When The Greenbrier and Other Appalachian Resorts Became Prisons for Axis Diplomats

by Harvey Solomon/Zocalo Public Square/Smithsonianmag.com

In the 1930s, as the drumbeats of war in Europe and the Far East grew louder, Americans maintained their workaday lives and strived for business as usual—as did their employers.

“At a traditionally famous hotel, The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia,” read one ad in the April 1938 issue of Nation’s Business, “Mr. Loren Johnston, General Manager, wanted a letterhead as fine as the classic columns of his portico, as fresh and crisp as his table linens, as pleasing as the rhythm of his dinner hour orchestra. The paper he chose was Strathmore.”

Johnston, a courtly veteran hotelier accustomed to catering to the rich and famous, might seem an unlikely choice to voice bedrock American values in dark times. But that’s exactly what he did when World War II broke out, and the U.S. government decided to house diplomats from the Axis countries of Germany, Italy, and eventually Japan at his luxurious hotel.

Thanks to the Greenbrier’s meticulous records, maintained over the last four decades by on-site historian Robert Conte, Johnston emerges as a patriot who exhorted his employees to serve America’s enemies with courtesy and respect, even when their neighbors and countrymen were vilifying them.

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