Every so often, I read a biography and wonder: How have I never heard of this person before? Exiled Emissary: George H. Earle III, Soldier, Sailor, Diplomat, Governor, Spy by Christopher J. Farrell is one of those. George Earle III (1890-1974) was a patrician, a politician, a diplomat, and one of only two Democrats to serve as governor of Pennsylvania between the American Civil War and the Second World War. During that period, he managed to involve himself in nearly every major historical event, and his front-row seat to the unfolding conflicts of the 20th century transformed him from FDR’s man abroad to an avowed anti-Communist who maybe—just maybe—could have played a role in changing the course of history.
After serving in the First World War, Earle became one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed him minister to Austria, and he promptly developed a close relationship with Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, the man who suppressed both the socialists and the Austrian Nazi Party in an attempt to stabilize his country. From Austria, Earle sent regular, detailed reports to FDR on the brawls between the Nazis and other political factions. Earle saw the Nazi threat early and gained a reputation for being on the front lines of battle while gun smoke was still hanging in the air, insisting on seeing the conflicts for himself in order to report on events firsthand. Dolfuss was assassinated shortly after Earle left in 1934.
Earle ran for governor of Pennsylvania that year, where he distinguished himself as a broker of bipartisan deals and signed an equal rights bill that “enable[d] any Negro in Pennsylvania to bring suit for damages if he is discriminated against by a hotel, restaurant, shop, or theatre” well before the civil rights movement broke through American consciousness. Farrell’s biography describes an extinct species—a muscular liberal and hardcore anti-Communist who was keenly aware of the dangers of the Left. It is interesting to read about a man like Earle in an era where, according to modern progressives, there are mere inches between calling for tax cuts and becoming Hitler.
In 1940, Earle was appointed FDR’s minister to Bulgaria. His personal charisma and genius for friendship landed him relationships with King Boris and Foreign Minister Haralan Popoff, sending detailed notes on their conversations with Hitler, Ribbentrop, and the Nazi inner circle back to FDR (the Germans badly wanted the Balkan oil fields). Farrell relates one interesting tidbit in which Earle had a personal confrontation with Hitler—at least as reported by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania:
A year into his assignment the former Pennsylvania governor made headlines when he purportedly told Adolf Hitler during a private meeting that “I have nothing against the Germans, I just don’t like you.”
Regardless of whether that incident actually took place, Earle’s other confrontations with Nazis make it at least believable, as his diplomacy was frequently physical. In February 1941, for example, Earle took part in what one reporter called “The Battle of the Bottles in the Balkans.” Both the Allies and the Nazis had personnel stationed in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, and the spies and diplomats of both sides frequented the same establishments. One night, Earle asked the band at the bar to play “Tipperary.” This greatly offended the Nazis, which greatly gratified him. According to Earle’s account, a Nazi tried to wallop him with a wine bottle while he made his way to the loo, and this “unprovoked attack irritated me considerably,” so “I smashed him in the face, knocking him down and causing his face to bleed.”
An immediate brawl erupted in which the Bulgarians rallied to Earle and the Germans joined their wounded compatriot, with Earle eventually getting hustled out of the bar. This caused a press sensation on both sides of the Atlantic; the Los Angeles Times ran an article under the headline: “Nazi Beaten by Earle, Envoy, Reported Dying,” which alleged that Earle had fractured the Nazi’s skull. The severity of Earle’s beating was unconfirmed, but he likely put the man in the hospital. The Nazi press branded him a criminal and an enemy, a designation exacerbated by another scuffle in Sofia which resulted in a German soldier trying to pull him out of his car by his leg. Earle kicked the man, gave his companion a “straight left to the jaw,” and then turned his car around and tried to run them down. “I chased them up on the sidewalk with my small car,” the diplomat related. “They got in a doorway and I couldn’t get at them, so I drove home.”
Earle’s time in Bulgaria ended with a bang. Six days after Pearl Harbor, a mob of hundreds of youth descended on the American Legation with rocks, bricks, and sticks. They began smashing glass, and Earle promptly headed for a window with his lever-action Winchester rifle. Two terrified staff wrestled him to the ground and pried the gun out of his hands. King Boris visited him shortly thereafter and sent him off to Istanbul in his private car. According to the German press, Earle arrived in Turkey with
thirty-eight pieces of luggage, bags and boxes contained over a hundred bottles of toilet water, distilled especially for him from Bulgaria’s fragrant rose petals, and an enormous collection of jeweled cigarette cases, old gold coins, antique icons and other church artifacts. Although he had to leave behind … a tamed cheetah, he brought his three dachshunds and … a willowy blonde cabaret dancer.
In Istanbul, Earle again found himself in a front-row seat to history. As he would later describe it in a Human Events essay in 1960 titled “Roosevelt’s Fatal Error and How I Tried to Prevent It,” Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris reached out to him after the disaster at Stalingrad to determine whether the Americans would be willing to cut a deal if a group of German intelligentsia killed or captured Hitler and worked with the Allies to keep the Red Army out of central Europe. According to Earle—and Farrell—the German resistance wanted to approach FDR with this plan, which was confirmed by an April 1944 cable from OSS Bern Station Chief Allen Dulles, who noted that: “The principal motive for their action is the ardent desire to prevent Central Europe from coming ideologically and factually under the control of Russia.”
According to Earle, Canaris met with him directly in his Istanbul hotel, stating that FDR’s expressed position on Germany’s unconditional surrender was untenable: “This means war to the end, the destruction of Germany as a military power, and the emergence of Russia as the dominating force in Europe.” This was the chief of German intelligence personally approaching an emissary of the United States and a then-friend of the president. If it occurred as Earle describes, Farrell notes, it is one of the least known but most fantastic espionage events of the war.
FDR, of course, was infamously taken in by Joseph Stalin and failed to recognize the Soviet threat. Earle’s dispatch to FDR received no response, and when Canaris reapproached Earle via a phone call, he had nothing to offer. Silence—FDR’s preferred tactic for avoiding conversations he did not wish to have—was the answer. Earle also had clandestine meetings with German diplomat Kurt von Lersner, who asked Earle if the Americans would come to the bargaining table, outlining a plot to kidnap Hitler and Himmler in a coup facilitated by the military. This, the German resistance hoped, could keep Stalin out of Germany. Earle’s urgent reports on these meetings to FDR received a short response: “All such applications for a negotiated peace should be referred to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower.” Earle took up a campaign of letter writing to FDR from Istanbul, warning about the Bolshevik threat.
The breakdown of a once fruitful relationship came when FDR received Earle’s report on the Katyń massacre, in which thousands of members of the Polish intelligentsia were systematically murdered by the Soviets. Earle, using his extensive network of contacts, came to the correct conclusion (the Soviets would not admit to the massacre until 1990). FDR rejected this out of hand, stating that the Nazis were responsible, and ordered Earle’s findings suppressed. He asked FDR for permission to publish his report, but FDR demanded he desist. Earle was then exiled by the president to American Samoa, where he served as assistant governor. FDR died in 1945, and Earle returned to the United States. He intervened on behalf of several on trial at Nuremberg based on his inside knowledge of their actions, and became president of the American Anti-Communist Association, passionately exposing the atrocities at Katyń and the lies of Soviet propaganda. One propaganda piece that particularly outraged him was a photo of Babe Ruth smiling down at a little boy—with a Russian caption indicating that this big brute was about to club the child to death.
Exiled Envoy is a remarkable biography of a remarkable man that presents a startling counterfactual: What if FDR and the Allies had been willing to consider a deal with the German resistance? Could the war have ended earlier? Could the Cold War itself have been largely avoided? Did millions suffer for decades behind the Iron Curtain because the reports of Earle and others were ignored or dismissed? Farrell certainly thinks so, and his analysis of FDR is damning. He quotes B.H. Liddell Hart’s summation of his interviews with German officers after the war:
All to whom I talked dwelt on the effect of the Allies’ ‘unconditional surrender’ policy in prolonging the war. They told me that but for this they and their troops—the factor that was more important—would have been ready to surrender sooner, separately, or collectively.
That, of course, did not happen. Instead, Hitler survived the botched bomb plot of July 20, 1944, and the Gestapo arrested 7,000 people, 4,980 of whom were executed in the aftermath—Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was shot on July 21. Wilhelm Canaris was executed naked by hanging on April 9, 1945, at Flossenbürg concentration camp, 21 days before Hitler bit poison and shot himself in the mouth. We will never know what might have been, or even if it would have been possible to cut a deal with the German resistance at that late stage of the war. Earle thought so, and for the rest of his life thought Franklin Delano Roosevelt responsible for much of the postwar chaos and Communist takeover. Farrell’s biography leaves us with that question and an inarguable conclusion: “We are all a little better off knowing George Earle.”