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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,293

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This is the grave of Joseph Grew.

Born in 1880 in Boston, Grew grew up in a very wealthy old school Boston elite family. He went to Groton and then to Harvard, you know, that type of rich kid. He was going to become a banker like many of the rest of his family, including his father. But after he graduated, our adventurous young man decided to travel the world a bit. He certainly had the money to do so. He ended up India. He nearly died of a very serious case of malaria while there, but as a lot of people who have experienced Asia first hand have done, he fell in love with it. So he decided to go into the foreign service instead of banking.

Grew didn’t spend much time in Asia during his early diplomatic career though. Although most certainly well connected, he rotated through nations like lots of other early career diplomats. He started in Egypt in 1904, then spent time in Mexico, Russia, Germany, and Austria. A big time hunter, he wrote about his hunting in Asia, Sport and Travel in the Far East, which Theodore Roosevelt wrote the introduction to. By about 1912 though, he was rising pretty fast and had a five year stint in Berlin as World War I began, staying there until the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917. He was then named State Department’s Division of Western European Affairs and stayed in that position until 1919. At Versailles, he was the secretary for the American delegation. For all this service, Woodrow Wilson gave him his first ambassador position in 1920, to Denmark. Not exactly the most critical posting, but for someone not yet 40 years old, it was pretty impressive.

As the foreign service was less politicized at this time than it is today, when Warren Harding became president, he simply moved Grew to become ambassador to Switzerland. In the Coolidge administration, Grew was promoted to Under Secretary of State.

But in case you thought this was just going to be the story of a good, competent man, nope, Grew was also a racist son of a beeswax. In 1924, Congress passed the Rogers Act. This attempted to professionalize the foreign service and making hiring and promotions about merit instead of who you knew. Soon after, a Black man named Clifton Wharton passed the exam and became the first Black foreign service officer. Well, Wharton was to remain for a long time, eventually becoming ambassador to Norway in the 1960s. But Grew was outraged. The idea of Black foreign service officers disgusted him. So he fixed the system. Under the Rogers Act, the hiring was to be under the Under Secretary of State. He changed the oral part of the exam to ensure that he and future people who held his position could kill any Black candidates. The State Department would not bring another Black person into the foreign service until the mid 1940s.

Of course, this racism wouldn’t hurt Grew. If anything, it helped him. The State Department was the home of casual elite racism anyway. He became ambassador to Turkey in 1927. Then in 1932, Herbert Hoover named him ambassador to Japan.

It is Grew’s work in Asia before World War II that makes him so well-known today. He was the lead American on the ground trying to figure out what to do about the increasingly militaristic and warlike Japanese government. He was a very public figure at this time, in part because he was the rare diplomat who really liked the cameras. His wife was also very popular with the Japanese public, which didn’t hurt. He was even on the cover of Time in 1934. John Hersey wrote a long feature on him for Life in 1940 that made him even more famous, especially as diplomacy was so touchy by now with Japan’s aggression in China and threats toward the U.S. and the rest of the Pacific. The attack on the Panay on the Yangtze River during the gross invasion of China that killed three Americans made Grew’s job much harder.

It also seems that Grew was too soft on Japan. In the end, he sympathized with Japanese culture and his good friends were the militaristic leaders in the government. He sent cables back home telling FDR (who he had gone to school with back at Groton) and other foreign policy leaders that some of the Japanese actions in China were justified. Let’s just say FDR did not see things the same way. But by January 1941, he was also reporting the first rumors of a planned attack on Pearl Harbor back to the U.S. And to be fair to Grew, as time went on, he began to support the sanctions against the government. He never was the level of appeaser that some claimed.

After Pearl Harbor, Grew was put in prison in Japan along with all the Allied diplomats. He was still in prison when the Doolittle Raid took place and he experienced it. He and the other diplomats were finally released. Grew went to DC where he was deeply involved in Japanese policy issues in the government. He was on the committee trying to figure out if there were alternatives to drop the atomic bomb. One of his tasks here was cutting out the Treasury Department from postwar planning. Henry Morgenthau wanted to return both Germany and Japan to rural societies in order to make sure they were no longer military powers. Grew thought this was idiotic. His power play, even though it pissed off Morgenthau, worked. Treasury would have nothing to do with postwar Japan planning. Grew also strongly believed that the Emperor must remain, which is another battle he of course won. That was tough. Dean Acheson famously called him “the prince of appeasers” and pundits attacked him publicly over the point.

He also hated the Soviets. As a staunch anti-communist, he wanted nothing to do with the USSR, even given the realities of the war. That made him a big deal among the right-wing of the Democratic Party, willing to work with him as the anti-communists took over. Grew became Undersecretary of State again in 1944. He wrote Ten Years in Japan as well during these years, which was well-read since basically no one knew more about Japan than he did. He also had to, very reluctantly, return Soviet POWs who wanted to stay in the U.S., to the Soviets. No one wants to make that decision.

Grew finally retired from the Foreign Service in 1952. He wrote his memoirs, publishing both volumes that same year. He died in 1965, at the age of 84.

Joseph Grew is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other ambassadors to Japan, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Sebald is in Washington, D.C., and Robert Murphy is in Rockville, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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