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Eisenhower in Wexford, 1962



Headline in the Irish Examiner, 24 August 1924

The south-east tourist industry has reaped great currency out of the visit of an American president in 1963. However, what is perhaps less well known is that the visit of the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was preceded in 1962 by the visit of the 34th. Dwight D. Eisenhower was no longer a sitting president when he visited Wexford in 1962 but his visit emanated from a gesture of thanksgiving and commemoration during the course of his presidency. In 1956 a gift from the  ‘people of the United States’ was unveiled on Crescent Quay, Wexford  by President of Ireland Seán T. O’Kelly (who himself had married not one but two Wexford women from the nationalist Ryan dynasty, first Mary Kate and then following her death, her sister Phyllis). The bronze statue of Commodore John Barry was designed by William Wheeler and shipped to Ireland on board the U.S.S Charles S. Sperry.  Barry, referred to as the ‘father of the United States navy’, was born in 1745 in Ballysampson, Tacumshane, Co. Wexford. Having gone to see as a child of ten he settled as a merchant sailor in Philadelphia and was a ship’s master by age 21. With the outbreak of the War of Independence, he offered his services to the Continental Army. His ship the Black Prince was outfitted for naval service, renamed the Alfred and became the first ship in the Continental Navy. Commissioned as a captain he led the first American capture of a British ship and received a personal note of gratitude from General Washington. With the foundation of the U.S. Navy in 1794 Barry, though listed as the senior captain of the service, bore the courtesy title of commodore (the position of commodore was not formally created until 1862). He died in 1803.


The visit of JFK to Ireland in June 1963 is considered an iconic event due to the president’s Irish ancestry, his viewing of the ‘Kennedy homestead’ in Dunganstown, New Ross and to the poignancy of his promise to be ‘back in the spring time’ with the shooting in Dealey Plaza a mere five months away. Eisenhower’s visit to Wexford was undertaken at less notice, fanfare and was bedevilled with setbacks. Eisenhower was due to make a tour of Europe in late summer 1962 when a visit to Ireland was discussed with the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Wexford Corporation had to respond to charges from an aggrieved public and sceptical press that it had declined to receive Eisenhower. In a statement issued to the press, the Corporation claimed that ‘when the matter was first considered, the members genuinely felt that they could not do justice to such a distinguished person in mid-week.’ Eisenhower himself was also perturbed to learn that there was no airport close to Wexford. The Corporation decided to change its mind in response to ‘the wholehearted support they have now been offered from all sections of the community.’ Such support was expressed in erection of ‘We like Ike’ posters on the walls and streets of Wexford town, as reported by a journalist from the Irish Press. At a special meeting of Wexford Corporation on 16 August Alderman K.C. Morris expressed his hope that the visit would ‘clear up all the misunderstandings which had got wide publicity and should prove that Wexford at no time turned down the General’s visit’ and plans were put in place for Eisenhower’s helicopter to land on the G.A.A pitch two miles outside Wexford town. Eisenhower made quite literally a flying visit, arriving first in Dublin to stay in the Gresham Hotel and on the following day enjoying a luncheon with President de Valera. The former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe arrived in Wexford on 23 August by helicopter to a town bedecked by bunting and a higher than average population of American tourists. Cheered on from streets and doorways, Eisenhower arrived to lay a wreath at the Barry Statue. He announced that he has been ‘a dismal failure’, explaining to a crowd soaked through by a torrential downpour that he had previously enjoyed a reputation for bringing fine weather with him. Gardaí and security men reportedly fought a losing battle with photographers. According to the calculations of an Irish Examiner journalist present, Eisenhower’s speech lasted less than two minutes in which he praised Barry as ‘a great patriot’ and then spoke to the Mayor of Wexford for four minutes, the latter also making a short speech. Whisked away for lunch in the Talbot Hotel, Eisenhower was back in his helicopter twenty minutes later. President Kennedy paid his respects to the Barry statue less than a year later giving Wexford Corporation further exposure to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Barry’s statue still stands on Crescent Quay looking out onto the Slaney estuary; other statues were erected in Franklin Square, Washington D.C. and at the entrance to Independence Hall, Philadelphia.

Further Reading

Irish Examiner, Irish Independent, Irish Press, Irish Times, Aug.-Sep. 1963.

David Murphy, ‘John Barry’ Dictionary of Irish Biography.


MUSEUM OF THE MONTH: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


As a historian I always feel a rush of gratitude for those diarists who maintained such painstakingly detailed and regular entries. Some diaries are preserved self-consciously for posterity; others avoid destruction or oblivion through good luck or meticulous care, only for the value of their contents to become apparent through chance investigation, donation or publication. Diaries are not, as few if any historical sources can be, objective, unbiased or comprehensive. Yet just as historical commentary is shaped by the perspective of the historian, diaries provide a fascinating insight into the perspective of one individual on wider historical events: perspectives that can be representative or completely unique. This intersection of the personal with the political lends greater colour to the narrative and reminds us that history is not just something that happened, but something that people actually lived.


In terms of diaries of historical significance, the diary of Anne Frank is arguably the most famous and certainly most widely read. As such I could not pass up on the opportunity to visit a monument to her experience and to the first primary source I had ever read as a child. Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht, Amsterdam) seeks to document Anne’s experience as a microcosm of the persecution of Dutch Jews and (as in the case of Anne’s family) of German Jews whose exodus to other European cities such as Amsterdam did not count on Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of 1940 and the extension of Fortress Europe to the Netherlands. As you enter the exhibition, context is provided on the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam and the anti-Jewish laws introduced after 1940. Documents are put on display in a space renovated in the 1990s to recreate the original front of the building, including the warehouse and offices of Opekta, Otto Frank’s business, licensed to sell pectin, the gelling agent necessary for jam making. The museum documents the gift of Anne’s diary and her cherished ambitions to be a writer. Text from its pages are used to narrate Otto’s decision to hide his family in unused rooms (the ‘secret annex’) in 1942 with the help of office staff while keeping it a secret from warehouse staff. Visitors travel up to the ‘secret annexe’ behind a bookshelf (the original bookshelf is on display) to enter the hiding place. Again excerpts from Anne’s diary are used to evoke the strained atmosphere of the annex with the Franks sharing the small space with another family, the van Pels, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Anne’s own sleeping space has been preserved and on display are copies of her posters of movie stars and the young Princess Elizabeth.

The visitor makes their way into a museum space that provides a sober reflection on the fate of the Franks, whose hiding place was stormed by the Security Police on 4 August 1944. Of the eight people in hiding only Otto Frank survived-he was in Auschwitz for its liberation. Short video clips provide first-hand accounts of the concentration camps, including an interview with a friend of Anne’s who met Anne in Bergen-Belsen only a few short weeks before her death. Another of the museum’s rooms reflects on the impact of Anne’s diary, preserved by Opekta office worker Miep Gies who returned it to Otto for it to be subsequently published in seventy languages. A manuscript version can be viewed in the museum. I was really interested to learn that in the months before the arrests, Anne had been editing and revising her diary and working on a novel The Secret Annex. This certainly prompts me to reflect on how much diarists consider if and how their personal entries will be preserved and received by posterity. The exhibition is a triumph of simplicity, in allowing the force and poignancy of the diary to be presented with the minimal intervention of audio-visual material that so often proliferates and which can, in some cases, distract from the contents and missions of museums. The curators thankfully resisted the urge to include too much material in the secret annex space which allowed them to successfully evoke the stark reality of two years of claustrophic confinement.

In terms of practicalities Anne Frank House is located quite close to the centre of Amsterdam and is easy to find via many of the tram lines. Booking a ticket in advance is strongly recommended as queues can reach epic lengths; however the museum staff do an excellent job of ensuring the small space does not become too crowded.

See: http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/Practical-information/

TV review: HBO’s John Adams


Historical dramas often provoke exasperation among historians for what they perceive as gross inaccuracies and simplifications. Both Tudor historian David Starkey and Hilary Mantel, award winning author of the historical fiction series that offers a new perspective on the life of Thomas Cromwell, criticised Showtime’s The Tudors for straying too far from the chronology and realities of the court of Henry VIII. While most historians would concede that tv dramas and films need to deviate somewhat from the recorded timelines for dramatic effect, producers should not patronise or underestimate their audience. People who are driven to watch historical dramas tend to have a wider interest in and knowledge of history and appreciate narratives that are receptive to the complexities and nuances of the past. Good historical drama can provoke a deeper awareness that history is not black and white and can propel viewers to further reading to gain a more complete understanding of the subject matter. Excellent historical drama reminds viewers that history itself is often the result of competing interpretations, deviating enough from stale mainstream versions to explore the political and social forces that confer a mythic quality to certain events and actors.

HBO’s often overlooked 2008 miniseries John Adams achieves this level of sophistication with intelligent writing and superb acting with Paul Giamatti as the eponymous lawyer turned reluctant revolutionary and second president of the young United States and Laura Linney as his wife and chief counsel. The story is refreshingly told through the eyes of a figure central to its history but often overlooked by historians. Running through the series is an implicit awareness that it is not Adams that history has recorded as one of the chief architects of an independent American state and we watch as the son of a Massachusetts farmer has to come to the terms with the fact that, even in his own lifetime, he was being squeezed out of the holy trinity of the revolution by the higher profile figures of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. The drama flies in the face of the hyberbole and excessive romanticism surrounding the War of Independence, depicting the revolution not as a sudden spark (which must be tempting in tv land) but as a slow burn of indignation against the intransigence of the metropole. The opening episode devotes much time to Adams’s successful defence of the soldiers who took part in the Boston massacre. A later scene finds Adams wondering at his unlikely transformation into ambassador to the Court of St. James’s on behalf of the newly formed ‘States United’; as he is presented to George III the viewer can appreciate his inner turmoil as he speaks to his former sovereign in the guise of a foreign diplomat.

John Trumbell's famous depiction of the committee presenting the Declaration of Independence for signature

John Trumbell’s famous depiction of the committee presenting the Declaration of Independence for signature

While the drama takes some liberties with the timeline, the dialogue is largely based on correspondence from the time-the many letters that passed between Adams and his wife Abigail form an important commentary on the course of the revolution and the foundation and beginnings of the new state. Historians have accused the writers of over-exaggerating a rift between Adams and his somewhat wayward son Charles but they cannot claim that the drama over-emphasises the friction between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. While their political disagreements and rivalry is depicted, so too is their understanding of each other and their attempts at reconciliation. This drama is also stripped of the glamour, gloss and sheen that is often an implausible feature of historical dramas. Instead makeup is minimal, clothes are soiled and teeth blacken and disappear with the passage of time.

What the drama does brilliantly is capture the process by which history transforms into myth. An aging Adams despairs of ‘modern history’ and the inaccuracies surrounding the revolution and its leaders, for the better and for the worse. One of the dramas most thought-provoking scenes involves a very elderly Adams being shown the artist Trumbell’s famous painting which depicts the committee’s presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. Adams lambasts the painting as a falsehood; at no point, Adams asserts, during the summer of 1776 were all the celebrated figures presented in the painting, in the same room, at the same time-rather signatures were affixed whenever the delegates happened to be in Philadelphia. Thus John Adams is as much about the process of history as it is about chronicling the life of a farmer’s son, lawyer, revolutionary, diplomat, vice president, president and father of a president.

John Adams: Written by Kirk Ellis, based on the book by David McCullough and directed by Tom Hooper.

Enlightened imperialism? The League of Nations Mandates Commission


In the aftermath of the First World War, the League of Nations established a form of ‘enlightened imperialism’ whereby member states were authorised to administer former German and Ottoman imperial possessions. Article 22 of the League Covenant established ‘mandates’ over ‘those colonies and territories, which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them, and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’. The mandate system was not a threat to colonialism but rather served to legitimise it as a (perceived) necessity within the international landscape on the understanding that ‘the well being and development of peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation’.


1. Syria, 2. Lebanon, 3. Palestine, 4.Transjordan, 5. Mesopotamia, 6.British Togoland, 7. French Togoland, 8. British Cameroons, 9.French Cameroun, 10. Ruanda-Urundi, 11. Tanganyika and 12.South West Africa

1. Syria, 2. Lebanon, 3. Palestine, 4.Transjordan, 5. Mesopotamia, 6.British Togoland, 7. French Togoland, 8. British Cameroons, 9.French Cameroun, 10. Ruanda-Urundi, 11. Tanganyika and 12.South West Africa

Britain, France and Belgium were granted mandates over German East Africa, Togo, Cameroon, South-West Africa, Palestine, Lebanon, Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Syria. However the great powers were not given free reign to annex the mandated territories into their own colonial administrations but rather undertook to comply with conditions set by the League. The Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) met twice yearly in Geneva with its work supported by the League Secretariat. Member states were obliged to submit reports to the Commission to ensure that they complied with the strict terms of their respective mandates. The Commission was populated by distinguished personnel, mostly former colonial governors, appointed by the League Council.  According to Zara Steiner not only could these appointees match colonial administrators in experience but the latter came to hold the PMC in high esteem and did not ignore any interrogation or criticism emanating from Geneva. While the PMC could report to the League Council it was devoid of any coercive function. As such it was powerless to confront states for any omission or distortion of information. Nor could its members conduct on-the-ground official inspections of the various mandated territories. As with the League Assembly, the PMC could only act as a moral force, holding the threat of a public rebuke over offending states.

The League of Nations has been cited by many historians as an important force in establishing norms of state behaviour. Michael Callahan argued that Britain and France did treat the mandates areas as distinct from the rest of their colonial territories. The PMC encouraged British and French measures to limit unrestrained land acquisitions by white settlers and to establish humane labour conditions for the native populations as well as initiatives for the improvement of public health. The mandated territories did not conform to the traditional economics of imperialism. The governor of the British mandate of Tanganyika exploited the international status of the region to ensure that the territory could buy cheaper American products over British merchandise.  In 1933 British military officials even conceded that it was contrary to the mandate system to establish a naval base in Tanganyika or to expect that territory to contribute to the defence of neighbouring Kenya. However the mandated system did not prevent the white populations from acquiring the best land; nor were native inhabitants permitted to play a role in administration.

The League’s mandates system certainly did not hasten the transition to self-rule. The Unied Nations on the other hand became synonymous with the postcolonial era. The UN Trusteeship Council assumed the role of the PMC, overseeing the administration of the 11 former mandated territories of the League: by 1994 all of these territories had either obtained independence or combined with neighbouring independent states.


Further Reading

Michael D. Callahan, ‘“Mandates territories are not colonies”: Britain, France and Africa in the 1930s’ in R.M. Douglas, Michael D. Callahan, and Elizabeth Bishop (eds), Imperialism on trial (Lanham, 2006), pp 1-20.

Susan Pedersen, ‘Back to the League of Nations’ in The American Historical Review, cxii (2007), pp 1091-1117.

Zara Steiner, The lights that failed: European international history 1919-33 (Oxford, 2005).

Book review: Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge, 2013).


The Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century (A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition, 1901), available via Wikicommons (click here).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The first thing that is obvious on reading this book is the author’s training as a social scientist. Much of the introductory and first chapter of the book is taken up with the social theory of technology. While this is an essential task for a history of technology study, in places the author’s use of detailed explanation and examples in striving for clarity can be excessive and detract from the empirical and narrative flow of the book. This makes the book an excellent starting point for students seeking to understand the sub-discipline that is the history of technology, as well as providing an excellent source of further readings. But it does make reading certain sections difficult and would deter the average readership without a strong interest in the history of communications.

The central aim of Wendzlhuemer’s book is to examine the role that the telegraph played in the process of globalisation during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The book begins with the now near-obligatory comparison between the telegraph and the internet. This section concludes that there were similarities and differences between both technologies, in particular the ability of both technologies to ‘dematerialise’ information, i.e. physically separating information from a physical carrier. The book argues that to understand the development and application of these technologies we must look beyond the socio-, or technological-determinist understanding of technological development to what has been termed a ‘post-humanist’ approach. Thus, while technological systems are socially ‘shaped’, the technology has agency and impacts on its use. Bearing this in mind the book aims to understand how the forces of globalisation ‘shaped’ the global telegraph network and in turn how the availability of this network was utilised by those involved in the formation of a global economy.

The book is very successful in tracing how the development of global communication impacted upon temporal distances; that is the time it took to communicate between different regions of the world. The author through detailed research and analysis, using social network theory, is able to demonstrate that important financial and mercantile centres such as London developed significant links to regions like the east coast of the United States and India and this allowed rapid communication. However, in contrast, as these regions were becoming temporally closer other parts of the globe, due to poor telegraphic connectivity, were bypassed. In chapter six the book traces the development of international telegraphy and the author attempts to correlate the development of telegraphic connectivity with increases in trade, however while he maintains that this was the case in some regions it did not happen in others. The author, aware of the limitations of reliance upon telegraphic and trade statistics alone, is quick to point out that a study of the wider economic and structural factors behind these is needed to integrate the benefits of telegraphic connectivity within wider commercial interests.

As well as a global study of telegraphic development the author dedicates a chapter to the development of the telegraph in Britain and another to India. Again the use of social network theory allows an analysis of the use of this technology.

While the product of a substantial amount of work which provides a considerable amount of data of use to historians of the telecommunications this book at times presents this information without enough contextualisation. It is here perhaps that the book is too ambitious and by concentrating purely on international telegraphy could have allowed itself room to explore the wider factors influencing telegraphic development and its impact on globalisation in more detail.

In conclusion, for anyone researching globalisation, telegraphy and international trade in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this is a must read, but the density of statistics would deter the average reader.


Book review: Mark Mazower, Governing the world: the history of an idea (London, Penguin, 2012)






A student of the history of internationalism is often confronted with volumes that are theoretically complex or devoid of solid empiricism. It is often difficult to secure a traditional historical investigation into the competing dogmas of internationalism that emerged long before the existence of international organisations themselves. Rather, in our increasingly multi-disciplinary world, historians of internationalism are engaging more and more with the interpretations of political scientists. This cross fertilisation does little damage the practise of international history and certainly adds a new dynamism into a subject often stereotyped as fusty and slow to adapt to new methodologies. However it is my firm opinion that while a historian can be inspired by the theories expounded by other disciplines, an armchair historian, seduced by hypotheses and waylaid from the hard evidence of the past, will fail to make a valuable contribution to the field. For the history of internationalism is a minefield of competing theories closely married to and coloured by the opposing political ideologies of the left and right. Scholars of internationalism may unwittingly stumble into and rely on undiagnosed biases and agendas while failing to gain exposure to any exercises in primary research.

Thankfully, any student approaching the evolution of internationalism has an excellent starting point and example before them with Governing the world: the history of an idea by Mark Mazower, award winning historian and Professor of History at Columbia University. As with his previous contributions Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazi’s ruled Europe, Mazower retains his astonishing capacity to embrace a massive theme without sacrificing empiricism, detail or cohesion. Mazower draws on a wealth of international sources to demonstrate that internationalism was not one idea, born from pacifism or war-weariness but rather an assortment of competing proposals which emerged from both national pragmatism and international idealism. The book chronicles the ‘battle of ideologies’, tracing the rivalry of internationalists such as Marx and Mazzini, Lenin and Wilson. Mazower also teases out the libertarian anxieties awakened by internationalism and by ever-growing technocracies and international bureaucracies. He traces the not necessarily opposing relationship between nationalism and internationalism, multilateralism and imperialism. Mazower uses the various political embodiments of internationalism to demonstrate that while organisations such as the League of Nations may have retained a Eurocentric approach while perpetuating an Anglo-French hegemony, once inaugurated international institutions and the idealism they inspire are difficult to restrain and often lead to something far different than what their founders intended. Mazower’s book is not only an excellent investigation into the figures, groups and movements that jostled for the realisation of their own specific and alienating brand of internationalism, it also draws out the context and underlying conditions that shaped those ideologies and which has hamstrung organisations from the Concert of Europe to the United Nations.  What lends Mazower’s account legitimacy as a work of objective scholarship is his insistence that history ‘does not proceed in straight lines’. For instance while idealistic liberal internationalists were keen to portray the transition from the League of Nations to the United Nations as the story of human progress, Mazower demonstrates the reactionary and regressive forces at work in the creation of the U.N. Security Council which was for Mazower, a return to nineteenth century Concert of Europe -style diplomacy. For any historian struggling with the great patchwork of internationalism, seeking to find coherency and clarity in the globalisation of world politics, the interconnection of world trade and social policy and the aspirations for a ‘post-political mingling of peoples’, Mazower provides  the perfect launchpad. This book would also make an excellent textbook for any history module introducing undergraduates to the evolution of internationalism and the development international organisations.



Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is broadly concerned with the ethos and practise of the League of Nations and with the evolution from pre to post-war internationalism.

Resources for historians: Foreign Relations of the United States


Historians of Irish Foreign Policy will be familiar with the work of the Royal Irish Academy to digitalise the papers of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Digitalisation projects such as this, which are often key term searchable, save considerable time, effort and resources for practicing historians, for both established scholars and students embarking on postgraduate theses. Digitalisation projects can never be expected to be complete or exhaustive with editorial input sometimes influencing the presentation and arrangement of primary sources and most historians (including this one!) would not be prepared to exclusively embrace digital sources in order to forgo the pleasure of traditional archival research. However the digitalisation of important sources marks the increasing and welcome tendency to ensure a greater democratisation and accessibility of academic research.

While a trip to Dublin’s National Archives may be within the means of most Irish historians, a research topic that encompasses international or transnational elements can be financially draining on scholars bereft of funding. Certainly few historians, let alone postgraduate students, could manage a research trip to Washington to comb the ambitions and reactions of the superpower that held such a pre-eminent position in post-war international affairs.

The Foreign Relations of the United States published series (FRUS) comprise the collated diplomatic correspondence, reports and memoranda of the U.S. State Department that have been declassified and edited for publication. A large cohort of these sources have also been digitalised and uploaded by the library of the University of Wisconsin. The digitalised collection of the University of Wisconsin begins with the Lincoln administration and covers over one hundred years of U.S. diplomatic history with a selection of post 1945 documents also made available online by the State Department and maintained by the University of Illinois at the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website.

The collection is presented in volumes arranged by subject area and year with a table of sources and abbreviations at the beginning of each volume. To access the documents on the University of Wisconsin page, browse their collections until you reach FRUS. There are two different methods of researching the material. You can browse the collection which will allow you to locate material by year and by subject. The subjects of the volumes are usually divided by the area of the world with which they are concerned e.g. the British Commonwealth, the American Republics, the Far East and Europe or by a particular event or organisation e.g. Conferences at Malta and Yalta (1945). This method would suit a researcher who is broadly interested in the practice and evolution of U.S. foreign policy. The collection includes the observations and reports of the U.S. diplomatic corps as well as the responses and accompanying reports of senior State Department staff. If you have a more specific research objective, the collection is also key word searchable. Ensure that when you select the ‘search’ option to limit your search to the FRUS catalogue rather than the entire collection of the University of Wisconsin. A Boolean search is essential to ensure a more exact match to your search time e.g. look for “League of Nations” rather than League of Nations. This method brings you to the precise pages within the volume in which your search term can be found.

FRUS portal


It is the back and forth and changing nature of the diplomatic correspondence in this collection that provides intriguing nuggets of information for historians. It is interesting to note what ideas and observations from diplomatic staff on the ground were accepted and taken on board by Washington and what was rejected and why. Engagement with this collection is an easy and rewarding experience for any scholar of twentieth century world history, a history undoubtedly shaped by the growing reach, confidence and increasingly globalist foreign policy of the United States.



Tracking the evolution of wartime internationalism: the London International Assembly


Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cecil of Chelwood (1864-1958)

Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cecil of Chelwood (1864-1958)

The Second World War is often erroneously identified as an interregnum for the type of international cooperation and consultation that was first inaugurated by the League of Nations (1919-46). While preserving the economic and social activities of the League, in December 1939 member states had voted to suspend the organisation’s political organs, the Assembly and Council, for the duration of the conflict thus creating a vacuum for multilateral debate against a backdrop of national mobilisations. The breach was filled in 1941 with the introduction of a new ‘London International Assembly’. Presiding over this project was the irrepressible British internationalist, Viscount Robert Cecil. As one of the British representatives at the Paris Peace Conference Cecil, a Conservative politician, contributed to the drafting of the Covenant and represented both Britain and South Africa at the League Assembly all the while rallying public opinion in support of the League. Cecil maintained that it would be ‘useless to win the war if we lose the peace’ and was convinced that the opportunity provided by the presence of so many exiled European statesmen in London should not be squandered. Meetings were arranged ‘to endeavour to reach something like a common mind on principles that should govern and inspire national and international policies after the war.’ The London International Assembly thus acted as a kind of informal substitute for the League Assembly, attended by those attached to the British government, its Dominions and members of the Allied communities (including embassy staff from the United States) gathered in London. While British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave the Assembly his blessings he feared it might interfere with his own negotiations with the Allied communities in London. Cecil, according to his private correspondence, assured Eden that the proposed meetings would be confined to discussion and would involve no resolutions of any kind. Eminent delegates attended in their personal capacities, not as government representatives. When the London International Assembly first convened it did so in closed sessions for the purpose of ‘study and discussion’ but by 1942 some of its monthly meetings were opened to the public and were attended by over 150 members. Prominent figures in the governments in exile, including Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian secretary of state for foreign affairs and René Cassin, the commissioner for justice and public instruction in the council of the Fighting French, became officers in the assembly, helping to ensure its smooth operation.

Despite Eden’s reservations, the Assembly did wade into very important and delicate issues under consideration by the Allied governments. Thes issues discussed included important problems for the post-war settlement such as future trials of war criminals, reparations, social and economic reconstruction and the prospect of a future international organisation. Cecil’s executive committee, however, decided ‘not to allow any discussion on [ultra sensitive] territorial questions.’ Cecil confided to Eden that the speeches made at the London Assembly reminded him ‘of the kind of earlier debates that used to take place at Geneva on the general principles of peace and cooperation.’  The press described the London International Assembly as a ‘kind of private, unofficial League of Nations.’ The Assembly effectively foreshadowed the first U.N. General Assembly of January 1946 with the Manchester Guardian predicting in September 1942 that it might ‘contain the seeds from which a new organisation may ultimately spring.’ Participation in the Assembly was limited to a ‘representative body of people from the Allied and friendly nations, very carefully chosen’. It is often forgotten that whereas neutral states such as Switzerland and the Irish Free State retained their membership of the League of Nations, the United Nations Organisation was, at first, the continuation of the wartime alliance system. The London International Assembly therefore embodied and articulated an important shift in the evolution of internationalism.

Further reading

Robert Cecil, All the way (London, 1949).

__________, The great experiment: an autobiography (London, 1941).

Mark Mazower, No enchanted palace: the end of empire and the ideological origins of the United Nations (Princeton, 2009).

Bio: Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is broadly concerned with the ethos and practice of the League of Nations and with the evolution from pre to post-war internationalism.

Book Review: A Scott Berg, Wilson (London, Simon and Schuster, 2013).

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

Over the years biographies of the twenty-eight president of the United States have wavered between hagiography and contempt. Common to both versions, Woodrow Wilson looms as a tragic figure who was either, depending on the competing historiography ascribed to, an idealistic prophet of the New World betrayed at the Paris Peace Conference by the vengeful political realism of his European contemporaries and congressional adversaries; or a blinkered academic who sought to impose a new international order without taking domestic constraints into account. Into this debate steps A. Scott Berg the American Pulitzer Prize winning biographer who tries and succeeds to inject some much needed historical nuance into the tired narrative of the Princeton professor who climbed down from the Ivory Tower to define a new direction for the modern Democratic Party. In his 700 page-long magisterial tome, Berg offers a painstakingly comprehensive portrait of Wilson, gleaned from his extensive mining of the Wilson archives. Berg is also the first biographer to be given access to the records of Wilson’s personal physician and to the private papers of his middle daughter, Jessie Wilson Sayre. The result is a highly personal account of a president that offers original insights into the motivations and inspiration behind his national and international policies. Berg insists on the importance of Wilson’s southern pride: though he only spent his infancy in Virginia, Wilson continued to hold fast to his association with a state that has produced more presidents than any other. Berg reminds us that Wilson was a child of Civil War/Reconstruction Era America; he had seen what defeat, humiliation and retribution could do to his ‘country’ and as Berg convincingly shows, these memories helped shape his approach to the Peace Treaty. Berg also uses personal papers, letters and correspondence to dispel the image of an enigmatic holy ascetic (in the Wasp rather than Roman mould) but rather presents us with a man who enjoyed limericks, golf and who courted and married his second wife, the vivacious Edith Galt, during his first term of office. Now and then Berg appears a little in awe of Wilson’s talents and intellect; unable, at times, to resist the iconography of Wilson as the tragic hero, broken by his failure to secure a ‘just peace’ or American membership of the League of Nations and prevented by a debilitating stroke from halting the slide back into Republican ‘normalcy’. Berg’s account would have benefited from greater engagement with the Makers of the Modern World series devoted the Paris Peace Conference. The authors of this series questioned the accepted centrality of Wilson to the Conference and, importantly, demonstrated that the greatest contribution to the Covenant of the League of Nations came from Britain and her dominions rather than from the brain of the American president. While Berg is correct to emphasise that it was Wilson, above all other leaders, who assumed the rallying cry for the League, he does little to acknowledge that it was Britain’s Robert Cecil and South Africa’s Jan Christiaan Smuts who put the meat on the bones. However Berg certainly does not shrink from the controversies of Wilson’s presidency: acknowledging his undoubted racism and chronicling the conspiracy of Edith Wilson effectively wielding executive power on behalf of her incapacitated husband. Overall this book provides a valuable panoramic view of early twentieth century American politics and of a presidency, party and republic in transition, capturing the fluctuations but growing confidence of American foreign policy. An excellent read for anyone interested in American or international history.

An Irish Wake for the League of Nations

Lester (centre) formally handing over League assets to UN representatives (Source: UN Library, Geneva)

Lester (centre) formally handing over League assets to UN representatives, July 1947 (Courtesy of the UN Library, Geneva)


On 18 April 1946 the League of Nations, a community of states bound to respect and protect the sovereignty of fellow members, ceased to exist as a political association. Eleven months after the end of hostilities in Europe and three months after the first General Assembly of the United Nations, the League’s forty-four member states gathered for the last time in League headquarters, the Palais des Nations,on the shores of Lake Geneva, to dissolve the organisation and to transfer the League’s assets as well as its work in social, economic and humanitarian cooperation, to the new United Nations Organisation (U.N.O.). This continuity in the international tradition allowed the aged Viscount Robert Cecil, one of the principal architects of the Covenant, to bring down the curtain on the League’s existence with the words: ‘The League is dead: Long live the United Nations.’

According to Time Magazine,the fact that an Irishman was at the apex of the League’s Secretariat ensured that the organisation was given a ‘real wake.’ Carrickfergus-born Secretary-General Seán Lester oversaw the dissolution and liquidation of the first ‘great experiment’ in international cooperation. A former journalist, revolutionary and official of the Department of External Affairs, Seán Lester’s rise to the highest echelons of the League Secretariat had been hastened by his steely turn as the League’s high commissioner for the Free City of Danzig (1933-7). Succeeding to the position of second-in-command at Geneva, Lester unexpectedly assumed the mantle of acting secretary-general in September 1940 when Secretary-General Joseph Avenol was obliged to leave the Palais des Nations under the cloud of his own pro-Vichy, pro-Axis, Anglophobic pronouncements. During the final League Assembly member states voted to formally confer upon Lester the full rights and responsibilities of secretary-general, making him the last ever official elected to this post and the first small-state national to rise to the very top of an international civil service.

Even in the earliest days of the war Lester was aware that the League was unlikely to come out of the conflict unscathed and intact; post-war internationalism, tempered by extreme politics and polarity, was likely to take a different form to the organisation so bound up with nineteenth-century liberalism. Lester instead hoped for ‘dissolution with dignity’. In trying political circumstances, receiving, in his own words, ‘more kicks than half-pence’, Lester and his Secretariat were able to preserve the League’s technical role as a ‘clearing house of ideas’, or advisory body of experts, for member states facing wartime social and economic dislocation and post-war reconstruction.

Snubbed by the Swiss federal and municipal authorities, Lester was determined to preserve a pragmatic and symbolic nucleus of peaceful international cooperation in the heart of Fortress Europe. As British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told Lester in 1942: keeping the flag flying in Geneva…….[has] a moral and political significance which could perhaps only be accurately measured if you were ever obliged to haul it down. It is an outward sign of the hollowness and transience of the German ‘New Order.’ Lester’s contribution was recognised by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 1945 when it conferred upon Lester its eponymous award for ‘distinguished service in maintaining throughout World War II the traditions and the organisation of the League of Nations.’ According to the Canadian delegate to the last Assembly, Lester assumed leadership of the Secretariat ‘in the darkest hours of modern history’ but persevered ‘in the midst of discouragement which would have made a lesser man resign in despair’.

Upon the liquidation of the League, Lester was approaching his sixtieth birthday and was worn out by the exertion and exile of the previous few years. He declined national and international offers to prolong his diplomatic career and retired to Ireland to indulge his passion for trout fishing. He died in Connemara in 1959.

Further Reading:

Stephen Barcroft, ‘The international civil servant: the League of Nations career of Seán Lester, 1929-47’ (PhD thesis, Trinity College, Dublin, 1973).

Douglas Gageby, The last secretary-general: Seán Lester and the League of Nations (Dublin, 1999).

Emma Edwards ‘The wartime experience of the League of Nations, 1939-47’ (PhD thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2013).

Michael Kennedy in Ireland and the League of Nations 1919-46: international relations, diplomacy and politics (Dublin, 1996).

Bio: Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is based broadly on the ethos and practice of the League of Nations and on the transition from pre to post-war internationalism.

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