FDR and Diplomatic Security, 1935

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

The October 1935 issue of The Atlantic Monthly included an article entitled Worse Than Arnoldby Burton J. Hendrick.   That article was a preview from Hendrick’s book The Lees of Virginia.  Hendrick, a graduate of Yale University, was what we would call today a writer of popular history and biography.  Before entering that field, he had been a journalist of the muckraking sort.  Among his other books are The Victory at Sea (1920) written with Admiral William Sims which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize in history, The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page (1923), The Life of Andrew Carnegie (1932), Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939), and Lincoln’s War Cabinet (1946).

In Worse Than Arnold,” Hendrick described the trials and tribulations of Arthur Lee, one of the American commissioners to France during the American Revolution.  Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane were the other two American commissioners and are generally more noted than Lee.  At heart, however, the article is about the treachery of Edward Bancroft, who served as private secretary to Deane and as a confidant of Franklin.  As such, Bancroft had access to the planning and secrets of the Americans in their work to secure French support.  All of which he shared with British authorities as he was their paid spy.  Despite Bancroft’s spying and that of others, however, the British were unable to block or destroy the negotiations and prevent the American-French alliance so important to the winning of American independence.  

The publication of an excerpt from an upcoming or recently published book was, and is, a standard practice in the world of publishing.  What makes this instance notable is that the article caught the eye of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  After reading the piece, he sent the following note to Secretary of State Cordell Hull expressing concern about the lack of opacity in American foreign relations as the international situation was growing more ominous in the years before World War II.

Note from President Franklin Roosevelt to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Dec 17, 1935

Because the article was copyrighted, however, the Department could not implement the President’s suggestion without permission.  Action fell to Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur J. Carr.  In a letter of January 28, 1938, to the Atlantic Monthly Company, he requested permission to mimeograph the article for distribution to American Foreign Service Officers “for entirely official use.”  He did not mention FDR’s interest.  Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic, responded on February 3, granting permission to reproduce the text.  He requested, however, that the text be cited as coming from the new book. 

The text as distributed by the Department is above.  In the cover instruction, the Department noted that the “chapter contains much of historical value that should interest every member of the Foreign Service.”  Furthermore, the Department wanted all FSOs to read it “because of the manner in which it illustrates the necessity of exercising every precaution to protect our Government against the misuse of confidential information.” 

Sources: President Roosevelt to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, December 17, 1935; Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur J. Carr to the Atlantic Monthly Company, January 28, 1938; Ellery Sedgwick to Wilbur J. Carr, February 3, 1936; Department of State to American Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Diplomatic Serial No. 2641, February 24, 1936; all under file 124.06/156, 1930-39 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.