Review of Bernadette Whelan’s De Valera and Roosevelt: Irish and American diplomacy in times of crisis, 1932-39 by Ann Marie O’Brien

Review of Bernadette Whelan, De Valera and Roosevelt: Irish and American diplomacy in times of crisis, 1932-39 (Cambridge University Press: 2021).

The elections of the de Valera-led government in Ireland in 1932 and the Roosevelt administration in the US the following year sparked a new direction in the Irish-American relationship, influenced by national and international crises. In this beautifully crafted book Whelan has provided, through extensive research, a significant examination of the two male leaders, their leadership styles, their foreign and domestic policies and their attitudes towards each other’s countries. De Valera and Roosevelt guided their countries through the turmoil of the 1930s, which included economic hardship and the rise of Nazism and fascism. Through the prism of US-Irish diplomacy, Whelan steers us through the Irish-American relationship, examining diplomatic life and the foreign policies pursued by each government. In doing so, Whelan explains how both men moved their country towards neutrality in 1939. 

Using a thematic approach, Whelan has divided the book into two sections. Part I focusses on what Joseph Nye has coined ‘soft diplomacy’, that is the practice of non-formal diplomacy which encompasses culture, socialising, entertainment and the public life of the diplomat. Whelan examines the lives of the diplomats in both Ireland and the United States and how they created circles of influence through soft diplomacy. Part II explores the de Valera and Roosevelt regimes in Ireland and the US respectively, ending with 1939 and the onset of the Second World War. The election of de Valera to office in 1932 and the fear of violence that the transition of power from Cumann na nGaedheal to Fianna Fáil could potentially create is a well-known facet of Irish history. However, Whelan has shed new light on this period by analysing the reactions of US officials to the subsequent dismantling of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Irish government from 1932, including the removal of the oath of allegiance and the non-payment of the land annuities to Great Britain. While the Cumann na nGaedheal government (in power since 1922) was characterised by US officials as ‘sane, realistic and practical’ (p. 216), in contrast de Valera was regarded as ‘radical, republican [and] tainted with communism’ (p. 210). The US Minister and Consul General in Dublin and Cork respectively, monitored the Fianna Fáil government and reported on the Anglo-Irish relationship to the State Department, demonstrating that the Irish-American official relationship was bound up with Ireland’s connection with Great Britain.

It is the first section of this book however, that will be of most interest to WHAI members. There is a small but growing literature on the role of the diplomatic spouse internationally, however the historiography in the Irish context does not exist. Whelan has filled this gap by examining the roles played by diplomatic spouses in their husbands’ (diplomats in both Ireland and the US in this period were all male) host countries. Whelan points out that 

Even though Secretary [Joseph] Walshe in External Affairs regarded the diplomatic spouse with “disdain”, the reality was that the diplomat’s spouse assisted with his work, specifically the development of social relationships, locally and more generally, with the promotion of the host country (pp 118-119). 

Indeed, diplomatic wives, as they were termed in this period, were invaluable supports to their husbands and assisted in the social and entertainment aspect which is essential to the practice of diplomacy. 

In 1928 Michael and Paula MacWhite arrived in Washington D.C. Michael was appointed Irish Minister, while his Danish wife was a well-known and accomplished artist. The social scene in Washington D.C. was intrinsically linked to the official diplomatic one, and the MacWhites immediately became involved in creating what Whelan has termed ‘circles of influence’. Through dinners, lunches, ‘at homes’ and receptions, the MacWhites acquired social capital in Washington D.C. The social exuberance of the Roosevelts from 1933, and Eleanor’s skills as a hostess in particular, assisted the MacWhites in making contacts with almost ‘everybody “known” in official diplomatic and social Washington D.C.’ (p. 121). Paula’s talents as a gracious hostess were also commented upon: ‘she [Paula] fulfilled her job as “chefess de Mission” in a very thorough manner: her cards; her at homes; her dinners and lunches for important men and women important to Ireland and her husband’ (p. 120). It is clear that the social aspect was an important feature of diplomacy in Washington D.C., and the diplomatic wife’s assistance with the rigours of entertainment was invaluable. 

In 1938 MacWhite was replaced as Minister in Washington D.C. with Robert Brennan. Brennan and his wife, Una, were members of the old anti-Treaty guard, republican and close friends with de Valera. While the Brennans were not as eager to host receptions as the MacWhites, they did understand the importance of entertaining and ‘Una entertained when required and accompanied her husband to events’ (p. 122). Una Brennan’s diplomatic strength lay in her ability to make and maintain friendships with people important to the Irish mission in Washington D.C., including Lady Lindsay, wife of the British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Ronald Lindsay. As a former journalist Una was also in a prime position to make contacts with American female journalists, particularly from the Washington Post, Washington News and Washington Star. These journalists were useful contacts for Brennan’s propaganda work and the press were invited to official legation events. Whelan has correctly assessed that ‘Such personal and unofficial connections allowed him [Brennan] to regularly meet and brief journalists’ (p. 157). This proved to be most beneficial when discussing the reasons for Ireland’s neutrality in 1939.

Across the Atlantic, US diplomats were also immersed in soft diplomacy. Despite Ireland’s size and minor political importance to US foreign policy, the two countries had a ‘special relationship’ augmented by the size of the Irish diaspora in the US  and the American officials and politicians visiting Ireland. Therefore, the US legation in Ireland was housed in Phoenix Park, a residence that ‘was unique and befitted the status of the US minister and his government’ (p. 75). The residence could hold hundreds of guests and important celebrations, such as 4 July, were elaborate events that members of the Irish government and cabinet attended. Indeed, these annual receptions were used ‘to garner attention in the host country to gather important dignitaries together and to emphasise the close ties between the two countries’ (p. 79).

Similar to their counterparts in the US, the wives of American diplomats in Ireland also attempted to build circles of influence in Dublin. The social demands of the US legation in Dublin could be challenging. US diplomats and their wives were invited to ‘all principle official and social receptions along with private dinners, luncheons, tea and bridge parties’. The consul general, as well as the Minister, was expected to reciprocate social events and Consul General Henry Balch and his wife ‘gave an average of six formal dinners each year comprising fourteen guests, two receptions, seventy small informal dinners, luncheons, tea and bridge parties…’ (p. 76).

 Lucy Owsley, wife of US Minister in Ireland, Alvin Owsley, was possibly the most visible diplomatic wife in this period. The Owsleys were appointed in 1935 and became friendly with the quiet and reserved de Valeras. Lucy, with the help of another US diplomatic wife, Phyllis Orr Denby, did her homework on Éamon and Sinéad de Valera, learning about their revolutionary past, interests and hobbies. The de Valeras were invited to receptions and ‘at homes’ hosted by the Owsleys and Whelan found that ‘Through informal engagement, the Owsleys gained perceptive insights into the de Valeras’ lifestyles and personalities that helped legitimise and normalise the leader from being a radical, revolutionary to a constitutional politician and leader’ (p. 82).

De Valera and Roosevelt: Irish and American diplomacy in times of crisis, 1932-1939 provides a comprehensive insight into the US-Irish relationship in this period. The 1930s were a difficult decade for Irish-American diplomacy, but the energy and dedication of the wives assisted in the smooth running of soft diplomacy in both countries. This book is predominantly focussed on US-Irish diplomacy in general and the foreign policies of the de Valera and Roosevelt administrations which will appeal to a broad audience with an interest in Irish diplomatic history. Gender historians will also find this book appealing through its unique insights into the diplomatic lifestyle. Whelan, through the lens of soft diplomacy, has provided an inside look at the running of official legations and the heavy burden placed on diplomatic spouses in this period, which was hitherto unknown in the Irish context. 

Ann Marie O’Brien is the Book Reviews Editor for the Women’s History Association of Ireland. She has published in national and international journals on Irish diplomatic history and her book, The Ideal diplomat? Women and Irish foreign affairs, 1946-90, was published by Four Courts Press in 2020.