Saturday, February 07

GREAT BARRINGTON With Barack Obama in the White House and the nation brimming with high hopes, you'll have to forgive the local historian for dredging up an unconnected name from the past. Wendell Willkie.

Willkie (1892-1944), a lawyer who had never held public office, was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1940 against Franklin D. Roosevelt. Willkie even once had been a Democrat. But he embraced the GOP and encircled himself — as do all good candidates — with smart people, including a man from Richmond.

One of the issues in the 1940 election was how much longer neutral United States would teeter on the edge of world war. The Republican Party itself was split on isolationism. Willkie tried to court the isolationists but found his base with those in the party who believed this country needed to help the Allies in Europe.

One of Willkie's key policy consultants was Raymond Leslie Buell (1896-1946) of Richmond. Buell was born in Chicago, the son of the Rev. Henry Charles Buell and Laura Buell. He studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the University of Grenoble in France and at Princeton University in New Jersey. He became an educator at Harvard and lectured broadly. He was a member of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. He spent two years with the Bureau of International Research of Harvard University and Radcliffe College investigating the political situation in Africa.

Buell became research director (and later president) for the Foreign Policy Association. He was no stranger to political heat; in 1929, he forcefully defended the publications brought out by the Foreign Policy Association as neutral when it came to Soviet communism. Enemies suggested they were too red.

"Mr. Buell explained that the Information Service pamphlets, published by the association, attempts to set forth both side of a question," The New York Times said.

A busy writer, Buell continued to let his views be known on national and international affairs. He made his own investigations. In 1938, for example, he toured central and eastern Europe and met with Polish Foreign Minister Josef Beck.

Buell "championed American participation in and recognition of national responsibility in global organization some time before the internationalist philosophy in this country gained more popularity than the 'isolationist' vogue," The Times said in its Feb. 21, 1946, obituary.

In his book "Isolated America," written in 1940, Buell described this nation's destiny as "inextricably intertwined with the rest of the globe and urged that individuals realize the necessity of this country participating in a new world settlement," The Times went on.

We know Buell's candidate Willkie lost the 1940 election. Buell himself failed to win public office. He ran against Congressman Allen T. Treadway of Stockbridge in 1942. In office for three decades, Republican Treadway was very popular and had the election in his pocket. Nevertheless, Buell campaigned that Congress was spending too much time on its own pensions and gave in too easily to lobbyists, instead of hastening an end to the war and plotting a course for peace.

Buell had a place in Princeton, N.J., but was one of a cadre of politicos with homes in Berkshire. Others included Roosevelt's Ambassador at Large Norman H. Davis, who had a home in Stockbridge, and A.A. Berle, part of FDR's "brain trust," of Great Barrington.

Buell and his bride, the former Frances March Dwight (d. 1985), maintained her family's home on Summit Road in Richmond. They had married in 1928 in that very house, which had been built in 1821 by the bride's great-grandfather, the Rev. Edwin Welles Dwight and his wife, Mary Sherill Dwight. Mrs. Buell assumed ownership of the property in 1934 from her father, Winslow Dwight. The Buells had one daughter, Elizabeth (who was also married in the house in 1949), and one son, Henry.

Mrs. Buell entertained the Richmond Valley Garden Club at her home in 1935, as reported in The Times. "Before the luncheon members took a bird walk with S.W. Wheeler, warden of the Bedford, N.Y., sanctuary, as pilot."

The Buells opened the "ancestral homestead, Goodwood, to many gatherings for discussion of public affairs," recalled Katherine Annin in her history book "Richmond, Massachusetts" (1964). "As editor of Fortune's Round Tables, he (Mr. Buell) held several conferences there in the late '30s which were attended by such notables as Wendell Willkie, John K. Galbraith, and Nelson A. Rockefeller."

Buell's death at an early age ended a career that had all the markings of further accomplishment.

It was beyond this researcher's curiosity to make a trip to Washington, D.C. to examine the Buell papers, but the Library of Congress has them, from 1915 to 1984. The 17,900 items fill 51 containers, or 20.4 linear feet, should you be curious to learn more.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.