An American diplomat and educator who was also a spymaster during the Russian Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and an expert in anti-communist propaganda and psychological and political warfare.
Poole was born on October 28, 1885 at a U.S. Army post near Vancouver, Washington. He was descended from 17th century English stock in New England and was proud of his heritage. He was particularly proud of his father, DeWitt Clinton Poole, Sr., a veteran of the Civil War and the Sioux wars in South Dakota. Poole received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1906 and his Master of Diplomacy from George Washington University in 1910. Later that year, he began his career as a researcher at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Trade Agreements. In 1911, Poole was sent on his first foreign service assignment as Vice-Consul in Berlin, where he worked until 1914, when he was transferred to Paris. In 1916, he was promoted to American Consul in Paris. He returned to the Department of State in early 1917.
In mid-1917, Poole was sent to Russia to serve as Vice Consul General in Moscow. He took a trip from Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the company of the famed British spy and novelist, Somerset Maugham, arriving in Moscow on September 1, 1917. Soon after the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, he was drafted into a growing information network, which included the consuls of several Western nations. Its goal was to establish contact with anti-Bolshevik forces and to gather information on the political, economic and military situation in Russia. In December 1917, Poole went on a rather dangerous reconnaissance mission, traveling undercover in South Russia, and returned to Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg, which was then the Russian capital) in mid-January 1917 to report to the U.S. Ambassador. In May 1918, Poole became the Consul General in Moscow. By that time, he was running a clandestine espionage network, which at its height in the summer of 1918 numbered 30 sources in Moscow and various other Russian cities. Poole had also become a self-initiated back channel between the Bolshevik Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Department of State — trying to push for American aid to Russia as a “carrot” to lead the Bolsheviks to cooperate in the face of German advances on military and commercial fronts. However, by early August 1918 his efforts were exhausted, and Poole had to burn his codes, close the American Consulate General in Moscow and arrange for the evacuation of all Americans left in Moscow. He barely managed to escape to Finland in September 1918.
He was soon detailed to the city of Archangel in the Russian north, which was then occupied by Allied expeditionary forces, as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador. He finally left Russia in late 1919 as American chargé d’affaires. 1
Returning to Washington, D.C., Poole became Director of the State Department’s Division of Russian Affairs and was soon promoted to the rank of Consul General. He resumed his foreign service in 1923 as Consul General in Capetown, South Africa, and served at the embassy in Berlin from 1926 until he resigned from the Department of State in 1930. 2
In 1930, Poole became chairman of the advisory board of the School of Public and International Affairs, which was founded at Princeton University that year, and served as its director from 1933 to 1939. In 1937 he co-founded a quarterly publication called Public Opinion Quarterly (POQ), which was designed to serve as a forum for experts in public opinion surveys. Eventually, the publication also became a forum for the discussion of American experience in psychological warfare in the emerging Cold War. 3
In 1941, Poole was selected to manage the day-to-day operations at the Foreign Nationalities Branch (FNB) within the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) — the predecessor of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American wartime strategic intelligence agency. After the COI was replaced by the OSS in July 1942, Poole became the head of the FNB, which served as an important source of political intelligence for the Roosevelt Administration during World War II. After the OSS was terminated in late 1945, Poole became a special representative of the U.S. Secretary of State and was sent to Germany to interview political prisoners. Upon his return to Washington, D.C. he advocated the permanent division of Germany along the Elbe River, warning that a “restored” Germany would develop, in time, into a “dangerous” Germany. 4
In 1949, Poole joined the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE), which had been established with his active participation to deploy Eastern European exiles to distribute psychological warfare materials and run covert operations behind the Iron Curtain. Poole soon became the president of the NCFE, which included Radio Free Europe as its most important division, and remained in this position until January 1951. 5 From 1951 until he retired in April 1952, Poole was the president of the Free Europe University in Exile.
- “DeWitt Poole Dies; Retired Diplomat,” The New York Times, September 4, 1952; American Diplomats in Russia: Case Studies in Orphan Diplomacy, 1916-1919, by William Allison, Praeger Publishers, 1997, pp. 97-120. Details of Poole’s clandestine activities can be found in a Cheka investigative file, “Delo Lokarta”, sentyabr’-noyabr’ 1918, № 114037, Tsentral’nyi arkhiv FSB RF, Moscow (The Lockhart’s case, September – November, 1918, No 114037, The Central Archive of FSB RF, Moscow). ↩
- The New York Times, September 4, 1952. ↩
- Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960, by Christopher Simpson, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 48-51. ↩
- The New York Times, September 4, 1952; “Dividing Germany Proposed by Poole,” The New York Times, January 20, 1946. ↩
- “Head of Committee for a Free Europe,” The New York Times, January 19, 1951. ↩