The Incarceration of E.E. Cummings and William Slater Brown in France during World War I as Reflected in Department of State Records: Part II – William Slater Brown

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

The previous post described the French internment of E.E. Cummings and William Slater Brown during World War I because of the latter’s comments in letters home.  It ended with the release of Cummings and his return to the United States.

With definite word of Cummings’s release, eyes now turned to the fate of William Slater Brown, whose letters had started the whole imbroglio.  As of late December, nobody in the United States had yet to see his letters.  That was about to change.  And not to Brown’s benefit.  On December 21, the embassy sent a despatch following up its telegram of the previous day that announced that Brown was to be held and Cummings released.  The short despatch included more details about the release of Cummings and his travel plans.  More important, the despatch included a copy of the report prepared by the U.S. Army and copies of Brown’s letters (see previous post for an extract from one of the letters).[1]

As the despatch wended its way to Washington, Sherman Whipple penned another missive to the Department, this one solely about Brown.  In a letter of December 27, Whipple complained about the lack of action on the part of the Department despite his earlier letter and bemoaned Brown’s fate since his arrest in September.  The following are the key sections of Whipple’s letter. He closed by raising the possibility of asking for Congressional involvement and asked if the Department posed any objection to such action.[2] 

reporting that Brown's parents are concerned about his well-being, since he was supposed to return in November
suggests that the State Dept should have been more involved in this matter the subjected a US citizen to such injustices
Excerpts from Letter from Sherman Whipple to Third Asst Sec of State Long, Dec 27, 1917 (NAID 302021)

Whipple’s letter crossed paths in the mail with the Department’s response to his letter of December 8.  On New Year’s Eve, Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee acknowledged that letter and its enclosure and assured Whipple that it would receive “careful attention” upon receipt of the embassy’s reports.  After that, he wrote, the Department would take appropriate action.[3]

Without waiting for the Department’s thoughts on involving members of Congress, however, Brown’s father wrote to one of his senators, Henry Cabot Lodge.  Lodge, a powerful member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in turn, wrote to the Secretary of State.  The senator enclosed a letter from Brown’s father, noting that the Department was already involved and had presumably taken appropriate action to protect Brown’s rights.  Nevertheless, he asked for a report.[4]

The Department responded to Whipple and Lodge within several days of each other.  By then, the Department had received the copies of Brown’s letters sent by the embassy.  On January 14, Second Assistant Secretary of State Adee sent Whipple copies of Brown’s letters and noted: “Their character is not such as would warrant the Department, under present conditions, to take the case up with the French Government.”  Moreover, he continued, “the sentiments expressed in them are not such as would lead the Department to think that his presence in the United States at this time would be desirable.”  He closed by discouraging Congressional action.[5] So, not only was the French action understandable and justified, Brown was not welcome back in his own country should he be released.

Three days after Adee’s letter to Whipple, Secretary of State Lansing wrote to Senator Lodge.  He provided a brief recapitulation of the Department’s action in the matter and copies of Brown’s letter.  Using language almost identical to that in Adee’s letter, Lansing noted that “I think you will agree with me that their character is not such as would warrant the Department, under present conditions, to take the case up with the French Government, and that the sentiments expressed in them are not such as would make Mr. Brown’s presence in the United States at this time desirable.”[6]

Whipple replied immediately with this letter.  He was clearly taken aback by the contents of Brown’s letters and turned to efforts to ameliorate the conditions of his incarceration.[7]

In yet another letter only three days later, Whipple asked the Department about opening communications between Brown and his family in the United States.  He enclosed a letter from Brown’s uncle.[8]

letter from Brown's uncle asking for letters to be exchanged between him and the family, who have not heard from him since August
Letter from S. Bartlett to Sherman Whipple, Jan 21, 1918 (NAID 302021)

Even before Lodge wrote, the embassy in Paris was working assiduously on behalf of Brown. That work rendered moot the most recent communications from Whipple and Brown’s family.  On January 3, Robert Woods Bliss, the Counselor of the embassy, pressed the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in person as described in this memorandum.[9]

letter explains Brown's letter was a result of his youth, lack of judgement, and not a serious expression of socialism
Memo from Robert Woods Bliss, Jan 4, 1918 (NAID 657151)

When Bliss heard nothing after nearly three weeks, he called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 22, to ask if a decision on Brown had been reached.  His contact there said he remembered the case but was unsure what had happened and would call back later.  That same day, the embassy received the following note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The next day Bliss called the ministry again to clarify information in the note and to ask that the embassy be notified as soon as possible when Brown would leave.[10] 

see endnote for translation from French
Note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jan 22, 1918 (NAID 657151)

The embassy reported the news that its work to free Brown had succeeded in this telegram.  Upon receipt, the Department sent separate letters to Senator Lodge, Whipple, and Bartlett with the good news.[11]

telegram informing of the release and return to US of William Slater Brown
Telegram 3084, US Embassy France to Department of State, Jan 23, 1918 (NAID 302021)

While the French had decided to release Brown, that information had not reached his internment camp by the end of January.  In an effort to press his own case, on January 28, Brown sent a letter to Wiley.  Upon receiving the letter the next day, Wiley immediately wrote Brown that orders had been given for his release, but the exact date was unknown.[12]

The same day Brown wrote, Wiley contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inquire about his status.  He was promised a call for that night, but he did not hear back until the next morning when he was informed that the foreign ministry was waiting on the Ministry of the Interior, “but that the liberation of this American citizen could not be deferred for long.”[13]

Even as the embassy secured Brown’s release, a new advocate on his behalf joined the chorus looking into his fate.  While this contact had no effect on the outcome, it is a further example of the length to which the families went to assist the two boys.  Major Arthur D. Hill, an Army officer on his way to Europe, had been contacted by Rev. Cummings and Anderson in mid-December and asked to make sure that Cummings and Brown had sufficient food, clothing, and legal advice.  Whipple provided Hill with copies of documents on the case.  Upon arrival in France, Hill contacted Warrington Dawson, a special assistant in the embassy, whom he knew.[14]

Hill visited the embassy on January 30 and Dawson brought him up to date.  Dawson told Hill that Cummings had sailed in late December and that the embassy had just been informed that Brown was to be released and allowed to return to the U.S.  Dawson read extracts of the documentation on the matter, “notably from Brown’s own letters.”  Hill expressed appreciation for embassy’s efforts and said he would convey the information to the families making sure to cast a positive light on the embassy’s work.[15]

In the face of continuing inaction on the part of the French, on January 30, Bliss again visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to argue on behalf of Brown.  He urged the French to give the case immediate attention.  While Bliss was in the office, his ministry contact “gave orders . . . that an urgent communication be made to the Minister of the Interior that Brown be sent at once to Bordeaux” so he could board a ship home.  The next day, Bliss received two phone calls from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the first informing him that Brown would be released that day, the second that he had been released and was on the way to Bordeaux.  When Bliss received no definitive information about the release, he contacted the foreign ministry on February 5 to again inquire about Brown’s fate.[16]

letter regarding the delayed information for the Brown case
Memorandum, Feb 5, 1918 (NAID 657151)

On February 13, the embassy informed the Department of State that Brown had been released on the 7th and sailed on the 11th aboard the ship Niagara.  The Department informed Whipple and Bartlett in a telegram to each.  The affair of Cummings and Brown effectively ended with a letter from Secretary of State Lansing to Senator Lodge.[17]

reports Brown sailed to the US on the steamer Niagara on Feb 11
Letter from Sec of State Robert Lansing to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Feb 14, 1918 (NAID 302021)

There is a comic coda to the matter.  The American consulate in Bordeaux asked for embassy guidance after receiving a bill for 14.10 Francs from the Caserne de Passage of that city for the care of Brown while he was there.  The embassy replied “that inasmuch as Brown was arrested, interned, and subsequently transport to Bordeaux by the French Government, it would appear proper that any expenses attached to his subsistence up to the time of his actual release from French jurisdiction should be borne by the French authorities.”[18]


In the end, the Brown/Cummings affair was but a minor blip in U.S.-France relations.  It is, on the other hand, a good example of the time and effort American diplomatic and consular officers put into efforts to protect American citizens overseas, even when, as in this case, their predicaments are caused by stupid and unthinking actions.  There was so much else of serious importance going on – the war for instance – and so many other Americans clamoring for attention (many for similarly foolish indiscretions) that the idea that this contretemps might be made into a major protest is ludicrous.  The real importance is that these events led E.E. Cummings to write The Enormous Room and otherwise inspired his writing.

The author thanks Ashby Crowder and Aaron Marrs for their valuable assistance.


[1]Chief Liaison Group to the American Embassy, Report (copy), October 26, 1917, enclosed with U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Despatch 5889, December 21, 1917, file 351.112B81/7, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

[2]Sherman L. Whipple to Third Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, Letter, December 27, 1917, file 351.112B81/8, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[3]Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee to Sherman L. Whipple, Letter, December 31, 1917, file 351.112B81/4, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

[4]Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Letter, January 7, 1918, enclosing Frederick Brown to Henry Cabot Lodge, Letter, January 2, 1918, file 351.112B81/9, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

[5]Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee to Sherman L. Whipple, Letter, January 14, 1918, file 351.112B81/8, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  

[6]Secretary of State Robert Lansing to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Letter, January 17, 1918, file 351.112B81/9, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[7]Sherman L. Whipple to Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee, Letter, January 19, 1918, file 351.112B81/10, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[8]Sherman L. Whipple to Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee, Letter, January 22, 1918, enclosing S. Bartlett to Sherman L. Whipple, Letter, January 21, 1918, file 351.112B81/12, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[9]Robert Woods Bliss, Memorandum, January 4, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  At the time, “Counselor” was the title held by the second ranking person in the embassy, today called the deputy chief of mission.  It was not a legal position.  Bliss began his foreign service career in 1903 in the Consular Service as Consul in Venice.  He joined the Diplomatic Service in 1904 as a Second Secretary in the embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia.  He thereafter served as a Secretary in the embassies in Brussels and Buenos Aires before joining the embassy in Paris in 1912, where he was designated as Counselor in 1916.

[10]Robert Woods Bliss, Memorandum, January 23, 1918, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Note, January 22, 1918 [received January 22], file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  The note reads (roughly):

      By memorandum of last January 3, the Embassy of the United States of  America has kindly called the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to William Slater Brown, American citizen interned at the Depot of Precigne.

      The Department has the honor to make it known to the Embassy that instructions have been addressed to the proper authorities to assure the departure of the person in question for the United States.

The memorandum of January 3 to which the French note refers is a simple statement of facts; it makes no argument on behalf of Brown.  It was drafted by John Wiley.  Memorandum, January 3, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State. 

[11]U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Telegram 3084, January 23, 1918, Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee to Sherman Whipple, Letter, January 26, 1918, Acting Secretary of State Frank Polk to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Letter, January 26, 1918, and Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvee Adee to S. Bartley [sic], Letter, January 31, 1918, file 351.112B81/11, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  While Telegram 3084 is “signed” by Ambassador Sharp, it was drafted by Bliss and in the context of the other documents in the embassy file, the “I” clearly refers to Bliss and not to Ambassador Sharp.

[12]W. Slater Brown to John C. Wiley, Letter, January 28, 1918, and John C. Wiley to W. Slater Brown, Letter, January 29, 1918, Letter, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.

[13]John C. Wiley, Memorandum, January 28/29, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  As with most of Wiley’s other memorandums to the file, this one is in French.

[14][Warrington] Dawson, Memorandum for the Ambassador, January 28, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  Hill was a Judge Advocate General officer in the European Office of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance.  He provided Dawson with a packet of typed copies of documents up to mid-December, including the texts of 18 telegrams to/from the Rev. Cummings, Norton, Anderson, and the Department; Whipple’s letter of November 12, 1917, Long’s letter of November 28, 1917, and Rev. Cummings’s December 8, 1917, letter to President Wilson.  While the communications with the Department and the President are in the Department’s files, the copies of telegrams to/from the Rev. Cummings, Norton, and Anderson are a useful source of documentation for the non-governmental aspects of the affair.  Dawson is an interesting character.  He was a newsman, writer, accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on his 1909 African safari, and later director of French research for Colonial Williamsburg.

[15][Warrington] Dawson, Memorandum, January 30, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  Members of Brown’s family made their own contacts with the embassy. Hope Slater (an aunt), Samuel Slater (a cousin), and Spaulding Bartlett (an uncle) all wrote. None of those contacts had any impact on the case.  See Hope Slater to John Wiley, Letter, January 17, 1918; Samuel Slater to American Consul Paris, Letter, January 13, 1918 (forwarded to the embassy); and Spaulding Bartlett to John Wiley, Telegram, January 21, Telegram, January 27, and Letter, January 27, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.   

[16]Robert Woods Bliss, Memorandums, January 31 and February 5, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  Although John Wiley was the day-to-day action officer, made many contacts with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and surely briefed his superiors, it is clear that Robert Woods Bliss was the person in the embassy who pressed Brown’s cause with French officialdom.  

[17]U.S. Embassy France to Department of State, Telegram 3196, February 13, 1918, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Letter, February 14, 1918, file 351.11/1675, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  John Wiley drafted the embassy’s telegram.  Between Bliss’s February 5 call and the sending of this telegram, Wiley contacted the foreign ministry twice to follow Brown’s progress toward departure and received one call in response.  See Wiley, Memorandums to the file, February 8, February 11, and February 13, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.  See also Secretary of State Robert Lansing to Sherman L. Whipple, Telegram, February 14, 1918, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing to S. Bartlettg, Telegram, February 14, 1918, file 351.11/1675, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

[18]Consul George A. Bucklin to Ambassador William G. Sharp, Letter, February 20, 1918, Second Secretary Frederick A. Sterling to Consul George A. Bucklin, Letter, March 22, 1918, file 320 Cummings, General Correspondence 1918, U.S. Diplomatic Records for France (NAID 657151), RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State. 

The central file documents (RG 59) discussed in the two posts on the Cummings/Brown matter were originally scattered in rough chronological order in the Department of State’s general file on the protection of U.S. private and national interests in France.  Only at some point subsequent to the close of the matter did the Department pull together most of the documents about Brown and Cummings into a file under Brown’s name on the ill-treatment of U.S. citizens by French officials.  Other documents, however, remained in the general file.

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