PRESIDENT Franklin D Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945. His relationship with taoiseach Éamon de Valera went back to 1919 when, as president of the self-styled Irish Republic, he sought legal advice of the future American president on the sale of Irish bond certificates in the United States.
As taoiseach in 1938, de Valera gave Roosevelt credit for intervening at an opportune moment to persuade the British to conclude a series of Anglo-Irish Agreements that led to both the ending of the Economic War and to Britain’s renunciation of her agreed right to Irish bases in wartime.
The latter paved the way for Ireland to remain neutral during the Second World War.
But Roosevelt had little sympathy with Irish neutrality. In 1944 he sent a formal diplomatic note requesting de Valera to expel the German legation from Ireland on the grounds that it posed a serious threat to the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe.
Neither the British nor the Americans really feared the German legation. They had already broken the German diplomatic code and were reading all the German messages being sent from Dublin.
In fact, MI5, the British intelligence organisation, actually opposed the request for fear de Valera would comply, as this would damage Allied intelligence.
The real motive behind the American Note had been to provoke de Valera’s refusal in order to undermine his political influence in the US.
The whole idea was the brainchild of David Gray, the US ambassador to Ireland. Gray had outlined the idea of discrediting de Valera during a private meeting with Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the president’s home in Hyde Park, New York, on August 16, 1943.
De Valera’s image in the US was seriously damaged by his rejection of Roosevelt’s request. But Gray was anxious to do further damage, with a follow-up note in the final days of the war, requesting de Valera allow the US to seize the German legation in Dublin in order to get hold of German codes, in case some Germans decided to continue the war after the fall of Germany.
While this idea was being considered in Washington, Roosevelt died on Sunday, April 12, 1945.
Next morning the Irish Press, which was controlled by de Valera and his family, carried an editorial lauding Roosevelt for his concern for the under-privileged during the Great Depression and his vision in mobilising the “vast material and manufacturing resources” to cope with the international threat.
“His death will bring the United States the sympathy of many millions of people throughout the world and, not least, the sympathy of Irishmen and women wherever they may be,” the editorial concluded.
De Valera had a special sitting of the Dáil summoned next day.
During a 20-minute session he delivered a moving address in which paid tribute to Roosevelt’s memory.
“President Roosevelt will go down to history as one of the greatest of a long line of American presidents, with the unparalleled distinction of having been elected four times as head of the United States,” the taoiseach said.
“Personally, I regard his death as a loss to the world; for I believe his whole career had shown that he could ultimately be depended upon when this war had ended, to throw his great influence behind, and devote his great energy to the establishment of a world organisation which would be just, and which, being just, could hope to save humanity from recurring calamities like the present war.”
The Government ordered all flags on Government buildings throughout the country be flown at half-mast as a mark of respect.
“This is indeed a strange country,” Gray wrote to the Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor, who was a niece of Gray’s wife. “All this forenoon members of the government, their wives and leaders of the opposition have been coming in a stream to pay their respects.
“Mr de Valera made a very moving tribute to the president in the Dáil this morning and moved adjournment till tomorrow.”
“I thought I knew this country and its people but this was something new,” Gray continued. “There was a great deal of genuine feeling.”
He had personally come to so detest de Valera, however, that it was not long before he was railing against him again. Next day the Irish government informed Gray that they could not attend a memorial service for Roosevelt in a Protestant church.
The Taoiseach and his colleagues might not be afraid to offend the Germans by honouring Roosevelt, but they were not about to offend the archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid by defying the ban on Catholics attending services in a Protestant church.
Gray was disgusted. He responded by announcing that he would not attend either, because President Roosevelt had been commander-in-chief of the American forces then engaged in the war, and it would not therefore be fitting for him to attend a memorial service in a neutral country.
In the following two weeks, Gray pressed ahead with his idea of asking the Irish to allow the US to seize the German embassy to get hold of German codes.