Portrait of George S. Messersmith by an unknown artist, circa 1940

Witness to history

Papers of 20th century diplomat now online at UD Library

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2:12 p.m., June 20, 2011--The papers of an important 20th century American diplomat, George S. Messersmith, have been digitized and are now available for the first time online at the University of Delaware Library, making them accessible to researchers around the world.

The George S. Messermith Papers collection, cited in dissertations, articles, books and a current bestseller, draws scholars from throughout the world researching political and economic matters in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s. The digitization project was made possible through a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). 

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“The digitized Messersmith Papers will provide improved, worldwide access to the collection with an enhanced archival finding aid as well as the ability to search full-text document files,” said Susan Brynteson, vice provost and May Morris Director of Libraries.

Diplomat of Democracy

Messersmith (1883-1960), known in the field as a "Diplomat of Democracy," was a prescient observer of world events whose lengthy dispatches and meticulous correspondence reflect his role in shaping American identity and policy through 10 diplomatic posts on three continents between 1914 and 1947. 

In Curacao in the Netherlands West Indies, Messersmith broke a secret German code during World War I. As consul general of Berlin and minister of Austria in the 1930s, he warned of the rising threat of Nazi Germany. With strongly held principles and devotion to the American ideal of democracy, Messersmith practiced no political favoritism in his frank reports and letters. His character profiles of key players in Hitler’s circle and his description of Nazi goals do much to explain the origins of World War II and the shift in American policy that brought the United States into the war. 

Recognized for his administrative skills, Messersmith was recalled from Austria by President Roosevelt in 1939 to serve as assistant secretary of state with the assignment to streamline the State Department. From postwar ambassadorships in Cuba, Mexico and Argentina, Messersmith advocated the Good Neighbor Policy of the United States. Information from these periods is critical to understanding America’s national policies on international engagement in modern times. After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1947, Messersmith returned to Mexico and served as chairman of the board of the Mexican Light and Power Co. Documents from this period provide new information about postwar relations between America and Mexico.  

Eyewitness accounts of history

The papers of George S. Messersmith span the dates 1907-1961, with the bulk of the material concerning the years 1932-1947. The vast majority of the papers is composed of correspondence and official dispatches that provide Messersmith’s eyewitness accounts of critical events and his professional perspective and advice on American policy in response to these historic instances.  

Before his death in 1960, Messersmith dictated long passages toward a planned memoir. His longtime friend and professor of English at the University of Delaware, Dr. Wilbur Owen Sypherd, was aware of this autobiographical project and joined forces with Dr. Walther Kirchner of UD’s history department to persuade Messersmith to donate his papers to the University.

Dissertations, books and a bestseller

The Messersmith Papers are one of the University of Delaware Library’s most heavily used archival collections, serving as a primary source for numerous theses and dissertations, as well as supporting secondary topics in articles and books. 

Recently, In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, the newly published book by Erik Larson that is on The New York Times best-seller list and currently being reviewed in major publications, makes major mention of Messersmith, including on its first page. In his book, Larson calls the Messersmith Papers “one of the most beautifully archived collections I’ve ever come across.” 

Sample theses include Robert Dallek’s Beyond Tradition: the Diplomatic Careers of William E. Dodd and George S. Messersmith, 1933-1938 (1967), and Wayne Rodan’s George Strausser Messersmith: Arms, Argentina, and the Rio Pact (1969). The popular biography of Messersmith by Jesse H. Stiller, George S. Messersmith, Diplomat of Democracy (University of North Carolina Press, 1987), was drawn from Stiller’s dissertation, which was directed by Arthur M. Schlesinger.

Making the collection accessible

After receiving the Messersmith Papers in the early 1960s, former UD Library staff member Ruth Alford compiled a detailed archival calendar to the collection. The 700-page typescript calendar, which is now considered a legacy access tool, provides item-level summaries and description for each document in the collection. The calendar, though exhaustive, was not automated and the collection description remained “hidden” from direct researcher access, which is what the world has come to expect for discovery of archival sources.

The NHPRC digitization grant supported migration of the calendar’s descriptive data into EAD-XML, an international standard for archival description and online collection access, as well as outsourcing the scanning with optical character recognition of the collection documents.

Paul Anderson, assistant director for Library Administrative Services, who served as principal investigator for the grant, expressed his appreciation for the NHPRC support, commenting, “The NHPRC grant increases access to a ‘hidden’ collection by repurposing existing descriptive material for a previously processed collection. Exploiting the old data and linking it to the newly digitized collection meets the Library’s mission to improve and expand access to information in all forms, using innovative technology.”

L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, librarian, Special Collections Department, provided leadership in archival management; and Mark Grabowski, CITA systems programmer IV, Library Data and Server Support, provided leadership in data management and access. 

Others who worked on the project were Jaime Margalotti, senior assistant librarian, and Lora Davis, library analyst, both in the Special Collections Department; Mary Durio, associate librarian, and Thomas Pulhamus, library analyst, both in the Center for Digital Collections; and Shwu Leung, CITA systems programmer III in Library Data and Server Support. 

The original George S. Messersmith Papers will continue to be housed and available for use in Special Collections in the Morris Library at the University of Delaware. Information about access to the online collection is available on the Library web page.

All images from George S. Messersmith Papers, University of Delaware Library

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