"His name doesn't remind you of an American diplomat but a Nazi fighter plane!" sniped columnist Walter Winchell in December 1943. 1 The name in question belonged to George Strausser Messersmith, a distinguished thirty-year veteran of the United States foreign service whose finest moment, ironically, had come as consul general in Berlin exactly a decade before. That was when he was known as "the terror of Nazi Germany"—probably the most fearless and determined foe Hitler's gang faced, then or ever, among Western diplomats. If Winchell had lambasted his late mother, nothing could have provoked Messersmith to purer fury than linking him implicitly to the ideology he never stopped loathing with every ounce of his being. But Winchell undoubtedly knew not how sensitive a nerve he had touched. If he had heard about Messersmith's Berlin heroics ten years earlier, certainly nothing more of the sort had happened since to bring him back to mind. After Berlin he had returned to the accustomed obscurity of far-off places and the upper recesses of his country's largely invisible foreign-policy bureaucracy. That was the safest place for his sort of diplomat to be. Always heedless of appearances, consequences, or others where his principles were concerned, he was never a politician. Where others spun equivocations, he barked his mind. Where others soothed troubled waters, he never hesitated to make waves when the cause was right. No one who knew him was neutral about him. There was no hypocrisy in this man, and few pretensions. Sincerity suffused even his myriad platitudes. For every critic who deplored his lack of finesse and his blunt certitudes, there were admirers who hailed his independence, his courage, his high-mindedness. A diplomat who dared to be undiplomatic, he was at his best a shining example of American individualism in action.
But there was another side. Driven by ambition, for responsibility if not for glory, he was frequently obsequious and overweening in his pursuit of place. And it may be said that he loved too much the freedom that had helped make him what he became, was too blind to public opinion, and too quick to advocate extreme measures to defend freedom when he perceived it to be in danger, as he did throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Democracy was a living reality for him as it was for few others in his profession. Ill-born but well married, maleducated by comparison to his colleagues and counterparts,