The is the second 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. See Part 1. © 2023.
State Department pressure
“…in present state affairs in Ireland large rumors grow from very tiny seeds.”
The U.S. State Department denied that Charles Grasty of The New York Times was on a diplomatic or official mission to Ireland for President Wilson. In a next-day follow up to Carl Ackerman’s original story, the government “acknowledged that he 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.” Ackerman also reported that British officials told him Grasty’s “mission to Ireland is purely one of observation on behalf of President Wilson.”“England’s Irish Policy Outlined as Parlays Fail”, Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 2, 1920, and “Britain Decides To Increase Military Forces In Ireland”, St. Louis Star and Times, June 2, … Continue reading
On June 3, U.S. Ambassador Davis privately cabled Grasty about Ackerman’s story. In the clipped language of such communications, the ambassador wrote:
Have just received dispatch from Washington saying information reached department to effect that by reason your possession special passport wholly erroneous impression gotten abroad in Ireland you there on some sort mission for president. Of course possession of special passport is rather slender peg on which to hang such report but in present state affairs in Ireland large rumors grow from very tiny seeds. Department seems to regard this one as unfortunate and dangerous and direct me you give me change when you come London.Charles H. Grasty to Carr V. Van Anda, June 8, 1920 (telegram), Adolph Ochs papers, New York Public Library. NOTE: Grasty quotes Davis; this is not taken directly from the ambassador’s cable to … Continue reading
Grasty was no stranger to the State Department. He had applied for and obtained several passports for Atlantic voyages in both directions over the previous decade. On June 10, he stopped at the U.S. Embassy in London to surrender the “special” passport and complete an “Emergency Passport Application.” Grasty stated his occupation as “journalist” and “journalistic work” as the reason for his travel.National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Emergency Passport Applications, Argentina thru Venezuela, 1906-1925; Volume #: Volume 168: Great Britain.
The emergency passport was signed by Williamson S. Howell, second secretary of the embassy. Davis thanked Grasty in a follow up cable for his “prompt and courteous compliance” in exchanging the special passport; which he considered evidence of the journalist putting his civic duty above personal convenience. The ambassador told Grasty he was “quite sure that this rumor did not originate in any indiscretion of your own,” which is contrary to Ackerman’s allegation that Grasty boasted about the special passport while aboard the Baltic.Charles H. Grasty to Adolph Ochs, June 10, 1920 (telegram), in Ochs papers, New York Public Library. NOTE: As above, Grasty quoted Davis; this is not taken directly from the ambassador’s cable.
Grasty & Wilson
Grasty was a known supporter and confidante of Wilson. Both men were born in Virginia towns about 70 miles apart, Wilson being seven years older. The journalist described the president as “endlessly interesting” in a magazine profile published shortly before his April 1920 return to Europe.Charles Grasty, “The Personality Behind the President“, The Atlantic Monthly, January 1920.
Eight years earlier, as publisher of the Baltimore Sun, Grasty backed Wilson as the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s national convention in that city. The newsman championed the candidate in his successful campaign against Republican incumbent President William Howard Taft and progressive former President Theodore Roosevelt. Four years later, Grasty supported Wilson’s re-election.
From 1912 to 1922, Wilson and Grasty exchanged at least four dozen letters, though none of the correspondence listed in two archives dates from 1920, the period at the heart of this series.Index to the Woodrow Wilson Papers, Vol. 2, G-O, Presidents’ papers index series / Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, and Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, Library & … Continue reading The president and the journalist “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, just two weeks before Wilson’s passing.”Charles H. Grasty Dies In London”, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 1924. Grasty “enjoyed the former president’s highest respect and confidence and was a warm personal friend of both Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.”
The Times‘ obituary also said that Grasty held the trust and confidence of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who relied on their relationship to send important messages to America during and after the Great War. And the Times noted Grasty’s frequent interviews with London newspaper magnate Lord Alfred Northcliffe. Though native to Ireland, Irish separatists on both sides of the Atlantic viewed the conservative Northcliffe as a pro-British propagandist. (See Part 3.)
It’s unclear if Grasty and Ackerman had met in person before June 1920. They certainly knew of each other through their mutual contacts. Grasty wrote to Ackerman in 1917 on behalf of Adolph Ochs, the Times publisher, to ask for information about German newspaper operations. Ackerman had just returned to America after two years in Germany as a correspondent for United Press.Grasty to Ackerman, May 3, 1917, and Ackerman to Grasty, Undated 1917, in Carl Ackerman papers, Box 122, Library of Congress. Ackerman also knew Ochs. In 1918 and 1919 wrote dispatches from Russia and China for the Times. Both reporters also corresponded with Edward House, a top Wilson advisor. (See Part 4).
Grasty confronts Ackerman
Within a day or two after changing his passport at the U.S. Embassy in London, Grasty confronted Ackerman at the Public Ledger’s foreign office at Charing Cross. The men “argued” for about 90 minutes over the June 1 story, Ackerman told John J. Spurgeon, his editor in Philadelphia.Ackerman to Spurgeon, June 12, 1920, Ackerman papers, Box 131, Miscellaneous correspondence, London, England. Ackerman wrote that Grasty showed him a copy of his own letter to Spurgeon “denying that he was in Ireland on official business.”
Grasty said that Wilson, along with Dr. Carey T. Grayson, the president’s personal physician and confidant, and U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, asked him to undertake a special mission to Europe, including Ireland. The plan hit a roadblock, however, when Grasty informed Oches, who objected to the arrangement while he represented the Times, at least according to Ackerman.
Here is the key portion of Ackerman’s three-page letter to Spurgeon:
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. Grasty admits, however, that he did accept a special diplomatic passport from Mr. Colby.
When my article was published Mr. Ochs cabled Grasty for an explanation. Grasty cabled the Times to look up his letter to Mr. Colby which Mr. Ochs did. Then Mr. Ochs cabled the text of the letter to Grasty and asked Grasty to show it to me and ask me to send a correction to the Public Ledger.
Mr. Grasty showed me this cablegram but I explained to him that while I was willing to send the text of that letter and his statement that he did not represent the government that I would, of course, add that he had a diplomatic passport; that he obtained diplomatic immunity in Liverpool and that he told reliable witnesses on the Baltic that he was on a government mission.
To this Grasty objected on the ground that he could not afford to have the question of his special passport discussed in the press and then he added that he had cabled Secretary Colby to instruct the Embassy here (London) to give him an ordinary passport and that he would give up the special which he possesses.
Ackerman repeated that Grasty informed “several fellow passengers on the Baltic” of having a confidential mission for the government. Ackerman did not rename his wife, as he had done in the letter to Spurgeon before the story was published. Ackerman also relayed that Grasty told him the Times accused him of “double-dealing and that Mr. Ochs is ‘sore.’ ”
Grasty cabled Ochs about his meeting with Ackerman. He said Ackerman was “convinced of his error but unwilling to make corrections” without restating that he had crossed the Atlantic with the special passport. Grasty declined the offer, he told Ochs, “because I thought it would involve matters in new muddle.” Grasty quoted exculpatory passages of his cables from Ambassador Davis. He did not mention anything about the Colby letter or Mrs. Ackerman, at least in the surviving communications.Gasty to Van Anda, June 8, 1920, and Grasty to Ochs, June 10, 1920.
At the time, the U.S. government was just beginning to standardize how it issued passports in the aftermath of the First World War.Giulia Pines, “The Contentious History of the Passport” in National Geographic. Published online May 16, 2017. Grasty’s “special” passport would have provided him with more access to U.S. and British government officials than other reporters. It also would have given him some measure of protection in Ireland if he encountered Irish rebels or the British military, which each were suspicious of visiting journalists. This might have been why Grasty wanted to keep the matter out of the press.
“I am told confidentially that Colby is issuing quite a number of diplomatic passports,” Ackerman wrote to Spurgeon. “If he keeps this up his is going to get the diplomatic service in ‘hot water.’”
It seems that Colby already had.
NEXT: Irish-American reaction
|↑1||“England’s Irish Policy Outlined as Parlays Fail”, Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 2, 1920, and “Britain Decides To Increase Military Forces In Ireland”, St. Louis Star and Times, June 2, 1920.|
|↑2||Charles H. Grasty to Carr V. Van Anda, June 8, 1920 (telegram), Adolph Ochs papers, New York Public Library. NOTE: Grasty quotes Davis; this is not taken directly from the ambassador’s cable to him.|
|↑3||National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Emergency Passport Applications, Argentina thru Venezuela, 1906-1925; Volume #: Volume 168: Great Britain.|
|↑4||Charles H. Grasty to Adolph Ochs, June 10, 1920 (telegram), in Ochs papers, New York Public Library. NOTE: As above, Grasty quoted Davis; this is not taken directly from the ambassador’s cable.|
|↑5||Charles Grasty, “The Personality Behind the President“, The Atlantic Monthly, January 1920.|
|↑6||Index to the Woodrow Wilson Papers, Vol. 2, G-O, Presidents’ papers index series / Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, and Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, Library & Research Center Digital Archive.|
|↑7||”Charles H. Grasty Dies In London”, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 1924.|
|↑8||Grasty to Ackerman, May 3, 1917, and Ackerman to Grasty, Undated 1917, in Carl Ackerman papers, Box 122, Library of Congress.|
|↑9||Ackerman to Spurgeon, June 12, 1920, Ackerman papers, Box 131, Miscellaneous correspondence, London, England.|
|↑10||Gasty to Van Anda, June 8, 1920, and Grasty to Ochs, June 10, 1920.|
|↑11||Giulia Pines, “The Contentious History of the Passport” in National Geographic. Published online May 16, 2017.|