George Strausser Messersmith (October 3, 1883 – January 29, 1960) was a United States ambassador to Austria, Cuba, Mexico and Argentina. Messersmith also served as head of the U.S. Consulate in Germany from 1930 to 1934, during the rise of the Nazi party.
He was best known in his day for his controversial decision to issue a visa to Albert Einstein to travel to the United States. He is also known today for his diplomatic handling of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, later Duke and Duchess of Windsor, in the era leading up to World War II.
Education and early career
Messersmith, a graduate of Keystone State Normal School, was a teacher, then school administrator, from 1900 until he entered the foreign service in 1914. That year, he left his position as vice president of the Delaware State Board of Education to become U.S. consul in Fort Erie, Ontario. After serving as a U.S. consul at Curacao (1916–1919), and Antwerp (1919–1925), he became U.S. Consul General for Belgium and Luxembourg in 1925. He served as U.S. consul general in Buenos Aires, Argentina from 1928 to 1930.
Consul for Berlin
In 1930, Messersmith left his position in Argentina to accept the same position in Berlin. There, he became responsible for administering the annual German quota.
While he did not personally interview Albert Einstein, Messersmith cleared the way for the scientist to leave Germany. He called Einstein himself to tell him that his visa would be ready. He was viciously criticized by conservative groups and media for his action to issue a visa to Einstein. Messersmith received significant notoriety in late 1932 due to the incident.
Messersmith told the American consuls in Europe that any refugee or immigrant requesting a visa to enter the U.S. must have sufficient funds and property to support themselves.
As America's consul general in Berlin in 1933, Messersmith wrote a dispatch to the State Department that dramatically contravened the popular view that Hitler had no consensus among the German people and would not remain in power, saying,
I wish it were really possible to make our people at home understand how definitely this martial spirit is being developed in Germany. If this government remains in power for another year, and it carries on in the measure in this direction, it will go far toward making Germany a danger to world peace for years to come. With few exceptions, the men who are running the government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere."
Minister to Austria
His service in Germany ended in February, 1934, when President Roosevelt nominated him to be U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay, only to renominate him the next month as Minister to Austria before his service in Uruguay could begin.
On January 17, 1935, Edward Albert, then the Prince of Wales, was visiting Vienna on vacation with his new mistress, Wallis Simpson. While Simpson went off shopping, the Prince met with President Miklas and Chancellor von Schuschnigg of Austria. Messersmith had spies at the meeting, who reported through him to the State Department on the meeting's goal of solidifying the Balkan Entente.
When Edward abdicated his throne in December 1936, he visited Messersmith in Vienna, who spied on him and made "what amounted to a detailed watching brief on the duke." They became friends, even attending Christmas day services together later that month.
Messersmith continued to socialize with the former King, attending a concert by soprano Joan Hammond on February 3, 1937. That month, the Duke confided in him that the Earl of Harewood, his brother-in-law, had treated him "shabbily." After they were married in June 1937, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor honeymooned in Austria; at that time, the Duchess confided to Messersmith about her bitterness towards the American media. In return, Messersmith accidentally leaked through the Windsors that the Americans knew that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had secret connections as early as that month. When Messersmith returned to Washington, DC in August 1937, he informed the British authorities that the Windsors had Nazi connections, which "would seriously affect the Windsors' entire future."
Later career and legacy
From 1937 to 1940, between his appointments as Minister to Austria and Ambassador to Cuba, he served as a United States assistant secretary of state. As chief of the Foreign Service Promotion Board, Messersmith had to go over all appointments with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in the process learned that the President had excellent intelligence on several problematic foreign service officers, including who had alcohol problems or affairs.
While Messersmith served as United States Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Cuba, he wrote a report on March 4, 1941 about the Windsors' friend, James D. Mooney, critical of the General Motors executive's opinions against England. He considered that Mooney was "dangerous ... for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to be associated with." Regretably, the Windsors visited Mooney in Detroit in November 1941, the month before the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
Later, he was appointed Minister to Mexico, where he passed on information about the Windsors' Nazi connections to Assistant Secretary of State Adolph A. Berle. Messersmith "no longer adhered to his moderate view of the duke and duchess."
Following the forced resignation of Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles in 1943, Messersmith (then Ambassador to Mexico) was rumored to be on a short list of candidates to succeed him, but President Roosevelt instead selected future Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr..
The George S. Messersmith papers collection has been digitized and made available to researchers by the University of Delaware. The digitization project was made possible through a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).