Throughout his career as an Irish revolutionary, Roger Casement did little to serve the interests of the United States government. Quite the contrary in fact, as he was at the centre of a plot which, in 1916, threatened to create an international crisis for America and potentially compromise their neutrality in the First World War. Indeed, it was Casement, with the help of John Devoy and Clan na Gael, who collaborated to use New York as a place of mediation for Irish and German emissaries following the outbreak of war in 1914. Their efforts culminated in a plot, bankrolled by US dollars, that would see him travel to Germany to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war and acquire a shipment of arms for a rebellion in Ireland. It was the discovery of documents pertaining to this mission, by State Department officials and Secret Service agents on 18 April 1916, which presented the Wilson Administration with difficulties and threatened American neutrality. However, despite all the grief and embarrassment Casement potentially could have caused for the United States, how close did President Wilson and the State Department come to ultimately saving his life?
Shortly after washing up upon the shores of Banna Strand, following a failed attempt to land a shipment of German arms into Ireland aboard The Aud, Casement was discovered and arrested by Sergeant Herron and Constable O’Reilly of the Royal Irish Constabulary at McKenna’s Fort in Ardfert, Kerry. Of course, as is well documented, the abandonment of the ship carrying arms and Casement’s subsequent arrest bore no impact on the decision to take action four days later on Easter Monday 1916. As Casement was brought to London to await trial for sedition, sabotage, and espionage against the Crown, the British Empire was brought to a halt by the insurrection which began in Dublin and spread throughout parts of Ireland. For Casement, what would ensue over the course of the next few months would be a thorough examination of his involvement as an Irish rebel, his collusion with Germany, and ultimately an attempted destruction of his character.
Owing to his status in British society, most notably his knighthood, Casement was entitled to a full judicial hearing which would determine his destiny. This stood in stark contrast to the fate of the fourteen men executed for their role in the Easter Rising. It also created an opportunity for Casement’s allies in the United States to become active in an attempt to save his life. One such ally was John Devoy, who sent $5,000 of personal inheritance from his late brother’s estate to be used in assisting Casement’s legal fees. Michael Francis Doyle, a Philadelphia lawyer who had aided Casement’s departure from America to Germany in 1914, delivered the cheque to Casement in London, who reportedly broke down in tears upon seeing the generous contribution given towards his cause. Doyle subsequently joined the legal team which was assembled to represent Casement in court.
As Doyle joined Casement’s first line of defence in London, he also began attempting to mount a greater defensive support through his contacts in Washington. Doyle was a friend of Woodrow Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty, and, above all, a loyal Democrat and supporter of the president. As a result, he was fully aware of the precarious position the situation placed Wilson in and understood that if he were to intervene it would need to be in the most delicate manner. Nonetheless, he persisted in lobbying Tumulty for an intervention from Wilson. A week following Casement’s death sentence, on 6 July, Tumulty relented, to an extent, and arranged a meeting between Wilson and Franz H. Krebs, a journalist who was well informed on Casement’s life’s work and his current predicament. By doing so he hoped to indirectly influence Wilson towards a more sympathetic outlook towards Casement. The President, however, remained steadfast in his opinion on the matter, indicating that it was beyond the remit of the United States government to intervene on such a matter in an official capacity. In addition, the general opinion in Washington was that Casement’s verdict would be lessened and he would be excused of the death penalty. Wilson was also somewhat compromised by the tactics and slogans of his freshly launched presidential campaign. By heavily promoting a greater sense of loyalty, or ‘Americanism’ as he termed it, from hyphenated groups across the country he could not be seen pandering to the needs of the Irish-Americans.
Efforts were now fixed upon the State Department and avenues were being explored as to how they could intercede in the affair. However, Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, and acting Secretary of State, Frank Polk, were kept informed as to the reality of the situation in London. Their understanding, through liaisons with British Ambassador Cecil Spring Rice and the US Ambassador Walter Page, was that the British were unyielding in their decision to execute Casement. By all accounts, Page was a rampant anglophile and did not wish to see any intervention on the Irish question from the United States. Indeed, the attempt to besmirch Casement’s character, following the publication of his personal journals now better known as the ‘Black Diaries’, gave Page greater cause to dissuade Wilson and the State Department from becoming involved in the affair. While the higher echelons of the British government may not have authorised the campaign, it was evident that officials in the Home and Foreign offices were using the supposed illicit content within the journals as a means of breaking international support for Casement. The attempt to influence American opinion by smearing Casement’s reputation had clearly been effective as media outlets across the country picked up on the story.
However, despite the smear campaign, local pressure on US Senators resulted in a flicker of hope for Casement as news emerged from the Senate, on 29 July, that a resolution was passed which requested that Wilson communicate with the British Government and call for ‘clemency in the treatment of Irish political prisoners.’ However, three days had passed before the message was transmitted from the State Department to London by Frank Polk who cabled at 3:00pm Washington time, or 9:00pm London time. Two hours later a second telegram was sent which read, ‘Please report immediately if Senate resolution presented to Foreign Office and also any further details on Casement case.’ As US Ambassador Walter Page was on a return trip to Washington at this time, the telegrams arrived at the desk of the London embassy’s charge d’affaires, Irwin Laughlin, who now bore the responsibility of bringing to the attention of Prime Minister Asquith the latest revelations from Washington. At 10:00am the following morning, 3 August, Laughlin delivered the message to British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. However, a mere one hour prior to this meeting, Roger Casement was hanged in Pentonville prison in London. Laughlin cabled Polk at 4:00pm a response to confirm that he delivered the message and that Foreign Secretary Grey would pass the message on to Prime Minister Asquith and his cabinet. He concluded his response by stating, ‘Casement was executed early this morning.’
Moderates and radicals alike launched scathing attacks on Wilson as the news spread of Casement’s execution. The blame worsened when the British Foreign Office announced they had not received an appeal from any officials in the United States. The public and media, not least many US officials, were unsure as to where the blame lay for the delay in sending the telegram. The White House, State Department, and the US Embassy in London were all suspects. Ultimately, following an inquest by Tumulty, it transpired that the delay in cabling the telegram to London originated from the White House. Despite the resolution being passed by the Senate, Wilson remained apprehensive about forwarding it on to the British government.
Perhaps Casement’s final contribution to the cause of Ireland, as he sat in a London cell awaiting his fate, was the publicity and interest his story generated throughout the United States. For the months which followed the Easter Rising and subsequent executions, frequent reports of Casement’s situation appeared in the US media and without a doubt kept the Irish question alive in the minds of the American public. Ultimately, however, the furore rendered by the American media, the Irish-American public, and many high-profile Irish-American figures proved futile as the Wilson Administration nor the State Department were able to respond in time to save Casement’s life.
- Written by Conor Harte
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