No. 40  NAI DFA Secretary's Files P35

Letter from Robert Brennan to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(Confidential) (108/18/41)

WASHINGTON, 10 April 1941

When Mr. Aiken and I called on President Roosevelt on the 7th April, Mr. Roosevelt opened by inquiring cordially about Mr. de Valera's health. He recalled his first meeting with Mr. de Valera in 1919 or 1920, when he had been asked to advise on the matter of raising the Republican Loan without coming into conflict with U.S. laws. He recalled the raising of the loan that nobody expected to be repaid, and the magnificent gesture of the Irish Government in repaying the loan with interest. He also said that he had been partly instrumental in sending Mr. Martin Glynn of New York1 to negotiate a settlement between the British and Irish in 1921, and he believed he had a lot to do with the settlement. He also alluded to the splendid progress made by the Irish Government in their economic programme. Mr. Aiken proceeded to give an idea as to how matters stood in Ireland. He said that 99% of the people were in favour of neutrality, but that, if Ireland was attacked, she intended to defend herself, and for that reason he wanted to get certain equipment, a list of which he had handed into the State Department, and also a supply of wheat and other commodities. The President interrupted to say that he believed in being perfectly frank. He said 'you are reported as having said that the Irish had nothing to fear from a German victory'. Mr. Aiken said he had said nothing of the kind, and I backed him up in this, and further said that we had seen no report alleging any such statement.

The President went on to talk of the dire consequences that would come to Ireland in the event of a German victory. On the question of supplies the difficulty was in not knowing how they would be used. The Rumanians, for instance, had asked for military equipment, and, when asked who they would use the equipment against, they had no reply. In our case there was no definite and explicit statement that they would be used against Germany in case of attack. Mr. Aiken pointed out that Mr. de Valera had stated again and again, as far back as 1935 and since, that we would defend our territory against any belligerent who attacked us, and, furthermore, that he had given an explicit undertaking in public that he would not allow Ireland to be used as a base to attack England.2 The President said that a great many people in America did not realise this. He said that, if we could convince the British that such were the case, and if then the British came to him and said they were satisfied on the point, the supplies would be forthcoming. Mr. Aiken pointed out that the British policy in regard to Ireland had been very stupid and that the President should try and save them from their own folly. He should use his own judgment and initiative in approaching this subject. Mr. Aiken pointed out that the Germans might think it unwise to attack England directly, and in that event they might occupy Ireland so as to straddle the communications between Britain and America and cut off the last remaining route. The President at this stage asked how we would get the stuff over and Mr. Aiken replied that we were prepared to purchase ships if we were satisfied that the flag would be transferred. He said that the State Department would not give a decision on the flag question, and that this had been held up indefinitely. The President said 'that means you have not convinced the State Department that this material would not be used to attack England'. Mr. Aiken said that they had no intention of doing anything of the kind, and recalled again Mr. de Valera's explicit undertaking that Ireland will not be used as a base to attack England and that we had announced it was no part of our policy to settle partition by force.3

The President then said that, even if we got the stuff, it would take us a whole year to train personnel and a sufficient army, whereupon Mr. Aiken said that he had the trained personnel already and, if he had the material, he could put over 200,000 men in the field over night, but it was apparent that the President was not convinced on this point. He (the President) said that the Irish terrain was flat and an easy object for an attack by mechanised implements of war. Mr. Aiken corrected him to say that the Irish terrain was broken by rivers, mountains and bogs, and that our hedges and ditches and stone walls would make tank progress difficult, particularly if there were ground forces to meet the attack. The President said 'Well, you can hunt over the country'. Mr. Aiken said it took very good horses. The President said 'Well, suppose you had the ships, are you going to go into the British convoy'. Mr. Aiken said yes, if the British desired it. The President said we should try and find a formula by which we could assist in patrolling our coast a formula which would obvi- ate any German attack. He spoke of his bases on the British possessions in this hemisphere, and on the fact that he had extended the territorial waters of the U.S. to a belt 300 miles off the coast. He was considering increasing that belt. He had been told before taking certain of these measures that the Germans would use it as a pretext, but he judged differently. Mr. Aiken pointed out the difference of Ireland's position which would be right under the guns. The President repeated that a formula might be found. For instance, he said, in the patrolling of the area over here they were watching out for German submarine activities or surface craft. Why could you not institute an air patrol service extending, say, 50 miles off the Irish coast to spot these engines of destruction which are preying on your ships. Mr. Aiken said that any endeavour to get us committed would be turned down by the Irish Government, and that such was the determination of the people to maintain their neutral stand that even Mr. de Valera, whose influence in Ireland was perhaps more powerful than that of any other Chief of a Government, would be powerless to bring about a change. The President said that the Irish did not seem to realise what a German victory would mean. At present they could buy and sell where they liked, but the Germans, even if they did not ravage and destroy the country, would take the Irish produce and say you will take in exchange children's toys. The Irish would reply 'We do not want children's toys', but the Germans would say, whether you want them or not, you are going to take them in exchange for your produce.

During the interview, General Watson4 had come in a couple of times to signify that the interview was at an end, but, as Mr. Aiken had not said all he wanted to say, he kept on. At this stage, however, the President showed that the interview was at an end, and a couple of other Secretaries had come in as well as a half a dozen negro waiters who prepared to serve the President's lunch.

Mr. Aiken, standing, asked the President whether we could say that he (the President) sympathised with Ireland's stand against aggression. The President replied 'against German aggression'. Mr. Aiken said 'or British aggression'. The President said 'Nonsense, you don't fear an attack from England. England is not going to attack you. It's a preposterous suggestion.' Mr. Aiken said why did the British refuse to give us a specific undertaking on this point when they were asked to. The President said 'It is absurd nonsense, ridiculous nonsense. Why, Churchill would never do anything of that kind. I wouldn't mind saying it to him myself.' Mr. Aiken said 'Will you do this, Mr. President'. He said 'I certainly will. I'll ask Churchill myself.' Mr. Aiken then said 'Would you give an instruction, Mr. President, that we get a definite yes or no on the matter of supplies within a few days'. He said 'I will do that.' We then withdrew, the interview having lasted from 12.30 to 1.45.

(Signed) Robert Brennan5

1 Martin Glynn (1871-1924), Governor of New York (Democrat) (1913-14).

2 See Dáil Debates, vol. 56, col. 2116, 29 May 1935.

3 Handwritten insertion.

4 Major-General Edwin Watson (1883-1945), Aide-de-Camp to President Roosevelt.

5 For a more detailed, if stylised, account of this meeting, see Robert Brennan, Ireland Standing Firm: My Wartime Mission in Washington (Dublin, 2002), pp 45-7.


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