US Minister David Gray couldn’t grasp subtlety of Irish neutrality

Eamon de Valera talking with US Minister David Gray at the US Legation. Gray was suspicious of Ireland’s neutrality, believing it unhelpful for the Allies, despite all the evidence and opinion to the contrary. Picture: William Vandivert/The Life Picture Collection/Getty

In part two of a series on the 75th anniversary of the American Note, Ryle Dwyer sees that some diplomats were more in tune with their missions than others

During the Second World War, David K. Bruce was based in London as head of European operations of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He visited Dublin on behalf of the OSS in 1943.

He later went on to become one of the most famous American diplomats of the post-war period — serving as US ambassador to West Germany, to France, and to the UK, before being appointed in 1970 to head the American delegation at the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. He was in Paris in October 1970 when I wrote to him, asking why he visited Dublin in 1943.

He explained, in reply, that US minister to Ireland David Gray “was concerned about any possible liaison between the OSS and Irish officials”. He went on to describe Gray in glowing terms that really hinted of damning him with irrelevant praise.

After describing him as “a fine man, and a great authority on foxhunting and sport, about which he had written delightfully and authoritatively”, Bruce added, pointedly, that Gray “had no previous familiarity with secret intelligence activities, and was somewhat suspicious of them”.

“If you can locate ‘Spike’ Marlin,” Bruce continued, “I think you would find him especially knowledgeable about the affairs in which you are interested.”

It seemed like an endorsement of Marlin as a valuable source.

Marlin, who was born and reared in New York of Jewish heritage, had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1929 until 1932. He then returned to the US and went to work for the federal government. The OSS initially selected him to serve under the cover of an economic adviser to David Gray.

Following his arrival in Dublin in September 1942, one of Marlin’s first tasks was to determine the sympathies of Irish politicians. He reported that most of the Fianna Fáil deputies sympathised with the Allies, with the exception of Dan Breen, Tom McEllistrim, and Patrick J. Little, who was the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.

As the report was being sent to Washington in the diplomatic pouch, Gray insisted on reading it. Then he demanded to know Marlin’s source for the assessment of Little.

Marlin reluctantly identified his source as Erskine Childers, a junior minister in the Irish government. They had been friends while Marlin was at Trinity. Three days after telling Gray, Marlin was aghast at being told by Childers that Gray had protested to de Valera about Little and went gone on to commit the appalling indiscretion of naming Childers as the source of this information.

Realising that Marlin was an OSS agent, the Irish offered to have Military Intelligence (G2) co-operate directly with him, as it had already been liaising for years with Cecil Liddell of MI5, the British Intelligence agency. Gray strenuously objected. He was opposed to any such liaison, so that was why David Bruce came over from London to check out the offer and agreed.

Marlin was then put in direct contact with G2 and was told “to work around the clock obtaining all available information including information on German submarines, Axis agents, and persons communicating with Germans in Éire”.

“I felt the Irish security arrangement were satisfactory from my contacts with the Irish Government,” he said.

For the Irish, it was a matter of principle and self-interest to remain neutral but within that stance to do everything possible to see that this neutrality was not used to the disadvantage of the Allies.”There was no longer any need for Marlin’s cover as an advisor.

“I was relieved of my assignment under Gray,” he told me. “He wanted me out also, so we were at last in perfect agreement on one point.”

It was decided that Marlin would leave Ireland on April 30, 1943, but the information he was receiving proved so valuable that the OSS decided to move him only to London, from where he could return almost monthly for further consultations with Joe Walshe and G2, which regularly forwarded reports to him in London in the Irish diplomatic bag.

Walshe was so co-operative that Marlin suggested the Irish would possibly use their diplomats on the continent to collect information for the OSS. Carter Nicholas, the head of the Éire Desk at OSS headquarters in Washington DC, visited Dublin with Marlin to explore this possibility on September 25, 1943.

“I wished to sound out the possibility of Irish help, including particularly, the possibility of our receiving information from Irish diplomatic sources,” Nicholas told Walshe. de Valera approved, so Walshe acceded to the request. He agreed not only to transmit to the Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin “a request for information on the political situation in Germany at the top”, but also to ask other “Irish diplomats suitable questions which we might in the future originate”, according to Nicholas.

In the following weeks, Marlin supplied questions to Walshe for the respective Irish representatives in Berlin, Rome, and Vichy. Walshe asked the questions of the respective diplomats, and then forwarded their replies to Marlin. In effect, Irish diplomats were being used as US spies.

In early 1943, John D Kearney, the Canadian High Commissioner to Ireland, noted that the Irish had been so helpful that he felt de Valera might even provide bases to the Allies if US president Franklin D Roosevelt asked for them. John Maffey, the British representatives to Ireland, liked the idea, and he went to London to discuss the matter.

In the absence of British prime minister Winston Churchill, Maffey met with the deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee, who noted that neither military, nor naval authorities had mentioned Irish bases for some time. Attlee informed foreign secretary Anthony Eden on March 5, 1943, that he would oppose taking any chance of de Valera complying with such a request, lest Britain become obliged to defend Ireland, as this would “probably” be more trouble than the facilities were worth.

The British belittled the value of Irish bases, while the Allies were in the midst of their gravest crisis in the Atlantic. The Admiralty later noted: “The Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first 20 days of March, 1943.”

Ervin R. ‘Spike’ Marlin, the first OSS agent sent to Ireland
Ervin R. ‘Spike’ Marlin, the first OSS agent sent to Ireland

Shortly afterwards, the OSS appointed its third agent to Ireland, Martin S. Quigley, who was the only one who was not detected as an agent by the Irish. After the publication of my 1978 book, Irish Neutrality and the USA, 1939-1947, Quigley informed me that he had further intelligence information in which I would be interested. We corresponded and he provided a secret history of the OSS’s operations in Ireland during the war, written by Carter Nicholas.

Quigley had personally been recruited by William J. Donovan, the director of the OSS, to serve in Ireland. Quigley arrived on May 25, l943, under the cover of a representative of an American film distributor, which allowed him to travel extensively about the country, visiting cinemas.

His mission was primarily to observe, rather than to go digging for secret information. He quickly realised Irish authorities were favourably disposed towards the Allies.

“The Irish Government’s position in World War II was a peculiar form of neutrality,” he wrote. “Openly, the position was that of pretending neutrality in the classic sense. Actually it was a neutrality against the Axis and for the Allies.”

It was so obvious that Quigley found Gray’s attitude baffling.

“He never knew what was really going on, or if he did, he refused to accept the truth,” Quigley wrote.

While in Ireland, Quigley became friendly with Emmet Dalton, the supervisor of the Paramount film distributing branches in Britain and Ireland. As an advisor to Michael Collins during treaty negotiations in 1921, Dalton had been personally involved in talks between Collins and Churchill.

During the Treaty negotiations in October 1921, Churchill was giving Collins and Dalton hell over some truce violations. Collins asked Dalton if they had any answer.

“No,” Dalton replied.

“Suddenly, as Churchill ranted on, Collins slammed his fist on the table and shouted: ‘For Christ sake, get to the point!’ ”

Churchill stared in shocked disbelief. At that point, Collins and Dalton burst out laughing, and Churchill started laughing, too, and that was the end of the matter.

The Irish were so helpful to the Americans that Quigley thought it might be persuaded into handing over Irish bases, and he had Dalton enquire. Dalton reported that the British Imperial General Staff was happy with the situation and wanted no change.

“Leave things as they are,” was their view. “He made it clear that the ‘leave things’ came from the very top,” according to Quigley, who presumed that Dalton had raised the issue with Churchill “directly or indirectly”.

Gray took up the idea of asking de Valera for bases. Unlike Maffey and Kearney, Gray was convinced that de Valera would reject the request, and he therefore saw it as a way of discrediting the Irish leader in American eyes — by having him formally reject a request for help. If the Taoiseach later tried to caused Anglo-American difficulties over the partition issue, they could undermine him by accusing him of refusing vital help during the war.

Roosevelt and Churchill liked the idea, but British and American service leaders argued that de Valera had been so helpful that he might provide the bases, which would be a liability to the war effort. In the circumstances, the idea was abandoned, but Gray went on to suggest that Roosevelt just ask for the removal of the Axis diplomats from Dublin, on the grounds they were an espionage threat to the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe.

Although all the OSS agents sent to Ireland were happy with the Irish situation, especially with the assistance afforded by Joe Walshe, Gray was far from content. He believed that he had better sources than the OSS. He had already reported to President Roosevelt that he was told on November 8, 1941, that Walshe was “a leading quisling”, and that Walshe “is hand in glove with the German Minister”.

Gray sent Roosevelt the transcript of this advice, which he, literally, thought was from out of this world. He believed his informant was the ghost of the late Arthur J. Balfour, who — as chief secretary for Ireland from 1887 to 1891 — had lived in the same Phoenix Park house where Gray was living.

A strong believer in spiritualism, Gray was holding seances, with the writing medium Geraldine Cummins, a Cork woman who would go into a kind of trance and write messages, supposedly from the spirit world. Gray thought this was more reliable than the OSS.

For a brief period in late 1943, after the OSS got hold of some alarming information, it did question its own judgement. Fritz Kolbe, a German working out of the foreign office in Berlin, handed the OSS some 1,600 documents in Switzerland.

From the American standpoint, the most alarming information was that vice president Henry Wallace had been talking indiscreetly to his brother-in-law, a Swiss diplomat, who had been passing on the information to Berne, where it was falling into German hands. As a result, Roosevelt replaced Wallace on the 1944 ticket with Harry S. Truman, who became president before the end of the war.

Arthur J. Balfour, whose ‘ghost’ David Gray believed was a better intelligence source than the OSS
Arthur J. Balfour, whose ‘ghost’ David Gray believed was a better intelligence source than the OSS

From the Irish standpoint, Kolbe’s documents were equally alarming, at least initially. General William J Donovan, head of the OSS, informed Roosevelt “that a great deal of information pertaining to Allied activities in England and Ulster comes from the German embassy in Dublin. The legation, which is heavily staffed, has succeeded in infiltrating agents into England.”

German diplomats in Dublin had identified 600 air installations in England. It “looked to me at first as though there was a serious leak from Éire”, Carter Nicholas noted.

When the OSS shared this with MI5, the British explained the reports from Dublin were part of a deception plan. MI5 had been feeding misinformation to the German legation. The material was buried in a wealth of accurate information that the Germans already knew.

When MI5 explained the situation, OSS leaders realised the Irish security situation was even better than “previously thought”. As MI5 was effectively using the German diplomats in Dublin, it did not desire their expulsion. The OSS also had reservations, but it knew the request was just a political ploy, so it did not interfere.

Gray delivered Roosevelt’s request on February 21, 1944. It was soon leaked to the press. The note was published shortly before St Patrick’s Day, igniting a firestorm of criticism of Ireland in the American press.

“Call for St Patrick!” exclaimed a Dallas Morning News editorial.

The snakes are back in Ireland.

The Atlanta Constitution was hysterical as it complained that Ireland had been so “notoriously loose” in dealing with the Axis legations that “thousands and thousands of American soldiers will die because of the Irish position”.

Despite Irish vigilance, The New York Times warned, the German legation might pass on information that would “endanger the lives of many thousands of Allied soldiers, including many of Irish descent”. Amidst this hysterical coverage, de Valera was depicted as indifferent to the Allies’ plight. Joe Walshe visited London and “protested vigorously” to J. Russell Forgan, who was acting head of European operations for the OSS in David Bruce’s temporary absence.

“Although I agreed with him completely,” Forgan wrote to me in 1970, “I had to say that if we told the actual facts, all of the wonderful work that his intelligence services had been doing with the Allies would be ruined. He saw the point immediately.”

The Irish had provided some “very useful” co-operation on intelligence matters, Forgan assured me. “In general, despite the American news media,” he emphasised, “the Irish worked with us on intelligence matters almost as if they were our allies. They have never received the credit due them.”

Walshe proposed that the US station agents in Ireland “to keep in constant touch with Irish authorities on the problems, to receive reports from them, and to make recommendations for improving methods of surveillance.” Gray opposed this. It could be used “as a political means of wiping off the record” the stigma of de Valera’s refusal to dismiss the Axis diplomats, he warned Roosevelt on April 14.

The OSS decided to station Ed Lawler in Dublin for the rest of the war.

“The co-operation and information we received from the Irish was every bit as extensive and helpful as it would have been if Ireland had been a full partner with us in the war effort,” Lawler assured me.

When the State Department considered a follow-up note, General William Donovan intervened. He informed the president about the secret Irish intelligence co-operation.

“The co-operation in intelligence matters offered and given by the Irish has been very full,” Donovan stressed, adding that help from Irish diplomats on the continent had important potential. The second note was therefore scrapped.

de Valera’s international image was seriously damaged, but his government’s standing was enhanced at home. Fianna Fáil had lost its Dáil majority in June 1943. de Valera called a snap election, and won a record overall majority in May 1944.

Although the rest of the world may have been deceived into believing Ireland was indifferent to Nazi menace, de Valera had given all the help possible, short of war.

The Allies did not want Ireland in the war, so he could not have been more helpful.

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