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Ambassadors at Saint James’s

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

America’s Ambassadors to England, 1785-1929; A Narrative of Anglo-American Diplomatic Relations. By Becklcs Willson. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. $5.00.

When an author sets out to deal with about forty successive official representatives in just under five hundred pages, he is in mortal danger of writing a mere catalogue such as one buys at the entrance to an art gallery, Mr. Willson in his “America’s Ambassadors to England” sees this danger, tries to avoid it, but is not altogether successful, any more than is any other historian who uses kings or presidents as pegs on which to hang his narrative. Hence, in spite of the delightful thumb-nail sketches of almost every ambassador, we have a feeling such as comes from studying a dictionary of national biography, and when we reach the end of one chapter we find ourselves trying to guess the name of the next ambassador before we turn the page.

But this excellently-written book is more than a catalogue. It is an attempt to present, “in all its significant fluctuations, the life of a relationship, racial, political, intellectual, moral, and social, altogether without parallel in history.” For, in the first place, America’s ambassadors were different in their attitudes, their experiences, and their contacts, from their colleagues in the Diplomatic Corps. They were not “career men” or professionals at the game; they were not always primarily professional politicians, though five of them did become presidents and ten were later secretaries of state. They were journalists, lawyers, men of letters or of business, and often were picked up out of the world in which they had spent the greater part of their life to wear a strange garb and speak a strange language in a strange land. Sometimes they refused to wear the garb; nearly always they declined to speak the language of official diplomacy, and pushed aside the heavy formalism and official procrastination which characterized the professionals. They were not willing, or were not allowed, to confine their attention to Downing Street, but spoke here, there, and everywhere, to all sorts and conditions of convivial, learned, and popular audiences. They became in short public men in the widest sense of that phrase, and some of them were as well-known in English life as were cabinet ministers.

In the second place, Mr. Willson finds a revelation in his subjects of what he calls “the unmistakable ethos of our English race.” Alien antecedents and national prejudices exerted their full effects, and where Anglo-American friction was generated there was no failure to state the American case and maintain its rights. Yet, even in these moments, and still more so in crucial days when the American was an onlooker, “these men have thought, felt, and acted towards current phenomena precisely as Englishmen of their temperament, education, and station would have done, and not at all as aliens would do.” Rufus King, looking at Buonaparte from London, felt that France must be fought, just as Walter Page, looking from the same vantage-point at Germany, felt that America must come in, and Hay believed that England had a good case for fighting Kruger, and Choate, Hay, and Lowell felt there were two sides to the Irish question. This apostasy, as it seems to many stay-at-homes, is one of the terrible things about London; it strikes not merely American ambassadors, but also the most fire-eating of dominion premiers. Hertzog of South Africa, Hughes of Australia, and a handful of Canadian premiers, all have come away from the London fog and dinners different men. Is it the fog, the food, or the flattery that does it? May it not rather be that ethos of which Mr. Willson speaks, that thinking and feeling and judging by the same standards, in the same spirit, with the same code of right and rights? Maybe.


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