American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 1998

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After studying at Dartmouth College and Columbia University, and serving in the U.S. army, Peter Bridges served as a career U.S. Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1986, with postings to Panama, Washington, Moscow, Prague, and Rome, in addition to assignment as ambassador to Somalia. Since retirement, he has been active in both the public and private sectors, including a stint in Prague with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Amb. Bridges' description of his own experience as Chief of Mission, "SAFIRKA: Envoy to Somalia," was carried in the Spring 1998 issue of American Diplomacy.

~ Ed.

Amb. Wilbur Carr
Amb. Wilbur Carr


Mr. Carr Goes to Prague

By Peter Bridges

The United States Congress created the position of secretary of state in 1789. From then until the coming of the Second World War in 1939, secretaries came and went with rapidity, almost four dozen in a century and a half. For much of this period, continuity and efficiency in the State Department were provided by three great civil servants: William Hunter, who entered the department in 1829 and died as second assistant secretary in 1886; AIvey Adee, who entered the department in 1878 and served as assistant secretary almost until the day of his death in 1924; and Wilbur Carr, who first entered the department as a young clerk in 1892. Carr, perhaps the greatest of the three, ended his career in 1939 in a way he could not have foreseen in earlier years.

He went to see the secretary one day in June 1937. Cordell Hull asked him to sit down and said to him rapidly: ‘Well, it seems to have come to this. The President wants you to go to Prague. It is now one of the most important posts in Europe . . . really more important than Berlin. Now you know all about it . . . . You have a unique record here, having been here all these years and never a breath against you.”1

The secretary of state apparently expected the conversation to end there, but Wilbur Carr was not going to accept the offer immediately. Carr told Hull that he needed to think this over, and discuss it with his wife. He would not want to take a post away from some deserving younger man. There had been a scandal back in 1926, when members of the personnel board had been given missions abroad in order to get rid of them. He would not want to put himself in that position.

Carr went back to his office and recorded the conversation with Hull in his little pocket diary. Carr knew it was time to go. He had spent forty-five years in the great Victorian building next to the White House. He had begun as a shorthand clerk at a thousand dollars a year, and gained two law degrees through evening study—evenings he did not go back to the department after dinner, or practice on his violin, or sit up late reading into things he knew little about, like Russia or Richelieu. Hard work paid off. At the age of thirty-seven, in 1907, Wilbur Carr became chief clerk of the department: no clerical job, but head of the State Department’s administrative machinery. He became director of the consular service in 1909, and assistant secretary in 1924. Through his drive for reform and professionalism, he had become the father of the American foreign service. He had started working on reform of the separate diplomatic and consular services when, in his twenties, he was disturbed by corrupt political appointments. He was the main force behind congressman John Jacob Rogers’ bill which in 1924 created a unified career foreign service. Carr pushed successfully for entrance into the unified service only by examination, promotion only on the basis of efficiency, and interchange between diplomatic and consular jobs for officers already on board. It was hard slog. There were officers from the old diplomatic service—rich men who had gone to Groton and Yale, while Carr had gone to country schools in Ohio and commercial college in Kentucky—who thought consuls belonged to a lower class. One senior diplomat, Hugh Gibson, was quoted as saying that the best picture of a sweating man was a consul at a diplomatic dinner. Gibson and others like him continued to fight, with considerable success, to keep consuls from getting top diplomatic appointments.2 Nor had the diplomatic spoils system been abolished. In the summer of 1937 there were fifty-six American embassies and legations, headed respectively by ambassadors and ministers, and twenty-six of these chiefs of mission were political appointees.

Carr would turn sixty-seven in October 1937. He was in fine shape, but the retirement age was sixty-five and he had been kept on only through an executive order by President Roosevelt. The president seemed to like him, but the situation in the State Department was bad. Hull kept his own counsel; other officers of the department seldom knew what he was doing or thinking. Sumner Welles, the undersecretary, was the same, and went around Hull to his friend the president. Several weeks before Hull offered him the Prague legation, Carr had written in his diary: ‘I see nothing but bleakness ahead. The actions of Welles and Hull . . . leave me no alternative but to believe that I am not trusted. . . . I should not be surprised at any time to be asked to leave . . . no one is happy, no one is trusted, no one is informed. The worst administered Dept. I have ever seen.’3

It was not the first time Carr had felt such bleakness. A quarter century earlier, Carr had confided to his diary that the department was in ‘a chaotic state’ under Secretary William Jennings Bryan, who knew little about diplomacy and seemed unwilling to learn. Bryan had told Carr frankly that he wanted to use the consular service to provide places for department officials whom he could then replace with political appointments. Carr suspected that he himself was one of those whom Bryan intended to replace.4

Carr had thought seriously about leaving government service then, and he had learned after Bryan left the State Department that Bryan had in fact wanted to get rid of him.5 But he had stayed on in 1915, and he decided against retiring now in 1937. After thinking things over for three days, and noting briefly in his diary that ‘our house appeals to us,’6 Carr told the secretary of state that he would be pleased to accept appointment as the American minister to Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak government agreed quickly to the appointment, which was announced on 2 July 1937 by Cordell Hull, who called Carr ‘one of the ablest and most capable assistant secretaries in the history of the department.’7 Other appointments announced the same day included J. Butler Wright, the minister at Prague who was to become ambassador at Havana, and George Messersmith, minister at Vienna, who would replace Wilbur Carr in the department. All those appointed were career officers. The  New York Times urged the president to go further and ‘declare his intention to designate only trained diplomatists even for the highest offices . . . [and] overcome the demoralizing practice of using such posts as London, Paris, Berlin and Rome as rewards for political support.’8 One wonders what the editors would have thought if they could have known that the marvellous child star Shirley Temple would, decades later, be given political appointments as ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia.

As Wilbur Carr had noted in his diary, it was difficult for the Carrs to leave their pleasant house and garden on Wyoming Avenue. Carr’s first wife had died; his subsequent marriage to Edith Koon, daughter of a prosperous Michigan lawyer, had made it possible to buy this house. On the eve of departure Carr wrote in his diary that he still felt bad about using his wife’s money. Butler Wright, on his way to Havana, came to dinner and told the Carrs that they would be moving into a lovely residence in Prague. Wright told Carr that he should be able to live on his 1,000 dollar salary; there was not much entertaining to do. But had Wright been as active as he should? Hull and Welles had each told Carr that Wright’s reporting from Prague left something to be desired.9

At the end of August 1937 the Carrs sailed for Europe. Trouble loomed. The previous year Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, created the Rome-Berlin Axis, and signed the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan. Austria had already been the object of an unsuccessful Nazi coup in 1934. Just across the borders of both Germany and Austria was the prosperous Czechoslovak Republic, created in 1918 on the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was largely the creation of one man, Tomas G. Masaryk, who like Wilbur Carr had risen from humble circumstances. Czechoslovakia was a leading industrialized nation, and a democracy on a continent of blooming dictatorships. It was, however, vulnerable. The westernmost region, Bohemia, had upland borders with Germany and Austria which Czechoslovakia had strongly fortified. But within those borders lay large ethnic German groups, the Sudetenlanders, comprising twenty-three percent of Czechstovakia’s population. The republic had united the Czechs with the Slovaks, but the Slovaks were restive within a republic largely administered from Prague. Masaryk had finally retired from the presidency of the republic in 1935 at the age of eighty-five. Masaryk’s longtime collaborator Edvard Benes had succeeded him; but Benes, although he had long served as foreign minister and even for a time as prime minister, did not equal the tall old president-liberator in either physical or political stature.

Carr approached Prague with the full realization that he knew the world mainly from Washington—although his first trip to Europe had been years ago, during the World War, when he had spent two months inspecting American posts on both sides of the firing line. Carr had become interested in the Czechs long ago through his Czech-American violin teacher Anton Kaspar, who had studied in Prague, and the Carrs had vacationed in Prague in 1936. Now, in 1937, most Washington experts seemed to think war could be averted. On 29 July Carr wrote in his diary that he respected others’ views, but would not be surprised if he found on reaching Prague that the Germans had taken over.

Carr stopped in Berlin en route to Prague. The American ambassador there, William Dodd, thought Hitler was bound on conquest. But Dodd was in the United States when Carr reached Berlin, and others in the embassy (and the Czechoslovak chargé d’affaires, whom Carr called on) shared the relative optimism of those in Washington. Dodd, a Chicago professor, was thought to be not entirely objective in his views of Nazi Germany. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had written in his diary in December 1935 that the president, telling the cabinet of a pessimistic letter from Dodd, added that ‘some allowance must be made for Dodd’s intense prejudice against Hitler.’10

The Prague legation’s Czech driver Otto came to Berlin to pick up the Carrs. Reaching the German-Czechoslovak frontier, they found massive concrete barriers on the Czechoslovak side, through which their car had to zig-zag at a crawl. Carr drew a little sketch of them in his diary, noting that there were undoubtedly heavy fortifications in the thick woods beyond the road. They continued on through the peaceful Bohemian countryside and reached Prague in early evening. The Carrs’ residence in the 140-room Schoenborn Palace, which also housed the legation offices, was as lovely as Butler Wright had said. Behind the Carrs’ apartment, seven acres of gardens stretched uphill to a belvedere from which they saw the great Prague Castle rising above them on its ridge.

Minister Carr went to work in Prague on Friday morning, 10 September 1937, and learned that President Benes had left for his country house in Slovakia. This would delay Carr’s presentation of credentials, and until then he could not function fully. But on Sunday, ex-President Masaryk’s condition worsened; Benes returned to Prague. On Tuesday Masaryk died and the country was plunged into mourning. Benes received Carr on Thursday, welcoming him warmly and emphasizing that Carr should realize that the Czechoslovak government would exercise great caution in order to avoid excuses for aggression by Germany.11

Now Wilbur Carr was in every sense the American minister. He needed something more. Masaryk’s funeral would be the biggest event ever seen in the young Republic. France would be represented by former prime minister Leon Blum. The prime ministers were coming from both Romania and Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia’s partners in the little entente. King George VI was sending Earl Winterton from London. Carr recommended to Washington that he be named President Roosevelt’s special representative for the funeral. Washington agreed.

The funeral was held on Tuesday, 21 September. The people of Prague filled the streets, together with hundreds of thousands of others from every part of the Republic. At eleven a.m. the great cathedral bell tolled. The coffin was carried out of the castle and placed on a gun carriage in the courtyard. The procession began, Wilbur Carr and the other chief foreign representatives walking just behind the gun carriage. They walked for two hours through the streets of grieving people. Funerals were sad and yet, Carr wrote in his diary, it was ‘a wonderful day in its interest, its revelations, its significance.’

Continue reading Mr. Carr Goes to Prague (Part II)


1. Entry for 21 June 1937 in Carr’s diary in the Wilbur J. Carr papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. These papers include personal diaries kept by Carr from 1896 until 1942.

2. See the account by Waldo H. Heinrichs, Jr., in his  American Ambassador: Joseph C. Grew and the Development of the United States Diplomatic Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1966), pp.98—223.

3. WJC papers, Library of Congress. Diary entry for 24 May 1937.

4. WJC diary, 12 April 1913. Also see entry for 28 April 1914.

5. WJC diary, 11 June 1915.

6. WJC diary 23 June 1937

7. New York Times, l3 July 1937, p.13.

8. Ibid., lO July 1937, p.14.

9. WJC diary entries for 24 June 1937 and 19 August 1937.

10. See the three volumes of The Secret Diary.of Harold L. Ickes  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955) for this and other insights into Roosevelt administration views on the
European situation.

11. File 860F.00/452, Prague despatch 23 to Department of State, 26 Oct.1937, National Archives, Washington DC, mentions Benes’ statements at Carr’s first meeting with him, which Carr presumably reported in an earlier message but which the author has not found.

Originally published in  Dip!omacy & Statecraft, Vol.8, No.3 (November 1997). Reprinted by permission.

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