17. Letter From the Committee on Public Information Commissioner in Switzerland (Whitehouse) to the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (Creel)1

My dear Mr. Creel,

I at once answered your telegram of February 16th—in which the chief point was that I was to wait for a clear cut decision and in the meanwhile continue my “unofficial contact”.2 You cannot realize the impossibility of what you ask. No one is in Switzerland except for a definite work. I am asked by everyone why I am here, and if I am to have any real relations with them I must explain.

Dr. Schleiken3 the editor of the Freie Zeitung, a man in whom everyone has the greatest confidence, approves entirely of the manner in which I propose to conduct our work, if I remain.

Mr. Haguenin4 of the French Bureau de la Presse, has come to approve entirely after I explained to him.

The Legation here is in the hands of Mr. Wilson,5 a young man—energetic but raw—32 years old, who has not been home for seven [Page 37] years except twice for a few weeks. And a Mr. Allen Dulles,6 a young man 25 years old, a nephew of Mr. Lansing’s. A nice young man, but to my mind very ridiculous in his extreme fear of simplicity. He asked me to come for a conference one day—said he had discovered a way out of our difficulties which would delight both departments at home. It was that I was to represent myself as the agent of the Associated Press, who was here not to give news but to send news back to them! The fact that it was as much a lie as the women and children fiction7 recommended it strongly to him. Several days ago two envelopes of feature stuff came for me in the pouch, yesterday he told me they were there and I could have them if I came for them. He said if the Legation sent them to me and the hotel people (the porters!) noticed it, they might take it as a recognition of my official position. Please laugh! That’s why I am telling you all this silly stuff. I should like to be Secretary of State for a few months and reorganize the department—let in some modern daylight.

These two young men, for instance, are steeped in old traditions of intrigue and double dealing. The system of our diplomatic service developes from young men of independent incomes, a class who did very well doubtless at courts, such as the Russian autocracy and the Germans used to have, but they do not represent our own democracy.—One thing about our system which I approve entirely is the appointing of ministers and of ambassadors from outside the service. Of course the little secretaries hate it and say it threatens destruction to everything because the ministers and ambassadors come and ignore a great deal of the traditional cobwebby musty effects, which seem all important to the trained diplomat. These diplomats are not American, they are not democratic, they are not representative, they and their wives often even make fun of their own country and country people. I spent a winter at the Hague with the Lloyd Bryces,8 a winter in Berlin with the Gerards,9 and here I am in intimate daily contact with the Legation here—and I think it is time to bring our diplomatic service abreast [Page 38] with the times! There, I am doing again what you told me not to, I am behaving like a statesman and not like a press representative. When you are President, please make me Secretary of State; I KNOW I could do it.

To get back to business:

FREIE ZEITUNG. The Legation is all excited over the attacks by the Germanaphile Swiss press on the Freie Zeitung because of the statement contained in literature dropped by aeroplanes in Germany that “we” are supporting and aiding the German liberals in Switzerland. If the members of the Legation had ever been in a political campaign they would not lose their poise so completely over every attack of the enemy—Dr. Schlieken takes it very calmly—just as I used to take MRS LANSING’S10 and Mrs Wadsworth’s11 attacks on me—as a pacifist! because I worked for suffrage in war times.

The point of the difficulty is this: That the Swiss have already tried once to suppress the Freie Zeitung on the ground that its opposition to the German government was against their neutrality laws—At that time a newspaper protest came from America against a democracy like Switzerland suppressing a paper simply because it urged democracy in Germany. It is feared that if these assertions (about our support) are continued, a new attack might be made against the Freie Zeitung on the ground that it is not a sincere expression of German Democracy, but a subsidized attempt at propaganda on our part. Dr. Schlieken thought it would be just as well if these assertions were not repeated, hence I mentioned it in my cable of February 22nd. I said in the cable Feb 19th that I would assume the responsibility of taking an office.12 The condition here about rooms and offices is worse here than in Washington, because there at least you can bribe people to rent their houses and offices. Here the Swiss who have lived through generations in the same rooms won’t even be bribed. Ever since I have been here I have been agitating and advertising for an office—at last I found a dark little hole of four rooms I could have beginning May 1st, but one of the rooms I could have at once. Then Wilson and I sent our telegram, and I waited until your answer came. I assumed the responsibility of taking the office—I went to get the one room—but in the meantime, it had been taken, and as yet I have found nothing.

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It will take, of course, an endless time to have a telephone put in, and I am keen to be all ready to start work when the “clear cut” decision comes. If it is against us, doubtless I can get rid of the office.

In the meantime, the films and your operator will arrive and we will have NOWHERE to show the films—no use to make of them because you have never answered my cables about the Cinema Co—and the necessary capital. And every day the Germans are buying up more and more of the businesses. Do you understand that when I say “BUY” I do not mean buy the buildings but the business, good-will, fixtures, and LICENSES, which is important because the government will not issue more licenses and I am prevented of course from even approaching them on the subject.

I feel confident of being able to do this work better than any one here. I am sure I am of a higher order of intelligence and my experience is so much wider than theirs—and that’s not saying very much. You remember when I left I was full of distrust of my own ability. If the decision is in our favor and it is possible for me to undertake the work at all, I should like to get the work started and well organized—because I see HOW to do it—and then I want you to find someone to take my place if the war continues. I say that because I think there is a limit to what can be accomplished in a little spot like this and I want to do more fundamental work! I would feel I was helping more at home agitating against some of the things that will be happening in our own city.

Has Mr. Aubert spoken to you of a Monsieur Godard? He is the man who has charge of communicating with the French Commission in Washington. He has been here only a little longer than I. I asked him what struck him most in the situation and he said it was the smallness of the group here whose opinions count. He put it at 200 men, for the whole of Switzerland including both factions, pro-ally and pro-German, also foreigners, as well as Swiss—I was struck by the same thing and have already written to you about it—and the way these men gossip! Rappard is the gossipiest of them all—

The French Bureau de la Presse have at last taken me into their very center—Haguenin has discovered that I can be helpful—I can gain for him and myself an entree into any group through the women because they all know who I am and are eager to see me and meet me! Haguenin has been here for two years and at least has information of great value.

I spoke to Dr. Schlieben who has become a close friend of mine about Mr. Waltiers (English agent) view of the French Maison de la Presse as a huge fraud. Dr. Schlieben thinks that the Paris division is no good—and the Swiss Division good only for its translations and [Page 40] analysis of the German press. I am sending you a copy of his report. If I have an office here later would you like me to have this report of theirs translated into English and abbreviated for your information? Please answer this question. I can do it easily—if we continue!

Yours sincerely,

Vera B. Whitehouse 13


Mr. Wilson told me last week that the Cable News, he thought, had ceased coming. He said he would find out and let me know. He has never done so. There is certainly no sign of it in any of the papers. These papers reprint American news from London and Paris papers showing how keen they are for it.

This morning I very subtly (!) asked Mr. Dulles about the Cable News and he says it is coming but does not know what use is made of it! There is a fat round-faced boy here—a kind of attache called *Day, who I think is supposed to do the translating. Perhaps he tries his hand at the news when he has nothing else to do. He is only about 20 or 21, and I am confident has no sense of news values. The whole legation is poisoned by antagonism to your department—Do you know that? It seems that it must come from instructions or lack of instructions from Washington.

Frank Polk has been gossiping about me. Normie14 writes me please to come home at once. He said he is told that Frank Polk says I sent a furious cable to the State Department. I think he must be referring to the first cable I sent to you protesting against “the women and children” and saying I could not work under false pretenses.15 Anyway Normie is much wrought up over my having “lost my temper” as he says in a cable to the State Department, but does understand that there must have been some provocation.

I may tell you that every member of the Legation still says I am here for women and children; although I have written to Wilson and suggested that he would say nothing but refer people who enquire to me.

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*Day’s chief claim to distinction is that he is a nephew of Frank Brown who “they” (the Legation people) tell you with bated breath is president or vice-president of some bank! I knew him and think little of him.16

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 63, Entry 1, General Correspondence of George Creel, Box 25, Whitehouse, Vira. No classification marking.
  2. For Creel’s instructions, in telegram 1506 to Bern, February 16, see Document 16. Whitehouse’s response is in telegram 2685 from Bern, February 19. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302/37)
  3. Hans Schlieben, editor of Freie Zeitung.
  4. Émile Haguenin, Director of the Press Bureau at the French Embassy in Bern.
  5. Hugh Robert Wilson, Secretary of the Embassy in Bern from April 18, 1917.
  6. Allen Welsh Dulles, Second Secretary of the Embassy in Bern from April 18, 1917.
  7. In telegram 1379 to Bern, January 22, Acting Secretary of State Polk informed the Embassy that Whitehouse had been appointed “for the purpose of studying conditions relation [relating] to women and children” and that “It is not now and never has been the policy of the United States to conduct persuasive activities in any foreign country. It relies entirely upon frank and open presentation of its aims and objects, and the secret and corrupt methods of its enemies have never been attempted and will not be.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302/12)
  8. Lloyd Stephens Bryce, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Netherlands from November 16, 1911, until September 10, 1913.
  9. James Watson Gerard, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Germany from October 29, 1913, until the United States and Germany broke diplomatic relations on February 3, 1917.
  10. Eleanor Foster Lansing, wife of Secretary of State Lansing and opponent of suffrage for women.
  11. Alice Hay Wadsworth, wife of Senator James Wadsworth (R–New York) and opponent of suffrage for women.
  12. Neither the February 22 nor the February 19 cable was found.
  13. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  14. Norman de R. Whitehouse, her husband.
  15. See Document 16.
  16. There is additional documentation on the conflict between Whitehouse and Embassy officials in Bern in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302. Whitehouse left Switzerland in March, but returned later in the year. (A Year as a Government Agent, pp. 89–90, 106) On May 23, President Wilson wrote to Lansing: “I have always regretted Mrs. Whitehouse’s return from Switzerland and the misunderstanding of her and of her purposes on the part of our Minister there.” He continued: “She is going to work there in a perfectly open way, not as a diplomatic representative of course, but as one representing the Committee on Public Information, and acting with my approval, and she is going to act again.” (Library of Congress, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Series 3: Letterbooks, 1913–1921, Reel 155, Vol. 50, 1918 May 6–29)