Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
In July 1943, World War II raged around the world. In Europe, the combined U.S./British bombing campaign against Germany proceeded. In Nazi-occupied areas, mass murder continued. On July 5, on the Eastern Front, the huge and pivotal battle of Kursk began. In the Mediterranean, U.S. and British forces were about to invade Sicily on July 10. On the other side of the world, the Japanese continued their assault on China and Operation Cartwheel, the major U.S. effort in the South Pacific was in its early stages.
Yet, on July 7, President Franklin Roosevelt found himself sending a note to the Department of State asking for the preparation of a reply to a letter announcing a marriage in a minor faraway neutral principality.
It all began in March, when Franz Josef, the Sovereign Prince of Liechtenstein, sent President Roosevelt a letter announcing his marriage to the Countess Georgine de Wilczek. Due to wartime conditions, the letter had to be transmitted to the United States through the good offices of Swiss authorities, who were representing Liechtenstein’s interests in the United States during the war. Following standard practice of the time, on June 19, the Swiss legation in Washington sent the sealed letter to the Department of State for transmission to the President. It had taken three months for the letter to reach Washington.
Upon arrival in the Division of Protocol, George Summerlin, Chief of Protocol, sent the sealed envelope to Grace Tully, President Roosevelt’s private secretary. He requested return of the letter after opening so the Department could prepare a reply for the President to sign. At the same time, the Department replied to the Swiss legation, acknowledging receipt and noting that the response would be sent through the U.S. consulate in Zurich, as matters concerning the Principality of Liechtenstein fell under its jurisdiction. After opening the Prince’s letter, the President sent it to the Department along with his request for a reply.
On July 16, Stanley Woodward, Assistant Chief of Protocol, sent a draft to Tully. That same day, President Roosevelt signed the letter and Tully returned it to the Department of State for transmission to the U.S. consulate in Zurich for appropriate delivery.
Today, the absurdity of this in the midst of a worldwide conflagration is manifest. One wonders, however, how Department officials of the time looked at it. Did they welcome handling this exchange as a relief from the trials and tribulations of dealing with a worldwide conflict? Did they scoff at the trivialness of the matter? Did they see it simply as doing the longstanding work of traditional formal diplomacy? Nothing in the Department’s files gives a hint one way or another. Regardless, officials in the Department of State and the White House carried on as professionals.
Sources: Franz Josef to Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 1943, and President Roosevelt to the Department of State, July 7, 1943, file 860B.001/3; Legation of Switzerland to the Department of State, June 19, 1943, George Summerlin to Grace Tully, July 2, 1943, and Department of State to the Legation of Switzerland, July 2, 1943, file 860B.0011/2; Stanley Woodward to Grace Tully, July 15, 1943, file 860B.001/3; Grace Tully to Stanley Woodward, July 16, 1943, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Franz Josef II, July 16, 1943, file 860B.0011/4; Department of State to U.S. Consulate Zurich, July 21, 1943, file 860B.0011/5, all 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.