For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear- nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to the Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the tickertape and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair!President Franklin D. Roosevelt October 31, 1936
I. The Making of a President
The Republican National Convention, which took place in June 1920 in Chicago, Illinois, was a most extraordinary affair.
The Presidency was for sale,” writes Karl Schriftgiesser in This Was Normalcy, “The city of Chicago, never averse to monetary indecencies, was jam-packed with frenzied bidders, their pockets bulging with money with which to buy the prize. The Coliseum became a market place, crowded with stock gamblers, oil promoters, mining magnates, munition makers, sports promoters, and soap makers . . . The lobbies and rooms of the Loop hotels were in a turmoil as the potential buyers of office scurried about lining up their supporters, making their deals, issuing furtive orders, passing out secret funds.”
Among the captains of industry and finance who had flocked into the Windy City to make sure the Republican Presidential candidate was a man to their taste were Harry F. Sinclair, head of the Sinclair Oil Company, who had already invested $75,000 in the Republican campaign and was to put up another $185,000 before the campaign was over; Judge Elbert H. Gary, Chairman of the Board of Directors of U.S. Steel, whose name had figured prominently in the smashing of the 1919 steel strike; Samuel M. Vauclain, president of the Baldwin Locomotive Company; Thomas W. Lamont, partner in the firm of J. P. Morgan and Company; Edward L. Doheny, president of the Pan American Petroleum Company; and William Boyce Thompson, the copper magnate, who had recently returned from Soviet Russia, where as head of the American Red Cross mission he had staked $1,000,000 of his own money in an effort to stem the tide of the Russian Revolution.
For conducting the devious, backstairs negotiations among the different delegations, and for keeping things in general under control at the open sessions of the Convention at the Chicago Coliseum, the renowned industrialists and financiers were relying on a small, select group of Republican politicians. These “political deputies of wealth”, together with their connections, as named by Ferdinand Lundberg in his book, America’s 60 Families, were
Senators Henry Cabot Lodge (Morgan), Medill McCormick (Chicago Tribune-International Harvester Company), James E. Watson of Indiana (Klan), Reed Smoot (Utah sugar interests), James W. Wadsworth of New York (Morgan) and Frank Brandages of Connecticut (Morgan).
Shortly after dinner on the sweltering hot night of June 9, with the Convention balloting for the Presidential candidate deadlocked between General Leonard Wood and Governor Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, the junta of Senators met in the three-room suite of the Republican National Chairman, Will Hays, at the Blackstone Hotel. Present at the secret meeting, in addition to the Senators, was George B. M. Harvey, the eccentric, influential publisher of Harvey’s Weekly, who had close connections with J. P. Morgan and Company and was frequently referred to as the “President-maker”.
Periodically, as the evening wore on, Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and a key figure in the inner circles of the Republican Party, drifted in and out of the smoke-filled room in which the private, animated conference was taking place. Around midnight, the decision was reached as to who should be the Republican candidate for President . . . Senator Warren Harding of Ohio, tired, dishevelled and slightly intoxicated, was summoned to Will Hays’ suite. “Senator, we want to put a question to you,” said George Harvey. “Is there in your life or background any element that might embarrass the Republican Party if we nominate you for President?” The meaning of this question was to be later interpreted in various ways. One interpretation was that Harvey and his colleagues wanted to be certain that Harding was not part Negro, as had been claimed in some scurrilous racist propaganda then circulating in Chicago. Harvey’s own subsequent explanation was that the Senator was being asked to seek Divine guidance regarding his fitness to become President. Another version was that Harding was being given the opportunity to inform his backers whether his relationship with Nan Britton, the mother of his illegitimate daughter, might be disclosed and become an embarrassing issue during the Presidential campaign. At any rate, Harding retired to an adjourning room, remained there a short while, and then came back and solemnly assured the others that there was nothing in his past to preclude his becoming President . . . On the following afternoon, Senator Warren G. Harding was nominated as the Republican candidate for President of the United States. Selected to be his running mate, as candidate for Vice-President, was Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, best known for his role in suppressing a police strike in Boston in 1919. Commenting editorially on Harding’s nomination, the New York Times stated:
. . . the Chicago convention presents a candidate whose nomination will be received with astonishment and dismay by the party whose suffrages he invites. . . Senator Harding’s record at Washington has been faint and colourless … The nomination of Harding … is the fine and perfect flower of the Senatorial cabal that charged itself with the management of the Republican Convention . . . As for principles, they have only hatred of Mr. Wilson and a ravening hunger for the offices.
According to the Nation, Harding was a “colourless and platitudinous, uninspired and uninspiring nobody” who had been trotted out by the Republican Old Guard “like a cigar store Indian to attract trade”.
Warren Harding’s own succinct comment on the fact he had been selected to run for President of the United States was: “We drew to a pair of aces and filled”.
2. “God, What a Job!”
There was one thing about Senator Harding on which everyone agreed: he was an unusually handsome man. Tall and distinguished-looking, with a large well-moulded face, deep-set ingenuous eyes and silvery-grey hair, he cut an imposing figure in any gathering. It was this quality which, years before, had convinced his close personal friend and Presidential campaign manager, Harry M. Daugherty, that a great political future lay ahead of Harding. “He looks like a President!” Daugherty repeatedly insisted. And, from the beginning, Daugherty had been determined to see that Harding became one . . .
Harry Micajah Daugherty, a blustering, heavy-set man who usually sported a massive pearl stickpin in his garish ties, was a lawyer by profession. His real business, however, was lobbying for large corporations in the Ohio State Legislature, in which he himself had served two terms as a member of the House of Representatives. For a good many years, Daugherty had played a prominent role in the notoriously corrupt Republican political machine in Ohio that was known as the “Ohio Gang”.
“I frankly confess to a leadership in the so-called ‘Ohio Gang’ . . . ,” Daugherty subsequently stated in his book. The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy, which he wrote in collaboration with Thomas Dixon, author of The Birth of a Nation and other pro-Ku Klux Klan writings. “On the lips of rival politicians the ‘Ohio Gang’ is an epithet. I wear its badge as a mark of honour”.
In 1914 Daugherty had persuaded his friend, Harding, who was then editor of a small newspaper in Marion, Ohio, to run for the United States Senate. Harding at first had been reluctant. “When it came to running for the Senate”, Daugherty later reminisced, “I found him sunning himself in Florida like a turtle on a log, and I had to push him into the water and make him swim.” With the support of the Ohio Gang, Harding was elected to the Senate . . .
As Senator, Harding spent most of his time in Washington at poker games, the ballpark and the racetrack. The few speeches Harding made in the Senate, as unforgettably described by William G. McAdoo, left “the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.”
When Daugherty proposed that Harding make a bid for the Republican Presidential nomination, the Senator asked: “Am I a big enough man for the race?”
“Don’t make me laugh!” said Daugherty. “The day of giants in the Presidential Chair is passed . . .” What was now needed was an “every-day garden variety of man”. And Harding, declared Daugherty emphatically, was just that sort of man . . .
In February 1920, three months before the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Daugherty had made this remarkably accurate prediction: “At the proper time after the Republican National Convention meets, some fifteen men, bleary-eyed with loss of sleep and perspiring profusely with the excessive heat, will sit down in seclusion around a big table. I will present the name of Senator Harding to them, and before we get through they will put him over.”
The members of what was to become known as Harding’s “Black Cabinet” included Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the diminutive soft-spoken multi-millionaire who dominated the aluminium trust and ruled a vast private empire of oil wells, coal mines, steel mills, utility corporations, and banking houses; Secretary of War John W. Weeks, ex-Senator from Massachusetts and partner in the Boston brokerage firm of Hornblower and Weeks; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, former head of the American Relief Administration, who had amassed an immense personal fortune before the war in the promotion of dubious mining stocks in backward parts of the world; Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, ex-Senator from New Mexico, where as a lawyer and politician he had maintained intimate, shady connections with large oil interests; and Postmaster General Will Hays, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee and chief counsel for the Sinclair Oil Company.
To Harding’s political mentor and bosom friend, Harry M. Daugherty, went the post of U.S. Attorney General . . .2
Few, if any, of the members of the new Administration were less equipped to fill their posts than the President himself.
Not long after his inauguration, Harding was visited at the White House by his old friend, Nicholas Murray Butler. The head of Columbia University found the President sitting in his study, staring disconsolately at the letters, documents and papers of state that cluttered up his desk. Gloomily, Harding muttered, “I knew that this job would be too much for me”.
On another occasion, after listening in frustrated bewilderment to a long, heated discussion among his advisers on a question of taxation, Harding flung himself wearily into the office of one of his secretaries.
“John, I can’t make a damn thing out of this tax problem!” Harding blurted out to the secretary. “I listen to one side and they seem right, and then — God! — I talk to the other side and they seem just as right, and here I am where I started. I know somewhere there is a book that will give me the truth, but hell! I couldn’t read the book. I know somewhere there is an economist who knows the truth but I don’t know where to find him and haven’t the sense to know him and trust him when I do find him.”
Shaking his head in exasperation, the President cried, “God, what a job!”
But Harding’s own sense of inadequacy notwithstanding, his qualifications for the office of President were eminently satisfactory to the millionaires who had sponsored his candidacy. As Charles W. Thompson states in his book Presidents I’ve Known: “They could shuffle him and deal him like a pack of cards”.
3. The Ways of Normalcy
The domestic policy of the Harding Administration, as described by Charles and Mary Beard in The Rise of American Civilization, consisted essentially of
a repeal of the taxes on incomes, inheritances, and excess profits, especially the higher schedules, and a shift of the burden of federal support from wealth enjoyed by the rich to goods consumed by the masses . . . “no government interference with business” — no official meddling with mergers, combinations, and stock issues, no resort to harsh price-fixing or regulatory schemes, and a release of the tense pressure exerted upon railways.
“Anyone knows”, philosophized Andrew Mellon, Harding’s fabulously rich Secretary of the Treasury, who was affectionately called “Uncle Andy” by the other Cabinet members, “that any man of energy and initiative can get what he wants out of life . . . when that initiative is crippled by legislation or a tax system that denies him the right to receive a reasonable share of his earnings, then he will no longer exert himself . . .”
As soon as the Sixty-seventh Congress convened, Mellon, who lacked neither energy nor initiative, pressed for and secured the repeal of the Excess Profits Act of 1917. The liquidation of this Act effected a yearly tax saving for large corporations of more than $1,500,000,000, and, incidentally, a saving of approximately $1,000,000 a year for the diverse, multiple interests of Andrew Mellon . . .
The foreign policy of the Harding Administration was keynoted by the slogan, “America First”, which Harding, at Daugherty’s suggestion had repeatedly employed during his campaign speeches.3 This foreign policy, as viewed by Walter Lippmann, then writing for the New York World, was based on these concepts:That the fate of America is in no important way connected with the fate of Europe. That Europe should stew in its own juice . . . That we can sell to Europe, without buying from Europe. . . . and that if Europe doesn’t like she can lump it, but she had better not.
“Let the internationalist dream and the Bolshevik destroy”, declared President Harding. “God pity him ‘for whom no minstrel raptures swell’. In the spirit of the republic we proclaim Americanism and proclaim America!”
There was, however, one highly significant phase of American political-economic life to which the tenets of isolationism did not apply. While publicly applauding Harding’s program of “an end to entangling foreign alliances”, American finance-capitalists were privately drafting secret international agreements with German, Japanese, British and other foreign cartelists, and had already embarked upon an ambitious program to infiltrate and dominate the markets of Europe and Asia.4
Shortly before his inauguration, Harding had publicly observed, “It will help if we have a revival of religion … I don’t think any government can be just if it does not somehow have contact with Omnipotent God … It might interest you to know that while I have never been a great reader of the Bible, I have never read it as closely as in the last weeks when my mind has been bent upon the work that I must shortly take up . . .”
Whatever the extent of his familiarity with the Bible, there was definitely something of a biblical parable to be seen in Harding’s conduct as President of the United States. In the words of the famous journalist, William Allen White:
Harding’s story is the story of his times, the story of the Prodigal Son, our democracy that turned away from the things of the spirit, got its share of the patrimony ruthlessly and went out and lived riotously and ended it by feeding among the swine.
Within a few weeks after the Harding Administration took over, the city of Washington was teeming with a motley crew of Republican Party bosses, big businessmen, bootleggers, members of the Ohio Gang, and big-time confidence men. Not a few of these individuals held key offices in the new Administration. Others were lobbyists for big corporations. All had come to share in the loot.
A mood of abandoned merrymaking pervaded the nation’s capitol. Wild parties and games of chance for fabulous stakes were nightly occurrences. Prostitutes were plentiful. Prohibition or not, liquor flowed freely . . .
Rowdy, cigar-smoking politicos congregated almost every evening in the sedate rooms of the White House for boisterous drinking parties and shirt-sleeved poker sessions lasting into the early morning hours. “While the big official receptions were going on”, recollects Alice Longworth, in her book, Crowded Hours, “I don’t think the people had any idea what was taking place in the rooms above. One evening while one was in progress, a friend of the Hardings asked me if I would like to go up to the study. I had heard rumours and was curious to see for myself what truth was in them. No rumour could have exceeded the reality; the study was filled with cronies … the air was heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of liquor stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand — a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on desk, and the spittoon alongside.”
Not all the gay carousals of the President and his boon companions took place at the White House. Mrs. Harding, a petite shrivelled woman several years her husband’s senior, who favoured a black velvet neckband and was familiarly known in the inner Harding circle as “The Duchess”, was a possessive, domineering and extremely jealous wife. Although Harding’s mistress, Nan Britton, paid occasional clandestine visits to the Presidential mansion, more discreet rendezvous were deemed advisable . . .5
For purposes of relaxation and revelry, the Ohio Gang established a private retreat at a small comfortable residence at 1625 K Street. Howard Mannington, a lawyer and politician from Columbus, Ohio, rented this house, which came to be called “The Little Green House”. While holding no official Government post, Mannington was in almost daily contact with Attorney General Daugherty and other prominent figures in the Administration. Mannington was on equally familiar terms with a number of the nation’s leading bootleggers, who used the house on K Street as a headquarters when they visited Washington, and who there made arrangements to buy permits for large quantities of liquor from Government-controlled distilleries. At the Little Green House, arrangements were also frequently made for federal convicts to buy pardons, and for aspiring jurists to purchase federal judgeships.
Another favourite rendezvous of the Ohio Gang was a house at 1509 H Street, where Attorney General Daugherty lived together with his close friend and personal aide, Jesse Smith. The house, complete with butler and cook, had been turned over to Daugherty by its owner, Edward B. McLean, the affluent playboy publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Washington Post, whose sumptuous estate, “Friendship”, was frequented by President Harding and key members of the Administration.
A description of the sort of affairs held in the house on H Street appears in the memoirs of Gaston B. Means, who was one of the chief investigators in the Bureau of Investigation during the Harding Administration. Means relates:One night . . . my home phone rang . . . “Means? . . . This is Jess Smith. Say — come around to H Street quick as you can get here, will you? There’s — a little trouble — “ … I slipped into my clothes . . . and hustled around to H Street. Everyone knew of the many gay midnight suppers there . . . So I was not altogether unprepared for the scene that I walked into when the door was opened for me. The rooms were in the wildest disorder. The dinner table had been cleared — evidently for the dancing of chorus girls — dishes were scattered over the floor— bottles lay on chairs and tables. Everybody had drunk to excess. Half drunken women and girls sprawled on couches and chairs— all of them now with terror on their painted faces. I was approached by Mr. Boyd who told me that somehow, accidentally, when they were clearing the table for the girls to dance . . and everybody was throwing bottles or glasses — that a water bottle had hit one of the girls on the head and she seemed badly done up. I saw President Harding leaning against a mantel with his guards standing near and I whispered to the man next to me that they better get the President out and away first . . . I found the unconscious girl stretched out on a sofa in a rear hall . . . I dared not ’phone for a doctor or an ambulance so I picked the seemingly lifeless figure in my arms and carried her out to my car and took her to a hospital behind the Hamilton Hotel. She was unconscious for days and was finally operated on.6
It was not without reason that William Allen White later wrote of the Harding era: “The story of Babylon is a Sunday school story compared with the story of Washington from June 1920, until July 1923.” 6
Albert E. Kahn, May 1950
1. The candidates of the Democratic Party were, for President, the Governor of Ohio, James M. Cox; for Vice-President, the thirty-eight year old Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
2. There was one man in the Harding Cabinet who, in the words of Karl Schriftgiesser, “had real qualifications for his post.” He was the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry C. Wallace. “Honest, outspoken and (in his way) a true liberal . . ,” writes Schriftgiesser of Henry C. Wallace in This Was Normalcy, “he was not without his enemies both within and without the cabinet. Surrounded as he was by men of whose faults he was only too aware, his life in Washington was to be an unhappy one. But with the passing of the years, he stands out, head and shoulders, above the rest of the ‘best minds’.” For details on the political career of Henry C. Wallace’s son, Henry A. Wallace, see Books Three and Four.
3. The same slogan was again revived on an extensive scale by the America First Party in 1940-41.
4. For further details on cartel and other international operations of American finance-capital during the 1920s, see chapter VI
5. Nan Britton later wrote a book, entitled The President’s Daughter, describing in intimate and sordid detail her clandestine affair with Harding — first as U. S. Senator and then as President — and the birth of their illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Ann. Although written in a maudlin and meretricious style, the book nevertheless offers a revealing picture of the character of the 28th President of the United States.
The book recounts such tawdry episodes as the furtive meetings between Harding and Nan Britton in disreputable hotels, shabby rooming houses, the Senate Office Building and the White House; and how, when they were travelling together, Nan Britton would register at hotels as Harding’s “niece” or “secretary”, and sometimes as his wife. During one of their meetings, which took place in an obscure New York hotel while Harding was still a Senator, house detectives broke in on the couple. Depicting Harding’s reaction, Nan Britton writes: “’They got us!’ [said Harding] … He seemed so pitifully distressed … sat disconsolately on the edge of the bed, pleading that we had not disturbed any of their guests, and for this reason should be allowed to depart in peace”. The detectives, on learning Harding was a member of the U. S. Senate, respectfully conducted the couple out of a side entrance of the hotel. “Gee, Nan”, Harding told his mistress, “I thought I wouldn’t get out of that for under $1000!”
In one of the more significant passages in the book, Nan Britton relates how Harding, as a Senator, obtained a secretarial position for her at the United States Steel Corporation: “I had never heard of Judge Gary, strange to say, and he [Harding] explained that he was the Chairman of Directors of the largest industrial corporation in the world. Mr. Harding handed his card to the secretary in Judge Gary’s outer office. The judge came out immediately. After introducing me to Judge Gary, Mr. Harding inquired casually of him whether his senatorial services in a certain matter had been satisfactory. The judge replied that they had indeed and thanked Mr. Harding . . .”
6. For further details on Gaston B. Means’ activities during the Harding Administration, see chapter V.