Axis Diplomats in American Custody

Axis Diplomats in American Custody

The Housing of Enemy Representatives and Their Exchange of American Counterparts, 1941–1945

Landon Alfriend Dunn and Timothy J. Ryan

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 208 pages

Book Review published on: September 1, 2017

Landon Alfriend Dunn and Timothy J. Ryan’s Axis Diplomats in American Custody is a quick read about how the Allied, especially the United States, and Axis powers dealt with the thorny issue of enemy diplomats after American entry into World War II. Because of the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, and the almost immediate declaration of war against the United States by other Axis powers, the belligerents had no time to evacuate their diplomats. This book illustrates how the U.S. State Department took exceptional care to ensure that diplomats from these countries were treated respectfully and given the benefits afforded them by the Geneva Convention governing their detainment. Using U.S. government documents, personal letters, interviews, and contemporary newspaper articles, Dunn and Ryan illuminate American policies and actions toward these detained Axis diplomats for the entirety of the war.

The U.S. government could not be sure how the Axis powers were treating detained American diplomats. Despite this lack of information, the State Department ensured that detained diplomats had comfortable accommodations with relative freedom of movement. The State Department secured lodging at well-known and expensive resorts such as the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, the Homestead Hotel in Virginia, and the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania. The authors review how American officials identified these accommodations, negotiated with their proprietors, and managed relationships with townspeople and local leaders. Detainees were often permitted to take supervised visits to nearby towns where they were routinely met with a cold reception, if not outright hostility. They usually had free range over the resort properties, access to exercise and leisure equipment, high-quality meals, and, in some cases, the privilege to play golf on the courses adjoining the resorts. Needless to say, this often caused great consternation in local communities that were losing their boys to the war and dealing with major disruptions such as food and energy rationing.

The program gradually expanded to include nonofficial Axis nationals such as journalists, businessmen, and students. As the war accelerated, the State Department afforded these individuals with semidiplomatic status and accommodated them in these resorts. The authors suggest that this granting of semidiplomatic status to these nondiplomats served two purposes. The first was it allowed the government to rid from its country people who may sympathize with Axis governments. Secondly, these efforts expanded the ranks of enemy detainees the U.S. government could use to barter for U.S. diplomats and other Americans held in enemy territory.

The book also explains the remarkable actions the U.S. government took to ensure that enemy diplomats throughout the Americas were gathered up and returned to their countries of origin, often through the United States. Through diplomatic persuasion, pressure, and sometimes threats, the State Department convinced Central and South American government leaders to expel Axis diplomats and other nationals. Concerns that these individuals could sabotage U.S. war efforts (e.g., disrupting the Panama Canal) weighed heavily on wartime leaders. These concerns led the Americans to go to great lengths and bear heavy financial and security burdens to bring these enemy diplomats and nondiplomats to U.S. soil where they would be housed before being repatriated.

At the risk of sounding uninformed or obtuse, it is also striking to remember that even war is governed by international law. American military personnel are well aware of these laws, but civilians like myself can forget that even all-out war has limitations and boundaries, at least among nation-states. While the animosity and distrust between the U.S. and Axis governments was at an all-time high, officials from the State Department earnestly observed international commitments with regards to the detainment of enemy diplomats and continued to negotiate in good faith with its adversaries for the release of detained American personnel. Unfortunately, this book does not provide much information about how American diplomats were treated while in custody, but it does demonstrate that many of these American diplomats and nondiplomats were, in fact, eventually repatriated back to the United States by Axis governments.

Overall, the book can be a bit dry and distant at times, but it redeems itself well as the reader later contemplates the remarkable story told by the authors. Who knows if the international conventions governing enemy diplomats would still apply today in an era defined by nonstate actors, but Axis Diplomats in American Custody is nevertheless worth the read.

Book Review written by: Patrick Wesner, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas