The Fleetwood Area 
Historical Society
Meets the Third
Wednesday of Every
Month at 7:00 PM
Everyone is Invited
to Attend.


1948 Diamond Jubilee
Celebration Plate


1973 Centennial
Celebration Plate


1939 Strause Store
Thanksgiving  Plate

 

GEORGE S. MESSERSMITH (1883-1960)
The "Diplomat of Democracy"

Born in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania on October 3, 1883.
Died in Dallas, Texas on January 29, 1960.

Letter to President Roosevelt on December 21, 1944

Letter to Under Secretary of State William Phillips on June 26, 1933.

Letter to Under Secretary of State William Phillips on November 23, 1933.

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GEORGE S. MESSERSMITH

Introduction

       George S. Messersmith lived in Fleetwood for his first 18 years. I must assume he graduated from Fleetwood schools (the historical society has not been able to locate any records to confirm this) but he did graduate from Kutztown Normal School in 1900 at the age of 18. His younger brother Robert (1883-1929) graduated from Fleetwood High School in 1902. The early years of his grandfather and father in Fleetwood coincide with all the legendary names in the early history of Fleetwood, including Schlegel, Wanner, Schaeffer, Kutz, Gambler, Sholl, Cox, Messersmith, Melot, Reifsnyder, Merkel, Folk, Hoch, Young, Hill, Kelchner and many others. 

       "His name doesn't remind me of an American diplomat but of a Nazi fighter plane!" sniped columnist Walter Winchell in December of 1943. The name in question belonged to George Strausser Messersmith, a distinguished thirty-year veteran of United States foreign service whose finest moment, ironically, had come as consul general in Berlin exactly a decade before. That was when he was known as "the terror of Nazi Germany",  probably the most fearless and determined foe Hitler's gang faced, then or ever, among Western diplomats.

 "The early years of his family in Fleetwood"

     “The distant and remote held a peculiar charm for me as a child,” recalled George Strausser Messersmith in his unpublished memoirs. At an early age he displayed a restless energy that his native Berks County, Pennsylvania, would not long contain. There his forebears, Presbyterians from the Rhineland, had settled upon their arrival in the English colonies in the early 1700s, and there are remnants of the clan that remain in Fleetwood to this day. The Messersmiths, like most of their Pennsylvania Dutch neighbors, were enterprising folk. In the 1820s, John Messersmith (George Messersmiths grandfather), a tailor, along with fifteen other artisans, founded the Berks hamlet of Coxtown, dubbed “Crowtown” by local wags because of a sign showing a crow on the Farmers and Drovers Hotel, an apt appellation for the handful of log cabins that the place remained for a generation. But the picture changed in 1857. After feverish lobbying by the townspeople, the East Pennsylvania Railroad decided to run its tracks through their streets. It marked a new beginning for Coxtown, which, accordingly (and shrewdly) changed its name to Fleetwood. Prosperity came almost instantaneously, and the Messersmiths were part of it. In the late 1860s, John’s son Charles (George Messersmiths father) , born in 1846, became a partner in a wadding mill. The mill was built on the south side of the new railroad tracks and near the Fleetwood Dam. By 1870 he had twenty people on the payroll, and annual sales in excess of $100,000. Charles plowed his profits into real estate, an iron mine, and "a two-story frame tenant house,” perhaps for his employees. He took a wife, Caroline Schaeffer (she died shortly thereafter), and built her a fine brick house. Then, in his crowning achievement, he bought out his partners and became the mill’s sole proprietor.

       Then his world fell tragically apart. In May of 1873 the Messersmith mill was destroyed by fire. Charles had to watch much of the family’s property being carted off by his many creditors. Shortly thereafter, Caroline died, at the age of twenty-six.

       But the grieving widower battled back. Salvaging opportunity from adversity, he became a partner in a new entrepreneurial venture: fire insurance. He took a new wife: Sarah (Sallie) Strausser, of another venerable Berks family, a widow with two children. Soon there were offspring of their own: George in 1883 and Robert two years later. And, if slow to recoup his fortune, Charles retained every bit of his standing in the community. He remained active in public affairs, serving on the town school board and a term as postmaster. But the effort to restore his credit and self-respect literally consumed him. In 1889, at the age of forty-three, Charles Messersmith died. Sallie was again a widow, with two young sons to raise and debts still to pay.

"Growing up in Fleetwood and Kutztown Normal School"

Fortunately she was a strong and resourceful woman, “a most extraordinary mother,” George later wrote. Somehow she managed to provide life’s necessities for her brood, without neglecting their moral and intellectual growth. She introduced George to the novels of Thackeray, Scott, and Austen. By the age of eleven he had read them all, books that stirred his imagination with far-off places and people and imbued him with a fierce and absolute sense of right and wrong.

George left nothing in writing about his father or his feelings upon his death. The son was always an intensely private person, especially on the record. He could hardly have remembered very much about Charles in any case, absorbed as the father was with his business affairs during the scant six years that George had him. Yet Charles’s influence left its mark. George inherited his assiduity and civic-mindedness. And, as he passed into adulthood, the son exhibited the practical bent characteristic of Pennsylvania Dutchmen. This put a temporary damper on his wanderlust and set his thoughts to earning a secure living. Considering his mother’s fondness for books and his father’s involvement in public education, it is perhaps natural that George, upon graduation from high school, should opt for a career in the classroom himself. Teaching was a respectable profession and, most of all, one he could quickly and cheaply acquire at the state normal school at nearby Kutztown while living frugally at home. He completed the two-year Kutztown course of study and, in 1900, the eighteen-year-old Messersmith was hired to teach in the one-room schoolhouse in the village of Woodside, Delaware. His days in Fleetwood were over

"Moving to Delaware and Teaching" 

He was not long for Woodside. Messersmith was a young man on the move. Opportunity beckoned in turn-of-the-century America, and he was determined to make the most of it. In 1902 he took a position as principal of the grade school in Felton, another small Delaware town. There he took a room with the family of John Bassett Moore, one of the country’s foremost international lawyers. To his    disappointment, Messersmith was never to meet the eminent Moore during his stay in Felton, but Moore did hear about him from his folks. He was later to provide Messersmith with critical career guidance.

Staying with the Moores paid off in the short term, too. Among the well-to-do Delawareans to whom they introduced him were the Mustards of Lewes, another of the state’s leading families. The Mustards would give him a wife, and much more. Robert Mustard had founded the Shanghai branch of the American Tobacco Company, two and his brother Lewis, with his wife and three children, joined him in China for extended stays. Robert and Lewis’s uncle was E. W Tunnell, governor of Delaware during the 1880s, and a close associate of Thomas F. Bayard, secretary of state in the first administration of Grover Cleveland. It was through Tunnell that Bayard had met John Bassett Moore and brought him to the State Department in 1885.

Messersmith’s circle of contacts expanded again in 1903 when he moved to Newark, Delaware, to take on his third academic job in as many years. Though barely out of his teens, he was already a seasoned classroom veteran who more and more looked the part. At five feet, six inches tall, he was not an imposing physical figure, but his out electric presence filled whatever space he was in. In the classroom he never stopped moving and rarely stopped talking. The Deweyites then in the vanguard of American educational thought would have frowned on his methods, for he was an old-fashioned authoritarian less concerned with cultivating experimentation and self-expression than in dispensing knowledge and morals in large doses. Darting to and fro behind steel-framed spectacles, his eyes were a withering force for classroom discipline. Nor did he encourage one-to-one intimacy with his charges. His natural scowl deterred all but the boldest from approaching him privately. Yet, because of the personality that gave them life, his methods worked. Only the very best could meet his standards, but all were the better for the striving. In later years, students gratefully recalled his contribution to their education. And Messersmith, whose school years profoundly affected his own habits, always considered his experiences in Delaware’s classrooms as among the most satisfying of his life.


"Brother Robert died in 1929"

      In October  of 1929 tragedy called Messersmith home to Fleetwood. In late June his brother Robert (two years younger that George), a Marine Corps major, died suddenly at Quantico, Virginia. No one would have guessed they were brothers to look at them. Bobby's features were soft, even pretty, but underneath he was a Messersmith and a marine. They were very close over the years; Messersmith keenly felt the loss. Their mother, who had buried two husbands already, now mourned a child. But his homecoming in October was not somber. He found himself a celebrity in Fleetwood. The townspeople opened their hearts to the local man who had already made good and whose future seemed still brighter. The Fleetwood Fire Hall sparkled that night in November, as old friends and neighbors gathered the fete him. There were speeches, gifts, and a performance by the high school orchestra. One of his Kutztown teachers delivered a homily offering Messersmith "as an illustration of how a man can succeed if he applies himself to his chosen profession."

    "From Delaware to the State Department"

       George S. Messersmith became a distinguished career diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service. Messersmith was a school teacher in Delaware when he left to join the Foreign Service in 1914. His recommendation to close the consulate of his first post based on lack of a need for it set the tone for his future reputation as being efficient and thorough in his work. At his second post, in Curacao in the Netherlands West Indies during World War I, Messersmith cracked a secret German code which allowed the U.S. to arrest and deport enemy agents. Messersmith served next in Antwerp, Buenos Aires, and then Berlin as Consul General from 1930 to 1934. From 1934-1937 he served as Minister to Austria, before he was called back to America to serve as Assistant Secretary of State. He was posted as Ambassador to Cuba in 1940, Ambassador to Mexico in 1941, and Ambassador to Argentina in 1946. 

     Messersmith retired in Mexico where he died in 1960 (he actually died in Dallas, Texas). In all posts, Messersmith was credited with establishing better relations than those existing before his arrival, especially in Mexico and Argentina. His work in pre-World War II Germany and Austria is especially important. A keen observer, Messersmith filed detailed and lengthy dispatches on the people and politics he saw.

     He predicted with great accuracy and warned the U.S. of the course of events in Europe if Hitler and the Nazi Party were not overthrown before they acquired greater power (see above two letter to William Phillips in 1933). Messersmith was greatly respected by the Nazis because he firmly represented U.S. positions and interests, maintaining speaking terms even in disagreement. The Messersmith Papers (found at the University of Delaware) provide thorough documentation of U.S. diplomatic relations in areas of Messersmith's posts through correspondence, dispatches, official memoranda, and clippings.

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George S. Messersmith: Diplomat of Democracy.
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Author: Jesse H. Stiller

Jesse Stiller, whose primary research on Fleetwood native and United States career diplomat George Messersmith was based on the collection of Messersmith's personal papers located at the University of Delaware Library, wrote:

Messersmith's career affords insight into the many personalities and global crises that he encountered. As U.S. consul general in Berlin from 1930 to 1934, he witnessed the Nazis' rise to power, warning from the beginning that Hitler represented a threat to Western civilization. A lonely advocate of cooperation with the Soviet Union against the Fascist menace, he endured ostracism by the Department of State. Later, as assistant secretary of state, he continued to agitate for unpopular causes, meanwhile fulfilling a personal mandate from Roosevelt to promote the democratization of the State Department.

Typed letter, George Messersmith to Mr. Secretary [Cordell Hull], August 20, 1938.
From Ms 109 George S. Messersmith Papers

Messersmith repeatedly wrote government officials to warn of the inevitability of war. Based on confidential intelligence from powerful and well-placed Germans, Messersmith conveyed danger of "the real aims and objectives of the present German Government."

Typed memorandum, George Messersmith to Senator Key Pittman, September 1, 1938.
From Ms 109 George S. Messersmith Papers

In this confidential memorandum to Senator Pittman, George Messersmith warned of the seriousness of the international situation, "the most serious crisis since 1914." He correctly predicted Hitler's intentions in Czechoslovakia, France, England, Belgium, Holland, and Denmark. Messersmith wrote, "Ambitious as this program may seem, even mad as it may seem, my own personal opinion has been for some years, and remains, that there can be no peace in Europe as long as this present Government remains in power in Germany."