Disappointment in Grosvenor Square

I made my first trip to London forty years ago this December.  As part of that trip, I took a half-day bus tour, a sort of quick orientation to the city.  During the tour, we passed the U.S. Embassy on Grosvenor Square in central Mayfair.

Grosvenor Square is a place that has been central to America’s presence in Great Britain since the beginning of our republic.  John Adams established our first mission there in the late 18th Century, Eisenhower had his headquarters there during World War II, and today the square is dominated by a statue of President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as a September 11 Memorial Garden and the Eagle Squadrons Memorial, commemorating an RAF unit that included many Americans.  It is also where Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for President in 1952 and 1956, suffered a fatal heart attack.

The current embassy was built in the 1960’s and stretches across the entire western side of the square.  It is a massive building that, like all embassies, is sovereign territory, a sanctuary within a foreign land.  Since my first trip, I’ve been comforted by the fact that as a United States citizen, should I need assistance, the embassy is there to help, something I have not needed until our recent arrival in the United Kingdom.

It wasn’t a major problem, not something I expected the embassy staff to resolve.  I just wanted a friendly face and a little direction on how I might resolve it.

With these thoughts, I took the underground from our temporary residence in the Penn Club off Russell Square to Bond Street and walked to Grosvenor Square.  Along the way I took a photograph of FDR’s statue and the Stars and Stripes flying atop the embassy.  I had a warm feeling that this would be my last opportunity to stand on U.S. territory for many months to come.

That, however, was where the good feelings began to fade.  The street in front of the embassy is barricaded.  There is an iron fence around the building and access is provided through one of two small glass buildings outside the walls of this massive fortress – one for those seeking visas to the U.S. and one for American citizens. 

With my passport, Global Entry card (I mention this because there was a big Global Entry sign beside the door) and proof of my service in the U.S. Marine Corps in my pocket, I confidently approached the appropriate entrance.  There I pushed a white button and waited.  Looking through the class, the inside looked very much like a TSA security checkpoint, with an x-ray machine and metal detector. 
After a short wait, a man in a nondescript security uniform – no Marine guards here - leaned out through the door and asked me what I wanted.  I explained my problem.  He leaned in and out several times, speaking with another person, and finally handed we a tiny piece of paper with a phone number.  That was that. 

There was no friendly American face or voice, no opportunity to stand on American soil in a foreign country, and no real help with my problem.  I thought about the film Bourne Identity and how Matt Damon’s character Jason Bourne had to fight his way out of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, so perhaps I was fortunate to have been denied entry.  Regardless, I was disappointed.  My rather naïve view of what I thought was one of the key roles of our embassy was destroyed.

Intellectually I understand that we live in a world filled with terrorists, but as a historian I understand that this is nothing new.  I understand that security is an important concern, especially internationally.  I understand that my personal problem that morning would not have budged the needle on the State Department’s priority meter.   I understand that we live in a terribly divisive political environment in which fear seems to be the one common denominator, keeping friends and relatives at arm’s length.  I understand that the world is far more congested than it was back when John Adams set up housekeeping on Grosvenor Square in 1785, establishing America’s diplomatic relationship with the Court of St. James.

Yes, I understand all of that, and yet that innocent young man inside me, the one who first came to London forty years ago, still found himself wondering why.  Why was the American Embassy in London unwilling to offer even a modicum of help to an American citizen in a foreign land?

Intellectually I understand, but emotionally I found myself remembering the opening lines of a poem I memorized in high school and have never forgotten.  It’s titled “My Native Land,” and was written by the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott not long after Adams’ time in London.

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

Sadly, that is how I felt as I walked back through Grosvenor Square, away from the American Embassy, passing the statue of FDR, one of my favorite Presidents, and passing the house where John Adam once lived.  I felt like a man without a country.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen


  1. "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." --Thomas Wolfe (You Can't Go Home Again, 1940)


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