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George S. Messersmith papers

Identifier: MSS 0109

Scope and Contents

The papers of George Strausser Messersmith were bequeathed to the University of Delaware and were received in 1960 after Messersmith's death. Dr. Walther Kirchner of the History Department, noting the dearth of original source materials for historical research in the University Library, suggested that Messersmith's papers would be a valuable addition to the library's manuscript collection. He approached Dr. Wilbur Owen Sypherd, Professor of English and long-time friend of Messersmith. Messersmith was at the time living in retirement in Mexico. Dr. Sypherd wrote to Messersmith, and Messersmith replied that he hoped to do some writing during his retirement and would need his papers for references, but that he would add a codicil to his will stating that, on his death, the papers should go to the University of Delaware.

A few of the letters or documents mentioned in the papers are missing. Mrs. Messersmith wrote the President John A. Perkins shortly after her husband's death, stating that a member of the American Embassy staff in Mexico City had gone over the papers with her and removed some of them, apparently because he considered them highly classified.

The papers are concerned chiefly with the period 1932 to 1947, when Messersmith left the Foreign Service, although a few of them deal with earlier years and a few were written after his retirement. Arrangement of the calendar is chronological. Entries for undated papers are placed at the end unless an approximate date could be ascertained through internal evidence, in which case the date is enclosed in brackets. Names and other information supplied by the compiler are also bracketed. Entry numbers 1921-2035 describe notes for Messersmith's memoirs, which he had hoped to publish. As Messersmith himself states, these were dictated at random, as ideas or incidents occurred to him, without regard to chronology and without referring to his papers. Most of them were certainly dictated during 1955, although a few, numbers 1921 to 1933, were obviously written much earlier. They have been left in the order in which they were apparently dictated.

To verify names, the compiler used many sources, including various biographical directories, the New York Times Index, and the Register of the U.S. State Department.

The compiler acknowledges gratefully the assistance and valuable suggestions of many of her colleagues on the staff of the University of Delaware Library. She is also grateful to Mrs. Fe Broten, who typed the manuscript, and to Dr. John Dawson, Director of Libraries, for his support of the project.

The collection also contains material collected or donated by John Dawson, Dannie Heineman, James Heineman, and Rodney Layton. These additions are included in this collection as separate series.

A name and subject index for Series I, Early career, through Series XII, Messermith-related material collected by John Dawson, is avaialbe as a searchable PDF here.

A name index for Series XVII, Robert Layton gift, is available as a searchable PDF here.


  • Creation: 1907-1955


Language of Materials

A majority of materials in this collection are in English, with additional material in Spanish and German.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library,

Biographical Note by Ruth Alford

The career of George Strausser Messersmith explodes the myth of the diplomat as "cookie pusher." Although he enjoyed social life, and he and Mrs. Messersmith entertained frequently, he was also a hard worker, spending long hours at his desk every day.

Born in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania in 1883, Messersmith spent his early years in Pennsylvania, and after graduating from Keystone State Normal School in 1900, he studied at Delaware College, now the University of Delaware. For several years he held various positions as teacher and administrator in the Delaware school systems. In 1914 he married Marion Lee Mustard, and in the same year he entered the Foreign Service.

His first assignment was to a consular post in Fort Erie, Canada, where Messersmith said there was so little to do that he spent most of his time studying the Foreign Service regulations. On leaving the post in 1916, he recommended that the consulate there be closed as there was no real need for it, and his recommendation was accepted. He spent the years of World War I as Consul at Curacao in the Netherlands West Indies, where he discovered a secret German code, which enabled authorities in the United States to arrest and deport a number of enemy agents. From 1919 to 1928 Messersmith served first as Consul then as Consul General in Antwerp. From there he was sent to Buenos Aires as Consul General, thence to Berlin as Consul General in 1930. In 1934 he was named Minister to Austria, a post he held until 1937, when he was called back to America to serve as Assistant Secretary of State, with the specific duty of reorganizing the administration of the State Department, and he is said to have "streamlined" the Department. In 1940 he was posted as Ambassador to Cuba, where he remained until the end of 1941, when he was the President's choice for Ambassador to Mexico. At the end of World War II, relations between Argentina and the United States were strained, and it was the decision of President Truman and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes early in 1946 to send Messersmith to Buenos Aires as Ambassador, with expressed charge of improving relations between the two countries, and bringing Argentina into line with the other American republics. After completing his mission there in 1947, Messersmith retired from the Foreign Service. His administrative abilities having been recognized, he was offered the position of Chairman of the Board of Mexican Light and Power Company, and served successfully in that capacity until his retirement from the Company in 1955. He died in Mexico in 1960.

It may be safely said that, with the exception of Germany, each country in which Messersmith served was on better terms with the United States when he left than when he arrived. Even in Germany, the Nazis respected him because he stood his ground with them, although it was reported that Hitler "frothed at the mouth" when Messersmith's name was mentioned. As frankly as he spoke to various Nazi officials, it is significant that he was able to remain on speaking terms with them, for it was necessary to deal with them in order to protect American interests. It was said of Sumner Welles that he knew five languages well, but could hold his tongue in all fo them. Messersmith certainly knew four languages well, and held his tongue in none of them, unless it was the better part of diplomacy to do so.

At his several posts in Latin America, Messersmith was a staunch supporter of Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy," and a believer in the importance of hemisphere solidarity. While recognizing that his first duty was to his won government, he was sensitive to the rights and needs of the countries to which he was posted and insisted on their fair treatment. He felt that although the United States should take the lead in inter-American affairs, she should do so unobtrusively, and not appear to carry a "big stick."

In the matter of career diplomats as opposed to political appointees, Messersmith usually favored the career man. He recognized, however, the occasional necessity for the appointment of other than career Foreign Service officers, when someone with special abilities was needed, and there was no one available within the Service, but he was unalterably opposed to awarding ambassadorships to pay off political debts.

A keen observer, Messersmith reported in detail on events and conditions as he saw them. His colleagues in the State Department sometimes complained of the length of his letters and despatches, but they all agreed on the usefulness of his reports. During the early years of the Hitler regime, he predicted with great accuracy the course of events in Europe unless Hitler and the Nazi Party were overthrown before they acquired greater power. He even said, "It is better to fight a small war now than a catastrophic one later," and because of the statement was accused of being a war-monger. His observations and comments on the character and ability of many of the people with whom he came in contact are very illuminating. One's first impression on reading Messersmith's letters and despatches is that he is somewhat pompous and pedantic, but occasionally his warmth shows through. Certainly he had many friends who not only admired him but regarded him with affection, from Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, to ex-King Carol of Rumania, to Adolf, a messenger in the American legation in Austria. His sympathy for the Jewish people during their persecution was as obvious as his hatred of the Nazis, and he helped when it was possible. It is said that many people who are alive today owe their lives to Messersmith.

During his lifetime, Messersmith exerted a definite influence on world affairs. His opinion and advice on many questions were sought and usually accepted, but, it must be admitted, he did not always wait to be asked. Perhaps future historians will recognize his contributions and accord him the place in history he must certainly deserves.


Biographical note written by Ruth Alford, May 1973.


11.5 linear foot

1 oversize box

1 oversize removal

Metadata Rights Declarations


Diplomatic and professional papers of George S. Messersmith (1883-1960). Consists of correspondence, memoranda, and official dispatches written during Messersmith's tenure with the U.S. Department of State, as well as during his subsequent business career. The extensive typescript of an unpublished memoir is also present. The papers include extensive discussions of political and economic matters regarding Europe during the 1930s and Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the Estate of George S. Messersmith, 1960

Materials Available in Alternative Format

Access to digital copies of the original documents in the Messersmith papers are available by following PDF links in the finding aid. These digitized files are housed in UDSpace, the University of Delaware Institutional Repository, where readers may "browse this collection" by various fields or use advanced searches to query full text of the PDF documents.

Shelving Summary

Boxes 1-33: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes (3 inch)

Box 34: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (17 inches)

Box 35: Shelved in SPEC MSS record center cartons (6 inches)

Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (24 inches)

OCLC Number

Processing Information

Processed and calendar created by Ruth Alford, May 1973.

XML encoding funded by the Unidel Foundation, 2003.

EAD encoded by Jaime Margalotti, Thomas Pulhamus, and Lora J. Davis. Additional encoding by John Caldwell.

Digitization funded by NHPRC grant, 2010.

Name and/or Subject Indices

A name and subject index for Series I, Early career, through Series XII, Messermith-related material collected by John Dawson, is avaialbe as a searchable PDF here.
A name index for Series XVII, Robert Layton gift, is available as a searchable PDF here.
A subject index and outline for Series IX, Memoirs, is avaialble as a searchable PDF here.
Finding aid for George S. Messersmith papers
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2010 November 15
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
XML encoding funded by the Unidel Foundation, 2003; Digitization funded by NHPRC grant, 2010.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

181 South College Avenue
Newark DE 19717-5267 USA