Right now I am recovering from a very nasty cold and thus my mind hasn’t been at its best for writing or researching given the toll this has exacted on my sleep. However, I’m engaging in a broad undertaking and that is the revitalization of the MC-Index. The MC “Mike’s Conservative” Index is supposed to show what a theoretical national conservative interest group may grade people like in the past. While for 1947 forward I get quite a bit of assistance in determining what key votes are from looking at what votes Americans for Democratic Action, Americans for Constitutional Action, and the American Conservative Union counted as ideologically relevant. As one goes further back the greater the challenge of interpretation is and it requires some rethinking of assumptions. I have already covered one such way in which we need to rethink our assumptions when looking at political history in my August 5th, 2020 article, “When State’s Rights Was Progressive”.
In this light, I have decided to change up how my system works Instead of only determining votes by examining how the most conservative legislators (by DW-Nominate’s scaling system) voted, but also how the most liberal did as well. I have in the past criticized how poor ADA and ACU can be at distinguishing moderates and extremists on the other side in their ratings, so I want to take more precautions to avoid this. I have also become concerned about inappropriately counting or placing too much emphasis on regional issues. The system used to determine ideology will remain as sixteen of the most extreme representatives and four of the most extreme senators on a given vote, and all twenty if it is on the same question. I use this system because its possible that some legislators are not at their “peak” ideologically extreme period in a certain Congress or there are many issues in which they are extreme in that position but are less so in others. Republican H.R. Gross of Iowa, for instance, was not voting as a doctrinaire conservative during his first term, he would solidify his brand of skinflint conservatism during the Eisenhower years and only get more extreme with time. Having a bipolar approach to this also helps in weeding out votes that got both extremes to go against, thus is not a good vote for distinguishing right and left. However, it also does not make sense to have very individualistic dissents throw off a very relevant vote for inclusion. In 1947, one of the Republicans to vote “nay” on overriding President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act was C.W. “Runt” Bishop of Illinois and he is the only one of the top conservatives of the Congress to do so. As it turns out, Bishop could be rather liberal on labor issues, but this is counterbalanced by his extreme conservatism on foreign policy and conservatism on other issues. In that same Congress, you have among the top liberals Senator Glen H. Taylor (D-Idaho) and Representatives Leo Isacson (ALP-N.Y.), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), and George G. Sadowski (D-Mich.) voting against the Marshall Plan as they were subscribing to the Henry Wallace view that we should be seeking better relations with Russia. However, top conservatives by my standard are, with the sole exception of John Taber (R-N.Y.), unified against it even though they have no love for Stalin. Despite these dissents, because a majority of liberals voted for the Marshall Plan and a majority of conservatives voted against, it is eligible to be counted and is. This system can be a bit difficult in the 1920s as there seems to be the start of a major split in what is constituting liberalism on certain issues. However, these are weeds I have gotten through and hopefully soon I will complete this whole undertaking.
Politics can make strange bedfellows as well as strange foes. The foes of FDR’s New Deal and his foreign policy, for instance, were not always the same people. Rep. James W. Wadsworth Jr. (R-N.Y.) was one of the most extreme opponents of the New Deal but remained friends with FDR and actively cooperated with the Roosevelt Administration on foreign policy: he sponsored the first peacetime draft law in the House and defended Lend-Lease. This was also clear with the administration’s opponents of foreign policy. Although the most visible non-interventionist in the House was conservative Hamilton Fish III (R-N.Y.), in the Senate the two leading opponents were Gerald P. Nye (1892-1971) of North Dakota and Burton K. Wheeler (1882-1975) of Montana. They were hardly the beau ideal of those who had backed the anti-New Deal Liberty League in 1936: Nye was more supportive than most Republicans of the first New Deal and Wheeler’s reputation as a progressive was solid, being the running mate of Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) on his 1924 Progressive Party run for president. He also as chair of the Interstate Commerce Committee sponsored a major New Deal law, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935. Nye had gained a reputation as “Gerald the Giant Killer” for his role in the investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal and frequently criticized the tax policies of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, viewing them as favoring big business and the interests of the East rather than farmers and the interests of the Midwest. Nye supported raising taxes on the wealthy and pushed for an inheritance tax, but he also favored higher tariffs for goods that benefited his region of the country. He quickly soured the presidency of Herbert Hoover, stating that the greatest trouble “with Congress, with the Government, is that we fear new thoughts; we dread to depart from the beaten path; we withhold our support of things which are new and a departure from old ways. It is my hope that the next six months will have the effect of impressing upon Congress and the President the importance of accepting drastic means and new ways of righting wrongs of long standing” (Simkin, Nye).
Although both men were initially friendly to President Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially Wheeler, who had pushed for his nomination in 1932, they also possessed a healthy weariness of the use of executive power. This manifested in their opposition to Roosevelt’s court-packing plan and his proposed 1938 reorganization plan. Wheeler had in fact taken a central role in both efforts to limit FDR’s power, which he resented. Nye had chaired the committee investigating the causes of World War I, the purpose of which was to push legislation to strip the profits from war. The Nye Committee found some unsavory connections between bankers and munitions makers but was unable to prove a conspiracy for getting the U.S. into war. He also accused the late President Wilson of withholding information to the American public before getting into World War I, to which Senator Carter Glass, who had been a personal friend of Wilson, denounced him for “dirtdaubing the sepulcher of Woodrow Wilson” and slammed his fist on his desk until his knuckles bled (U.S. Senate). This committee served as a prelude to the debates on pre-World War II foreign policy. After FDR won a third term, Nye and Wheeler cemented themselves as opponents of the Roosevelt Administration. Their conservatism rose significantly during his third term, including newfound opposition to continuing certain New Deal programs.
Both men voted against weakening the Neutrality Acts in 1939 and 1941, against the peacetime draft in 1940, and against the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Nye and Wheeler were also frequent speakers at America First events. On January 12, 1941, Wheeler delivered a speech against Lend-Lease on the floor of Congress, declaring, “The lend-lease-give program is the New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy; it will plow under every fourth American boy. Never before have the American people been asked or compelled to give so bounteously and so completely of their tax dollars to any foreign nation. Never before has the Congress of the United States been asked by any President to violate international law. Never before has this nation resorted to duplicity in the conduct of its foreign affairs. Never before has the United States given to one man the power to strip this nation of its defenses. Never before has a Congress coldly and flatly been asked to abdicate” (Simkin, Wheeler).
Nye and Wheeler, however, met much criticism and both were subjects of Dr. Seuss’s 1940s cartoons, with Nye being portrayed in one as a horse’s ass. Wheeler was portrayed as nursing a Roosevelt hater. They also seemed to veer into questionable territory when they went after Hollywood for “pro-war propaganda”, asserting that because many of the major studio heads were Jewish, that they had special incentive to influence the public in the direction of war. This led to accusations of anti-Semitism.
The fate of both men’s political careers, however, were sealed after Pearl Harbor albeit for different reasons. Nye lost reelection to Democratic Governor John Moses in 1944 as he had lost some support as the socially conservative people of North Dakota were perturbed by his quick divorce and remarriage, and he was not able to get conservatives to unify behind him given his past record. His non-interventionism, although it was at that point unpopular with the overall American public, it wasn’t unpopular in North Dakota as they continued to reelect his more extreme colleague, William Langer. Wheeler lost renomination in 1946 despite President Truman’s support based on his non-interventionist record and for being insufficiently liberal to Leif Erickson, a candidate strongly backed by New Deal Democrats and elements of the far left. However, Wheeler had headed a bipartisan machine in Montana, and this machine had one last hurrah when Erickson was defeated by the far more conservative Republican Zales Ecton. Neither had regrets for the stands they took in their time. Nye worked in business and government until his retirement in 1966. Nye, who had been a lifelong smoker, developed heart and lung problems and died in 1971. Wheeler resumed the practice of law after his defeat and declined Republican efforts to recruit him to run against Senator Mike Mansfield in 1958, by this time he was 76 years old. Given the age of our current president, this seems rather quaint now. In 1962, he published his autobiography “Yankee from the West” and outlived Nye by four years.
P.S.: My grandfather was a driver for Senator Nye on his last campaign.
Drake, R. (2019, December 27). A Forgotten Rugged Patriot For ‘America First’. The American Conservative.
Hill, R. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. (2012, December 23). Knoxville Focus.
President Dwight Eisenhower gets claimed by both conservatives and liberals for historical praise. The former likes the times he presided over and that he was an anti-communist and the latter likes his warning against the “military-industrial complex” and his decision to not try to overturn the New Deal. Indeed, many of them think that Eisenhower would not be a Republican today, rather a Democrat. Some in the media have promoted this line of thinking and one of the justifications is the Interstate Highway Act.
Historian Tom Lewis favorably compared Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act to Barack Obama’s proposals for public works programs. Mike Tokars (2015) of the Christian Science Monitor added to this view when he wrote “Also, historians would be quick to point out, one of Eisenhower’s greatest achievements as president was the creation of the Interstate Highway System – a massive civic infrastructure project that cost the equivalent of $500 billion in today’s dollars”. This was in an article giving some credence to Bernie Sanders’ quip that he was to the right of President Dwight Eisenhower in the primary debates. This argument for Eisenhower being a bit of a creature of the left sounds good on its face: after all Republicans mocked the Obama Administration’s “shovel ready” projects and have often stood against public works projects in modern times as they regard them as “make work” projects and “pork”. The opposition of the Republican Party to pork has some history, but that’s for a different post. What I want to address here, like with some of Nixon’s achievements that are lauded as “liberal”, is the idea that the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was a “liberal” law.
President Dwight Eisenhower was, as the commander of the western theater of World War II, naturally not keen on importing policies from Nazi Germany but he made a sole exception: the Autobahn. He admired the creation of the Autobahn and thought it would be great for the United States to have such a system. The official justification, which had its base in Cold War politics, was for the need for military forces to get across the country in case of emergency. You would think that if this were a deeply ideological issue, that the breakdown of passage would be liberals for, and conservatives against. However, the roll call votes that exist on this legislation prove this is not the case. On April 19, 1956, Rep. George Fallon (D-Md.) introduced what would become the Interstate Highway Act after the unexpected defeat of a previous proposal the last year. The House bill had a remarkably easy passage, 388-19, with only fifteen Southern Democrats and four Republicans voting against. This measure even won the approval of H.R. Gross (R-Iowa), who was legendary for his opposition to high spending and pork. The measure moved on to the Senate, in which the primary source of debate was on the application of Davis-Bacon wages to these projects, requiring the paying of construction workers the local “prevailing wage”, which would add to construction costs. A conservative effort to stop the prevailing wage from applying failed, and the conference report on the act was ultimately adopted on June 22nd on a most controversial vote of…drumroll… 89-1. The one vote against was that of Democrat Russell B. Long of Louisiana, who opposed increasing the gas tax. Indeed, such conservative figures as Barry Goldwater of Arizona, John J. Williams of Delaware, and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia all saw the value of the measure and voted for, for defense and infrastructure reasons. The final product of the Highway Act provided $24.8 billion (about $247 billion in 2021 dollars) for 41,000 miles of freeways over a 13-year period and raised federal gas taxes from 2 to 3 cents a gallon with the federal government providing 90% of the funds (Glass). President Eisenhower, who was hospitalized for an intestinal illness, signed the legislation from his hospital bed on June 29th.
The credit for the Interstate Highway Act can in truth go to both liberals and conservatives as it was a consensus measure, just like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act under President Nixon. It is some of the particulars of such measures that met with the most intense debate. Although it is true that conservatives had some major differences on the issues of the day with Eisenhower, including on foreign aid, housing, and federal aid to education, interstate highways wasn’t among them.
Glass, A. (2012, June 26). Federal-Aid Highway Act, June 26, 1956. Politico.
HR 10660. Highway Construction Act. Amend and Supplement Federal-Aid Road Act By Authorizing Funds For Highway Construction. Amend Internal Revenue Code to Provide Additional Revenue for Highways. Govtrack.
During the Great Depression, Texas elected Democrats and only Democrats as they had done for so many years. In 1934, At-Large Congressman Joseph W. Bailey Jr. decided to run for the Senate on a platform antagonisitic to the New Deal and had he chosen to run for reelection to the House, his district would have been centered around Lubbock. His successor was George Herman Mahon (1900-1985).
Although he initially supported much of the New Deal, Mahon was placed on the Appropriations Committee and had an eye for expenditures. He was inclined to cut budgets whoever was president. Along with Appropriations chair Clarence Cannon, he was involved in the funding of the Manhattan Project. Although overtime Mahon grew more conservative, he was far from the most conservative of the Southern Democrats. Indeed, he kept party interests in mind, especially when it came to those of fellow Texas Democrats including a one Lyndon B. Johnson, who he supported despite having numerous differing views with him.
In 1956, like many Texas Democrats, Mahon did not sign the Southern Manifesto. However, he voted against a lot of civil rights legislation, including the final version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing. Mahon also led the opposition in the House to the Philadelphia Plan in 1969. This was one of the areas he differed from LBJ on but was a bit more moderate than some other Southerners on civil rights questions. For instance, he voted for the Senate version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and for the Jury Selection Act of 1968. Mahon also voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1975, when some other Texans were voting against as the legislation was being applied to Texas for the first time.
In 1964, upon the death of Clarence Cannon of Missouri, Mahon succeeded him to the post. Although supportive of much of the Great Society, he stood considerably to the right of the typical Great Society liberal, and although he voted against Medicare as well as the House version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he was sure to vote against Republican sponsored substitutes. Mahon’s reputation as Appropriations chairman was good as he was known for his fairness and effectiveness. This was crucial when he would face his greatest challenge: the rise of the Watergate babies. In 1974, many liberal Democrats were elected to Congress and they wanted to make it clear that seniority alone would no longer determine who chaired committees. In 1975, they succeeded in ousting House Banking and Currency Committee chair Wright Patman of Texas, Agriculture Committee chair Bob Poage of Texas, and Armed Services Committee chair Edward Hebert of Louisiana. Mahon, however, made a solid case for being kept and was. In some ways, he catered to the liberals of the Democratic Party. For instance, he could have tried to stop the New York City bailout as Appropriations chairman, but since he knew the majority of the House wanted it he let it pass through even though he voted “nay” on the measure. He also during the Carter years supported a move to cut funding for B-1 Bombers. In 1976, Texas Monthly listed him as the state’s best member of Congress for his effectiveness and fairness. Despite his good reputation, in the 1976 election Mahon won reelection by less than 10% of the vote against Republican Jim Reese, the closest race he had and a sign that times in Texas were changing.
In 1978, Mahon, like numerous other legacy Southern Democrats, opted not to run for reelection. None other than future President George W. Bush ran for Congress to succeed him, but narrowly lost to Democrat Kent Hance. Although he was vibrant and healthy as a Congressman and looked younger than his years, in his retirement he developed Parkinson’s Disease and died of a heart attack in 1985.
Becker, J. (2020, January 11). George Mahon: Greatest of West Texas Statesmen. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
1896 was a year of great triumph for the Republicans. Their standard bearer, William McKinley, had won a decisive victory against the Democratic and Populist Party nominee, William Jennings Bryan. However, it would be especially a triumph for four senators: Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, William B. Allison of Iowa, Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, and John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin. This group, through their influence and chairing of major committees was able to consolidate power. All four were close political allies and good personal friends with different specialties. Aldrich was the staunchly conservative chair of the Finance Committee and highly knowledgeable on matters of economics, and he was de facto leader of the Senate Republicans. Allison was chair of the Appropriations Committee and although a conservative he was also a pragmatist known for his ability to forge compromises, most notably the Bland-Allison Act in 1878 that cemented bimetallism rather than a gold standard or free coinage of silver. Platt was the staunchly conservative chair of the Cuban Relations Committee and drafted what would become American policy towards Cuba from 1901 to 1934 with the Platt Amendment and was effective at building support for policies. John Coit Spooner was chair of the Rules Committee and although a bit more moderate than the others he was known for his strong debating ability and stood as a strong critic of the progressivism of the Republican upstart Robert La Follette.
The conservative, pro-business agenda of these four men fit well with McKinley’s presidency but not as much with the reformer President Theodore Roosevelt, who they, along with Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois, kept in check. Indeed, nothing that met with the disapproval of this Senate quartet could pass. They were, however, helpful in passing modest reforms that in their final product were acceptable to business interests of the time, including the final Food and Drug Act and the Hepburn Act and were supportive of President Roosevelt’s foreign policy. However, the first crack in their rule appeared with the death of Platt in 1905 and in the following year muckraker David Graham Phillips released an expose in Cosmopolitan titled “The Treason of the Senate” commissioned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in which he accused Aldrich and Spooner of corruption and questionable political practices, but especially former as deeply connected to the Rockefeller family and influencing which Republicans got campaign contributions from them. After all, Aldrich’s daughter was married to John D. Rockefeller’s son! It was in response to this article that President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” in criticism of the article’s strong use of innuendo and exaggeration and of journalists who sensationalized the bad while ignoring the good. However, many people paid attention to this article and the power of the Republican conservatives began to slide with a growing faction of progressive Republicans challenging conservatives.
In 1907, Spooner resigned and the following year Allison, who had prevailed in a tough primary fight with the more progressive Governor Albert B. Cummins, died only two months after his victory resulting in Cummins succeeding him. Aldrich was the last among them, but he managed to get the Aldrich-Vreeland Act passed to establish a commission to investigate the causes of the Panic of 1907 and in 1910 had his final success, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which only marginally cut tariffs in the face of demands for significantly larger cuts. Aldrich’s scheme to defeat the adoption of the income tax, however, proved a failure after the 1910 elections, in which Aldrich opted not to run again and with his departure, the power of Senate conservatives fell as the progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties scored a smashing election victory, paving the way for the adoption of numerous reforms. These included the income tax and the direct election of senators, which was what Phillips was aiming to build public support for in “Treason of the Senate”.
Phillips, D.G. (1906, March). The Treason of the Senate: Aldrich, The Head of It All. Cosmopolitan.
On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, and in came the Great Depression. Many Americans were looking for answers and new ideas as opposed to the old laissez-faire approach, and one of these ideas was technocracy.
Proponents of technocracy held the belief that politicians and businessmen ought to be replaced with scientists and engineers, the idea being that the economy could be managed scientifically. The philosophies behind technocracy had been building up for a while and had some predecessors in thought, including journalist Edward Bellamy. Bellamy wrote in his 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, of a society in the distant year of 2000 in which there were no more politicians, lawyers, businessmen, or soldiers, people worked only for 24 years of their life on a voluntary basis, and all industry was nationalized. People would be aided in their work through machinery. Many dreamed with Bellamy and formed Nationalist Clubs dedicated to working to bring about this idealized socialist future. Perhaps the true intellectual godfather of technocracy, however, was an economist influenced by Bellamy’s book: Thorstein Veblen.
Veblen was an unorthodox economist who as a critic of capitalism condemned production for profit. He is most known for coining the term “conspicuous consumption” to criticize the middle class for purchasing leisure rather than contributing more to production. However, in 1921 his compilation of papers titled The Engineers and the Price System was published, in which he proposed a “soviet of technicians”, a Bolshevik style government in which engineers would decide on pricing and production. He died in 1929, but only three years later his sort of thinking began to gain currency so to speak thanks to a man who had attended several of his lectures on the subject during the 1920s: Howard Scott.
In 1932, Walter Rautenstrauch and Howard Scott, with M. King Hubbert and Dal Hitchcock, formed the Committee on Technocracy. They adopted the yin-yang symbol to represent their group, representing production and consumption, and the organization publicized facts and statistics to emphasize how technological efficiency could produce stunning results. Among them were “On the basis of 1830 methods, six million men would have been needed to cultivate the soil for the 1929 U.S. wheat crop. With the best existent equipment 4,000 men could have planted the whole crop” and “A new machine for making light bulbs produces 442 bulbs a minute, replaces 10,000 men” (TIME). They also wanted a superstate of the North American continent with the leadership being called the “Technate”. Both men were of the left, as Rautenstrauch later in life would work for the communist-dominated Progressive Party in the 1948 election and Scott had held previous employment as a research director with the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Although both men stood for a much stronger presence of scientists and engineers in government, their backgrounds and views significantly differed on how far they wanted to go.
Rautenstrauch was a professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University while Scott had portrayed himself as a “distinguished engineer”. However, upon further examination the press discovered that Scott was lacking in academic credentials with his experience being working in construction. Ironically, after he had worked as an engineer at the Muscle Shoals nitrates project during World War I, a government investigation afterwards had accused him of “gross waste, inefficiency, and shoddy workmanship” (Baker). Rautenstrauch had wanted engineers in charge of industrial and economic decisions but maintaining a democratic structure, while Scott called for what amounted to a dictatorship of scientists and engineers with police being used for enforcement. Evidence that the latter approach was on the minds of many technocrats was apparent in how their organization functioned: they wore gray double-breasted suit uniforms with yin-yang lapels, painted their cars gray, and saluted Scott in person (Finley). This bore an eerie resemblance to other totalitarian groups of the time and it had at one point up to half a million members in California. The technocracy movement of the early 1930s also tried to demonstrate that the current price system was dysfunctional and should be replaced with a system that had a currency of energy. As TIME Magazine wrote about the movement, “Technocracy presumes that all the wealth and functions of Society can be calculated in terms of energy unity—British Thermal Units, kilogramme calories, joules, ergs, footpounds, horsepower” (TIME). However, Scott never made it clear how this transition would happen. As he put it, “Technocracy proposes no solution” (TIME). An opportunity to explain technocracy fully to the public came the following year.
On January 13, 1933, Scott delivered a speech on technocracy in front of an audience of 400 at Hotel Pierre in New York City and it was broadcast live over the radio. There had been a lot of speculation on what technocracy was about, and this was a chance to articulate a clear platform for the Committee on Technocracy. He was untrained at public speaking, and he started his speech with, “We are not attempting to say, as some of our critics have said, that there is going to be chaos or there is going to be doom” (Baker). However, Scott proceeded to predict chaos and doom if technocracy was not adopted. The speech was widely regarded as a disaster as he had contradicted himself and once again not effectively outlined how technocracy would work. As Howard P. Segal (2005) notes, “Technocracy’s heyday lasted only from June 16, 1932, when the New York Times became the first influential press organ to report its activities, until January 13, 1933, when Scott, attempting to silence his critics, delivered what some critics called a confusing, and uninspiring address on a well-publicized nationwide radio hookup” (123). Scott had blown an opportunity and he and Technocracy were widely mocked. The organization split in two, with one group, the “Continental Committee on Technocracy” being under writer Harold Loeb while Scott led “Technocracy Incorporated”. It was also rather ironic that Scott was asserting that government by engineers would be best when President Hoover, who was being widely blamed for the Great Depression at the time, had himself been an engineer by trade. The public instead turned their attentions to FDR and his New Deal.
Technocracy, although it made a brief splash and Scott’s organization still exists today, it has limited influence and never has been seriously considered by either the Republican or Democratic Party. For one thing, it would put them out of a job!
Baker, K. The Engineered Society. (2000, April). American Heritage Magazine, 51(2).
From 1913 to 1920, the Constitution was amended a whopping four times. These weren’t minor changes either, the direct election of senators helped Democrats become increasingly competitive in New England, the income tax’s introduction resulted in it ultimately becoming a leading source of revenue for the U.S. government and thus made Prohibition possible, and the other two were Prohibition and women’s suffrage. This was the most rapid adoption of constitutional amendments since the creation of the Bill of Rights, and there was pushback. This came in the form of the proposed Wadsworth-Garrett Amendment. Senator James W. Wadsworth Jr. (R-N.Y.) had been a leading opponent of both Prohibition and women’s suffrage and believed that these amendments had been adopted over the will of the voters. Indeed, several states had held referendums on women’s suffrage prior to the adoption of the 19th Amendment. In the five years that preceded the suffrage amendment: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, West Virginia, Maine, Louisiana, and Texas had voted down women’s suffrage. Wadsworth thought Congress was acting against the will of the people of these states and thus wanted to change the amending process to get the public more involved. Wadsworth got in a cosponsor House Minority Leader Finis J. Garrett (D-Tenn.), who had voted for Prohibition but against women’s suffrage. Neither of these men were keen on further amendments to the Constitution and both voted against the Child Labor Amendment in 1924. The amendment would make the following changes:
“1. At least one house of the legislatures which may ratify future constitutional amendments shall be elected after the submission of the amendment by Congress to the States.
2. Any State may require that the ratification of an amendment by its legislature be subject to confirmation by popular vote.
3. Until three fourths of the States have ratified or more than one fourth of the States have rejected an amendment any State may reverse its previous action.” (CQ Researcher)
This proposal would simultaneously get the people more involved in the amending process and make it more difficult for the Constitution to be amended, thus it was controversially known as the “back to the people amendment”. This amendment was considered in the Senate, but Senator Thomas Walsh (D-Mont.), a progressive, added an amendment excluding State legislatures from the process of ratification, instead automatically leaving it to popular vote. Numerous different factions and opinions formed on the amendment and the Walsh amendment displeased Wadsworth. The Senate adopted in response the Jones Amendment, which required amendments to first got to the legislatures and then the legislatures decide whether the people vote for. The Jones Amendment was struck out the very next day, and the Senate sent the altered Wadsworth-Garrett amendment back to committee, with Wadsworth voting for. Both Wadsworth and Garrett would subsequently vote against the Child Labor Amendment, which would grant Congress the power to regulate and abolish child labor, directly overriding the Supreme Court cases Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922), which struck down laws passed by Congress governing the use of child labor. In the next session of Congress, Wadsworth tried again but to no avail. He lost reelection in 1926 on account of his opposition to Prohibition and women’s suffrage but made a comeback in the House in the 1932 elections. There was one constitutional amendment that would come to pass within the next ten years that Senator Wadsworth was pleased with however, the repeal of Prohibition. To make matters better, it was done in a sort of manner that certainly satisfied him: a constitutional convention.
Miller, J. (1926, February). Amendment of the Federal Constitution: Should it Be Made More Difficult? Minnesota Law Review, 10(3).
State women’s suffrage ballot measures. Ballotpedia.
In 1928, Congressman Eugene Black was facing a tough primary. Black was one of the more conservative Texas Democrats in his day and his challenger, John William Wright Patman (1893-1976), was running on a populist platform that he was too friendly with business. This accusation stuck, and Patman prevailed. He quickly became a vocal critic of the Hoover Administration and especially Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. His efforts to impeach Mellon contributed to his resignation, accepting a post of Ambassador to Britain for the remainder of the Hoover presidency.
Patman was eager to shake things up in his early years and did so as one of the few representatives to join Louis T. McFadden’s (R-Penn.) push to impeach President Hoover and pushed strongly for his bill to promptly pay veterans their war bonuses, the Patman Bonus Bill. Although it was vetoed by both Hoover and Roosevelt, a compromise version managed to be passed over Roosevelt’s 1936 veto. Unlike many of his fellow Texans, Wright Patman mostly remained faithful to the New Deal after Roosevelt’s first two terms. He was an old-time populist at heart and his underlying belief that there was too much economic power concentrated in an evil combine of big banks, big business, and government and was downright Jacksonian. In 1936, he co-authored and sponsored with Sen. Joseph Robinson (D-Ark.) the Robinson-Patman Act, which was aimed at preventing big box retailers from pricing out mom and pop stores. In 1946, Patman succeeded in getting the Employment Act into law, which created the Council of Economic Advisers and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee and “maximum employment, production and purchasing power” became a permanent objective of national policy, cementing the government’s role in regulating the economy (Shanahan). He also succeeded in the creation of the Federal credit union system and the establishment of the Small Business Administration.
In 1952 and 1953 Patman voted for committees to investigate tax-exempt institutions, the Cox and Reece Committees respectively. Although the Cox Committee yielded nothing of note, the Reece Committee dug deeper and uncovered an effort by these institutions to influence education in a more internationalist and left-wing direction. Although the Reece Committee’s report had terrible timing as its 1954 release coincided with the McCarthy censure and thus it was lumped in with this in the public perception, Patman wanted to give such investigations a third try. This he did in 1962, and the political context was a bit different as it wasn’t at the height of the so-called Second Red Scare and unlike Reps. Edward E. Cox and B. Carroll Reece, Patman was not a creature of the right. His report in 1963 assailed the growth of tax-exempt institutions as new monopolies that were effectively being subsidized by taxpayers and uncovered the funneling of money from the CIA to groups with no seeming connection to the government (Shanahan). He called for further regulation and oversight of these institutions. In 1963, Patman became head of the House Banking and Currency Committee and proved a headache for financial institutions and his critics held that his methods were dictatorial and that he would start investigations without the approval of anyone else on the committee.
On civil rights, Patman’s record was mostly negative. In 1956, he signed the Southern Manifesto and he voted against efforts at combating employment and housing discrimination. Patman did, however, vote for the final versions of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (possibly as a show of support for LBJ) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Patman was, however, supportive of New Frontier and Great Society legislation. His record shifted a bit more rightward in the Nixon years out of his support for the Vietnam War and his lack of enthusiasm for social liberalism, but Patman was still at heart a New Dealer, especially on economics. He was an abrasive foe of Nixon who he had long despised, and once asked Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns when testifying before Congress, “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” (Stoller, 2016) In 1970, he managed to block a bailout of the Penn Central Railroad and in 1972 he succeeded in getting price control legislation passed. However, Patman never succeeded in revolutionizing the Federal Reserve or commercial banking system. He in 1972 tried to investigate the Watergate break-in but didn’t get enough support to move forward before the election. Although Patman led efforts to elect Democrats in the 1974 midterms, by the start of 1975 he was eighty-one years old, and his effectiveness was perceived to have declined. Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen regarded him as “Not senile, but not in command. He had done his thing. He had had his day” (Stoller, 2019, 344). Patman’s anti-bank politics and sentiments, while consistent with those of traditional Democratic Party hero Andrew Jackson, were out of touch to pro-bank liberal Democrats, such as Pete Stark, a banker by profession, who thought that Patman’s “economic ideas were not in pace with modern concepts” (Stoller, 2019, 344). His colleagues on the Banking Committee were on board with ousting him as well. As Matt Stoller (2016) writes, “For more than a decade, Patman had represented a Democratic political tradition stretching back to Thomas Jefferson, an alliance of the agrarian South and the West against Northeastern capital. For decades, Patman had sought to hold financial power in check, investigating corporate monopolies, high interest rates, the Federal Reserve, and big banks. And the banking allies on the committee had had enough of Patman’s hostility to Wall Street”. He was ousted from his chairmanship of the House Banking and Currency Committee in favor of Henry Reuss of Wisconsin. The New Yorker Magazine condemned the ousting of Patman, writing “He’s something of a crank, but he’s an intelligent and knowledgeable crank. Those Young Turks who shoved the old Populist aside not only were being cruel, but were probably making a mistake” (Shanahan). He died in office only a year later.
Patman’s MC-Index life score was a 21%, with the last seven years of his career being a bit more conservative than his preceding years in Congress. Patman would almost certainly be horrified by modern neoliberalism and think of it as part II of the 1920s. He strikes me as the sort of Democrat that the white working class could still absolutely get behind, but Democrats have, with some exceptions such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, largely abandoned old-time populism. Patman’s son, Bill, would serve in Congress from 1981 to 1985.
Grant, P.A. Patman, John William Wright. Texas State Historical Association.
In my last post, I noted that a more in-depth view of the politics of Albert Einstein was necessary, so here it is. In February 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and the brain drain was immediate. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and his wife had already left for the United States in December 1932, anticipating his rise to power. He played a key role in persuading other countries to taken in German Jewish scientists, including Britain and Turkey. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, took him in as a resident scholar. From a young age, he held a belief in pacifism and went as far as to renounce his German citizenship in 1896, which got him out of military service. He would regain his citizenship in the 1910s but with the rise of Hitler to power he for the second and final time renounced it. In 1940, he was admitted as an American citizen.
Although a new citizen, Einstein would not be quiet on his political views. He saw widespread discrimination and mistreatment of American blacks and this disturbed him profoundly. He stated on his motivations for favoring civil rights, “Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how black people feel as victims of discrimination” (Francis). Indeed, one instance in which he suffered discrimination in Germany was when Nobel Prize winner Philipp Lenard, a major anti-Semite and future Nazi, lobbied the Nobel Prize committee hard to prevent Einstein from getting the prize in physics for 1921, and so the award was delayed until the next year (Francis). He also repeatedly backed the civil rights campaigns of entertainer Paul Robeson.
Einstein and Communism
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had been highly suspicious of Albert Einstein given his politics were of the radical left, and continually looked for any indication that he was a Soviet spy. Einstein was not a spy, but his relationship with communists and communism is complicated. In 1929, he opted to criticize their methods yet praise their goals, stating, “In Lenin I honor a man, who in total sacrifice of his own person has committed his entire energy to realizing social justice. I do not find his methods advisable. One thing is certain, however: men like him are the guardians and renewers of mankind’s conscience” (Rowe & Schulmann, 412-13).
On February 13, 1950, Representative John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) delivered a speech, “Faker Einstein”, in which he lobbed numerous accusations that varied in their accuracy. I already covered his nonsense casting shade on Einstein being a scientist and his numerous prejudices, but the claims that deserve the most investigation are the ones linking him to communist front groups, especially since the CPUSA acted as an arm of the Kremlin. Such groups that he held that Einstein was involved with included the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born, the Civil Rights Congress, National Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions, and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. While I do not doubt that Rankin’s push against Einstein had anti-Semitic motivation, he did have connections that were cause for concern.
The American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born was an organization identified as a Communist front group by Attorney General Tom C. Clark and listed by name as subversive in the Internal Security Act of 1950. The group’s goal was to protect foreign communists from deportation and sponsors of this group included communists, socialists, and other left-wing public figures. Its chairman from 1942 to 1951 was Hugh De Lacy, a one-time member of Congress who would be revealed as a secret communist by the memoirs of CPUSA attorney John Abt.
The Civil Rights Congress was an organization headed by William L. Patterson, a prominent black communist who in 1951 presented a document before the UN with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois titled “We Charge Genocide”, which accused the US government of complicity in genocide over failure to act against lynching and was used in Soviet propaganda against the United States. In fairness to Einstein, he also associated with non-communist civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP.
The National Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions was a communist front group that had spawned from the pro-New Deal Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, which Einstein sponsored along with dyed-in-the-wool communists such as Lillian Hellman, John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner, Paul Robeson, Howard Fast, and Dalton Trumbo.
The North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy was another Communist front that provided aid through donations to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (Swayne, 92). Historian Peter N. Carroll (1994) regarded it as a “Popular Front organization that attracted Communists and Christians alike” (61).
That wasn’t all. As authors Karen C. Fox and Aries Keck (2004) note, “The FBI cites that Einstein was affiliated with thirty-four Communist fronts between 1937 and 1954 and was honorary chairman for three of them. While FBI agents during the Cold War probably had more expansive criteria for what constitutes a Communist front than one might today and the numbers may not have been truly that high, Einstein clearly had affiliations with organizations that in turn had affiliations with the Communist Party. However, it does not seem to have been more so than other similarly political celebrities had at the time” (61). It is also worth noting that Albert Einstein endorsed Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party, the campaign being run by the CPUSA. Given that Wallace himself was not in truth a communist (rather the USA’s #1 dupe) and that the ticket was not exclusively backed by communists, this alone cannot be considered prima facie evidence that someone is a communist. However, his connections were a cause for concern by the U.S. government and precluded any granting of a security clearance. According to an FBI report dated February 28, 1952, using information provided by U.S. Army Intelligence, “Prior to 1933, the Comintern, and other Soviet Apparats, were active in gathering intelligence information the Far East. The agents who gathered this information sent it to agents in other countries in coded telegrams. These agents then recoded the telegrams the telegrams and forwarded them to addresses in Berlin, one of which is the office of Albert Einstein….Einstein’s personal secretary turned the coded telegrams over to a special apparat man, whose duty it was to transmit them to Moscow by various means…
It was common knowledge, especially in Berlin, that Einstein sympathized with the Soviet Union to a great extent. Einstein’s Berlin staff of typists and secretaries was made up of persons who were recommended to him (at his request) by people who were close to the Klub Der Geistesarbeiter (Club of Scientists), which was a Communist cover organization. Einstein was closely associated with this club and was very friendly with several members who later became Soviet agents. Klaus Fuchs, who was associated with the club as a student in the early 1930s, was jailed in England for giving atomic bomb information to the Soviets. Einstein was also very friendly with several members of the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, some of whom were later executed in Moscow in 1935 and 1937” (Romerstein & Breindel, 279). The decision to exclude him from a security clearance in July 1940 and thus the Manhattan Project was probably correct given that his associations made him a security risk.
Einstein was also good friends with historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (whose long history of pro-communist attitudes and actions culminated in his joining the CPUSA in 1961) and entertainer Paul Robeson. Robeson was a firm Stalinist and although he publicly denied he was a communist, chairman Gus Hall announced in 1998 that Robeson had been a secret member (Radosh). In January 1953, Einstein publicly appealed for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of stealing nuclear secrets for the Soviets. Naturally, he was also a critic of postwar anti-communism, especially the sort practiced by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Einstein cannot be said to be a spy or even a communist, but his connections with front groups and figures are highly suggestive of fellow travelling. This being said, he was not afraid to take positions that didn’t fit with Soviet dogma and was critical of the USSR’s increasingly anti-Semitic post-war policies. His friend Robeson, by contrast, never criticized the USSR despite knowing of the evils within the regime. Former Soviet agent Louis F. Budenz perhaps got it best on Einstein when he testified that “As a matter of fact, most of the fellow travelers are Communists. There is only a very small group of the type of Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann and people of that kind who, because of their eminent positions, would certainly feel insulted to be under Communist discipline. They are fellow travelers in the sense that they sign many statements under the influence of the people around them” (U.S. Senate, 626). Although many fellow travelers were in fact communists, Einstein was not but was among many such people who influenced him. He also, consistent with his approach of free thought, criticized the USSR in a letter, writing “there seems to be complete suppression of the individual and of freedom of speech” (Isacson, 433).
Einstein additionally stood for world government in the face of atomic weapons, a stance that got pushback both in the US and the USSR. The latter initially was against the idea of siding with groups that called for non-proliferation of arms, but they later sided with such groups to influence and pressure western nations. In May 1949, Einstein’s article, “Why Socialism?” appeared in the socialist publication Monthly Review, in which he argued for a system in which “the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion” (Einstein). He believed that an economy could be feasibly scientifically planned yet expressed caution about the potential for a bureaucracy to form that would enslave the public, thus such a system would have to be one in which democracy is assured. The one regret of Einstein’s life surrounded his compromising his pacifism to halt the Nazis. As he reflected in 1954 to Linus Pauling, “I made one great mistake in my life – when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them” (Crockatt, 115). In this ironic sense, Einstein probably wished that Mississippi’s Rankin was entirely correct in that he had nothing to do with the development of the atomic bomb.
Carroll, P.N. (1994). The odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Crockatt, R. (2016). Einstein and Twentieth-century politics: ‘a salutary moral influence’. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Einstein, A. (1949, May). Why Socialism? Monthly Review.
Fourth Report of the Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Un-American Activities: Communist Front Organizations. (1948). California Senate.
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).
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 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.
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.