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George Earle Paid a Price for Being the Messenger


Gov. George H. Earle (wearing the spotlight cap) with striking coal miners in 1937

Most people who work for the president of the United States know not to bring him news he doesn’t want to hear. But some just can’t help themselves—and so they suffer the consequences.

Take George H. Earle III of Lower Merion, who, in 1944, passed on to Franklin Roosevelt some unpleasant facts about the Soviet Union’s massacre of an estimated 22,000 Polish army officers in 1940. The Soviets had blamed the atrocity on the Nazis. FDR, who desperately wanted to maintain relations with America’s World War II ally, embraced that theory. He labeled Earle’s evidence as German propaganda. “George,” said Roosevelt, “the Germans could have rigged things up.”

When Earle subsequently asked permission to publish his findings, Roosevelt instead assigned him to American Samoa for the balance of the war. Soviet responsibility for the Katyn Forest Massacre remained a secret, until Earle himself alleged it at a 1951 congressional investigation. Confirmation didn’t follow until 1989, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Born in Devon, Earle was the son of George H. Earle Jr., a lawyer who had once run—unsuccessfully—for mayor of Philadelphia, and Catherine French. The Earles were related to Lucretia Mott, Anthony Wayne and Ben Franklin. One ancestor, Thomas Earle, had run for vice president on the abolitionist Liberty Party ticket in 1840, and a grandfather had helped found the Republican Party.

Earle himself, though, spent his youth as a playboy. In 1916, he dropped out of Harvard—where he never flunked a course, he would brag—to join Gen. John Pershing in the hunt for Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. During World War I, Earle joined the Navy to skipper a submarine chaser, the USS Victor. It was probably not a coincidence that the Victor was his father’s private yacht, donated for the war effort.

In February 1918, as the Victor cruised off the Atlantic coast with a cargo of depth charges and a full tank of gas, an engine-room explosion sparked a fire that threatened to destroy the ship. However, Earle and the crew got the fire under control without loss of life, and he later received the Navy Cross for “heroic and inspiring leadership.”

After the war, Earle amused himself by playing polo, flying his private plane, and chasing women. About this time, he also founded something called the Flamingo Sugar Mills, while simultaneously becoming a director and vice president of the Pennsylvania Sugar Company. This seems to have been the doing of his father.

About 1910, the elder Earle had been called upon to save Philadelphia’s Real Estate Trust Company after its president, Frank Hipple, had committed suicide. Hipple had authorized millions in loans to the Pennsylvania Sugar Company. But when Adolph Segal, the promoter of the sugar refinery, ran into financial trouble, so did Hipple.

The younger Earle also became a director of the Tradesmen’s National Bank and Trust and the automat company, Horn & Hardart. For the next 10-15 years, life was good: On both the 1920 and ’30 censuses, Earle—who described himself as a “sugar executive”—his wife, Huberta, and their children lived on Grey’s Lane in a house with a long driveway.

By 1932, Earle’s interests had taken a political turn. Unlike the rest of his Republican family, he was a big fan of Franklin Roosevelt, to whose campaign Earle contributed generously. Rewarded with an ambassadorship to Austria, he came home in 1934 determined to run for governor.

The newspapers called him “Sugar Boy,” but Earle won with promises of a “Little New Deal” in Pennsylvania. That attracted voters who were tired of waiting to feel the impact of Roosevelt’s New Deal in a state with 37-percent unemployment and a legislature that had blocked unemployment compensation. Earle won by 66,000 votes, becoming the first Democratic governor since 1890.

During his administration, legislation was passed creating unemployment compensation. Also, a civil rights bill was passed, along with the first gasoline and cigarette taxes. Unions were strengthened, the state’s blue laws were relaxed, and construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike began. But creation of a graduated income tax failed when it was ruled unconstitutional.

Earle’s mercurial temperament made enemies. Once, angered by a legislative bill, he tore it up. The chief clerk stooped, picked up the pieces, and explained, “Governor, you may sign a bill, or you may veto it, but you may not tear it up.”

Constitutionally ineligible to run for a second term, Earle tried in 1938 for a U.S. Senate seat, but lost. In 1940, FDR appointed him ambassador to Bulgaria. Earle was a vocal anti-Nazi, and Roosevelt liked that, as well as the energetic nature that may have hindered him as governor. 

Earle didn’t disappoint. On one occasion, he personally beat a confession out of a suspected Nazi spy caught in the embassy. In Sofia, Bulgaria, he got into a bar brawl. After the band played the Nazis’ “Horst Wessel” anthem, Earle followed up with a request for “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a favorite of the World War I allies. A bottle was thrown, and things degenerated from there. FDR loved telling that story, but the State Department blackballed Earle from any future diplomatic posts.

Instead, Roosevelt had Earle commissioned a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve and sent him off to Istanbul as assistant naval attaché. Istanbul was a hive of spies, and Earle would report what he had learned directly to the president.

In 1943, two highly placed German officials approached Earle: Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence, and an agent of Franz von Papen, the German ambassador to Turkey. As Earle later told the story, both were putting out feelers regarding possible peace deals. “Papen and other high-ranking German army officials, some of them members of the Prussian aristocracy, were prepared to revolt against the Nazi regime, kidnap Hitler, seize control of the Nazi war machine, and surrender to the Allies,” wrote Earle in a 1951 magazine article. “They asked one thing in return: the containment of Russia.”

Earle passed along the proposal. Roosevelt did not respond, prompting Earle to send increasingly urgent follow-ups. Still, silence.

About this time, Earle’s German contacts began passing along information confirming what had only been whispered in the West—that the Soviets, not the Nazis, were responsible for the 1940 massacre. The Katyn Forest killings had followed the 1939 joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, which had launched World War II in Europe. When Poland fell, elements of the Polish army had surrendered to the Germans, others to the Soviets. The Germans murdered many of these prisoners; less known was that the Soviets had done the same.

Over several weeks in the spring of 1940, Stalin’s NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) trucked their Polish prisoners to the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, as well as other sites, then methodically shot them all and buried them in mass graves. Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors, 300 physicians, several hundred lawyers, engineers and teachers, and over 100 writers and journalists, plus 200 pilots.

“It was their social status that landed them in front of NKVD execution squads,” wrote CIA historian Benjamin Fischer. “Most of the victims were reservists who’d been mobilized when Germany invaded. In all, the NKVD eliminated almost half the Polish officer corps—part of Stalin’s long-range effort to prevent the resurgence of an independent Poland.”

Earle didn’t describe what evidence he’d received, but the story was leaking from other sources—especially the Germans, who later overran Katyn and even took Allied prisoners to the site to testify to what they had seen. The revelations fit neatly into what the supposedly renegade Germans argued—and what Earle now also believed: The Soviets were the real threat.

But could the news be trusted? Were the renegade Germans serious about overthrowing Hitler? Or were they just hoping to gather enough evidence to show that the United States and Great Britain were faithless with their Soviet ally, and thereby crack the western coalition?

In London, Winston Churchill brushed off a request from Poland’s government-in-exile for an investigation. Likewise, Roosevelt never responded to Earle’s evidence. And when Earle returned to Washington, FDR told him that publicizing the issue would be a “betrayal” of an ally. “Stop worrying, George,” Earle quoted Roosevelt. “We are getting ready for this Normandy landing. It cannot fail. Germany will surrender in a few months.”

Frustrated, Earle then wrote of his intention to publish his findings, unless the president specifically told him otherwise. “I specifically forbid you to publish any information or opinion about an ally that you may have acquired while in office or in the service of the U.S. Navy,” FDR said.

Then, after he was forced to respond to news that he never wished to receive, Roosevelt advised Earle that he’d soon hear from the Navy “to continue your employment wherever they can make use of your services.”

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