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The Freer Gallery, Washington, D. C., February 16, 1933
The main floor of the Freer Gallery was, according to the instructions of Charles Freer, built around a courtyard. This pleasant open architecture turned out to be eminently suitable for a medium-sized art collection which wouldn't have filled a more compact building of comparable dimensions. The courtyard was itself an attraction with all manner of potted plants, fountains, and ornaments. Even on a cold February day, it looked inviting.
Overlooking this garden, in a generous space left between galleries, there was a rest area containing upholstered chairs and love seats. Except in tourist season, there was seldom much activity on weekday mornings. On this day, there were no visitors in the whole building until a well-dressed young woman walked briskly through the galleries and took a seat facing the courtyard. She didn't look quite the type to drift through the rooms and commune with the spirit of James McNeill Whistler, as exemplified in his paintings. She instead unfolded a newspaper and read it, occasionally looking at her watch and glancing back over her shoulder.
After a quarter of an hour, there arrived a handsome middle-aged man in a pin-striped business suit. With his close-cropped gray hair and purposeful stride, he looked rather forbidding. However, when he approached the lady, he smiled, apologized for being late, and settled into a chair next to hers. The two appeared to be good friends. They then produced papers which they exchanged and studied.
It was really an extraordinary circumstance that official United States Navy business had to be conducted in such a peculiar atmosphere by Miss Cynthia Harding and Lt. Commander James Murphy. But there was little alternative.
The need for subterfuge had arisen when Rear-Admiral Charles Snelling, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, and Rear-Admiral D. D. Ricketts, head of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, had had a fuss and refused to speak to one another. Admiral Snelling had gone further, and had ordered everyone in his bureau to avoid any contact with Ricketts or any of his officers.
While the head of the navy's most powerful bureau could get away with arbitrary and ill-considered actions such as this, he made it difficult for his subordinates to perform their duties. In addition to a frequent need for the two bureaus to transact routine business, their more important plans often had to be coordinated. It had been pointed out to Admiral Snelling that it made little sense to make plans to man the navy's ships if one wasn't allowed to inquire what ships there would be to man. The admiral was wont to reply, not entirely to Commander Murphy's satisfaction, that a good seaman should be able to handle any kind of ship at all.
With the knowledge of Admiral Ricketts, but not that of Admiral Snelling, an alternative arrangement had been made. It hinged on the fact that Miss Harding, a former secretary at BuNav, had moved to BuCon a couple of years previously. She had there been promoted to the rank of administrative assistant. Her move had occurred after the rupture of the admirals, and Admiral Snelling had attached no special significance to it. On the other hand, Commander Murphy, his most trusted advisor, saw a chance to re-establish the necessary communication between the bureaus. After all, he hadn't been forbidden to chat with his former secretary. Still, Murphy knew his admiral well enough not to depend on the letter of his law, and it seemed wise to hold these conversations where they couldn't be observed or overheard. It was fortunate that both he and Cynthia, though he more than she, had an interest in art. He also knew that, while still occupying a lowly position, she was well suited to the role of go-between. Cynthia had direct access to her admiral, and she was intelligent enough to get things straight.
After the two had gone through their notes, they often gossiped or talked about their children. On this occasion, Murphy asked casually,
"Heard any more about the new president?"
"A bit. I can tell you if you won't repeat it to Snelling or anyone else at BuNav. Anyone at all, really."
Commander Murphy's easy agreement hid a good deal. He wasn't as comfortable with intrigue as Cynthia seemed to assume. Moreover, unlike her, he did still feel loyalty to Admiral Snelling. It wasn't, for Murphy, a laughing matter to be told things he couldn't tell his chief. On the other hand, he thought it unwarrantably dangerous to operate in unnecessary ignorance.
Murphy knew that Cynthia would think him silly if she even suspected his reservations. Her position, he knew, was that both of them were outsiders confronted with an incompetent and corrupt naval elite. They were therefore justified in making the most of their limited opportunities to serve the larger purpose. Loyalty to Admiral Snelling, he saw in her eyes, was something like feeling loyalty to a captain who has wrecked his ship when drunk, and then escaped in the only life boat. In Murphy's view, the admiral, for all his faults, was hardly as bad as that. However, such matters didn't need to be discussed when there was news about the new president.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected in November, 1932. However, in the system then prevailing, he didn't take office until the following March. Since he was a man of great energy, he found it frustrating to have to wait so long. For example, he would certainly have wished to open conversations with the leaders of other countries. Unfortunately, the Logan Act made it illegal for any American citizen, without the written consent of the government, to hold conversations with foreign statesmen with a view to negotiations. The embittered Hoover administration might have refused permission. In any case, Roosevelt was too proud to ask.
Violation of the Logan Act entailed a prison term of three years. Not even Roosevelt was willing to exercise his presidency from jail. He did, however, send his envoy, William C. Bullitt, to Europe to do exactly what the Logan Act said he should not do. In all conscience, the act was so vague as to provide only an uncertain foundation for prosecution. Moreover, it was very probably unconstitutional. Still, this action had created a mild scandal, and the papers were full of speculation as to the activities of "Roosevelt's man in Europe." This speculation was even more intense in the government departments.
The hope of the Navy Department was that Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, would put an end to the period of austerity that had afflicted it. Roosevelt's public statements on naval affairs hadn't gone beyond platitudes, but the feeling was that his real policies were being expressed secretly by Bullitt. Murphy suspected that Cynthia had access to more reliable rumors than the ones that normally floated around the bureaus. He listened hopefully as she spoke.
"Remember, last time I told you that Roosevelt seemed to be serious about further naval disarmament?"
"Yes. Do you still think so?"
Cynthia cleared her hair from her face with an imperious gesture. Murphy could see that she was beginning to enjoy the power that comes from a secret source of information. She then proceeded with a seriousness which, considering the circumstances in which the information had probably been imparted, Murphy found rather amusing.
"That seems to have changed. The British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, has asked Bullitt if Roosevelt would mind an expansion of the British navy. So, just when everyone is talking about disarmament, Roosevelt is getting pressure in the opposite direction."
Murphy instantly recognized what his old colleagues in naval intelligence would have claimed as pure gold. They cared, not so much for the content of a report, but for its history. Something like this must have come almost directly from the immediate Roosevelt circle. When people did violate the Logan Act, they didn't spread the news. It might mean that Cynthia would continue to get this kind of information. However, Murphy wasn't sure whether she knew that she had something rare and valuable. He acted as if she had just repeated the usual office gossip.
"MacDonald's supposed to be a socialist, but he may worry about imperial defense just as much as the conservatives. Or he may just be trying to create jobs. Probably both. Anyway, most of our admirals will want to build ships just to keep up with the British. If Roosevelt rearms, I hope he'll do it for a better reason than that."
"We do know that Roosevelt is worried about the Japanese, particularly the buildup of their navy. Bullitt's been going around Europe trying to get the bankers to deny them credit. He asked MacDonald to make sure that British banks don't lend money to Japan."
This news struck Murphy as incredible, but, given Roosevelt, the exact kind of thing that might turn out to be true. It also gave him a feeling that he hadn't experienced in some time. He carefully hid this excitement as he replied,
"I bet the English Prime Minister enjoyed getting directives from an American private citizen. Probably happens all the time. Did he agree on the spot, or call in the Chancellor of the Exchequer?"
Even before Cynthia spoke, Murphy could see that she was amused by his attempt to make light of her information.
"You mean that you want more? How greedy. You can have a little more, though."
Again serious, Cynthia continued,
"You knew that Bullitt and MacDonald are old friends from the Versailles Conference days didn't you? So MacDonald wasn't upset at all. In fact, he agreed to do all he could. But he did say that he couldn't be sure that some banks hadn't already committed themselves."
"I think that's the best news I've heard in a long time. Not that I think it has a chance of working, mind you."
"The Japanese will get all the money they need despite everything that Roosevelt and MacDonald do. There are just too many sources of credit. Particularly in places like Switzerland and Scandinavia. They care only about interest rates, not about aircraft carriers."
"Why is it such good news, then?"
"Because we have a president coming in who recognizes the danger so clearly that one of his first acts is to mount a rather desperate compaign against the Japanese."
"What if we're so broke that we can't do anything about the danger?"
"Even if we have to retrench in the navy, what resources we have will be aimed in the right direction. You can do an awful lot with very little if you know where you're going."
Murphy saw by Cynthia's silence that he had made an impression on her. Gone, at least for the moment, was the joy of one who has just begun to dabble in high politics. It returned when he asked her,
"How in God's name do you know all this?"
"I'm sure you know, commander, that that is a very sensitive question."
Murphy thought he could probably get everything out of Cynthia if he persisted long enough. However, it wasn't his general practice to try to get something for nothing.
"I can make some guesses. And it might surprise you to know that I have a little information myself. Roosevelt has talked with Secretary Adams at a Harvard function of some kind. Of course, Adams isn't being reappointed because he's a Republican, but Roosevelt was very friendly. He told Adams that, having once been Assistant Secretary, he really wants to be his own Navy Secretary. He'll appoint some politician who'll let him have his way. Then he asked Adams' advice. Adams recommended that he keep Sheldon Stone. Roosevelt already knew about Stone, and said he would. Does that check with your information?"
"I didn't know about Adams talking with Roosevelt, but I do know that Stone is being kept."
"Well, then. The Roosevelt people tell Stone. Stone tells D. D., and D. D. tells you. I wouldn't expect all that detail to come through so clearly though."
Cynthia gave a nervous laugh.
"I was going to tell you the whole story anyway. I do talk with Mr. Stone sometimes. He's always very formal and correct, and he shows no signs of getting more familiar. But he does want to trade information, and he's willing to give at least as good as he gets."
Murphy quickly saw the implication for his own bureau.
"That's okay with me. I can't think of anything I know that Stone shouldn't have. Admiral Snelling would kill me for saying that, but it's actually in BuNav's best interest."
"Yes. Well, the connection's closer than you realized. Bullitt and Stone are both Yale men from Philadelphia, and their families have always known each other. Bullitt knows that Stone is on board. They correspond, and they sometimes eat together at the New York Yale Club."
"Aren't high politics wonderful? All it takes is a few conversations between Yale men to set the world straight."
"It's rather frightening. They're so casual, and they may only half know what they're doing. Sometimes they change their minds two or three times. They may even forget to tell the people who carry out the policy that it's been changed."
At this moment Cynthia made a dramatic gesture with her hands. She then lowered them and continued,
"Then there's another thing. They always talk about the need for secrecy, but they disregard it in practice. Bullitt talks to Stone, Stone talks to me, and I tell you. If you and I didn't have sense, it could end up anywhere."
Murphy found Cynthia somewhat disconcerting because she changed her tone so often and so quickly. When she had secrets to impart, she had a thoroughly businesslike voice, almost devoid of any traces of southern accent. But then, if she was disturbed by the content of her message, or by something else, she could sound like a belle of the Old South faced with a tarantula on her verandah.
The security problem Cynthia had raised seemed to fall between these categories, and she fluttered verbally to some extent. It was obvious that she had spent years playing with accents and tones of voice, and had incorporated bits and pieces of them into her normal speech. All, unfortunately, had different sets of gestures that went with them. Murphy found this distracting. He had, on one occasion, been sufficiently bothered to mention it to his wife. She had replied,
"From what I've seen of Cynthia, I'd guess she's often not sure how to talk to people. She may be at some sort of crossroads in her own life. You men probably make conflicting demands on her without even realizing it."
Murphy had objected that he never made conflicting demands on anyone. Helen had laughed at that. She had then explained,
"I bet you first give her a lot of responsibility, and then turn around and treat her like a secretary. You've always done that kind of thing with me. I found it confusing when I was young."
With Helen's remarks in mind, Murphy tried to adopt a consistent tone with Cynthia whenever she began to sound unprofessional. He therefore spoke carefully, but as unworriedly as possible in the circumstances.
"We do know that Admiral Ricketts is party to all of this. He's not entirely secure, is he?"
"I'm afraid not. I'll do my best to shut him up."
"It would be nice if the Japanese think we don't perceive us as a major threat just yet. If they find out that we're trying to deny them credit, they might react by building a couple more aircraft carriers."
"Is war with Japan really inevitable?"
"I suppose so."
"Will we be ready when the time comes?"
"I wish I knew."
This time, it was the look on Cynthia's face, rather than her voice, which informed Murphy that he was handling her in the wrong way. In return for information, he was expected to give reassurance.
As they walked slowly through the galleries, sometimes stopping at paintings, he tried to exude some confidence. He also suggested some things that they could do to help. In the course of thinking up some projects to keep Cynthia busy and put her mind at rest, he hit on one scheme that rather pleased him.
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