John E. Rankin: Populist Bigot

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One of my great interests has been ideological transition, and one of the foremost examples of a politician whose views were greatly impacted by changing times was Mississippi’s John Elliott Rankin (1882-1960). As a young prosecuting attorney of Lee County, Rankin was known as a populist and a progressive. He, like many Southern Democrats of the time, stood opposed to Yankee capitalism and its excesses. In 1916, Rankin decided it was time to run for political office, and he made his first effort at winning the Democratic nomination in Mississippi’s 1st district but lost to incumbent Ezekiel “Zeke” Candler. Rankin served in the U.S. Army for only three weeks of officer training before armistice but would capitalize immensely on this limited experience for political gain. After his second try in 1918 resulted in failure, he started a newspaper, the New Era, in which he broadcast his beliefs. These included defenses of segregation and lynching, support for stringent immigration restrictions, support for women’s suffrage, support for unions, and support for generous benefits for veterans. Curiously, his paper in 1919 also included without comment a pro-Soviet article by T.J. Brooks, which asserted that the Bolshevik Revolution, whatever its excesses, was a just cause and that this new government should be recognized by the United States (Vickers).  His third try was the charm in 1920, and he ousted Zeke Candler.

Rankin, Roosevelt, and Anti-Semitism

Throughout the 1920s, Rankin often voted against the economic policies of the Republican Party and at the onset of the Great Depression he became a strong supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He sponsored the legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), defying critics’ accusations that it was socialist. He, Senator George W. Norris (R-Neb.), and President Roosevelt were the most important people in getting the TVA through. Rankin also backed most of the agricultural programs of the New Deal as well, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which aimed to increase the prices of agricultural commodities to raise farm income. He did, however, vote against the Bankhead Cotton Control Act. Although he voted for the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, he became a critic of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and voted against extending the law in 1935.

In 1936, Rankin, like Vice President John Nance Garner, was profoundly disturbed over sit-down strikes and concluded that organized labor had grown too powerful. From 1937 onward, he voted for proposals to curb the power of organized labor, especially the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which was more left-wing than the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and also had integrated membership. Rankin’s record really began to shift right after Roosevelt was elected to a third term. On prewar defense issues, he had had a mixed record. He voted against ending the arms embargo in 1939 and arming merchant ships in 1941, but voted for the peacetime draft and Lend-Lease. On June 4, 1941, however, Rankin delivered a speech in which he charged that “Wall Street bankers” and “international Jewish brethren” were plotting to bring the United States into World War II (TIME). This provoked a furious response from Rep. M. Michael Edelstein (D-N.Y.), who denounced Rankin’s position to applause on the House floor, and after which he dropped dead minutes later in the House cloakroom. Although Rankin was taken aback by this event, he never apologized for his offending speech and would continue employing anti-Semitic tropes in his speeches. During World War II, he advocated for rounding up all Japanese Americans, declaring, “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps. Damn them. Let’s get rid of them now” (Clark). In 1942, Rankin introduced a bill that would empower the U.S. government to deport all people ethnically Japanese. Although he supported an even greater emergency measure here than was done, he opposed economic emergency measures, such as the enactment of price controls. Rankin voted against price control legislation in 1941 and 1942 and stood as a consistent foe of them, as many of them worked to the disadvantage of farmers. In 1944, he called radio commentator Walter Winchell, who was Jewish, a “slime-mongering kike” on the floor of the House, for which he was banned from speaking for a day (Zwiers). Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) wrote of him in his 1953 memoir, You Never Leave Brooklyn, “Perhaps the loneliest moments I experienced in the House were in the running battle with my former colleague, Mr. John Rankin of Mississippi. Here was a curious mixture. More than any other single member of the House, Rankin had led the fight for Rural Electrification. In the days when TVA legislation needed every ounce of support it could get, Rankin defied all the cries of socialism directed against it and defended it with his great command of parliamentary skill. I believe that had he remained on that track he, perhaps, would have ranked with the late Senator George Norris in the extension of power productivity for the people.

Rankin came to the House the same year I did. The prejudices with which he later became identified he brought with him. He became bolder as the years went by and to his theme of white supremacy he added that of anti-Semitism. To listen to his harangues on the floor became, for me, an agony” (Simkin).

Rankin and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

In 1938, Congress formed the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), and it initially was opposed by Congressman Rankin until he learned that Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-N.Y.), who was Jewish, would not be chairing it. Instead, it was Martin Dies (D-Tex.), who would focus on communism and fascism in investigations, but considerably more on the former than the latter. Rankin would from that point forward be an enthusiastic backer of the HCUA.

On January 3, 1945, the House was considering House Resolution 5, establishing the rules for the 79th Congress. Given that the past chair of HCUA, Martin Dies of Texas, had opted not to run for reelection, it was widely expected that the committee would be quietly ended. However, John E. Rankin of Mississippi had other plans. He introduced an amendment to the rules that made the committee permanent, and it passed 208-186. This would be the closest recorded vote on the existence of the committee, and it would exist for thirty years until it was dismantled by swift and adept political maneuvering. However, Rankin wouldn’t prove to be a particularly helpful member of this committee. Only the following month he accused Frank Hook (D-Mich.) of being a “communist”, to which Hook called him a liar. Rankin stormed up to him, grabbed him by the throat and delivered several short punches to his face. Hook apologized for his part in the fracas and offered to resign if Rankin would as well. Rankin didn’t apologize and neither man resigned. He would prove the easiest target for communists who would point to him specifically to claim that the committee was a vehicle to uphold economic and racial privilege given the refusal of he and other Southern Democrats to investigate the KKK in 1946. Rankin himself said on the subject, “After all, it is an old American institution” (Blake, Borus, & Brick, 53). He also came out against the Nuremberg Trials and advocated for giving preference to ethnic Germans over Jews for taking in displaced persons from Europe. Rankin doubted the testimony of former Soviet spy Elizabeth Bentley against Roosevelt Administration economic advisor Lauchlin Currie, stating “Now, the thing that disturbs me is that you take the testimony, the statement of two men, Silverman and Silvermaster, relayed from one to the other, about what this Scotchman in the White House, Mr. Currie, said about Communism” (Romerstein & Breindel, 183). The declassified Venona documents revealed that Currie was indeed an NKVD agent, identified under the codenames “PAGE” and “VIM”. Rankin also noted the Jewish birth surnames of people in the Hollywood Ten when speaking of them, as if this constituted additional evidence of subversion. Indeed, Walter Goodman writes on Rankin’s motivations, “The source of Rankin’s animus against Hollywood – and he made no particular effort to conceal it – with the large number of Jews eminent in the film industry. In Rankin’s mind, to call a Jew a Communist was a tautology. His convictions led him to attribute all the horrors of the Russian revolution to Trotsky and see Stalin as a kind of reformer” (Simkin). In 1948, he backed the Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond over Democrat Harry S. Truman over the latter’s embrace of a civil rights platform. Both Rankin’s defection and his conduct embarrassing the committee resulted in Speaker Sam Rayburn booting him off HCUA in January 1949 through a rules change. The following year, Rankin participated in the campaign against the nomination of Anna M. Rosenberg as assistant secretary of defense, stating, “Anna Rosenberg, a little Yiddish woman from Austria-Hungary, will now become Assistant Secretary of Defense, if confirmed by the Senate, and will have more power over the lives of the American people than was ever exercised by any American President” (Romerstein & Breindel, 182).

The aforementioned hyperbolic and bigoted nonsense hindered his credibility when making more substantive cases against individuals, such as when on February 13, 1950, Rankin denounced Professor Albert Einstein on the floor of the House, opining that he was “one of the greatest fakers the world ever knew”, charging that he “should have been deported for his communistic activities years ago”, and holding that “he had no more to do with the development of the atomic bomb than if there had not been such a thing” (Congressional Record). He even cast shade on the idea that he was a scientist, which is ridiculous. However, it is technically true that Einstein was not part of the Manhattan Project (he was denied security clearance) but his letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 expressing concern about Nazi Germany developing the atomic bomb initiated government research on the subject and culminated in the Manhattan Project. Rankin also cited Einstein as a sponsor of several groups identified by HCUA and by Attorney Generals Francis Biddle and Tom Clark as “communist front groups”, including Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born (headed by secret communist Hugh De Lacy from 1942 to 1951) and the Freedom Crusade of the Civil Rights Congress (an organization headed by William L. Patterson, a prominent black communist). He also regarded his active opposition to Franco during the Spanish Civil War as evidence. I will not cover this matter further in this post as I think Einstein’s controversial politics are deserving of a deeper analysis than his association with several communist front groups and Rankin’s clear prejudiced motivations. This will be covered in a separate post, and rest assured it is not so cut-and-dry as Rankin has it.  

Congressman Rankin’s brand of anti-Semitic anticommunist demagoguery earned him a fan in another bigoted demagogue: Nazi sympathizer Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith, who wrote a laudatory pamphlet, “Congressman John E. Rankin: Patriot Christian Statesman”, praising him for his support for segregation and for his anti-Semitic rhetorical attacks on Walter Winchell and Albert Einstein.

Rankin: Champion of (White) Veterans

Congressman John E. Rankin once proclaimed himself as having done more for veterans than any other person, and his proclamation had some backing. He consistently served as a leading backer of veterans bonus bills against the vetoes of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt, he resisted cutting veterans benefits to fund the New Deal, and he sponsored with Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) the G.I. Bill in 1944. However, as you might expect, not all veterans were equal in Rankin’s eyes. The G.I. Bill was crafted in such a way, on his insistence, that local Veterans Administrations allocated funds. Rankin also fought for two months to dump an unemployment provision in the bill, which he thought would be too much of a benefit for black veterans and that they would use it to live off the government. However, he was politically outgunned and Warren Atherton, head of the American Legion, called him out on his intransigence, “If Mr. Rankin means that he wants to deny unemployment insurance to the men now carrying a bayonet for Uncle Sam, the veterans of the American Legion intend to fight him right down the line and to take the issue to every voter in the country” (Hindley). The unemployment provision was kept but the time was halved from 52 weeks to 26 weeks. As a result of Rankin’s insistence on local Veterans Administrations controlling the distribution of funds, white and black veterans of the North benefited from the G.I. Bill while Southern blacks saw little progress as they were often either pushed into vocational education or denied benefits (Thompson). Another shameful episode in the legacy of Rankin was his reaction to the Port Chicago disaster. On July 17, 1944, a munitions explosion occurred at a Naval depot in Port Chicago, California, which killed 320 sailors and civilians and injured 390 others. Rankin had no objection to giving to giving the families of the victims $5000 until he learned 2/3’s of them were black, then he lobbied for a reduction to $2000, with Congress settling on $3000 (Allen).

Postwar Politics

After World War II, Rankin was well in the Conservative Coalition after World War II, with his support of the Taft-Hartley Act curbing the power of unions, his staunch anti-communist politicking, his continuing opposition to price and rent controls, his opposition to strong minimum wage laws, and his repeated support for cutting foreign aid. He was even one of the few Democrats to vote against the Marshall Plan, but he voted for the Truman Doctrine. Rankin’s record on foreign affairs indicates an opposition to any foreign aid that wasn’t military aid, and he staunchly opposed aid for India because its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, was implementing a socialist program. Despite initial support for the United Nations, Rankin would later issue a quote that is his most famous and makes its way around the internet on the institution, “The United Nations is the greatest fraud in all History. Its purpose is to destroy the United States” (Dallek, 505).  However, there were some questions that he maintained his old-school populism on, including funding for the Tennessee Valley Authority and his support for strong anti-trust laws. He also was not necessarily immune to changing his mind: in 1949, he voted against the Truman Administration-backed Taft-Ellender-Wagner Housing Act that provided for public housing, but in 1951 and 1952 he would vote against efforts to cut public housing. In 1951, Rankin cast a unique vote in opposition to the Bracero Program, in the sense that he was the only Democrat from a former Confederate state to do so. Additionally, his lifetime MC-Index score was a 41%, and his ideological change from the 67th Congress (1921-23) to the 82nd Congress (1951-53) is illustrated below:

Rankin’s Legislative Scheming

Rankin was something of a schemer, in that he proposed legislation with certain outward appeals that served purposes hostile to the Truman Administration. In 1949, he proposed a veterans pension bill for World War I and World War II veterans that, if enacted, would have made the Truman Administration’s proposed Social Security expansion unfeasible as it would have provided $90 a month ($1,017.96 in 2021 dollars) for veterans of World War I and II starting at age 65. This measure got tremendous support from veterans groups, some progressives (including pro-communist Vito Marcantonio of all people), and numerous conservative Republicans who would likely otherwise oppose such generous expenditures. This measure, however, got opposition by several World War II veterans including the second-most decorated combat veteran, Olin E. “Tiger” Teague (D-Tex.), who would gain a reputation himself as a champion for veterans. The influence of these younger veterans proved decisive: the Rankin’s bill was defeated by one vote. Rankin would also try to get a Veterans Hospital on the birthplace of Booker T. Washington constructed that would presumably be named after him that would also happen to only serve black veterans, a subject I covered in an earlier post.

The Fall of Rankin

Rankin’s blatant bigoted politicking was finding less and less favor in postwar America as many Americans were connecting such politicking to the consequences of Hitler’s bigotry. It was apparent by 1947 that his appeal had become increasingly limited even in Mississippi: he placed fifth in his bid to succeed the late fellow racist demagogue Theodore Bilbo to the Senate with 13% of the vote. Mississippi voters preferred John C. Stennis, who was distinctly not a demagogue. In 1952, Rankin’s district was merged with that of Thomas G. Abernethy, a man not known to engage in anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Rankin’s career came to an end with his defeat. He resumed the practice of law and engaged in the real estate business until his death.

References

Allen, R.L. (2006). The Port Chicago mutiny. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books.

Blake, C.N., Borus, D.H., & Brick, H. (2020). At the center: American thought and culture in the mid-twentieth century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Clark, J. (2016, March 18). John E. Rankin: A loved and hated congressman from Mississippi. The Lee County Courier.

Retrieved from

http://www.leecountycourier.net/news/john-e-rankin-march-29-1882-nov-26-1960/article_28f1417e-b1ba-5b39-9322-760df68baa8c.html

Dallek, R. (1991). Lone star rising: Lyndon Johnson & his times, 1908-1960. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hindley, M. (2014). How the GI Bill Became Law in Spite of Some Veterans’ Groups. Humanities 35(4).

Retrieved from

https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2014/julyaugust/feature/how-the-gi-bill-became-law-in-spite-some-veterans-groups

Isacson, W. (2008, September 4). Einstein: His life and universe. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

John Rankin. Densho Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

https://encyclopedia.densho.org/John_Rankin

Matthews, R. (1992, June 5). Einstein’s ‘red’ links were genuine. New Scientist.

Retrieved from

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13418241-800-einsteins-red-links-were-genuine/

Romerstein, H. & Breindel, E. (2000). The venona secrets: Exposing Soviet espionage and America’s traitors. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

Rep. Rankin Loses Seat in Congress; Was Strongly Anti-jewish. (1952, August 28). Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Representative Rankin (MS). “Faker Einstein.” Congressional Record 96:2 (February 13, 1950), p. A1022.

Simkin, J. (1997, September). John Elliott Rankin. Spartacus Educational.

Retrieved from

https://spartacus-educational.com/USArankinJ.htm

The Congress: The Last Gavel. (1941, June 16). TIME.

Retrieved from

http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,765697,00.html

The Manhattan Project. American Museum of Natural History.

Retrieved from

https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein/peace-and-war/the-manhattan-project

Thompson, J. (2019, November 9). The GI Bill should’ve been race neutral, politicos made sure it wasn’t. Military Times.

Retrieved from

https://www.militarytimes.com/military-honor/salute-veterans/2019/11/10/the-gi-bill-shouldve-been-race-neutral-politicos-made-sure-it-wasnt/

Vickers, K.W. (1993). John Rankin: Democrat and demagogue. Mississippi State University.

Retrieved from

https://www.proquest.com/openview/f646b46372a943f18beb6143d84b374f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar HYPERLINK “https://www.proquest.com/openview/f646b46372a943f18beb6143d84b374f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y”& HYPERLINK “https://www.proquest.com/openview/f646b46372a943f18beb6143d84b374f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y”cbl=18750 HYPERLINK “https://www.proquest.com/openview/f646b46372a943f18beb6143d84b374f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y”& HYPERLINK “https://www.proquest.com/openview/f646b46372a943f18beb6143d84b374f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y”diss=y

Zwiers, M. (2017, July 11). John Elliott Rankin. Mississippi Encyclopedia.

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