The recent story about finding huge amounts of art hidden by the Nazis didn’t surprise me as much as it once might have. Here, from our overstocked archives, is why:
After World War II broke out, my father, who had worked for the New Deal from almost the beginning and was then over 40, went to work for the Foreign Economic Administration in Dakar, buying things West Africa needed and buying from West Africa things the military needed such as fats and oils. Richard Saltonstall in a chapter on my father in Pilgrimages, wrote that he “conducted extremely high-level and sensitive business missions for the government, including the purchase of the fuel oil that got Patton’s tanks rolling again across Germany.” In a letter of recommendation in 1945, the Army’s Adjutant General, James Ulio, said he had purchased $20 million in commodities for the U.S. Army, the equivalent about about $240 million in 2010.
In West Africa he acquired two phobias: bare feet and airplanes. He had learned in Dakar of the dangers of disease from walking around in bare feet. His children were thereafter forbidden to walk inside the house in bare feet, no matter how dissimilar our house was from those in West Africa. His distaste for flying, built up in 100,000 miles of propeller-driven travel during the war, crystallized in a nighttime flight over Africa. The co-pilot came into the cabin and said he understood my father had been to Dakar before and did those lights down there look like it? After the war my father never flew again. My mother was never in a plane.
Nearly a quarter century after my father’s death, I was tinkering with an old family desk that I knew had several hidden compartments. A piece of wood suddenly moved and I found myself staring at a small cache of typewritten letters between my parents in the last year of the war.
On March 2, 1945 he wrote my mother from Bern. He describes catching an 8:29 am train to Zurich: “There I talked three hours to the head, or one of the heads, of the Swiss National Bank, named Mr. Hirs and then took the train back here.”
Tuesday I go to Paris probably – if so with the Currie Mission on their train. I come back in a day or two. No gestapo follows me, except possible the Swiss, for they have a wonderful one.
And at the end:
Tell mother that there are plenty of Swiss spies but not German and no female spies. I haven’t time for them either.
Then on March 14:
Paris is cold and damp. We left in two 2 1/2 ton six wheel trucks and a jeep with six soldiers, all with guns to protect the load on the way back. . . German tanks and trucks burned up, and turned over off the road, wooden repairs to iron and steel bridges, German prisoners marching off to work, a warning by an MP that two German parachutists had dropped, a railroad locomotive off the bridge and beside the road. . . factories and oil plants destroyed. . .
Author’s father on the way from Paris to Bern in March 1945. Lawrence Smith carried a noncombatant certificate which said that if captured he was to be treated as a field grade officer (major to colonel). At his right is his driver carrying a pistol. Smith wrote home: “We had six tommy guns and plenty of ammunition. At one point we were warned two [German] paratroopers had dropped behind the lines.”
What my father was doing on this trip from Paris to Berne remains a mystery. About a fortnight earlier he had written to say that he expected to go to Paris in a few days with the Currie Mission on their train: “I come back in a day or two.”
The photo of my father and the soldiers continued to puzzle me, especially since it was accompanied by another showing a Swiss moving van backed up to one of the Army trucks. Then in 2009, I was having some art appraised and in the course of a conversation with the appraiser’s assistant, who also happened to be a member of an OSS history group. I recounted the story of my father’s strange journey and other WWII materials I had found. She said, “It sounds like he might have been part of Operation Safehaven.”
She took my materials to an OSS history group meeting and came back with a note from one ot its oldest members: “It appears that Mr. Smith was indeed a member of the Safehaven mission.”
My father had never used the phrase, there had never been a hint of any connection with OSS, but the more I investigated, the more it seemed that I had discovered something deliberately hidden all these years.
Operation Safehaven was a secret World War II project aimed at recovering stolen and hoarded Nazi gold, art and other valuables. In the course of my research I came across an OSS summary stating that Safehaven’s purpose was “above all, to deny Germany the capacity to start another war.” A CIA report below calls this purpose its “overriding goal.”
The Safehaven operation was started by the Foreign Economic Administration, for which my father was working. But, while inventing the project, the FEA soon found itself over its head and called on the OSS for help. In classic government tradition the two agencies apparently alternately cooperated and competed. The State and Treasury departments’ involvement helped to make it even more complicated.
The Currie Mission, with which my father was involved in some manner, was headed by Laughlin Currie, head of the Foreign Econimic Adminsitration. According to one account, “In early 1945, Currie headed a tripartite (U.S., British, and French) mission to Berne to persuade the Swiss to freeze Nazi bank balances and stop further shipments of German supplies through Switzerland to the Italian front.”
That was the trip my father had taken. The Currie Mission, according to the National Holocaust Museum, reached an agreement with Switzerland to stop cloaking enemy assets, gold purchases from Germany, assist in the restoration of looted property, and conduct a census of German assets in Switzerland. It adds that Switzerland “reneged on commitments.”
Two weeks earlier, my father had “talked three hours to the head, or one of the heads, of the Swiss National Bank, named Mr. Hirs.” Mr. Hirs, it turns out, was only the deputy head, of whom David Sanger of the NY Times would write decades later:
When the war ended, the Swiss offered a series of backtracking explanations of their behavior [with Nazi loot] . . When bank records or intelligence reports surfaced, it turned to legalistic defenses, arguing that under the rules of occupation the Nazis had clear title to anything they looted from central banks.
Lengthy negotiations were held in Washington over this prickly subject. A particularly duplicitous deputy head of the Swiss National Bank, Alfred Hirs, blurted out to the Americans, ”Do you want to take 500 million Swiss francs of gold” — worth roughly $1.25 billion today — ”and ruin my bank?” It was a telling moment, because until his outburst the Swiss had not acknowledged holding anywhere near that much looted gold.
The record of my father’s role in all this remains blurred. He was a serious art collector and art was one of the things the Nazi had looted. He had also held a high position in the Justice Department so he was used to keeping his mouth shut.
In fact, according to one news account, Operation Safehaven didn’t even become publicly known until the mid nineties, two decades after my father’s death.
In 1997, Stuart Eizenstat compiled a report for the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence. In it, citing two countries in which my father operated, he wrote;
The overriding goal of Safehaven was to make it impossible for Germany to start another war. Its immediate goals were to force those neutrals trading with Nazi Germany into compliance with the regulations imposed by the Allied economic blockade and to identify the points of clandestine German economic penetration. . .
It is quite clear that Safehaven planners had a good idea of what they wanted to achieve, but it also is apparent that they did not have the slightest idea of how to do it. Although it was evident from the outset that Safehaven would be primarily an intelligence-gathering problem, it does not appear to have occurred to anyone to consult the intelligence services, which were excluded from the planning and implementation of Safehaven until the end of November 1944. Bureaucratic rivalries predominated. Indeed, Safehaven was nearly destroyed by internecine quarrels among the FEA, State, and Treasury, each of which wanted to control the program and to exclude the other two from any participation. . .
The decision was finally taken to invite the formal participation of the OSS. Once the OSS was brought into the Safehaven fold, all the advantages of a centralized intelligence organization were brought to bear. . .
The unique character of Safehaven, which was both an attempt to prevent the postwar German economic penetration of foreign economies and an intelligence-gathering operation, meant that the OSS counterintelligence branch, X-2, also had an important role to play.
Safehaven thus emerged as a joint [Strategic Intelligence]/X-2 operation shortly after its inception, especially in the key OSS outposts in Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal, with X-2 not infrequently playing the dominant role. . .
In Nazi Europe, neutral Switzerland carried out business as usual, providing the international banking channels that facilitated the transfer of gold, currencies, and commodities between nations. Always heavily dependent on Swiss cooperation to pay for imports, the Reich became even more so as the ultimate defeat of the National Socialist regime became obvious and neutrals grew more wary of cooperating with the Axis belligerents. . .
In this critical situation, the Swiss banks acted as clearinghouses whereby German gold–much of which was looted from occupied countries–could be converted to a more suitable medium of exchange. An intercepted Swiss diplomatic cable shows how, allegedly without inquiring as to its origin, the Swiss National Bank helped the German Reichsbank convert some $15 million in (probably) looted Dutch gold into liquid assets. . .
Fortuitously, the restoration of access to Switzerland through France in November 1944 made it possible for the first X-2 operative in Switzerland to enter the country by the end of the year. By January 1945, X-2 was up and running in Switzerland, and by April it was able to provide OSS Washington with an extensive summary of Nazi gold and currency transfers arranged via Switzerland through most of the war. . .
Despite its liberal democratic traditions, Sweden was Nazi Germany’s largest trading partner during the war and almost the sole source of high-grade iron ore and precision ball bearings for the German war machine. . .
Another CIA report states:
Within the OSS, Safehaven fell largely under the aegis of the Secret Intelligence Branch, responsible for the gathering of intelligence from clandestine sources inside neutral and German-occupied Europe. But the unique character of Safehaven, which was both an attempt to prevent the postwar German economic penetration of foreign economies and an intelligence-gathering operation, meant that the OSS counterintelligence branch, X-2, also had an important role to play.
What my father’s precise role in all of this, I’ll never know, but if I hadn’t stumbled upon that hidden compartment in my parents’ desk, I would have had no idea that he had been somehow involved in a major secret operation designed in part, amazingly, to prevent the Nazis from ever starting another war.
In view of the Monuments Men movie, my curiosity about my father’s role in all of this has been reignited.
The story, which was kept secret a long time, is extremely complicated and involved a number of agencies including Foreign Economic Administration (for which my father worked), the OSS (which took over the FEA’s role), the Treasury Department, the Army, and the Roberts Commission.
The Roberts Commission was chaired by Owen Roberts, who helped to found the law firm where my father worked. At one point, my father says he worked for Roberts, but looking at Robert’s bio, as a lawyer this could have only have been for a few months. As a Robert’s biography notes:
In 1930 Roberts returned to his private practice but only for a few months, as President Herbert Hoover soon appointed him to the Supreme Court of the United States
The other time mjy father might have been referring to was when he was with the FEA, working with the Roberts Commission. One account describes this commission thusly:
The Roberts Commission was established in 1943 to consolidate earlier efforts on a national basis with the US Army to help protect Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives in war zones. The commission ran until 1946, when its activities were consolidated into the State Department.
The name “Monuments Men” was shortened from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Roberts Commission, a group approved by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943 and headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts.
Here’s what the National Archives has to say about the relationship between the Roberts Commission and the FEA:
The Commission also assisted the U.S. Foreign Economic Administration in writing and disseminating an extensive report on Nazi art looting and collecting in the spring and summer of 1945. The Roberts Commission cooperated with various agencies to prevent looted art from being used to fund a postwar Nazi state.
My fatherwas a key official in the FEA at that time in Switzerland – center of much investigatory concern. He also went to Sweden, another neutral country in which many things were happening or suspected to have happened.
The commission’s own report states:
RELATION TO THE FOREIGN ECONOMIC ADMINISTRATION
Because of its concern with over enemy economic activities, the Foreign Economic Administration participated in the setting up of controls over the exportation of art objects from Europe. The Enemy Branch, Blockade Division of the Foreign Economic Administration, prepared in May 1945 an extensive report on enemy art looting in Europe and art collecting by enemy nationals in tile western hemisphere…
Because much of the material was of necessity based on unevaluated evidence, it was necessary to revise the Foreign Economic Administration report in August 1945 in the .light of later evidence… Since this report contains citations of cases still under investigation it is, of necessity, classified as “Secret” and is not available for distribution.
At least one of the ,Monuments Men also was working for the FEA. From his bio:
Merrill joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942 as assistant to the Navy liaison officer to the Board of Economic Warfare. In 1945 he transferred to the Foreign Economic Administration, assigned to the headquarters of the United States European Theater in Frankfurt. That same year he was recruited to assist with preparation and shipment of 202 German-owned paintings to Washington for safekeeping…. The paintings arrived at the National Gallery on December 8, 1945. They remained there in storage until 1948, when they began an exhibition tour of thirteen American museums.
Add to this the fact that my father had been significantly involved in the arts before the war – e.g. the American Federation of Arts – and after the war was deeply involved with UNESCO, which took as one of its concerns how to prevent what the Nazis did from happening again, and this strange story starts to make sense.