The is the final installment of a four-part series about the 1920 confrontation between American journalists Carl Ackerman and Charles Grasty as they covered the war in Ireland. This series is part of my ongoing exploration of American Reporting of Irish Independence. © 2023. See:
“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.”
Ackerman and House
Carl Ackerman had just turned 30 years old when he arrived in London in February 1920 to oversee the Philadelphia Public Ledger‘s new foreign news service. Advertisements promoted Ackerman as “one of the best known of American correspondents.” Within a year the service would have more than two dozen subscriber newspapers, including the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, Washington (D.C.) Herald, Des Moines (Iowa) Register, Minneapolis (Minnesota) Tribune, and St. Louis Star.”Readers of the Eagle Now Have the Benefit of a New Cable News Service”, advertisement in the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, March 7, 1920, and “Foreign Service Subscribers to Date, … Continue reading
Ackerman traveled to Ireland in April. “The trip was valuable in that it gave me background of understanding which I needed because I had never been there or studied Irish affairs,” Ackerman wrote to John S. Spurgeon, his editor in Philadelphia.Ackerman to Spurgeon, April 8, 1920, in Ackerman papers, Library of Congress.
Ackerman also told Spurgeon that he was “working very slowly and cautiously on ‘connections’” with U.S. and British government officials.Ackerman to Spurgeon, March 10, 1920, in Ackerman papers. As Maurice Walsh details in The News from Ireland, Ackerman’s reporting soon came to be influenced by two insiders–one American, one British—as he inserted himself into back-channel efforts to bring peace to Ireland. His behind-the-scenes work “was not unconnected to his 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.’ “Walsh, The News from Ireland, (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.) p. 141.
In this regard, Ackerman’s June 1920 outing of Charles Grasty’s mission to Ireland for the Wilson administration smacks of either hypocrisy or sabotage. Wasn’t the New York Times journalist only doing the same thing as Ackerman?
To boost the reputation of the new foreign news service, the Public Ledger retained Edward House as a special advisor on diplomacy. House was available for the duty because he had been pushed out of the Wilson administration after the president suffered a stroke in October 1919. House was sidelined by Wilson’s wife and other White House insiders wary of his self-dealing. Ackerman and House had regularly exchanged correspondence during the Great War, and House had similar relationships with Grasty and other journalists.
Ackerman carried a letter from House to Sir Horace Plunkett on a second trip to Ireland in late June, a month after Grasty met with the Irish statesman. House raised the possibility of himself mediating peace negotiations between the Irish rebels and the British government. He described Ackerman as “my friend,” and told Plunkett “I commend him to you as being in every way worthy of your confidence.”House to Plunkett, June 27, 1920, in House papers, Yale University. Plunkett in turn helped Ackerman shape a story that floated the possibility of an outside mediator, a person left unnamed in the story but whom the Irishman teased as “someone who belongs to your own country.”Plunkett Blames British Blunders For Irish Strife”, Minneapolis (Minn.) Star Tribune, July 9, 1920, Third story of four-part series.
Ackerman and Thomson
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.”Walsh, News from Ireland, p. 143.
That summer, officials continued to contemplate using House as a mediator in the negotiations, but the effort eventually fizzled. Walsh notes that, “Ackerman’s role as go-between” continued to evolve. “There is no sign that Ackerman’s employers were aware of the secret work he had undertaken,” Walsh says. He cities Spurgeon’s Aug. 6, 1920, letter to Ackerman expressing relief that House abandoned the idea of becoming a mediator in Ireland because of his role on the editorial staff of an American newspaper. “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,” Walsh says.Ibid., pp. 145-146.
On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that Spurgeon was ignorant of Ackerman’s extra-journalistic activities with U.S. and British officials. Ackerman certainly kept him informed about the House initiative, and Ackerman also told his editor about conversations with Thompson. Spurgeon knew Ackerman’s dispatches for Public Ledger subscriber papers didn’t contain many of the details that he described in their private correspondence. As Ackerman wrote in his own diary: “Frequently there is more news between the lines of a newspaper than appears in the print.”Ackerman’s “London Notebook”, Aug. 18, 1920, in Ackerman papers.
Grasty’s ‘Irish Realities’
Grasty updated his New York Times reporting from Ireland in a September piece for The Atlantic Monthly. His conclusions related to America’s role in Ireland included:
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 (Irish republican) 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.Charles Grasty, “Irish Realities”, The Atlantic Monthly, September 1920.
Grasty’ last observation proved prescient. His piece was cited on the editorial pages of many U.S. newspaper, including the Minneapolis (Minn.) Star Tribune, Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, and Kansas City (Mo.) Times. Even the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle commented on his “recently returned … investigation of Irish conditions.””People In Ireland Bound To Win In End, Observer’s Belief”, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, Sept. 12, 1920. The Eagle did not mention Ackerman’s story about Grasty being on a mission for Wilson, which it had published just four months earlier.
Ackerman interviews Collins
Ackerman’s “exclusive and authorized interview” with Irish leader Michael Collins also drew significant press attention in late summer 1920. 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.””Irish Never Will Accept Premier’s Terms–Collins”, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, Aug. 26, 1920.
Walsh has detailed how Irish propaganda minister Desmond FitzGerald proposed the Collins interview to Ackerman shortly after the plan to use 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.Walsh, News from Ireland, p. 145.
Such behind the scenes intrigues were unknown at the time but would be revealed after the December 1921 treaty between Sinn Fein and the British government. The Lowell (Mass.) Courier-Citizen lauded Ackerman’s scoop in an editorial republished on the opinion pages of other U.S. papers.Publication date of original editorial unavailable. Reproductions include “Ackerman Among The Sinn Feiners”, St. Louis Star and Times, Oct. 21, 1920; “Newspapermen Best … Continue reading 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.
Ackerman wrote to Spurgeon in Philadelphia to say U.S. officials warned that he had placed himself “in a rather dangerous position.” He believed they did so only “in case something happened the American Government might be able to wash its hands.” Then Ackerman wondered: “How much this is due to the fact that I spoiled the carefully laid plans of Wilson and Colby to use Grasty I do not know.”Ackerman to Spurgeon, Sept. 9, 1920, in Ackerman papers.
U.S. consul’s views
“Journalists are swarming over here just now,” Plunkett wrote to House in autumn 1920.Horace Plunkett to Edward House, Oct. 5, 1920, in House papers. U.S. officials in Ireland also noted the activities of the press, including at least two 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.”Records of the Department of State Relating to the Internal Affairs of Great Britain, 1910-1929, Ireland – (Irish Free State, Eire) Political Affairs, General 841d.00, Roll 217: to Hurley from … Continue reading
Dumont, an occasional critic of press coverage of the Irish war, 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.Records of the Department of State Relating to the Internal Affairs of Great Britain, 1910-1929, Ireland – (Irish Free State, Eire) Political Affairs, general 841d.00, Role 217, Dumont to State … Continue reading
Dumont wrote his comments on Nov. 12, nine days before Bloody Sunday in Dublin and a month before the burning of Cork city. Such Irish war “sensations” continued for the first six months of 1921, before a truce led to peace negotiations.
Ackerman resigned from the Public Ledger in July 1921 after months of wrangling with Spurgeon and other top editors about the operations of the foreign news service. He returned to America and in August wrote a story for the New York Times that acknowledged (or bragged) that he had “frequently carried messages” to key men in the peace negotiations:
For nearly two years I have been in intimate contact with both British and Irish leaders. I have traveled frequently in Ireland and between that country and England. As a result of first-hand observation I propose to relate, for the first time, the inside story of the events which led to the truce and present conferences in London and Dublin. … From the very beginning of the possibility of a peaceful settlement … I had the exceptional fortune of having an intimate contact with the ‘key’ men on both sides.”Carl W. Ackerman, “Inside Of Irish Parlay”, The New York Times, Aug. 7, 1921.
In a spring 1922 series about Ireland for Atlantic Monthly, Ackerman also acknowledged the role of John Steele of the Chicago Tribune in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The veteran correspondent accompanied Ackerman on his first trip to Ireland in March 1920 and introduced him to several of those key men, including U.S. Consul Dumont and FitzGerald, the Irish propaganda minister. As he reiterated his own role of promoting peace in Ireland, Ackerman wrote, “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 … “Carl W. Ackerman, “Ireland From A Scotland Yard Notebook”, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1922.
Whatever intentions or hopes the Wilson administration once had for Grasty, his chance to play a role in the Irish peace settlement was scuttled by Ackerman’s June 1920 story. I suspect there still might be undiscovered documentation of what transpired afterward between the two men, their newspapers, and U.S. officials. But we can never know what impact this might have had on the course of the Irish war and peace.
|↑1||”Readers of the Eagle Now Have the Benefit of a New Cable News Service”, advertisement in the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, March 7, 1920, and “Foreign Service Subscribers to Date, Jan. 1, 1921” in Spurgeon, John J., 1921, in Ackerman papers.|
|↑2||Ackerman to Spurgeon, April 8, 1920, in Ackerman papers, Library of Congress.|
|↑3||Ackerman to Spurgeon, March 10, 1920, in Ackerman papers.|
|↑4||Walsh, The News from Ireland, (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.) p. 141.|
|↑5||House to Plunkett, June 27, 1920, in House papers, Yale University.|
|↑6||”Plunkett Blames British Blunders For Irish Strife”, Minneapolis (Minn.) Star Tribune, July 9, 1920, Third story of four-part series.|
|↑7||Walsh, News from Ireland, p. 143.|
|↑8||Ibid., pp. 145-146.|
|↑9||Ackerman’s “London Notebook”, Aug. 18, 1920, in Ackerman papers.|
|↑10||Charles Grasty, “Irish Realities”, The Atlantic Monthly, September 1920.|
|↑11||”People In Ireland Bound To Win In End, Observer’s Belief”, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, Sept. 12, 1920.|
|↑12||”Irish Never Will Accept Premier’s Terms–Collins”, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, Aug. 26, 1920.|
|↑13||Walsh, News from Ireland, p. 145.|
|↑14||Publication date of original editorial unavailable. Reproductions include “Ackerman Among The Sinn Feiners”, St. Louis Star and Times, Oct. 21, 1920; “Newspapermen Best Detective”, The Daily Public Ledger, Maysville, Kentucky, Nov. 9, 1920; and others.|
|↑15||Ackerman to Spurgeon, Sept. 9, 1920, in Ackerman papers.|
|↑16||Horace Plunkett to Edward House, Oct. 5, 1920, in House papers.|
|↑17||Records of the Department of State Relating to the Internal Affairs of Great Britain, 1910-1929, Ireland – (Irish Free State, Eire) Political Affairs, General 841d.00, Roll 217: to Hurley from Winslow, Oct. 5, 1920; to “Dear Mr. Secretary” from V. H., Oct. 6, 1920; and to Winslow from Hurley, Oct. 7, 1920.|
|↑18||Records of the Department of State Relating to the Internal Affairs of Great Britain, 1910-1929, Ireland – (Irish Free State, Eire) Political Affairs, general 841d.00, Role 217, Dumont to State Department, Nov. 12, 1920.|
|↑19||Carl W. Ackerman, “Inside Of Irish Parlay”, The New York Times, Aug. 7, 1921.|
|↑20||Carl W. Ackerman, “Ireland From A Scotland Yard Notebook”, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1922.|