Helen Kirkpatrick

Helen Kirkpatrick

Helen Kirkpatrick was born in Rochester, Monroe County, on 18th October, 1909. After leaving Smith College in 1931, Kirkpatrick studied international law at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

Kirkpatrick settled in France where she found employment working for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1937 she moved to London as a freelance journalist and briefly worked as the diplomatic correspondent of the Sunday Times. Kirkpatrick travelled throughout Europe and wrote two books, This Terrible Peace (1938) and Under the British Umbrella: What the English are and how they go to War (1939), that were highly critical of Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement.

According to Nicholas J. Cull, the author of Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality (1996): "One American who was particularly well connected to the anti-appeasers was Helen Kirkpatrick... and was a regular contributor to the anti-Hitler, anti-appeasement news sheet Whitehall Letter. She was the letter's only full-time writer. Week after week, the letter revealed the scale of Hitler's ambitions and the folly of Chamberlain's response. It built up an avid readership in Britain (including Winston Churchill) and in certain circles in the United states, where Helen Kirkpatrick's brother had arranged for distribution of a cabled edition.. The Prime Minister was not amused. Conservative Party agents tapped her telephone, and Chamberlain is reputed to have asked W.H. Smith and Sons to remove her books from their station bookstands."

In 1940 she became the first woman reporter employed by the Chicago Daily News. One journalist complained:"We don't have women on the staff." She told him, "I can't change my sex. But you can change your policy." Soon afterwards she obtained an exclusive interview with Duke of Windsor.

Kirkpatrick remained in Europe during the Second World War and covered the Blitz for the Chicago Daily News. She wrote after one heavy raid: "It is amazing this morning to see London traffic more like New York theater traffic than the slow dribble it had been during past months, but it is most amazing to see that there is any London to have traffic at all. It is pretty incredible, too, to find people relatively unshaken after the terrific experience. There is some terror, but nothing on the scale that the Germans may have hoped for and certainly not on a scale to make Britons contemplate for a moment anything but fighting on. Fright becomes so mingled with a deep almost uncontrollable anger that it is hard to know when one stops and the other begins. And on top of it all London is smiling even in the districts where casualties must have been very heavy."

Kirkpatrick also accompanied the US Army when it landed in Normandy in 1944. She also reported on the liberation of France and the advance into Nazi Germany. A fellow journalist, Leonard Miall, has argued that Helen Kirkpatrick "was one of the first and best American war correspondents in the Second World War, was always at the forefront of the action". He added: "She encountered little of the hostility experienced by other American women reporters in the war, her appearance as well as her expertise commanding respect. Having inherited the features of her Scottish ancestors, she was a distinguished-looking woman, with high cheek bones and bright blue eyes. As a fellow correspondent remarked, she was tall enough to overlook insults."

After the war Kirkpatrick worked as European correspondent for the New York Post (1946-49) and chief of the information division of the Economical Corporation Administration (1949-51). As public affairs advisor for the Department of State (1951-53) she helped to implement the Marshall Plan.

Kirkpatrick returned to academic life as the secretary to the President of Smith College and in 1954 she married Robbins Milbank, one of the trustees of the college. The Milbanks had homes in New Hampshire and California.

Helen Kirkpatrick died in Williamsburg, Virginia, on 29th December 1997.

Primary Sources

(1) Helen Kirkpatrick, Chicago Daily News (9th September 1940)

London still stood this morning, which was the greatest surprise to me as I cycled home in the light of early dawn after the most frightening night I have ever spent. But not all of London was still there, and some of the things I saw this morning would scare the wits out of anyone.

When the sirens first shrieked on Saturday, it was evident we were in for something, but dinner proceeded calmly enough. It was when the first screaming bomb started on its downward track that we decided the basement would be healthier.

The whole night was one of moving from the basement to the first floor, with occasional sallies to make sure that no incendiaries had landed on the rooftop.

That was perhaps more frightening than the sound of constant bombs punctuated by guns near and far. For the London air was heavy with the burning smell. The smoke sometimes brought tears to the eyes, and the glow around the horizon certainly looked as though the entire city might be up in flames any minute.

On one occasion I dropped off to sleep on a basement floor and slept probably forty-five minutes, when two screamers sounding as though they had landed right next door brought me, startled, to my feet. A few minutes later a couple of incendiaries arrived just around the comer, but the fire equipment came within seconds.

Most of the time we felt that the entire center of the city had probably been blasted out of existence and we ticked off each hit with "That must be Buckingham Palace - that's Whitehall." It was staggering, to say the least, to cycle for a mile through the heart of London and fail to see even one pane of glass shattered and eventually to find ones own house standing calm and in one piece.

A later tour, however, showed that while none of the bombs hit any objectives we had picked out, they had landed squarely on plenty of places. I walked through areas of rubble and debris in southeastern London this morning that made it seem incredible that anyone could be alive, but they were, and very much so. Fires for the most part were put out or were well under control by early morning.

It was a contrast to find one section of "smart London" that had as bad a dose as the tenement areas. Near one of many of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpieces, houses were gutted structures with windowpanes hanging out, while panes in a church were broken in a million pieces.

It is amazing this morning to see London traffic more like New York theater traffic than the slow dribble it had been during past months, but it is most amazing to see that there is any London to have traffic at all. It is pretty incredible, too, to find people relatively unshaken after the terrific experience.

There is some terror, but nothing on the scale that the Germans may have hoped for and certainly not on a scale to make Britons contemplate for a moment anything but fighting on.

Fright becomes so mingled with a deep almost uncontrollable anger that it is hard to know when one stops and the other begins. And on top of it all London is smiling even in the districts where casualties must have been very heavy.

(2) Helen Kirkpatrick, Chicago Daily News (27th October 1943)

If most of the U.S. is swinging away from isolationism the same cannot be said of the rank and file of the Army. Responsibility for this difference in outlook must be placed squarely at the door of the Army and its Special Services, in the view of this correspondent and a good many thinking soldiers to whom I have talked.

Having seen North Africa, for example, without benefit of explanation, the average soldier is going to be likely to say at home: "I know Algeria. Let me explain the Arab-Jewish problem. Hand Algeria back to the Arabs," or some other equally misinformed, superficial opinion wrung from him by admiring friends.

Listening to officers who too often are themselves haters of foreigners, he is getting the idea that the best thing Americans can do is stay at home and mind their own business.

"All we do is to hand out stuff to these people and they don't know how to use it, or they fight among themselves"-such may be the verdict of the average man. And that may become a second American if not world tragedy, which could be easily avoided if certain steps were taken now.

There are so many examples of what happens to the average American who arrives in, say Algeria, that it is difficult to choose anyone in particular. One day a few weeks ago, a red-haired GI was drowsing in front of the press building when the usual type of overloaded Arab wagon passed by and the overburdened horse slipped on the cobblestones.

The Arab driver beat the horse severely. The red-headed American leaped from his jeep and administered a severe beating to the Arab. City Arabs' treatment of horses is a subject of extreme criticism from US soldiers who are equally critical, and often illogically so, of French treatment of Arabs.

At the same time, there is co-operation here among Americans and British such as has never been seen before in history between two allies. And in the field there is the same mutual respect and liking. In the back areas, however, Americans and British have separate camps and the only contact the men may have there is in cafes and on the


Obviously there is need for Army education, which means education and not fifth-rate entertainment. Books, speakers and discussion groups in the Army could do much to orient the American soldier without giving him a biased or slanted viewpoint.

Soldiers are hungry for facts-facts on what Fascism really did in Italy and how it came to fall; what the characteristics of various European countries are, and why things have happened as they have during the last 20 years.

The more thoughtful young officers and men will sit around for hours telling you how pernicious they believe is the influence of Hollywood and certain types of radio programs and newspapers which pander to the lowest rather than to the highest level of reader intelligence, and it is hard to escape the impression here that the Army is following faithfully in the footsteps of Hollywood, the radio and those newspapers in that respect.

The cause is not hard to ascertain-it seems to be fear of political controversy and its repercussions in the US But a group of 50 soldiers discussing this the other night said in effect: "The British have two political parties, but their soldiers seem able to get reading matter on controversial subjects presented to them. Why can't we?"

(3) Helen Kirkpatrick, Chicago Daily News (27th August 1944)

Generals De Gaulle, Koenig, Leclerc and Juin led the procession from the Etoile to Notre Dame amid scenes of tremendous enthusiasm.

Lt John Reinhart, USN, and I could not get near enough to the Arc de Triomphe to see the parade, so we turned back to Notre Dame where a Te Deum service was to be held.

The generals' car arrived on the dot of 4:15. As they stepped from the car, we stood at salute and at that very moment a revolver shot rang out. It seemed to come from behind one of Notre Dame's gargoyles. Within a split second a machine gun opened from a nearby room. It sprayed the pavement at my feet. The generals entered the church with 40-odd people pressing from behind to find shelter.

I found myself inside in the main aisle, a few feet behind the generals. People were cowering behind pillars. Someone tried to pull me down.

The generals marched slowly down the main aisle, their hats in their hands. People in the main body were pressed back near the pillars.

Suddenly an automatic opened up from behind us - it came from behind the pipes of Notre Dame's organ. From the clerestory above other shots rang out and I saw a man ducking behind a pillar above. Beside me FFI men and the police were shooting.

For one flashing instant it seemed that a great massacre was bound to take place as the cathedral reverberated with the sound of guns.

It seemed hours but it was only a few minutes, perhaps ten, when the procession came back down the aisle. I think the shooting was still going on but, like those around me, I could only stand amazed at the coolness, imperturbability and apparent unconcern of French generals and civilians alike who walked as though nothing had happened. Gen. Koenig, smiling, leaned across and shook my hand.

I fell in behind them and watched them walk deliberately out and into their cars. A machine gun was still blazing from a nearby roof.

Once outside, one could hear shooting all along the Seine. I learned later that shooting at the Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe and along the Elysees had started at exactly the same moment.

It was a clearly planned attempt probably designed to kill as many of the French authorities as possible, to create panic and to start riots after which probably the mad brains of the militia, instigated by the Germans, hoped to retake Paris.

(4) Leonard Miall, The Independent (8th January, 1997)

Kirkpatrick had an outstanding academic record at Smith College, one of America's leading female universities, and later at the University of Geneva. She worked in France as a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and in 1937 came to England as a freelance journalist, temporarily acting as the diplomatic correspondent of the Sunday Times.

Together with Victor Gordon-Lennox, of the Daily Telegraph, with whom she was on close terms, and with Graham Hutton of the Economist, she started a weekly newsletter, the Whitehall News, which waged a strong campaign against the policy of appeasing the dictators. In the House of Commons, it was regularly read by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. The King of Sweden was another subscriber. As the men working on the newsletter were moonlighters, Kirkpatrick and her secretary were the only full-time members of the staff. Of the Munich Pact she wrote, "This truce may well induce rather than prevent war." She expanded her views in two books, This Terrible Peace (1938) and Under the British Umbrella (1939).

As war approached Kirkpatrick was engaged to the London office of the Chicago Daily News, Frank Knox's liberal rival of Colonel Robert McCormick's isolationist Chicago Tribune. As her first assignment she suggested she should interview the Duke of Windsor. Her male colleagues scoffed at the idea, knowing that the former king did not give interviews. But Kirkpatrick knew the people with whom he was staying in England and went to see them. The Duke explained that he had sworn not to give any interviews, but he saw no reason why he should not interview her. Thus her first contribution to the Chicago Daily News was the Duke of Windsor's interview of Helen Kirkpatrick.