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MacVeagh, Lincolnlocked

(01 October 1890–15 January 1972)
  • Harold R. Klobe

MacVeagh, Lincoln (01 October 1890–15 January 1972), diplomat and publisher, was born in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, the son of Charles MacVeagh, a diplomat, and Fanny Davenport Rogers. The MacVeagh family had distinguished itself in public service; his father served as ambassador to Japan during the Calvin Coolidge administration; his grandfather, Wayne MacVeagh, as President James Garfield’s attorney general; and his great-uncle, Franklin MacVeagh, as President William Howard Taft’s secretary of the treasury.

In 1909 MacVeagh graduated from the Groton School and went on to Harvard, graduating magna cum laude in 1913. His affinity for languages took him to the Sorbonne from 1913 to 1914, where he also studied philosophy. MacVeagh was proficient in French, Spanish, Latin, German, Italian, and Greek, a skill that proved invaluable in his diplomatic career.

Returning to the United States, MacVeagh was employed for a year by the United States Steel Products Company and then worked for the Henry Holt Publishing Company. In May 1917 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was commissioned a first lieutenant two days prior to his marriage to Margaret Charleton Lewis in August 1917. They had one child, Margaret Ewen. Assigned to the Eightieth Division, the newly promoted Captain MacVeagh was deployed to Europe where he served as an aide to the commanding general. He participated in actions on the Artois front, at St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. After service with the Sixth and Ninth Army Corps, he was assigned to the general staff of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in the historical section. Leaving the military as a major in July 1919, he was cited for “exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous service by General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commanding general of the AEF.

MacVeagh returned to Holt Publishing until 1923, when he formed Dial Press Incorporated in New York City. At Dial, he served as president, secretary, treasurer, and publisher of Dial magazine until his appointment as minister to Greece in 1933. Although not a politically active Democrat, MacVeagh and his family were close to the Roosevelt family, which enhanced his chances for the appointment. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware of his fellow Groton and Harvard alumnus’s knowledge of Greece and its people when he made the appointment. MacVeagh and his family arrived in Athens in September 1933. After presenting his credentials to the president and foreign minister, he read a short prepared speech in classical Greek, which few understood, but all applauded.

One of MacVeagh’s first tasks was to influence the government of Greece to extradite Samuel Insull, a notorious American financial speculator, who had sought refuge in Greece. Subtly working behind the scenes, he facilitated Insull’s return to the United States to stand trial for mail fraud. This caliber of work typified MacVeagh’s performance as ambassador, along with his lengthy and informative dispatches. Until the advent of World War II, MacVeagh’s reports received wide circulation not only for their wit but also for their comprehensiveness and professionalism. As the war clouds gathered around Greece, his messages were relegated to telegraph and took on a more somber and succinct form.

MacVeagh’s love of Greece continued to flourish in spite of his heavy diplomatic responsibilities. In 1936 his excavation site at the Acropolis uncovered numerous shards, dated about 1000 B.C., which were presented to the National Museum in Athens. His extensive travel throughout Greece made him an authority on that country, causing even the Greeks to call upon him for detailed geographical information.

Returning to the United States in 1941, after the Greek government went into exile to flee Nazi occupation, MacVeagh was quickly appointed as the first minister to Iceland. In his short stay, he successfully aided in the settling of numerous diplomatic and labor problems that had plagued the construction of the large military airfield at Keflavik. Another brief assignment awaited him in South Africa in 1942, where as minister he essentially established his own diplomatic agenda and priorities. In November 1943 he became the ambassador to the Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile, quartered in Cairo, Egypt. Typical of his assignments in South Africa and Cairo, MacVeagh received little guidance in his actions, but his astute performance merited him several commendations for his part in South Africa’s shift to greater emphasis on production of raw material in support of the war and the king of Greece’s decision to acquiesce to the desires of the people in regard to his position in a postwar Greek government.

Prior to returning to Athens in the fall of 1944, MacVeagh wrestled with the problem of Soviet influence in both Yugoslavia and Greece. His accurate predictions that turmoil would follow the war in both countries were conveyed to Roosevelt, but little resulted because of the relative global insignificance of the two countries.

The battle between the royalist, liberal, and communist parties for control in Greece occupied much of MacVeagh’s time in the postwar era. The Harry S. Truman administration, concurring in MacVeagh’s assessment of a possible Communist takeover, formulated many of his earlier suggestions of aid to Greece into the Truman Doctrine.

The year 1947 was turbulent for MacVeagh. U.S. aid to Greece became bogged down because of tension between warring Greek parties until finally resolved by the Sophoulis-led coalition government in September. Differences arose between Dwight Griswold, administrator of the aid program, and MacVeagh, because of the former’s infringement on embassy authority. MacVeagh’s wife died during this period after a prolonged illness, but he continued his duties until he took her home for burial.

MacVeagh was reassigned to Portugal rather than returning to Greece even though differences with Griswold had reportedly been reconciled. He remained in Portugal until 1952 when he was reassigned to Spain to negotiate the acquisition of military bases with the Franco government.

Retiring in 1953, MacVeagh lived in Portugal with his second wife, Virginia Ferrante Coats, whom he had married in May 1955, and his stepson, Colin. Illness brought MacVeagh back to the United States in 1971, where he died in Adelphi, Maryland, bringing to a close a distinguished career.

MacVeagh’s perceptive analysis of postwar Southeastern Europe and his ability to articulate the problems in his dispatches and testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations aided significantly in preventing a complete Communist takeover in this strategic area. Generally unheralded, particularly after the death of his friend, President Roosevelt, MacVeagh was a reliable, highly competent diplomat who appears to have been held in higher esteem by the Greeks than by those he served.

Bibliography

MacVeagh’s diaries are in the possession of his family. His diplomatic correspondence is held in the files of the Department of State. Letters to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman are located in their respective libraries. The most important source in the study of MacVeagh is John O. Iatrides’s compilation of his diary entries and letters, Ambassador MacVeagh Reports: Greece, 1933–1947 (1980). Howard Jones, “A New Kind of War”: America’s Global Strategy and the Truman Doctrine in Greece (1989), and Lawrence S. Wittner, American Intervention in Greece, 1943–1949 (1982), provide a view of MacVeagh’s contributions to the overall Truman strategy as well as his participation in American diplomacy during the mid-1940s. See also “National Affairs,” Time, 24 Mar. 1947, pp. 20–21, and “People of the Week,” U.S. News and World Report, 8 Nov. 1940, pp. 36–37, for additional activities in Greece. Records maintained by the National Archives provide very little information on his military career. An obituary is in the New York Times, 17 Jan. 1972.