The is the first 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 expands my December 2022 post, now removed from the website, with new research from the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, and other resources. It is part of my ongoing exploration of American Reporting of Irish Independence. MH © 2023
“News from Ireland … has been anything but dull and desultory; it has bristled with violence and bulged with rumblings of impending bloodshed on a widespread scale.”
As the Irish insurgency against British rule entered its second year, more American journalists grabbed their notebooks and traveled to Erin. There was plenty to write about in 1920. As one U.S. correspondent explained in an op-ed for The New York Times:
Events of the utmost significance are crowding upon one other so rapidly in Ireland at the present time that it is frequently difficult to assess any or all of them at their true relative value or to discern their precise cause and effect beyond, of course, the daily generalization that the situation is still more serious and nearer a calamitous climax. Every day the first pages of the newspapers contribute further complexities to this age-old and bitterest of modern political dramas. News, as such, coming from Ireland for weeks and months past has been anything but dull and desultory; it has bristled with violence and bulged with rumblings of impending bloodshed on a widespread scale.Truman H. Talley, “Sinn Fein’s Provocative Martyrdom”, The New York Times, Aug. 29, 1920.
In addition to writing their first-page dispatches for U.S. newspapers, a few journalists also worked behind the scenes to help resolve the Anglo-Irish War. They shuttled messages between rebel leaders and the British government or huddled with U.S. government officials in London and Dublin. Some did this out of a sense of civic duty, others simply to get an edge on their competitors. When these private actions occasionally surfaced in public, it impacted the political negotiations and perceptions of the news coverage from Ireland.
A remarkable example of this occurred in June 1920. Carl W. Ackerman, the London-based chief of the Philadelphia Public Ledger foreign news service, reported that a prominent American newsman had come to Ireland on mission for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
“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 (First World) 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.”“President Wilson Has Special Envoy In Ireland Now”, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, June 1, 1920.
Ackerman was correct that Wilson had previously used journalists as his personal scouts to foreign hot spots, including Ireland. The president sent pioneering muckraker Ray Stannard Baker (McClue’s and American magazines) there during the spring 1918 conscription crisis and widening divisions between pro-British unionists and Irish republicans. “The extreme Ulsterman, it seemed to me, was exactly matched by the extreme Sinn Feiner, both for themselves alone,” Baker wrote years later. “There seemed to be no spirit of give and take: no desire anywhere for what Mr. Wilson called accommodation.”Ray Stannard Baker, American Chronicle; The Autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker. [David Grayson] (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1945). See, “A Rebellious Ireland And My Report of … Continue reading
Wilson also dispatched George Creel to Ireland in early 1919, shortly after the establishment of Dáil Éireann. 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 politically practical than the Irish in America. Creel said that Sinn Fein‘s December 1918 election success had finished off the 40-year-old Irish home rule movement. He believed Ireland would accept dominion status, like Canada, if offered quickly. Otherwise, popular sentiment would harden in favor of an Irish republic. Creel also warned Wilson of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s duplicity and stressed that a settlement would help placate the Irish in America, with positive implications for domestic politics.George Creel, Rebel at Large, (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1947), pp. 216-22, and Creel, The War, The World, and Wilson, (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1920), p 202.
U.S. State Department officials stamped “SPECIAL” on Grasty’s passport on April 8, 1920, a week before he boarded the White Star liner RMS Baltic to cross the Atlantic. “Editor,” Grasty answered the ship’s officer who asked for his occupation and recorded it in the manifest without any indication of special diplomatic status. The Baltic arrived at Liverpool, England, on April 27.The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 669. “Mr. Grasty admitted at the time, when questioned by customs officials, that he was on a special appointment by President Wilson,” Ackerman wrote in his June 1 story.
Then 57, Grasty had enjoyed a successful career as a newspaper publisher and executive. He moved to London during the First World War and worked as an emeritus correspondent for several U.S. publications, including the Times. His dispatches typically blended news reporting and editorializing, with strong opinions about the role of the press in America and the U.S. government in international affairs.
Grasty had been in the United States on a lecture tour in early 1920. He was scheduled to deliver a speech titled “The New Balance of Power” during a mid-April business convention in Des Moines, Iowa. His sudden withdrawal from the event indicates the haste of his return to Europe, which also at least partially explains his special passport.“Iowa Business Congress Draws Big Business Men” by Associated Press, Webster City (Iowa) Freeman, April 12, 1920, and “Business Congress To Open Tomorrow”, Des Moines Register, April 13, 1920.
Aboard the Baltic, Grasty used some of his time to write a letter to Times owner Adolph Ochs about proposed changes to the paper’s news and advertising layout. Grasty divided five pages of ship’s stationary into two typewritten columns: pros on the left side, cons on the right. Making any changes to the newspaper risked disrupting “the habits of the devoted reader,” he warned Ochs. “A paper like the Times has a personality, and even if there are some ugly points, the reader comes to like them with the rest.”Charles H. Grasty to Adolph Ochs, “On board RMS Baltic,” April 22, 1920, with handwritten note dated April 28, 1920, London, at bottom, in Ochs papers, New York Public Library.
Grasty apparently also found time during the 11-day crossing to converse with his fellow first-class passengers. Among them: Ackerman’s wife, Mabel, traveling with the couple’s young son. “He came over on the Baltic with Mrs. Ackerman and told her that he was on such a mission,” the London bureau chief alerted his Philadelphia editor, John J. Spurgeon, a week before the story about Grasty appeared in the Public Ledger and its affiliated newspapers. “He had a diplomatic passport and said that he intended to remain in London one week and then go ‘somewhere else.’ ”Ackerman to Spurgeon, May 25, 1920. Carl W. Ackerman papers, Library of Congress, Box 131, Miscellaneous correspondence, London, England.
Ackerman told Spurgeon that he contacted London-based U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John W. Davis to ask about Grasty’s mission to Ireland. The ambassador claimed he didn’t know anything about it.
During his first weeks back in Europe Grasty kept busy writing about ongoing efforts to recover from the Great War. He filed a May 1 dispatch from Paris about the just-concluded San Remo conference in Italy.”Germans Must Act on Terms of Pact at Spa Conference”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 1920. In another story he reported that Americans in Europe were taking “keen interest” in the warming U.S. presidential race back home.“Yankees Abroad Closely Watch Politics in U.S.”, Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1920. And in a long opinion piece from London, Grasty insisted: “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.”“Why Europe Must Be Cured To Keep America Safe”, The New York Times, June 13, 1920.
He dated the story June 1, the same day he was named in Ackerman’s dispatch, though Grasty’s piece was not published until several weeks later.
Grasty also had visited Ireland during the last week of May. He “tea’d & supped” in Dublin with Sir Horace Plunkett, the Irish agricultural reformer and home rule supporter wrote in his diary.May 26, 1920, Diary of Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, Transcribed, annotated and indexed by Kate Targett. December 2012, National Library of Ireland. 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.”Charles H. Grasty, Flashes from the Front, (New York, The Century Co., 1918.), pp. 136-139.
Grasty would barely mention Plunkett in his subsequent reporting about Ireland. It appears the correspondent stayed there for about a week and limited his travel to the island’s two major cities. “If I had to choose a place of residence, I would prefer Dublin with all its shootings to Belfast with grimness and monotony,” he wrote in one of his stories.”Ulster Men Look For Future Union”, The New York Times, Aug. 17, 1920.
The June 1 publication of Ackerman’s story about Grasty, more than a month after the Times correspondent walked down the Baltic’s gangway in Liverpool, makes more sense in the context of the late May visit. And as the Ackerman’s story proves, he was doing his own reporting about Ireland, including reaching out to Plunkett and other insiders.
NEXT: London confrontations
|↑1||Truman H. Talley, “Sinn Fein’s Provocative Martyrdom”, The New York Times, Aug. 29, 1920.|
|↑2||“President Wilson Has Special Envoy In Ireland Now”, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, June 1, 1920.|
|↑3||Ray Stannard Baker, American Chronicle; The Autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker. [David Grayson] (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1945). See, “A Rebellious Ireland And My Report of What I Saw”, p. 337.|
|↑4||George Creel, Rebel at Large, (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1947), pp. 216-22, and Creel, The War, The World, and Wilson, (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1920), p 202.|
|↑5||The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 669.|
|↑6||“Iowa Business Congress Draws Big Business Men” by Associated Press, Webster City (Iowa) Freeman, April 12, 1920, and “Business Congress To Open Tomorrow”, Des Moines Register, April 13, 1920.|
|↑7||Charles H. Grasty to Adolph Ochs, “On board RMS Baltic,” April 22, 1920, with handwritten note dated April 28, 1920, London, at bottom, in Ochs papers, New York Public Library.|
|↑8||Ackerman to Spurgeon, May 25, 1920. Carl W. Ackerman papers, Library of Congress, Box 131, Miscellaneous correspondence, London, England.|
|↑9||”Germans Must Act on Terms of Pact at Spa Conference”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 1920.|
|↑10||“Yankees Abroad Closely Watch Politics in U.S.”, Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1920.|
|↑11||“Why Europe Must Be Cured To Keep America Safe”, The New York Times, June 13, 1920.|
|↑12||May 26, 1920, Diary of Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, Transcribed, annotated and indexed by Kate Targett. December 2012, National Library of Ireland.|
|↑13||Charles H. Grasty, Flashes from the Front, (New York, The Century Co., 1918.), pp. 136-139.|
|↑14||”Ulster Men Look For Future Union”, The New York Times, Aug. 17, 1920.|