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Neutrality by Ordeal

Pádraig Murphy

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vol VII, 1941-1945, Catriona Crowe, Ronan Fanning, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh, Eunan O’Halpin, (eds), Royal Irish Academy, 720 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1904890638

Also referred to:

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vol II, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 2000

That Neutral Island, Clair Wills, London, Faber and Faber, 2007

Spying on Ireland, Eunan O’Halpin, Oxford, O.U.P., 2008

Judging Dev, Diarmuid Ferriter, Dublin, RIA, 2007

Das Amt und die Vergangenheit, Eckart Conze, Norbert Frei, Peter Hayes, Moshe Zimmermann, Munich, Karl Blessing Verlag, 2010

Spies in Ireland, Enno Stephan, trans Arthur Davidson, London, Macdonald, 1963

The assertion and maintenance of neutrality by Ireland – then often called Éire – during the Second World War was the greatest test of the effective assertion of sovereignty that the then relatively new state had faced. It surpassed in this respect the campaign to join the League of Nations, which had reached a successful conclusion in 1923, and the subsequent, equally successful, effort to affirm our independence by registering the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the League. Eamon de Valera had pressed one step further in separation from Britain with the 1937 Constitution and the agreement to restore Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly to Irish sovereignty in 1938 could be said to provide one of the most basic requirements of neutrality.

For all that, the course of the world conflict would show up many continuing disadvantages with diplomatic representation and with expectations which could not be delivered on, arising from the by then vestigial membership of the British Commonwealth, so that it was merely the logical next step for the Costello government to take Ireland out in 1949. As well as this, the experience made plain, to those in charge in Dublin as in other countries affected by the war, the need for changes in the organisation of affairs both in Europe and at world level. Some of these were to be realised, others not, with more or less satisfactory results, some of which we are still experiencing today.

Neutrality was decided upon early, even before the war. It was strongly influenced by Irish experience of the Versailles treaty – at the conference, President Wilson had in effect told the Dáil delegation they should go to hell as they were from a democratic country ‑ and the League of Nations, where Dev had concluded that the only recourse for small countries was to keep out of the major powers’ wars. The same conclusion had been reached by most of the small European countries. Another starting point for neutrality policy was de Valera’s declaration already in 1935 that under no circumstances would we allow Ireland to be used for an attack on Britain, the origin of the famous “certain consideration for Britain”.

There was of course significant division within Ireland on our international posture, a cleavage which made it seem essential to the government that it should not be played out at the international level. Support for neutrality was given by representatives abroad – particularly by Brennan in Washington – as 99 per cent plus. It seems likely, however, that this was an exaggeration. The important point nevertheless was that there was serious division in domestic opinion. Even if Churchill’s estimate in 1939 that “three quarters of the people of Southern Ireland are with us” seems exaggerated, Garvin guesses that maybe 20 per cent were actively pro-Allies. On the other side, there was a significant group which, if not actively pro-German, was activated by the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, reinforced by the established Irish mantra that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. This group could also draw on a recent tradition of armed support for its point of view. The very real threat of civil war arising from this division, together with the absence of any significant war-fighting capacity and the lessons learned from the inter-war efforts to secure the peace, were the essential foundations of the option for neutrality.

The possibility of following the working out in practice of the policy of neutrality is one of the pleasures of reading this book. The implementation of the policy evolves with the evolution of the conflict. It is often, especially by Brennan in Washington, presented as “friendly neutrality” at the beginning of this volume. This evolves to “benevolent neutrality” and is, before the end, “extremely benevolent neutrality”. The interpretation of the requirements of the policy is also dependent on the evolution on the ground. Rynne and his “law books” (Walshe’s phrase) are brought to quasi-casuistic use, so that no Americans are ever interned and, by the end, reasons are found for releasing without too much procedural complication more and more crashed British airmen – the concrete manifestation of “extremely benevolent neutrality”.

Censorship was one of the prime causes for complaint among at least some strata of the population, although it naturally forms no part of the documentation in this volume. The rationale for censorship was described by Frank Aiken, one of the main bogeymen of those who favoured the Allies (and of the Allies themselves), as being to prevent “our people (from) being oppressed by a barrage of propaganda from one side into taking a completely unbalanced view of what is going on in the world”. The perceived psycho-cultural oppression was much commented on by writers in The Bell and, for instance, Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien and Frank O’Connor. While censorship did keep the population in very tight blinkers, much of this was, as in most cases in Ireland, alleviated through informal channels. It is estimated, for instance, that up to 300,000 Irishmen served in the British forces, and very many of them returned home on leave. At the more practical level, there was much hardship. A 1941 memo from John Leydon to Walshe itemises petrol, tea, fertilisers, animal feed, raw materials, cereals and foreign exchange as in very short supply. The rationing which resulted was the harder to take in that it was a set policy of Churchill to punish the ingrates by restricting supplies. To make it more galling, Ireland had voluntarily handed over all her tankers at the beginning of the war against a promise that Britain would see to our petrol supplies.

Churchill’s animus calls for special comment. O’Halpin remarks that he regarded Irish neutrality “almost as a personal affront”. He had of course not supported the return of the ports by Chamberlain. But his involvement with Ireland and what he saw in certain lights as its pathetic problems went much further back. As chancellor of the exchequer he had been a key figure in the discussions to close the chapter on the Boundary Commission fiasco in 1925. At one stage during these he remarked that “he had been mixed up with Irish negotiations since 1910. It was this very question of Tyrone and Fermanagh throughout which [had] been most insoluble”. This remark foreshadows by twenty years his immediate postwar reference to the persistence of the problem of “the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”. He was nothing if not mercurial, and in some moods could even be particularly helpful in Irish matters. His input into drawing a line under the Boundary Commission business earned him a fulsome letter of thanks from William Cosgrave in December 1925. At times he could show some understanding of the Irish obsession with partition, but the ground bass of his approach was as described by O’Halpin. He not only made sure during the war that Ireland got no weapons with which to defend itself; he also ensured British influence was used to make sure the Americans did not supply them either, thus effectively making Aiken’s mission to the US in 1941 null and void.

The team that oversaw the five-and-a-half-year effort to keep Ireland out of the war was a remarkable one. At its head was Dev himself, the indispensable bulwark, both administratively and politically. He was wheeled on to deal with recalcitrant foreign representatives, Walshe often suggesting that one of these might like to talk to the Taoiseach about a matter that was proving difficult. He was given great latitude by his cabinet – an example was the position to be taken at the Chicago international aviation conference in 1945. His alter ego throughout was Joe Walshe, acting secretary of the Department of External Affairs from 1922, and secretary from 1927, that is to say, from a time when Dev himself was, as leader of the rearguard, not participating in parliamentary politics. It is plain throughout these volumes that Walshe enjoyed Dev’s full confidence. An able second was FH Boland, assistant secretary of the department, and Walshe’s successor as secretary from 1946. Then there was Michael Rynne, the legal adviser, a kind of Suslov, in the sense of being chief ideologist, were it not for the fact that the scrupulous parsing of the legal requirements of neutrality that he was called on regularly to produce was an absolutely indispensable factor in maintaining a credible neutral status. Outside the department, but for all that playing a central role in the execution and maintenance of the declared policy were Col Liam Archer (until 1941) and Col Dan Bryan, who succeeded him as director of G2, military intelligence. It is striking in reading these papers that the relationship of these officers with the department was of such implicit mutual confidence, with resultant flawless cooperation. We know of course also of the relationship of confidence obtaining between these two and their British counterparts.

The threats to Irish neutrality during the war were seen to come from three different sources, at different times. There was the internal threat, basically the possibility that the IRA would engineer a German intervention. There was the British threat, the perceived force of which varied from time to time but which could never be excluded, if only because the British themselves, for understandable reasons, were never willing to give formal assurances. And there was the American threat, sometimes manipulated by the British, and at all times implicit in the approach of the American minister, David Gray, in Dublin from March 1940. The high points of tension were summarised, usefully and, one can imagine, with some considerable relief, by Walshe on May 15th, 1945. They include in this volume the specific refusal of the British to rule out definitively the possibility of a British invasion, a similar warning by Maffey of the likelihood of severe pressure being brought to bear by Britain or America or both, the threat by Churchill to come and get the ports if we would not yield them voluntarily, the famous “a nation once again” message from Churchill, and the equally famous, or infamous, “American note” of February 21st, 1944 requesting the removal of Axis representatives from Dublin.

All this makes for very gripping reading. When you add the non-Irish actors, the picture takes on an added piquancy. Corresponding to Dev was Churchill, who here appears in all his facets, heroic and blustering. The high point of this confrontation was reached in the exchange in May 1945, where Churchill emphasised his disappointment with his neighbour, who had in his eyes been recalcitrant, and de Valera delivered one of his most masterful, because restrained, rhetorical reactions. But there had been many such exchanges, not all in public, many playing around with the idea of promising an end to partition if Ireland were to join the war, and culminating in the “a nation once again” message just after US entry into the war, which could be read as yet another hint at the end of partition but which was immediately interpreted by other British representatives as nothing of the kind. The more realistic interpretation in Dublin, indeed, was that it had resulted from an excess of celebration by Churchill: “our opinion was that Churchill had been imbibing heavily that night”, in Walshe’s words.

David Gray was seen in Dublin as a troublemaker, without diplomatic finesse, indeed, without even the essential qualifications for the post. Walshe repeatedly accused him – not, it should be said, to his face – of being in the pocket of effete and unrepresentative Ascendancy circles, with whom, almost exclusively, Walshe maintained, he associated. There is no doubt much truth in this. However, the real problem was that Gray represented a significant slice of American opinion and was personally close to Roosevelt. His consorting with effete Ascendancy types apart, he was also perhaps excessively bluff in conveying his views to his Irish interlocutors. That he represented a significant proportion of American opinion is evident from the difficulties the minister in Washington, Robert Brennan, had in finding understanding for the Irish position not only in the State Department, but increasingly also in the Irish-American community.

Sir John Maffey, on the other hand, even when he had a difficult and potentially offensive message to convey, was at all times the most tactful of interlocutors and clearly took the necessary trouble to understand the basis of the Irish position. He managed also with perfect discretion to distance himself from the more offensive sallies of Gray, while capitalising on them. He benefited accordingly from the full confidence of de Valera and Walshe. Maffey, of course, was conscious of the full extent of that special consideration for Britain of which Dev had openly spoken from the beginning. By no means all of this appears in the External Affairs documents, but it was well known to both Dev and Walshe. It extended from joint military planning for the eventuality of a German invasion – there was, of course, no corresponding joint planning with the Wehrmacht – to very significant intelligence cooperation. Maffey was to write in October 1945 that “in this underground of intelligence and intrigue … a British authority in Ireland could never achieve what was achieved by a native authority. ‘The dog of the country hunts the hare of the country.’” O’Halpin points out that this opinion was undoubtedly shared by most of the officials who dealt with Ireland during the war, “including such men as Godfrey (the Director of Naval Intelligence) who had initially been sceptical of Irish goodwill, competence and commitment”.

Eduard Hempel had been German minister to Ireland from 1937. He was a diplomat with the manners of the old school. Like all German senior civil servants of the time, he was a member of the Nazi party, without, however, being officiously active in that party. The best summary of the official Irish view of Hempel is that given by Dev after the fiasco of the official call on the German minister following the death of Hitler. Writing to Robert Brennan, Dev says that not to have called “would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy … to Dr Hempel himself. During the whole of the war Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always friendly and invariably correct – in marked contrast with Gray.”

The Irish representatives abroad present another fascinating picture of the stand taken during the “Emergency”. In John Dulanty, the high commissioner in London since 1930, the state had a first class representative in a crucial post. Dulanty had joined the British civil service in 1914, and had risen to assistant secretary to the treasury by 1918. He had known Churchill since 1908, and had been an officer under him in the ministry of munitions in 1917-18. His level of contacts within Whitehall was very wide. This background shows in all his reporting, as does his absolute loyalty to the new state he had decided to serve since 1926. He was notably close to Walshe, underlining the latter’s central role, along with Dev, in managing neutrality. The confidence, making for ease of relationships, that Dulanty established with very many of his high-level British interlocutors, including Churchill, is an indication of his irreplaceable value to Dev and Walshe throughout this period. It is clear that this too enabled him on occasion to be blunt without being offensive. One of the many fascinations of this volume is to be able to observe Dulanty at work in this sense.

Michael MacWhite had been one of the first practitioners of the Irish foreign service, becoming a member of the delegation to the Paris peace conference in 1920, after serving in the French foreign legion. He had played a central role as permanent representative to the league in the twenties in bringing about Irish membership and registering the Anglo-Irish Treaty with it. The war years found him in Italy. His dispatches from Rome are an illuminating commentary on the progress of the war, and not just in Italy. He foresees at an early stage the German break with Russia, and is later, in early 1943, very acute in his appreciation of the real prospects of Rommel in North Africa, as well as the likely outcome of the German expedition in Russia. In March 1942 he gives a comprehensive overview of the situation not only in Italy, but also in the Balkans, Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. He continues to provide vivid reports of the situation in Italy before, during and after the Allied invasion, including the killing by partisans of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci. It is not surprising that MacWhite’s dispatches should have been provided to Churchill in his daily briefing – not to be forgotten in all this is that the channels of international communication from Ireland all went through London and the British could read our codes, with the exception of the highest level one, the so-called dearg.

William Warnock and Con Cremin sent vivid reports of the situation in Berlin in these years. Warnock had to report on the bombing of the embassy chancellery ‑ ably assisted by the devoted man of all work at the embassy, Peikert ‑ which resulted in the destruction of the embassy archive. The subsequent removal to a stud farm outside Berlin is recounted, together with the success of his successor, Con Cremin, in finding him there with the help of the German police. Cremin subsequently sent numerous graphic accounts of the situation as the Russians got closer to Berlin. He himself, along with his wife, was eventually forced to flee the city to Bregenz, a destination chosen for its proximity to the Swiss border. There he eventually found himself overrun by American forces in April 1945, with Gray informing de Valera that he was now under American protection. Notably undaunted, Cremin was reporting on May 12th, 1945, that is, immediately after the German surrender, from Schloss Babenhausen in Swabia on the climate of opinion of the defeated German population. Cremin’s reports generally, like MacWhite’s, are notable for their perspicacity and sound judgment of the overall situation.

JJ Hearne in Ottawa had a very good confidential relationship with the Canadian prime minister, MacKenzie King, and used it to good effect to promote the overturning of the potentially disastrous Churchill initiative to introduce conscription in Northern Ireland. He could in doing so capitalise on the pronounced fellow-feeling between Ireland and Canada, which arose during the period when they confronted similar problems in the Commonwealth. Hearne also provides memorable pen pictures of Churchill and Eden during their visits to Canada, the former tired, the latter rather sulking.

There are many other delights. Seán Murphy in Vichy could clearly see the foibles of the Pétain régime and duly reported them to HQ. He was in some difficulty, however, because he had spent the occupation years in Vichy, in finding a welcome with the de Gaulle government. He did eventually overcome this disadvantage and his account of his interview with the general in March 1945 will be seen as a classic portrait by all who know de Gaulle. Colman O’Donovan in Lisbon reports a candid piece of advice from the secretary of the nunciature in Portugal. What, Mgr Mozzoni asks in effect, are you doing trying to find models to imitate here? “A propos of a press report that we were considering sending a delegation to Portugal to study social and other developments here he pooh-poohed the idea and said that we had nothing to learn in this country. When we had read Salazar’s writings we had already had all that was to be got. Ideas and performance were two different things and our delegation had much better stay at home.” O’Donovan corroborated these views on the basis of what he had learned elsewhere in the short period he had been in Portugal by then.

Leopold Kerney, because of who he was and where he was (Madrid), provides an exemplar both of the necessity of Irish neutrality and of the sometimes excruciating problems to which it gave rise. His continuing in Paris in 1923 as consul of the Irish Republic gave rise to complications when the new Free State government sought to appoint its own representative there. Joe Walshe, already signing as secretary of the department, eventually had occasion to remark (June 30th, 1923) that “Kerney’s consular and diplomatic powers are purely subjective. They interest nobody except the readers of the Parisian weekly funny press.” However, although clearly he had been de Valera’s man before the latter made his entry into constitutional politics, he apparently reconciled himself to the Free State and became commercial secretary to the Paris legation and minister to Spain from 1935. In the war years he was accordingly reporting to the de Valera government through Walshe. In 1941, Kerney had come to the attention of G2 as the apparent channel through whom Elizabeth “Budge” Clissmann (née Mulcahy) was communicating with her husband, Helmut Clissmann, then said to be serving with the German army in Belgium. Elizabeth was from a prominent Republican family, and Helmut had been representative in Ireland of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (German Academic Exchange Service) in the 1930s, when he had developed close ties with Republicans. It was to get worse. Elizabeth Mulcahy was a longstanding friend of Kerney. Helmut Clissmann had in the meantime joined the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, and Elizabeth’s good friend Frank Ryan had turned up in prison in Burgos later in 1941.There was much agitation to secure his release, an agitation joined by Cardinal McRory and resulting in a move by Dev to see if he could help. Kerney got involved, in the margins at least, of complicated machinations which saw Ryan “escaping” during a transfer from Burgos, and being spirited away to Germany. From there he was to join Seán Russell, the former IRA chief of staff, in an effort to land both from a German submarine in Ireland in order to carry out anti-British, if not anti-Irish-Government actions. Russell died of a perforated ulcer on the submarine before the mission could be completed.

It became evident that, even if only for these reasons, Kerney had come within the sights of the German authorities. In particular, he met twice in Madrid with Edmund Veesenmayer, probably the most sinister of all German operatives among disaffected minorities in Europe immediately before and during the war. He was a close collaborator of Ribbentrop in the foreign ministry, although not formally on the staff. He was involved from the beginning of the war in special missions representing Ribbentrop. In this capacity, he was the most influential representative of the foreign ministry when it came to weakening enemy states through subversive activity in advance of planned German attacks, or sharpening up German policy, directed in the first place against Jews, in occupied territories. He was active in laying the ground for the Austrian Anschluss, and had a decisive part in the setting up of the vassal Slovak Republic. He had been sent to Danzig by Ribbentrop shortly before the war “for purposes of information”. He had a decisive part in the establishment of the “Independent State of Croatia” under the Ustashe in spring 1941. The most recent study of the role of the foreign ministry in the Third Reich comes to the conclusion that “An ideology of contempt for human life and a cold pragmatism were joined together in Veesenmayer as in the case of no other representative of the Foreign Ministry”.

It was this man that Kerney met in Madrid in August 1942, without instruction, but probably arising from his role in the freeing of Frank Ryan. Kerney was clearly aware that he was supping with the devil ‑ he says he was “in the somewhat delicate position of talking to a gentleman who, if I had looked under the table, might have been capable of disclosing something in the nature of a cloven hoof”. And it has to be said that he sent a long report of one conversation, in which the possibility of another is mentioned. This as reported discloses nothing which could be considered disloyal or unrepresentative of government policy and includes his indication to Veesenmayer that our ambitions were limited to securing unification of the territory, and friendly relations with all states, “more particularly” with England. Kerney’s reception of Veesenmayer could perhaps be characterised as no more than a dangerous indiscretion. It did give rise to a subsequent would-be discreet visit to Madrid from G2, the account of which, however, seems to have caused no substantial misgivings.

Kerney’s supper with the devil brings up the question of the extent to which the German services had penetrated parts of the Irish administration. The only substantive possibility appears to be the case of Hermann Görtz, who was parachuted into Ireland in May 1940 and who remained at large, thanks to protection from Iseult Stuart, the IRA and a number of fellow-travelling Dublin ladies until November 1941. During that time he had apparently been able to send wireless reports, and there is a suggestion that he was in touch not only with Gen Eoin O’Duffy, by that stage surely a cypher, but with Maj Gen Hugo MacNeill, OC Northern Command. The latter contact was all the more dangerous in that it seems likely that Germany’s main objective in Ireland was to stoke up disaffection among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

When it came to 1944, the outcome of the war was no longer in serious doubt, and thoughts in Dublin began to turn to Ireland’s place in the postwar scene. De Valera had learned from his experience both in the League of Nations and during the war that some special arrangements would be necessary to secure the position of small nations. This was a constantly recurring theme. He had, of course, in his 1937 Constitution given reason to think he was particularly attracted to corporatist views of organisation of the state – a factor still visible today in the mode of election of the Seanad; Salazar’s example was at one stage regarded as useful in this regard and it is not clear if Mgr Mozzoni’s advice was received. At any rate, Dev’s views on Ireland’s place in the world were set out in the mandate for the Chicago aviation conference: Ireland belonged territorially and culturally to Europe, he said, rather than to the countries of the western hemisphere. Walshe produced a memorandum to the Taoiseach in October 1944 on European economic integration, from which it emerges that he suspects such schemes of rather eliding the importance of two thousand years of Christianity in favour of a view of the state “as a mere instrument for acquiring economic power – a mere transition factor in an economic evolution towards a purely materialist world state”. He was pessimistic in a subsequent letter to MacWhite that the godless wave he saw coming from the east could be rolled back again “across Europe and into Asia”. It is perhaps unsurprising that after the war one of our first preoccupations was to gain entry to the United Nations, from the establishment of which the US and the British had carefully excluded us, as unreliable non-members of the wartime alliance.

By the late 1960s, however, it had become clear that a fixation on the UN such as that shown by Dev’s true ideological heir, Frank Aiken, who spent three months of each year at the general assembly in New York, could not adequately secure our overall interests, now increasingly seen as lying in the project of European integration under the sign of economic cooperation, much to the horror, perhaps, of the ghost of Joe Walshe.

There was also naturally a sense of exhaustion. Walshe was no doubt speaking not only for himself when he told MacWhite in March 1945 that he was “not only overtired, but depressed … hoping for a long sojourn in a dry and sunny climate to get back some vigour and energy, so as to face the rest of the course which I have to run”. MacWhite himself was talking of retiring at the end of the year. There was also some elation, Hearne asking Walshe on May 11th: “Looking back upon the war years, can we not say that, for ourselves, the maintenance of neutrality was the greatest achievement in all our history, that it was the crown of our sovereignty, and that it will nourish our national life almost without measure, or end?”

Even if I would not go quite as far as Hearne, there is little doubt but that the period covered by this volume and its predecessor has had a profound influence on how we see ourselves. The persistence of our sense of neutrality owes much to the defining nature of the World War II experience, even if it had its origins before the war. In the same way, it seems evident that the British experience of the war, in important ways another “close-run thing”, is defining of British identity today if one is to judge by British attitudes to Europe and the preoccupations of her most popular media.

A very striking aspect of the documents is how voluminous, informative and comprehensive the reports and memoranda are. This makes for the fascination of the publication. It is to be feared that the contrast with today’s situation would not flatter our contemporary officials. There seems no doubt but that, partly because of the use of modern technologies but even more perhaps because of freedom of information legislation, very little of what lies behind decisions is today committed to paper or quasi-permanent media. Our successors will be the poorer for this.

In his story “The Majesty of the Law”, Frank O’Connor recounts how old Dan Bride is visited by the local sergeant and how, after due hospitality and delicate exchange in which much is implied rather than explicit, the full rigour of the law, in the shape of the arrest of Dan, is brought about without prejudice to Dan’s dignity, public or private.

In January 1945, Sir John Maffey had raised the question of transferring German prisoners of war to Northern Ireland. Having considered the matter and accepted that this was to be done, a high-level group met to consider the implications of escapes to the Republic. It was decided that if POWs were found on the national territory as far as the nearest Garda sub-station, they would be escorted back to Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach approved. On Sunday, January 14th, Col Bryan reported that four of the prisoners had escaped. On January 16th, Chief Supt. P Carroll said that two of them had turned up at the Garda station on Bridge Street, Dundalk and “that the two prisoners after taking tea and having had a chat with the Guards went back in the Guards’ car quite cheerfully and were dropped at the border”.

No more than does the sergeant in the case of Dan Bride do the gardaí accompany the two Germans to the place where they will be confined.


Pádraig Murphy, a graduate of UCC, is a retired official of the Department of Foreign Affairs. His career saw him posted in Berne, Brussels, Moscow, Bonn – the longest of his postings - Madrid  and Tokyo. He also served as Political Director of the Department.

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