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Amb. Wilbur Carr


Mr. Carr Goes to Prague
(Part II)

By Peter Bridges

Carr had spoken during the funeral with Jan Masaryk, the old president’s son, who had served as chargé d’affaires at Washington and was now, at fifty-one, Czechoslovak minister at London. Carr reported to Washington that Jan Masaryk told him that he had recently been assured by Joachim von Ribbentrop, German ambassador in London (soon to become Hitler’s foreign minister), that Germany had no intention of invading Czechoslovakia. Carr had nevertheless asked Masaryk whether, if Germany did attack, France would meet its treaty obligation to Czechoslovakia and attack Germany. Masaryk said that it would, and that England—which unlike France had no treaty obligation to Czechoslovakia—would be drawn in too.12 There was no question of America acting. The day before the Masaryk funeral, Cordell Hull had told the American Legion convention in New York that America must steer clear of ‘internationalism, which would mean . . . abandoning our traditional policy of non-entanglement and being drawn into the rivalries and disputes of other nations.’13

After the funeral Carr began calling on top Czechoslovak officials and on his diplomatic colleagues. He recorded in his diary on 3 October that Ernst Eisenlohr, the British-educated German minister, had told him in a friendly way—repeating what Secretary Hull had told Carr earlier—that Carr’s predecessor, Butler Wright, had unwisely tended to ignore the German equation in the Czechoslovak situation.14 President Benes told Carr that 1936 had been the crucial year; the danger of war had lessened. Most foreign representatives in Prague seemed to agree. But the situation depended largely on Hitler, and no one knew what he wanted. In early December 1937, Carr wrote in his diary that he was not content with what he heard, but that it was difficult ‘to form a judgment with which I feel fully satisfied.’ Carr did not know that a few days earlier William Bullitt, American ambassador in Paris, on a visit to Berlin after Ambassador Dodd’s departure, had been told flatly by Goering that the Sudeten Germans must enter the Reich.15

The crucial year turned out to be 1938. In February the  Anschluss joined Austria to Germany, lengthening by half Czechoslovakia’s border with Hitler’s Reich. The Sudetenland leader Konrad Henlein, acting on secret orders from Hitler, demanded an autonomous German national territory. Carr thought war a very real possibility. If war came, the only chance for Czechoslovakia would be for France and Britain to come to her assistance, which, Carr wrote in his diary in February, ‘I do not believe they can be depended upon to do.’ (The USSR also had a treaty obligation to come to the aid of Czechoslovakia—if France did.) In April, Carr drafted a report to the department expressing black views about Czechoslovakia’s future. He wrote in his diary on 8 April that he had shared his draft with other legation officers. His subordinates ‘thought my draft too strong and would prove alarming to the Dept . . . we toned it down.’ Prague despatch No.127 of 13 April reported that Czechoslovakia would clearly fight if attacked; that the Czechoslovaks had ‘continued faith’ that the French, British and Soviets would come to their aid; that ‘the fate of this country will be decided not here but in Paris and London.’ This was not enough for the minister, who wrote separately to Secretary Hull on 23 April that President Benes, an optimist, thought Henlein’s demands could be modified in negotiations. Not so Carr; he told Hull that Henlein’s demands ‘represent real demands of the German Reich intentionally made impossible of compliance . . . in order that non-compliance may form an excuse for intervention in some manner.’16

Europe did not go to war in 1938. Carr’s diary records a pleasant day in June when the American minister discussed the extraordinary situation with his trusted deputy Vinton Chapin. Things were quiet, people had a carefree look, and ‘we ourselves go about and gather information and telegraph it without excitement or emotion when we are dealing with things that may at any moment burst into flames and involve Europe in a war and destroy what we regard as civilization. It makes one shiver.’17

Carr might have shivered more if he had known of the letter which Bill Bullitt in Paris had sent to his friend Franklin Roosevelt on 20 May. Bullitt assumed that France would come to the aid of the Czechs, Britain would become involved, and the resulting war would destroy Europe. Bullitt thought it vital to get the French out of their commitment to the Czechs. In Bullitt’s view that need not cause chaos; if a German march on Prague proved imminent, FDR could call on all sides to work out a settlement.18

It did not come to a march in 1938. In July, Hitler sent word to London that he might under certain conditions delay action against Czechoslovakia. In August, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, sent Lord Runciman to Prague ostensibly to promote a compromise between Czechoslovaks and Sudetenlanders. A Czechoslovak official told Carr that Runciman ignored the Czechoslovaks and spent his weekends at the castles of the old Germanic nobility. Beyond that, Runciman pressured the Czechoslovaks to accept the Sudeten demands. Benes was prepared to go far in meeting these demands, but he could not go far enough; as Carr had surmised, Henlein did not want agreement. Negotiations broke off on 14 September. The next day Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet Hitler, and agreed with him on Sudetenland ‘self-determination.’ Returning to London, Chamberlain told his cabinet that Hitler, whom he thought could be trusted, had emphasized that he wanted only the Sudetenlanders, and no Czechs, in the Reich.19 Chamberlain then agreed with French premier Edouard Daladier on German annexation of the Sudeten areas; but when Chamberlain went back to see Hitler he found his terms harsher than anticipated. President Benes called in Carr on 25 September and told him that the Czechoslovaks were prepared to fight; the annexation Hitler wanted would rob Czechoslovakia of defensible borders and leave a state no longer viable economically or politically. Benes appealed to Roosevelt to urge Britain and France to stand by Czechoslovakia.20 For a moment it seemed they would do so.

But then Chamberlain told his people that he was prepared to see Hitler a third time; it was horrible to think of war ‘because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.’21 Hitler, who was now intent on invading Czechoslovakia despite serious misgivings on the part of his generals, invited Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini to Munich. The British and French betrayed the Czechoslovaks and agreed Hitler could annex both the Sudeten areas and areas with sizeable Czech populations.22 Poland and Hungary seized areas farther east that they had long claimed. Slovakia claimed autonomy. Benes resigned and left the country, after Carr quietly passed to him an invitation from the University of Chicago to lecture there for a year. Roosevelt and Hull cabled Carr their thanks for his reporting and representation during the crisis. Carr shared the messages with his entire American staff, saying that ‘Whatever credit is due . . . is due to you quite as much as to me.’23

It seemed that autumn that Czechoslovakia might survive. Carr reported to Washington that the country would need help from outside, but that the key factor was ‘their own will everywhere manifest to regain rehabilitation and reconstruction.’24 As the year wound down, though, so did hopes. By 20 December the minister was reporting that ‘present indications are not such as to inspire confidence in the permanency of the Czechoslovak state within its present boundaries.’25 On a snowy day in March 1939, the Wehrmacht occupied what was left of the country.26 Carr cabled the department that there were no longer any Czechoslovak officials with whom he could conduct business. On 20 March the department sent him the instructions he had anticipated, to close the legation and leave Prague at his convenience. On 6 April, after saying farewell to his Czech friends—and after carefully completing the required efficiency reports on all his American staff members—Wilbur Carr and his wife said goodbye to the Americans gathered in the legation courtyard. One officer, thirty-five-year-old George Kennan, was to stay on to look after the property and report on the Czech and Slovak situation to the Berlin embassy.

The Carrs drove out the Karlsbad road in sunshine and went on to a long vacation in western Europe. In August Wilbur Carr saw Bill Bullitt in Paris. Bullitt—whom Benes rightly suspected of having urged that the French back off from their commitment to the Czechoslovaks—blamed Benes, as Carr wrote in his diary, ‘for not making peace with Hitler by making maximum concessions early and then standing pat. . . . I said that I did not believe that any concessions that Benes would or could have made would have materially changed the result for Hitler quite evidently wanted control of C.S.’27

The Carrs sailed home, reaching New York on 31 August. The next day Hitler invaded Poland and a second world war began. Carr could not get Czechoslovakia out of his mind. Taking a train through the midwest that September, he was constantly contrasting the appearance of the countryside with that of Bohemia, where all the peaceful villages had flowers in the windows and geese in the pond nearby.28 Back in Washington, Carr joined the boards of the Community Chest, Garfield Hospital, and George Washington University, and worked in his beloved garden. Franklin Roosevelt wrote him a warm letter of thanks for his distinguished service both at home and abroad, as did Cordell Hull, who told him that ‘You may well take pride in the Foreign Service as it exists today, since the Service is in large measure the result of your vision and of the patient care which you brought to the realization of that vision.’29

Wilbur Carr fully deserved the president’s and the secretary’s thanks, both for his decades in the department and for his service in Prague. In Prague, the new American minister had swiftly come to know and understand the people who counted, from President Benes on down—Sudetenlanders as well as Czechoslovaks—and he had sent Washington a stream of informed, dispassionate analyses of a government and country in profound crisis. He had not succumbed to wishful thinking even when Czechoslovak leaders had done so. He had won the respect and affection of his American staff; decades later George Kennan would recall in  From Prague after Munich the ‘wise and kindly guidance’ the minister offered him.30 As a good diplomat, Wilbur Carr remained objective about Czechoslovakia; but he liked the Czechoslovaks. At the end of 1938 he had emphasized to Washington that although the Nazis might force the Czechoslovaks into totalitarian ways, their feelings toward America would remain those of friendship and respect.31 It was a comment his postwar successors would sometimes repeat about a Czechoslovakia then in thrall to Stalinism.

In May 1942 Carr’s health deteriorated. The doctors tried a scarce new drug called penicillin, but he died on 26 June 1942, at the age of seventy-one. He left no children, but he had fathered a great service, and at the end of his career he had gone abroad and proven himself as able a diplomat as all the others whose careers he, more than anyone else, had made possible.

Return to Mr. Carr Goes to Prague (Part I)


12. Carr manuscript biography, pp.423-4, in Wilbur J. Carr papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. This is apparently a draft by Katharine Crane, author of the biography  Mr. Carr of State (New York: St. Martin’, Press, 1960).

13. New York Times, 21 Sept.1937, p.16.

14. That Hitler may have doubted Eisenlohr’s loyalty is suggested by the fact that at one point in 1938 he contemplated staging his assassination as a pretext for military action against Prague. Cf. Igor Lukes,  Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996), p.139.

15. For the President: Personal and Secret. Correspondence Between Franklin D. Roosevelt and William C. Bullitt Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1972), p.239.

16. Carr manuscript biography, p.430, in Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

17. WJC diary, entry for 10 June 1938.

18.  For The President: Personal and Secret, pp.261-2.

19. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988), vol.2, p.340.

20. File 860F.00/586, Prague despatch 284 to Department of State, 31 Oct. 1938 (summarizing Prague telegram 234, 25 Sept.1938), National Archives.

21.  The Last Lion, vol.2, p.348. This sentence from Chambetlain’s BBC broadcast of 27 Sept.1939 is sometimes written with an exclamation point.

22. President Masaryk, now in his grave, had once thanked France and Britain before all others for helping Czechoslovkia to achieve political independence. T.G. Masaryk,  Svetova revoluce za valky a ve valce 1914-1918 (Prague: Cin a Orbis, 1930), p.512.

23. Prague telegram 235 to Department of State, 25 Sept. 1938, in Wilbur J. Carr’s 123 (Personnel) file, National Archives.

24. File 860F.001586, Prague despatch 284 to Department of State, 31 Oct. 1938, National Archives.

25. File 860F.00/589, Prague despatch 301 to Department of State, 20 Dec. 1938, National Archives.

26. The previous day, the American chargé d’affaires in London had reported to Washington that the British undersecretary of state for foreign affairs assumed that Hitler would intervene in Czechoslovakia in one form or another; the undersecretary had added coolly ‘that in his opinion events of this nature, at least in Germany’s sphere of influence, are to be expected.’ File 860F.00/633, London telegram 330 to Department of State, 14 March 1939, National Archives.

27. WJC diary, entry for 6 Aug.1939.

28. WJC diary, 11 Sept.1939.

29. Cordell Hull letter to Carr, 24 Aug. 1939, in Carr’s 123 file, National Archives.

30. Thomas Murray Wilson, who knew Carr for thirty years, never saw him lose his temper. Crane,  Mr. Carr of State, p.32.

31. Prague telegram 353 to Department of State, 31 Dec. 1938, in Carr’s 123 file, National Archives.

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

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