcomings of the Irish race as an excuse for her failure. She has been mistress of the situation for centuries and has had the power to enforce her authority and to apply the necessary remedies. The simple fact is that she has refused to bring to her task the kind of study and effort which the Irish situation called for. … But Ireland will be a unit sooner or later. The silent and irresistible forces of commercial and industrial self-interest will bring the North and South together.”
It is unclear whether Grasty sent any private communication to the Wilson administration about his interactions in Ireland. Now, his views about the Irish situation were available for anyone to see.
The Friends of Irish Freedom, through its weekly News Letter, immediately dismissed Grasty as part of “the small group of self-described, ‘impartial, disinterested, and fair’ newspaper ‘experts’ who spend three or four weeks in Ireland, and then advise American readers how to view English misrule of Ireland.” The News Letter said he made a “despicable attempt” to exploit sectarian division in Ireland, though religion hardly dominates the series. Ever watchful of real or perceived slights against the Irish cause by mainstream American or British newspapers, the News Letter also said the New York Times “has gone far in championing England’s course in Ireland.”
In its following issue, the News Letter criticized Grasty as “confident” of British press magnate Lord Northcliffe, a nemesis of Irish republicans on both sides of the Atlantic. This was certainly true. Shortly after the end of the Great War, Grasty had reported from London on how Northcliffe “is making a wonderful hit with the American newspaper men. … always accessible to them … indefatigable in his efforts to help them … [with] a very large accumulated influence among Americans generally, but particularly among American working newspaper men.”
The pro-Irish press, including ‘The Tablet’, Aug. 28, 1920, delighted in the State Department denial of Ackerman’s story.
The New Letter also questioned whether Grasty could write a “disinterested” journalistic assessment of the Irish situation while simultaneously acting “confidentially” for President Wilson and the U.S. State Department, as Ackerman reported in June. News Letter chief Daniel T. O’Connell wrote to the U.S. State Department to complain the articles contained “statements grossly unfair and calculated to advance British interests in relation to England’s treatment of Ireland. … [I]f Grasty is empowered to act for our Government in any capacity whatsoever, it is obvious he should not be permitted to utilize such relationships as a means for spreading misstatements and otherwise giving circulation to error.”
The State Department replied to O’Connell that Grasty “is not engaged in any Diplomatic mission, or assignment, under the authority of this Government.” The Times reporter was not “an official or unofficial representative” and “not traveling with a Diplomatic passport.” It was the government’s second denial since Ackerman’s story was published in June.
Some of the pro-Irish press in America cast the denial as a swipe at both journalists. The Times never addressed the matter on its pages.
Ackerman, 30, had arrived in London in March 1920 as correspondent for the Public Ledger’s new foreign service. He made several trips to Ireland over the following months and filed stories before and after Grasty’s August series in the Times. As Walsh details in The News from Ireland, Ackerman’s reporting was influenced by two insiders–one American, one British–and he actively participated in back-channel efforts to bring peace to Ireland. In this regard, his outing of Grasty as working for the Wilson administration smacks of hypocrisy.
Top of March 7, 1920, Brooklyn Daily Eagle advertisement for the new foreign news service.
The Public Ledger retained Col. Edward House, Wilson’s former confidant and fixer, as an advisor on diplomacy for its foreign bureau. He regularly advised Ackerman. Such reliance, Walsh writes, “was not unconnected to [Ackerman’s] view of how he should collect news as a journalist; the idea that good journalism was the fruit of being on excellent terms with powerful contacts,” which Ackerman described as ” ‘key men’ in ‘key positions.’ “ In fact, Ackerman also paid a June 30 visit to Plunkett with a note from House “about the Irish situation & the possibility of his arbitrating betw’n the British & Irish Governments.”
Ackerman’s second inside source was Sir Basil Thomson, director of intelligence at Scotland Yard. Beginning in May 1920, Thomson selectively leaked documents gathered by British intelligence to “prepare the ground for negotiation with IRA leaders” and “briefed Ackerman to carry messages to Sinn Fein and IRA leaders in Ireland, using Ackerman’s journalistic mission as cover for advancing an Irish settlement by negotiation.” Through the summer officials contemplated using Col. House as a mediator in the negotiations. While the effort eventually fizzled, Walsh notes that, “Ackerman’s role as go-between” continued to evolve. Walsh also writes:
“There is no sign that Ackerman’s employers were aware of the secret work he had undertaken. In August 1920 Ackerman’s editor, John J. Spurgeon, wrote to him expressing relief that Col. House had abandoned the idea of becoming a mediator in Ireland. The editor felt that for House, ‘in his present capacity as a member of the editorial staff of an American newspaper, such a role would be absolutely out of the question.’ If it was out of bounds to become a mediator on grounds of preserving editorial independence–even though he was an advisor to the Public Ledger and not a journalist–it must have been an equally forbidden path for Ackerman.”
Grasty updated his reporting from Ireland in a September piece for Atlantic Monthly headlined “Irish Realities.” Among his conclusions related to America:
“I begin by saying that the common belief in America that the present movement in Ireland is a spontaneous eruption of a people smarting under tyrannous oppression is not well-founded. The movement, unlike similar movements in the past, has been carefully planned by a few bold and astute leaders. … For without financial help from America and an American sympathy that will constantly embarrass Britain, the enterprise of an Irish republic is a mere chimera.”
“The movement went forward without a single setback until the month of June of this year. First, the Republican Convention in Chicago, and then the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, refused to indorse Irish independence. De Valera failed in his task. With American sympathy and help, the achievement of a republic in Ireland was a possibility. Without them, the extreme of the Irish demand can never be attained. … The failure to get the Irish question into the American presidential election, in my opinion, reduces to nil the chance, always slender, in view of Britain’s necessities, of establishing an Irish republic as the result of this particular movement. Without strong American aid, the conflicting elements in Sinn Fein cannot long be held together in the effort along the present lines for full independence.”
The Atlantic piece received wide attention from U.S. newspaper editorial pages, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Palm Beach Post, and Kansas City Times. Even the Brooklyn Daily Eagle commented on Grasty’s “recently returned … investigation of Irish conditions in England and Ireland.” It did not mention the Ackerman story about Grasty published four months earlier.
Ackerman’s “exclusive and authorized interview” with Irish leader Michael Collins also drew significant press attention about the same time. An editor’s note said, “For more than two years the British Government has searched for him. Today every policeman and officer in Ireland carries his photograph and description and has orders to arrest him at sight on the general charge of directing assassinations and raids on government offices.”
Walsh has detailed how Irish propaganda minister Desmond FitzGerald proposed the Collins interview to Ackerman shortly after the plan to use Col. House as a mediator fell from favor. Ackerman delayed his Irish Sea crossing a few days until he could first discuss the matter with Thompson, the Scotland Yard intelligence director. The reporter then debriefed the spy master on his return to London, even writing a private memorandum for British government officials about whether the Irish were hardened on a republic or willing to negotiate a settlement.
Such behind the scenes intrigues were unknown at the time, but would be revealed after the Irish and British reached a December 1921 treaty agreement. The Lowell (Mass.) Courier-Citizen lauded Ackerman’s scoop in an editorial widely republished on the opinion pages of other U.S. papers. It said:
The American newspaperman is the best detective there is. … (British officials) can’t get near (Collins). Yet over to Dublin goes Carl Ackerman … and secures a two-hour interview with this very genuine celebrity. … Ackerman, of course, started (with) some advantages which the agents of Scotland Yard don’t have. He was personally known to some of ‘Mick’s’ friends as a chap who could be trusted. That’s always a newspaperman’s greatest asset when he’s on a difficult and dangerous job.
State Department files
U.S. Consulate in Ireland records for 1920 contain at least two other references to Grasty and Ackerman.
Not long after Grasty published his Ireland series in the Times, he asked to see the official cables of U.S Consul Frederick T. F. Dumont, then stationed in Dublin, “in order to keep him fully informed from authoritative sources as to present events in Ireland.” Grasty essentially made a public records request nearly 50 years before the federal law providing access to such U.S. government documents. A State Department official commented: “This strikes me as rather an unusual request. It might eventually prove to be an embarrassing precedent to establish to allow newspaper men access to our official files.”
Nevertheless, Grasty’s request was relayed to Washington, which responded two days later with a two-word reply: “Certainly not.”
Dumont, a frequent critic of press coverage of the Irish war, that November complimented Grasty and Ackerman in one of his regular dispatches to Washington:
The Irish press devotes a column at a time to men like Grasty of the New York Times or Ackerman of the Philadelphia (Public) Ledger when they tell the truth concerning the Irish situation, calling them and their papers paid agents of the British Government. Each paper has repeatedly been denounced as a paper owned by the Government. Events in various parts of the world have accustomed the public to sensations and they must be served up by the press of all countries to their readers if circulation and the money which comes from this circulation is to be retained.
Dumont wrote his comments nine days before Bloody Sunday in Dublin and a month before the burning of Cork city. Irish war “sensations” continued another six months into 1921, before the truce agreement and treaty negotiations. Ackerman and Grasty continued to report on Ireland, the former still involved in back-channel maneuverings. John Steele of the Chicago Tribune also claimed a role in the Irish peace settlement.
The veteran correspondent Steele had accompanied Ackerman on his first trip to Ireland in spring 1920 and introduced him to several key contacts, including Dumont and FitzGerald, the Irish propaganda minister. Ackerman acknowledged Steele’s role in peace negotiations when he revealed his own efforts in an April 1922 magazine story:
At the same time Mr. Steele was ‘carrying on’ negotiations between Sir Hamar Greenwood and other Sinn Fein leaders which resulted in the final negotiation of the truce last summer (July 1921). Unknown to the outside world two American newspaper men were acting as the sole connecting links between Sinn Fein and Downing Street … “
Whatever intentions the Wilson administration once had for Grasty, his chance to play a part in the Irish peace settlement seems to have been scuttled by Ackerman’s June 1920 exposure of his trip to Ireland. We can never know what impact this might have had on the course of the Irish war.