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He wanted only what every journalist of the time did: an exclusive interview with the Duke of Windsor. What he got was an astonishing proposition that sent him on an urgent top-secret visit to the White House and a once-in-a-lifetime story that was too hot to print—until now.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
“Sometimes he would suddenly decide that there was nothing more for him to do and he would go back to Paris, not just over night but for three or four days.
“Now, I have nothing to prove what I am going to say, but I do know that there were nine shortwave wireless sets in Paris constantly sending information to the German troops, and no one has ever been able to decide how such accurate information could be sent over these wireless stations.
“After a while it was suggested to the Duke that he go down to Cannes where he could be with his wife and just stay there. He was never relieved of his commission. He just stayed there away from Paris.
“Then the Germans broke through Belgium and Holland but Edward stayed on in Cannes for a long time. Finally, he and his wife went to Madrid where they mingled with the wrong people.
“Meanwhile, the British were trying to make up their mind what to do with him. They couldn’t send him to the Fiji Islands because he wouldn’t go there. Finally they hit on the Bahamas. They wouldn’t go to Jamaica; too far away. But the Bahamas were close to the United States. Now and then they could go over to Miami and mingle with the night club crowds that they so enjoy. So the Bahamas were offered them as the greatest gift of the Empire.
“Bill Bullitt [then U.S. ambassador to France] saw them in Madrid just before they sailed, and he said, ‘Well, are you looking forward to sailing tomorrow?’
“And she said, ‘We sail for our Saint Helena tomorrow.’
“Now,” added the President, “I don’t know how well she knows her history. There was Elba after Saint Helena, but she knew enough to imply that there would be a come-back. She knew that Napoleon came back from Saint Helena.” [My father’s memo makes no comment about this mistake. Napoleon, of course, escaped from Elba and died on Saint Helena.]
We wished each other Merry Christmas and I left. As I walked out, I found a little man sitting in a chair just outside the door. I stopped and looked at him. He kept his head down so that I could not see his face. Who was he? Only God and Franklin Roosevelt know.
[So ends the memo my father dictated to a secretary on December 26, 1940.]
The discoveries I made about my father after he had died convince me that history is often a phantom and that among the most powerful historical forces are secrets: secret passions, plans, and actions.
My father’s memo offers a glimpse into a secret of state so hidden that I could find only one other man who knew of it. Louis B. Nichols had been third-in-command of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and was the man who persuaded my father to work for the Bureau during the war. I told him about the memo when I was working on my father’s unfinished autobiography, Behold This Dreamer, which was published in 1963. Nichols knew the entire story; my father had told it to him in detail soon after the visit to the White House.
Nichols added that he had no doubt that British intelligence knew what had happened as well. It would not surprise him, he said, if accounts of what both the duke and President had told my father were in the intelligence files of other nations.
But Nichols warned me that the memo was still exploisive. Even then, after more than twenty years had passed, it would embarrass the royal family, enrage the duke’s friends and supporters, and inflame his enemies. He did not counsel me to suppress it. In fact, he told me that if necessary, he would take the stand in court and swear that the memo was true.
But he and others asked difficult questions. I had worked closely with my father on his memoirs before his death. Did I have any indication that he had intended to include the report in his book? Had he ever talked about the memo or shown it to me? The answer in each case was no. The sanitized version of the interview published in Liberty, in March 1941, downplayed the duke’s sentiments—yet still enraged Churchill.
And so I have kept the memo until now. And today, fifty years after the event, other questions remain unanswered. Dr. William Emerson, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, tried to assist me in answering them. The White House appointment schedule does record my father’s visit, but among the fourteen million documents at the library, not a single notation makes mention of his secret report to the President. The slender file concerning the Duke of Windsor contains little more than polite notes, such as birthday greetings.
In recent years a number of books have appeared that contain accounts that support or verify the suspicions Roosevelt shared with my father. It is now clear, for example, that the distrust began as soon as the king installed Mrs. Simpson in Fort Belvedere. Even Philip Ziegler, in his recent book King Edward VIII, widely regarded as the authorized biography, has described the alarm concerning the care of state secrets that were sent to the king in official government boxes. There was little doubt in court and government circles that he shared them with Mrs. Simpson, and her close association with Germans actually led to fears that the Foreign Office cipher might be compromised.