The Tale of Tyler Kent: Spy or a Snowden?

The Northern Ireland link of a spy who enraged President Roosevelt and  delayed Mussoloni's entry into World War Two | Belfast News Letter

I have recently been on a real espionage kick, and one of the controversial cases surrounding World War II was that of a cipher clerk at the American Embassy in London, Tyler Kent (1911-1988). There are many reasons not to like Kent as a person, reasons that I will make abundantly clear, but the question here is given his activities, was he a spy or a whistleblower?

Kent was born to a prestigious family, his father was the consul to Manchuria at the time of his birth and a major supporter of President Theodore Roosevelt. He proved highly intelligent, attending Princeton University, the Sorbonne, the University of Madrid, and George Washington University and speaking seven languages (Simkin, Kent). By the time he graduated, the job market wasn’t terribly open for diplomats, but Kent managed to use family connections to get a position at the American Embassy in the USSR in 1934, with Secretary of State Cordell Hull pressuring Ambassador William C. Bullitt to take him in. Bullitt assigned him as a lowly clerk but he was eventually promoted to cipher. There, Kent was known as a rather unlikable loner who made no bones about acting like the smartest person in the room. As George Kennan, at the time a coworker, recounted about him, “I recall him as a sort of an oddball around the embassy, very much a loner, an unpleasant personality, full of himself, and giving the impression of pursuing aims his own” (Rand). He fell in love with a woman who worked for the NKVD, which led to suspicion that he was giving intelligence to the USSR. In 1939, he injured a pedestrian in a car accident, and was promptly transferred to Britain, where he would work for Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.

From almost the very start, Kent was under suspicion by MI5. He was seen in the company of Ludwig Matthias, a Swedish businessman of German origin who was suspected of being a Gestapo agent. While working at the embassy, Kent was noticing a lot of secret correspondence between President Roosevelt and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, correspondence not even known to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Socially, he frequented Russian tea rooms in London, which were full of Russian emigres who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. There he found kindred spirits, people who were staunchly anti-Communist and anti-Semitic. Among these people he met Anna Wolkoff, the daughter of former Tsarist Admiral Nikolai Wolkoff, who brought Kent into The Right Club. The Right Club was a group of pro-Fascists headed by Scottish Conservative MP Archibald Ramsay, who wanted the war between Britain and Germany to end. Ramsay stated in his autobiography, “The main object of the Right Club was to oppose and expose the activities of Organized Jewry, in the light of the evidence which came into my possession in 1938. Our first objective was to clear the Conservative Party of Jewish influence, and the character of our membership and meetings were strictly in keeping with this objective” (Simkin, The Right Club). At The Right Club, Kent expressed anti-Communist, pro-Fascist, and anti-Semitic sentiments. He, like his boss Joseph P. Kennedy, believed that Britain was going to lose the war and that the United States should stay out of the conflict. Both Germany and Russia didn’t want the United States in World War II at the time given the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, so Kent being against American involvement served both of their interests at the time. He proceeded to steal and make copies of over 1500 documents, including secret correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill. He did so by pocketing copied documents scheduled to be burned and Ambassador Kennedy had, according to Kent, commissioned the copying of political documents for his private collection, providing the perfect cover for him to copy said documents for his own use. Had this correspondence been publicly released, Roosevelt’s secret violations of the Neutrality Acts would have become known to the American public; polling at the time indicated that most didn’t want to get involved in World War II. Roosevelt had publicly pledged for the election to keep the United States out of the war, so the exposure of these documents could have lost him reelection. Kent showed these documents to Archibald Ramsay and Anna Wolkoff, intending to transmit them to U.S. Senate opponents of FDR’s foreign policies. Ramsay did not make a copy of the Churchill letters but planned to eventually introduce these to the House of Commons in a parliamentary effort to oust Churchill. On April 13, 1940, Wolkoff made copies, which Kent presumed was for Ramsay, but took them to Italian Assistant Naval Attache Don Francisco Maringliano, Duke of Del Monte, who transmitted the documents to Berlin, ending up in the hands of Wilhelm Canaris, the intelligence chief of the German Army. However, MI5 had multiple agents embedded in the Right Club, including Joan Miller, who reported on these activities.

Maxwell Knight of MI5 reported the events to Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, who realized that the documents stolen contained secret correspondence, compromised American diplomatic codes globally, and also contained evidence of his pro-German and anti-British views on the conflict (Rand). Kennedy promptly waived Kent’s diplomatic immunity, which allowed him to be arrested by MI5 and prosecuted by the British for violating the Official Secrets Act rather than be taken to the United States for trial. This was a way to prevent Kent from being able to testify in the United States, for otherwise the trial would be public per the Sixth Amendment and Kent would speak of Roosevelt violating the Neutrality Acts. There was no press surrounding the matter at the time and he was convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act in a secret trial and was imprisoned until the end of the war. Anna Wolkoff was also tried and convicted, with Archibald Ramsay being interned. His trial and conviction would not be publicly known until 1944. As I have written previously, there were great efforts by the British and Germans to influence American opinion in the two years preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Kent’s efforts certainly could have been another. It is not conclusive whether Kent was in fact a spy. Professor Igor Lukes (2021) concludes that he was a spy for the Soviets while in Moscow and London, providing documents on the behest of his girlfriend and later Ludwig Matthias. Historian Nigel West found it probable that Kent spied for the Soviets and the FBI suspected as much. However, other sources have held that Kent spied for the Germans with a former Gestapo officer claiming that he was on his payroll and that Matthias was either a Gestapo agent or a suspected Gestapo agent.

Kent After World War II

Kent’s postwar activities do not engender sympathy, to say the least. After marrying a wealthy heiress, suited for the lifestyle had become accustomed to, he stayed out of the limelight for some time and became the publisher of a segregationist newspaper in Florida with ties to the KKK. The FBI remained suspicious of him, investigating him six times between 1952 and 1963. Kent joined Liberty Lobby Board of Policy in the 1950s, an organization founded by Willis Carto that portrayed itself as a patriotic conservative group but as I have written before, it was a front for something much more sinister. Through his newspaper, perhaps in a way of paying back his former boss Joseph P. Kennedy, he accused President Kennedy of being a communist. After his assassination, Kent publicized the conspiracy theory that Kennedy was assassinated by the Soviets because he was turning away from communism.

Kent stayed associated with Carto as it became increasingly known that Liberty Lobby was a front for Carto’s pro-Nazi bigotry. In 1982, Kent was tracked down for an interview by Robert Harris of the BBC, and when asked if being called anti-Jewish was a fair description of him, he admitted, “Yes, that’s a fair description. Because the Jews are basically responsible for the establishment of Soviet Russia”. That year, he attended a conference of Holocaust deniers in Chicago and claimed the Holocaust to be a Jewish hoax (Beschloss, 190).  By the 1980s, Kent had blown through his wife’s money through libel suits and failed financial schemes, spending his last years living in poverty in a Texas trailer park.

Kent was undoubtedly a whistleblower who may have changed the course of history had his information reached the American public in 1940. He may have also been a spy for the Soviets or the Nazis, a great irony for a man who would portray himself as a patriot, and was certainly a man who held repulsive views.


Beschloss, M. (2007). Presidential courage: brave leaders and how they changed America. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.

Lukes, I. (2021, May 11). Truth as an Instrument of Evil: What Could Soviet Spy Tyler Kent Cause? Forum24.

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Rand, P. (2013, October). The Secret Sharer. World War II.

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Robert Harris Report on Tyler Kent. BBC.

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Simkin, J. (2020). The Right Club. Spartacus Educational.

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Simkin, J. (2020). Tyler Kent. Spartacus Educational.

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Bob Dole’s Predecessor: Wint Smith

Wint Smith - Wikipedia

The great Bob Dole died on December 5th, and you can read my piece on him at my new Substack, However, today I will tell the story of his predecessor, who was also a war hero, Wint Smith (1892-1976).

1946 was a major comeback year for the GOP after chafing under Roosevelt, and the Congress that resulted was the staunchly conservative 80th, which passed tax reduction, a partial rollback of the Wagner Act, and a partial rollback of anti-trust laws surrounding railroads over President Truman’s veto. Frank Carlson was not running for reelection in Kansas’s 6th district, and he was succeeded by the much more conservative Wint Smith. Smith had served in three military conflicts for the United States: the border war with Mexico under General Pershing, World War I, and World War II. He had been injured thrice in the line of duty and his command of the 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion was effective in combat in the Battle of the Bulge and in preserving the lives of his men; his training was strict about always wearing a helmet. By the end of World War II, he was promoted to Brigadier General. Smith had also been the head attorney of the Kansas Highway Commission, a law enforcement outfit, and had commanded the highway patrol. Under Smith, they were authorized to act as a police force to solve the problem of repeated bank robberies by effectively waging a war on the gangs, including shooting robbers on sight (Congressional Record, 27832).

Wint Smith was a giant of a man, at 6’4″ and 240 pounds, but he contrasted this frame with a soft-spoken demeanor. His record was on most issues uncompromising – he opposed the minimum wage, organized labor, federal funding for sewage treatment plants, public housing, admitting European war refugees, public housing, foreign aid, and public power. Smith thought the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy unfair and President Eisenhower far too moderate. He stated on the matter, “I recognize my obligation as a Republican, but when you find yourself in disagreement what’s the representative to do? Vote his own convictions, or follow along blindly? In strict analysis, there isn’t any use to electing a Congress if they’re going to follow the leadership…one of the things we campaigned against was usurpation of power by the executive…If I voted against things when Truman was President, I can’t in good conscience change overnight…” (McConaughy, 133). However, Smith could bend for public works projects, particularly reclamation projects, and farm price supports. On civil rights, his record is mostly negative; while he voted to ban the poll tax in 1947 and voted for the 1956 Powell Amendment, Smith voted against fair employment practices legislation in 1950, civil rights legislation in 1956, 1957, and 1960, opposed the creation and extension of the Civil Rights Commission, and voted against the 1960 Powell Amendment. In 1959, he was one of only 24 House Republicans to vote against the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state.

In 1958, Smith faced a difficult bid for renomination and indeed that was an unusually tough year for Republicans in Kansas: two incumbents, Errett Scrivner and Myron George, lost reelection, and he was nearly a third. He had only narrowly won his primary against future Congressman Keith Sebelius with the help of Bob Dole, who he gratefully endorsed as his successor for 1960. Smith’s MC-Index score was a 91%. Although Bob Dole’s was only three points lower on my scale, he differed from Smith in his approach in that as a senator he was actively involved in the crafting of bipartisan compromises while sticking with the GOP line on meat and potatoes issues. Smith was a legislator who stuck with his principles and his district regardless.


Extension of Remarks of Keith G. Sebelius (KS). (1969, September 30). Congressional Record.

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McConaughy, J.L. (1954, June 21). While Eisenhower Proposes, The Old Guard Disposes. LIFE.

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World War II: 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Kansas National Guard Museum.

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Did FDR Know About the Pearl Harbor Attack Ahead of Time? Revisiting an Old Conspiracy Theory

Pearl Harbor attack | Date, History, Map, Casualties, Timeline, & Facts |  Britannica

December 7th, 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although after the attack, American patriotism skyrocketed and the nation unified to win World War II, after the war ended and the dust had settled questions were being asked about how we got into war. The traditional story, as we know, is that the Japanese were aggressive and that their ambitions would have eventually resulted in conflict with the United States regardless and that Roosevelt was trying to pressure Japan into backing off rather than getting into war. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman declassified all documents surrounding Pearl Harbor, and out came the revisionist works. Roosevelt foe John T. Flynn then wrote The Roosevelt Myth, which accused the late president of getting the United States into war for economic recovery. Revisionist historians such as Charles A. Beard, Charles Callan Tansill, and Harry Elmer Barnes were also promoting rethinking the causes of Pearl Harbor. Tansill alleged in Back Door to War (1953) that crucial intelligence was deliberately withheld from Hawaii and Barnes claimed in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (1953) that the Roosevelt Administration had engaged in multiple cover-ups surrounding Pearl Harbor (Johnson, 57-58). A more compelling work was in 1954, in which Rear Admiral Robert Theobald, who was present at Pearl Harbor, wrote The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor: The Washington Contribution to the Japanese Attack, in which he accused FDR of suppressing intelligence in the name of provoking an attack. More recently, author Robert Stinnett caused a stir when in his book, Day of Deceit (1999), he argued that based on declassified documents FDR knew the attack on Pearl Harbor would occur ahead of time and withheld vital intelligence to Hawaii. What his book contributed most was that the story about radio silence from the Japanese in the weeks preceding the attack was false, and that it was possible for Hawaii to have been warned of an impending attack through the deciphering of the Japanese code, which the Americans had cracked by that time (Bernstein). Whether such deciphering was made in a timely manner or had even made its way to Roosevelt is unknown. Since World War II, there have been numerous declassified documents and there are some things we now know based on them.

What We Know Now
FDR’s Day of Infamy Speech

FDR and Administration officials expected a Japanese attack on December 6th or 7th, but it has not been proven they knew where it would happen.

There was a naval intelligence report sent to FDR three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor that the Japanese military and spy network was focusing on Hawaii (Bedard). This does not necessarily imply knowledge of a coming attack on Hawaii.

Rear Admiral Robert Theobald wrote on November 25, 1941, “The President at once brought up the relations with the Japanese. Mr. Hull said that the Japanese were poised for the attack – that they might attack at any time. The President said that the Japanese were notorious for making an attack without warning and stated that we might be attacked, say next Monday, for example. One problem troubled us very much. If you know your enemy is going to strike you, it is not usually wise to wait until he gets the jump on you by taking the initiative. In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable that the Japanese be the ones to do it so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors” (Hurst, 76-77).

The greatest problem with the Pearl Harbor theory, and in fact one that unless you pretty much accept that Roosevelt is stupid and evil destroys the idea that he knew where the attack would happen, is that so much of the fleet was stationed at Pearl Harbor. If his aim was simply to goad Japan to attack, why take such great damages? Would he not want to be in a better position to win once at war? Roosevelt and military leadership believed that the presence at Pearl Harbor served as a deterrent rather than a target, thinking that American territories closer to Japan (the Philippines and Guam) would be subject to such an attack (Dallek). However, that doesn’t mean there was no intent for war or even no conspiracy.

The Real Conspiracy

Harry Dexter White (left)

President Roosevelt had taken several actions in the months preceding Pearl Harbor that had escalated tensions between Japan and the United States. This included freezing all Japanese assets in the United States on July 26th in response to Japan’s occupation of South Indochina (which had been approved by Vichy France) that had been for the purpose of cutting off oil imports to China, the oil and gas export embargo on August 1st that severely compromised Japan’s oil and gas supply, and finally the November 26th ultimatum. It could be argued that for the former two responses that Roosevelt was either trying to apply economic pressure for Japan to pull back their war machine, or to push the US closer to war. The ultimatum, however, was an uncompromising list of demands in response to a Japanese diplomatic effort to ease tensions between the two nations. FDR had approved this version over a more diplomatic version after he learned of a Japanese expeditionary force heading to Indochina, and the key demands of the final version had been drafted by none other than Soviet agent Harry Dexter White, and it was after this that Japan’s government decided to attack Pearl Harbor (Steil, 55-56). This was a part of a Soviet operation called “Operation Snow”, the purpose of which was to get the US and Japan into war with each other. While FDR’s intentions here are as I noted debatable, the real conspiracy that put the US to war with Japan was on the part of the Soviets eager to avoid the possibility of being attacked by Japan. That’s correct, I mean to say that the immediate cause of the Pearl Harbor attack was the product of a Communist conspiracy. While it is entirely possible that the US and Japan would have ended up going to war anyway, the trigger was, in effect, pulled by the Kremlin.


Bedard, P. (2011, November 29). Declassified Memo Hinted of 1941 Hawaii Attack. US News.

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Bernstein, R. (1999, December 15). ‘Day of Deceit’: On Dec. 7, Did We Know We Knew? The New York Times.

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Dallek, R. Pearl Harbor and the Back Door to War Theory. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Hurst, D. (2004). America’s National Interest: The Politics of Deceit. Florida State University.

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Johnson, T. (1987). What Every Cryptologist Should Know about Pearl Harbor. Cryptologic Quarterly, 6(2)

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No, FDR Did Not Know the Japanese Were Going to Bomb Pearl Harbor. (2016, December 6). National Public Radio.

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Steil, B. (2013). The battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the making of a new world order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Politics of Racial Cooperation: Blanche K. Bruce and Lucius Q.C. Lamar

In the aftermath of the War of the Rebellion, a strange situation arose politically: the presence of both freedmen and ex-Confederates in politics. Not all black politicians had been born into slavery, but many were. The approaches of them differed on suffrage for ex-Confederates, with some fearing their freedoms would be compromised should ex-Confederates be restored suffrage too early and others calling for reconciliation by having everyone enfranchised, and many ex-Confederates agitated (to say the least) for the disenfranchisement of black voters. In the 1870s, both the former vice presidents of the United States and of the Confederacy were serving: Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, a Republican who had once been a Democrat, and Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia, a Democrat who had once been a Whig, like Abraham Lincoln. The first Democrat to be elected to Congress from Mississippi after the war was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (1825-1893) (love that name) in 1872, who had served before the war. He distinguished himself as a reconciliatory figure through his moving tribute in 1874 to the late Senator Charles Sumner, the famous Massachusetts abolitionist. However, Lamar was a believer in white supremacy and opposed black suffrage, at least, during Reconstruction. He had also as a plantation owner once owned 31 slaves.

In 1875, Blanche K. Bruce (1841-1898) was elected to the Senate and was the first black man to serve a full term. Bruce was a man who had escaped slavery and his fellow Mississippi senator, former Confederate General and Republican James Alcorn, refused to escort him per Senate tradition. Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-N.Y.) stepped up to do so instead. This action made Conkling a hero for many blacks, and numerous black boys were subsequently named “Roscoe Conkling”, including Bruce’s son. Bruce would not be troubled by Alcorn’s antagonistic presence for long, as by the next election the Democrats won control over the state legislature, and elected Lamar to the Senate.

Blanche Bruce - Wikipedia
Blanche K. Bruce

Bruce and Lamar served together in the Senate from 1877 to 1881 and despite the latter’s stated belief in white supremacy and opposition to Reconstruction, the two developed a cordial and friendly working relationship in securing legislation and railroad funds for Mississippi. Indeed, Bruce got on better with his white Democratic colleague than he had Alcorn. Bruce won approval from many whites for his moderate Republicanism and support for suffrage for ex-Confederates and on February 14, 1879, he presided over the Senate, the first and only former slave to do so. He stressed that while he was proud to be black, he thought of himself as a senator for both races in Mississippi. Like Lamar, Bruce was a successful plantation owner and would remain so.

The experience of working with Bruce, it turns out, may have had quite an effect on Lamar. In 1879, Lamar participated in a forum in which he supported black suffrage along with James Garfield and James G. Blaine (Crapol, 64). Indeed, race relations seemed to be improving and in 1880 blacks equaled or exceeded whites in turnout in eight Southern states and in all but two Southern states a majority of them voted (Filer, Kenny, & Morton, 371). In fact, while in Grover Cleveland’s cabinet as Interior Secretary he was one of the more open Southerners to black patronage appointments. On January 16, 1888, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court, the first Southern nominee since before the War of the Rebellion. Unfortunately, the times were not moving with Lamar.

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar - Wikipedia
Luicus Q.C. Lamar

Bruce’s successor in 1881 was Democrat James Z. George, the architect of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution that both in practice and intent disenfranchised black men by a poll tax and a literacy test that was administered in a racially discriminatory manner by local election officials. Voter fraud was also ramping up and would be used to gradually push Republicans out of office. One incident in Bolivar County, Mississippi, is described by Dennis J. Mitchell (2014) thusly, “In one instance, when suspicious black election officials hovered too closely over a box so that the Democrats could not substitute their fraudulent one, a Democratic physician among the group went out for food. Coming back with sardines and crackers, he announced that, on this special occasion, blacks and whites could eat together in violation of custom. He had injected croton oil into the black men’s sardines with a hypodermic needle, and when the sick black men rushed from the room, the Democrats switched ballot boxes” (170). In 1890, he spoke out against his state disenfranchising black voters through the adoption of Senator George’s constitution. Alcorn, on the other hand, had participated in drafting the 1890 constitution despite having backed the 14th and 15th Amendments earlier in his career. Lamar had even called for the appointment of a black cabinet member (Wilson). He was eighty years ahead of his time on this one – it wouldn’t happen until 1966 during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. A group of Mississippi leaders in politics and society who aimed to improve race relations in the 1970s would reflect on Lamar’s legacy and hold that his conduct in the 1870s was a good model for Southerners in the 1970s (Wilson). If the politics of Bruce and Lamar had been stuck to perhaps freedom for both races would have prevailed in Mississippi and perhaps even social equality would have come sooner. Unfortunately, greater socioeconomic forces were at work.


Bruce, Blanche K. (1841-1898). New York University of Law.

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Crapol, E.P. (2000). James G. Blaine: architect of empire. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc.

Filer, J.E., Kenny, L.W., & Morton, R.B. (1991, October). Voting Laws, Educational Policies, and Minority Turnout. The Journal of Law and Economics, 34(2).

Former Slave Presides over Senate. U.S. Senate.

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Mitchell, D.J. (2014). A new history of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

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Sansing, D.G. (2017, July 10). Alcorn, James Lusk. Mississippi Encyclopedia.

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Wilson, B. (2017, October 14). L.Q.C. Lamar. Mississippi Encyclopedia.

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Rush Holt: The Boy Senator

In 1934, conservative Republican Senator Henry Hatfield, normally a popular figure, faced an exceptionally young Democratic opponent in Rush Dew Holt Sr. (1905-1955), a member of the House of Delegates who stood out as a populist and a foe of public utility companies. He ran as a staunch proponent of the New Deal and given its popularity and the shift of West Virginia to the Democrats he was able to oust Hatfield. This was despite not being the Constitutionally required age by the start of the term to which he was elected. Holt would have to wait six months before being sworn in, and to this day he is the youngest person ever elected to the Senate. He initially was thought of as to FDR’s left and his early record reflected this perception, but he soon changed. Despite having been raised by a socialist, Holt dramatically departed from the New Deal line starting in 1936. He had also parted ways with his original political benefactor, Senator Matthew Neely, both ideologically and over patronage; Neely had been getting an overwhelming share of the latter to the consternation of Holt. The parting became so bitter that Neely denounced Holt as a “sewer rat” for his turn (Hill).

By DW-Nominate’s measurements, Holt was the fifth most conservative Democrat to serve in either House of Congress between 1857 and 2021 with a score of 0.283. However, the MC-Index places him at a 60%. This can be attributed to his dramatic swing against the New Deal but even more so his uncompromising non-interventionism, the latter of which DW-Nominate seems to have a heavier weight on in the Senate. This was in step with old progressives, who opposed American military adventures in the early 20th century, including President Calvin Coolidge’s now little-known intervention in Nicaragua in the 1920s. Holt not only voted against any effort weakening the Neutrality Acts and against the peacetime draft, but also voted against both the nominations of Henry Stimson as Secretary of War and Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy in 1940, both men interventionist Republicans who managed to get significant Republican support. He also supported higher tariffs, especially on glass, as this was a specialty of West Virginia. Holt seemed to relish his role as a great dissenter, and he earned the spoils of dissenting against one of history’s great men. FDR was still quite popular in West Virginia, and so out of step was he with his party that he came in third in his bid for renomination. Out of the Senate, Holt spoke at America First rallies and got some bad press for trying to publish his book, The British Propaganda Network, through Flanders Hall, a publishing firm that was run from behind the scenes by Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck. Even after Pearl Harbor, he remained resolute in his non-interventionism, declaring in 1942, “Our fight is not over. We must stand guard to see that the internationalists…are not allowed to determine the future of our great country. They would commit us to everlasting wars everywhere” (Coffey, 1-14).

Holt won back his seat in the House of Delegates in 1942 as a Democrat, serving from 1943 to 1949. However, his efforts at higher office were in vain, losing a gubernatorial nomination in 1944 and as late as 1948 he trying to win the party’s nomination for the Senate. By 1949, however, he had figured out that he no longer belonged in the Democratic Party and switched. In 1950, he made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Republican, came close to winning a gubernatorial election in 1952 (running ahead of Eisenhower), and was again elected to the House of Delegates in 1954. However, Holt had little time to savor this final victory, as he tragically lost his battle with cancer on February 8, 1955, only 49 years old. His widow, Helen, would serve in his place and would serve as the state’s secretary of state from 1957 to 1959, the first woman to hold statewide office in West Virginia. Unlike her short-lived husband, Holt lived to the advanced age of 101, dying 60 years after her husband. His son, Rush Jr., served in Congress as a Democrat from New Jersey from 1999 to 2015.

Holt was a man who possessed a powerful mind (he started attending university at 15) but he compromised a promising political career on principle and perhaps a sense of pleasure in being an iconoclast within the Democratic Party. He peaked and died early, possibly short of his full political potential.


Coffey, W.E. (1992). Isolationism and Pacifism: Senator Rush D. Holt and American Foreign Policy. West Virginia History, 51.

Hill, R. (2013, April 14). The Boy Wonder: Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia. The Knoxville Focus.

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Holt, Rush Dew. Voteview.

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Young, R. (2020, June 17). Rush Holt, Sr. “A champion of the common man”. The Weston Democrat.

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The War for the American Mind – Foreign Propaganda in the US From 1939-41

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany commenced their invasion of Poland. The justification was the fabricated Gleiwitz incident the previous day, in which the SS conducted an attack on a German radio station on the German-Polish border disguised as Polish nationalists. Hitler himself stated on such an operation to his generals a week earlier, “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth” (Wirtz, 100). Most people in the United States had no interest in getting into another European war, as they had by and large been disillusioned by World War I. The British sought to change that. British Security Coordination (BSC) was started in 1940 at the behest of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, being employed to influence American opinion towards intervention in World War II. From the very start of his time as Prime Minister, he said in response to his son Randolph how he intended to defeat Nazi Germany, “I shall drag the United States in” (Simkin, BSC). The British wanted a repeat of American intervention in World War I, while the Germans wanted to prevent a repeat. Both nations would use methods legal and illegal in efforts to achieve their aims.

The British Efforts

Sir William Stephenson from 1942 passport.jpg
Sir William Stephenson

The BSC was headed by Canadian Sir William Stephenson, who was officially posted to the United States with the title of Principal Passport Control Officer. His main contact was boxer Gene Tunney, a personal friend of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and also had Ernest Cuneo, the lead brain truster in the Roosevelt Administration, as a contact. Cuneo was even given the codename “Crusader” and passed along intelligence to BSC (Simkin, Cuneo). They aimed to influence the public, the media, and the government. Stephenson provided information to journalist Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who proceeded to write a series of articles why Nazi Germany was a threat to the United States. They also used some people who are now notable literary names, such as Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, in their operations.

Stories were planted in the press, and they made great efforts to influence journalists including Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson. According to author Donald Ritchie (2021), “Winchell swallowed BSC bait whole, printing some of their news stories exactly as the British wrote them. Not so Pearson, who dismayed the propagandists by putting his own interpretation on whatever they gave him. The BSC did not consider Pearson anti-British, but attributed his hostility to his anti-colonialism” (78). The British, it should be understood, were at a significant economic and military disadvantage to the Germans. Germany had twice the workforce of Britain, higher average income, and had spent five times the amount on armaments the British had (Simkin). It was thus vital for the British to get the United States into the war.

The BSC was actively aided by the Roosevelt Administration and aided numerous organizations calling for intervention. These included The League of Human Rights, Freedom and Democracy, and The American Labor Committee to Aid British Labor. The BSC was involved in bringing about the Bases for Destroyers Deal, an impeachable offense for violation of the Neutrality Acts. However, the deal was so favorable to the United States that the political push for Roosevelt’s impeachment never materialized.

In 1940, the BSC’s efforts helped ensure that the Republican ticket that year would be headlined by Wendell Willkie, and this was done through manufactured polling. On June 25th, the New York Herald reported that a poll by Market Analysts, Inc. revealed that 3/5’s of Republicans supported helping allied powers with “everything short of war” (Usdin). The problem here, however, was that Market Analysts was not a neutral firm. It was headed by Sanford Griffith, an intelligence agent for Britain, and it produced time and time again polls that supported intervention in Europe (Usdin). Willkie won the nomination under the belief of the convention delegates that he best represented the feelings of the Republican voters. He was also persuaded not to come out against FDR’s Bases for Destroyers deal by BSC agents. Thus, Britain had removed non-interventionists entirely from a realistic shot at the presidency in 1940.

By April 1941, with public opinion still strongly against intervening in World War II, the BSC figured they needed a more aggressive organization for advocacy and thus Fight for Freedom, Inc. was established by future CIA chief Allen W. Dulles and BSC agent Sydney Morrell. They succeeded in recruiting numerous prominent people into this organization including TIME Magazine’s owner Henry Luce, journalist Joseph Alsop, Senator Carter Glass (D-Va.), future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and FDR’s former budget director Lewis W. Douglas. This organization was particularly big on working to discredit non-interventionist politicians and conducted illegal undercover operations and bogus news stories against them. It was a BSC operation, for instance, to deliver a card by a representative of Fight for Freedom, Inc. to Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) at the end of his non-interventionist speech reading “Der Fuhrer thanks you for your loyalty”, with pictures taken of the embarrassment (Simkin, BSC). The BSC worked overtime to defeat Fish, even creating the “Non-Partisan Committee to Defeat Hamilton Fish”. He would be defeated for reelection in 1944. Senator Gerald Nye (R-N.D.) was another prominent target. After he delivered a non-interventionist speech in September 1941 in Boston, representatives of the BSC handed out handbills claiming he was a Nazi lover and appeaser (Simkin, BSC). Nye would also lose reelection in 1944. The aim was to paint non-interventionists as well as the America First Committee as “Nazi lovers”. Arguably the greatest feat was the BSC’s fabrication of intelligence that historian Thomas Mahl argued led to the effective repeal of the Neutrality Acts.

The BSC commissioned the manufacture of a map purporting to be the German plan to conquer parts of Central and South America, and it was a convincing one. This was the evidence that was delivered to President Roosevelt and on October 27th, 1941, he announced to the public, “I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler’s government, by planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and part of Central America as Hitler proposes to organize it” (Simkin, BSC). Helping events was the sinking of the U.S. destroyer Reuben James, which was escorting convoys to Britain, on October 31st. . This was reminiscent of the genuine Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917 that was instrumental in pushing the US into entering the war on the Allied side, in which the German Foreign Office promised Mexico recovery of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas if it allied with them and they won. The final dismantling of the Neutrality Acts occurred thereafter, as the legislation to permit U.S. ships to enter belligerent ports would become law on November 17th .

The effectiveness of British propaganda was so good that the idea of people and groups that didn’t want America in World War II being pro-Nazi sticks in the minds of some to this day. This is not to say, however, that no politicians or activists had pro-Nazi attitudes. Indeed, as I will illustrate there were a few who even collaborated in German propaganda efforts.

The German Efforts

Portrait of Viereck, by Underwood & Underwood, 1922
George Sylvester Viereck

The key figure in the effort to spread Nazi Germany’s propaganda to the United States, their counterpart to Sir William Stephenson, was German-American propagandist and poet George Sylvester Viereck, a registered German agent. Viereck had long fancied himself as a cultural ambassador for Germany in the United States and had written propaganda for Germany in World War I. He was particularly useful for marketing for Germany as he was in truth mildly critical of anti-Semitism but deluded himself into regarding it as an incidental rather than a central feature of Nazism. The Nazis knew that Kristallnacht had not been popular in America, thus Viereck’s focus would be to spread anti-British propaganda: criticism of Britain’s foreign policies as well as of their propaganda.

Flanders Hall: From Berlin to the US

Viereck founded, with the Hauck brothers being the official heads of the firm, Flanders Hall in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. This was a publishing firm that concealed from public view its Nazi funding and mostly selected works from the German Library of Information and distributed them in America. Most of the authors were either German or German-American and often used pseudonyms. These works included the highly popular Lord Lothian vs. Lord Lothian, officially authored by Senator Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota but ghostwritten by Viereck, which pointed out contradictions in the pro and anti-Nazi speeches from Britain’s ambassador to the United States, who had been pro-Nazi before he read Mein Kampf (Mahl, 157). They also provided critiques of British policies in Ireland, India, and on their strategy of blockading Germany during World War I. Another book, The 100 Families That Rule the Empire (1941) by Giselher Wirsing, was reported by Flanders Hall to be boosted by several non-interventionist senators and representatives (Allen & Pearson, 1941). The title was based on America’s 60 Families (1937) by Ferdinand Lundberg, which had charged that the U.S. was a plutocracy of these families and called for scrapping the U.S. Constitution in favor of a parliamentary system. Wirsing, it turns out, was not only a member of the Nazi Party but also held rank in the SS. A book that attracted some scandal was We Must Save the Republic, as its author, Congressman Stephen A. Day (R-Ill.), son of Supreme Court Justice William R. Day, had used Flanders Hall, apparently with his eyes open as to its connections, to publish it. Former non-interventionist Senator Rush Holt (D-W.V.) also had been in negotiations with Flanders Hall to publish his book critical of British propaganda titled appropriately, The British Propaganda Network before it was shut down.

The Franking Scheme

Viereck sought to use Congress as a machine with which to distribute propaganda against intervention. He had made his way in Washington’s social circles and through knowing Congressman Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), he met one of his secretaries, George Hill. The two concocted a scheme to distribute anti-British propaganda through the Congressional frank. For those not in the know, the franking privilege is that members of Congress get to use the mail free of charge. They would get members of Congress to speak against involvement in World War II and distribute these speeches through the frank. Hill would use the justification that it was for the Order of the Purple Heart (a veterans group of which he headed a chapter in New York) for the mailers to members of Congress (Hoke, 28-30). Given that non-interventionist members of Congress saw themselves as patriots, how could they refuse if it was a veterans organization behind it? This was an illegal scheme, and although Viereck had registered as a German agent, the scope of his activities was not disclosed, such as the establishing of Flanders Hall. They also managed to get a several members of Congress as patsies for them. Reps. Jacob Thorkelson (R-Mont.) and Lewis Thill (R-Wis.), for instance, inserted Nazi propaganda into the Congressional Record. However, the most in-depth case was that of Senator Ernest Lundeen.

The Case of Senator Lundeen

Ernest Lundeen, Farmer-Labor Candidate for U.S. Senate" | MNopedia

In 1917, Minnesota’s Ernest Lundeen had as a Republican representative voted against American participation in World War I, which had cost him renomination in 1918. The times had changed by the 1930s and criticism of World War I was more normalized, with him being elected to the Senate from the Farmer-Labor Party in 1936. He was determined to prevent the US from going down the same path a second time, and went the greatest length of any senator to do so.

Lundeen didn’t shy away from associations with George Sylvester Viereck, the leading propaganda agent the Nazis had in the US who specialized in promoting anti-British sentiment. In fact, Viereck even wrote some of his Senate speeches, and he may have paid Lundeen to allow him to do so. He also was made the chair of the Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee to promote anti-British sentiment in the US. Lundeen’s role was pretty much honorary on this committee, as it was Viereck pulling the strings as he did with Flanders Hall. On August 31, 1940, he boarded a plane with two FBI agents on board, supposedly there to tail Lundeen. However, this plane crashed with all on board killed in what was at that time the worst air disaster in American history. There has been speculation that the plane was sabotaged, but the FBI investigation produced no conclusion.

Overall, the British efforts proved much more successful of course than Germany’s, but Germany had a capable propagandist in Viereck and the American public was not wanting to go to war again. What ultimately won out though was the superiority of Britain’s propaganda and intelligence efforts.


Allen, R. & Pearson, D. (1941, August 30). The Daily Washington Merry-Go-Round. Suffolk News-Herald.

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Eisele, A. (2009, September 3). Death of senator from Minnesota still shrouded in mystery. MinnPost.

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Hoke, H. (1944). Black mail. New York, NY: Reader’s Book Service, Inc.

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Johnson, N.M. (1968). George Sylvester Viereck: Poet and Propagandist. University of Iowa.

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Mahl, T.E. (1998). Desperate deception: British cover operations in the United States: 1939-44. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books.

Ritchie, D.A. (2021). The columnist: leaks, lies, and libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Simkin, J. (2020, January). British Security Coordination. Spartacus Educational.

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Simkin, J. (2020, January). Ernest Cuneo. Spartacus Educational.

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U.S. At War: Sloppy Citizenship. (1942, November 16). TIME Magazine.

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Usdin, S. (2017, January 16). When a Foreign Government Interfered in a U.S. Election – to Reelect FDR. Politico.

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Wirtz, J.J., & Godson, R. (2002). Strategic denial and deception: the twenty-first century challenge. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Texas Legends #13: Omar T. Burleson

Omar Burleson - Wikipedia

Many of the Texas Democrats who won their first elections in the 1940s were a more conservative breed than past ones, and Omar Truman Burleson (1906-1991) was another example. Elected in 1946, he had previously been an FBI agent as well as secretary to his predecessor, Sam Russell. The freshmen who accompanied Burleson were Joseph F. Wilson, Tiger Teague, Wingate Lucas, and Kenneth Regan and of these people he was in fact one of the more moderate people in his first few sessions of Congress and was a strong supporter of President Truman’s foreign aid programs. He was also active in bringing electricity, airports, and military bases to his district (Hardin-Simmons University). However, Burleson moved firmly into the conservative camp during the Kennedy Administration and proved a staunch opponent of the Great Society, voting against the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and Medicare. Although he didn’t sign the Southern Manifesto, he also didn’t support a single civil rights measure during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Burleson was an active member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and resisted rising to chairmanship in that committee as he knew he’d have to lend his support to foreign aid packages, which he had been voting against after the Truman years given his rural constituency’s dislike of such measures. On at least one occasion, however, he voted strategically – on July 14, 1966, he voted against Rep. E. Ross Adair’s (R-Ind.) motion to recommit the Foreign Assistance Act of 1966 to cut funds, which was anticipated to be close, and it failed 191-193. On the very next vote, Burleson voted against the foreign aid bill that passed easily. This pleased both the Democratic leadership and his constituents. He transferred to the House Ways and Means Committee in the 91st Congress.

As chairman of the House Committee on Administration from 1955 to 1969, he did his duties quietly and diligently and that his behavior contrasted with his successor’s indicated his lack of inclination to seek power. His successor, Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), used this position to become one of the most powerful members of Congress, creating “a formidable base of personal power from which he tyrannizes the House” (Burka & Smith). For Burleson to seek power in the 1970s he would have needed to be more compromising on conservatism, which he was just not willing to do. At this time, he was really just a conservative backbencher who wanted to vote his conscience and no more, and resigned on December 31, 1978 as did a number of other members that year to take advantage of a change in pension law. Burleson’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 76%, which reflected a moderate record from 1947 to 1961, and a solidly conservative record after. He was ultimately one of the people, along with O.C. Fisher and Tiger Teague, to be part of the shift of Texas to conservatism.


Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.

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Omar Burleson Dies. (1991, May 16). The Washington Post.

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Omar Truman Burleson. Hardin-Simmons University.

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Rakich, N. (2018, January 29). We’ve Never Seen Congressional Resignations Like This Before. FiveThirtyEight.

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To Recommit H.R. 15750, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1966, with instructions to reduce from 2 years to 1 all authorizations except for Development Loan Fund and for the Alliance for Progress and to reduce the amount for development assistance. Govtrack.

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To Pass H.R. 15750, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1966. Govtrack.

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The Democrats: A DW-Nominate Story, 1857-2021.

I posted about the Republicans and DW-Nominate last time, now it is the Democrats’ turn and the story told about them is much more complicated. The Democratic Party was in its heyday a party that presumably stood for the working man (provided he was white), against big business interests, and for tariffs for revenue only instead of protection. It was indeed Democrats who primarily opposed land grants to railroads and would be the greater supporters of inflationary currency. Their understanding of the role of government was from their start until the 1890s a Jacksonian one, that the state governments could be used as a check on the power of business and were the best protectors of liberty rather than the federal government. Indeed, Democrats preferred state to federal courts in rulings on big businesses as the former were less favorable to them than the latter in practice. However, the rise of the Populist Party and William Jennings Bryan challenged this traditional practice and the Democratic Party became more favorable to active federal intervention, which was first practiced on a wide scale among Democratic Presidents by Woodrow Wilson.

The results of DW-Nominate are odd to our modern conceptions. It portrays at their most “liberal” from 1867 to 1901 in the Senate, and the current period ties with the late 19th century in levels of liberalism in the House. For the House, the most liberal period was apparently 1865-1921. The most conservative period for House Democrats was 1923-1965, when they never hit a -0.3 average. The period we are in now with House Democrats is a second rising of liberalism, with this being true to a lesser degree in the Senate. This sounds strange given the party’s direction during the New Deal, but the 1930s and 1940s was the period when the Southern members grew much more conservative and people who registered as more conservative by DW-Nominate were getting elected. This is an odd narrative that this data seems to tell, as the most liberal periods for both the House and Senate coincided with the rise of the Bourbon Democrats, who have conservative reputations and with some justification. My MC-Index certainly gives more credit to Bourbons for conservatism than this measurement does, however there were two areas in which they were distinctly opposed to Republicans: tariffs and imperialism. One of the oddest cases, which I have written about before, was that of Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who DW-Nominate finds to be the most conservative Democrat in the Roosevelt years despite public perception of him and some of the votes he cast on key issues. The Democratic Party really was evolving in a strange way: although initially the party of a Jefferson-Jackson conception of limited government as a way to counter the growing force of big business interests and to help the working class the methods began to change with the Wilson presidency. However, Democrats even in the Cleveland Era were willing to establish the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate major business.

Although Woodrow Wilson was a Southerner by birth and attitude on racial issues, with this helping keep Southerners in, FDR was a different story as he engaged in even more permanent expansions of the federal government. This was the point in which the Southern wing became distinctly more conservative than the Northern wing, particularly with the latter’s increasing acceptance of blacks in their ranks. Northern Democrats that chose to remain conservative often found themselves primaried or defeated by a Republican. The issue of race, frankly, did not start to become left-right ideologically until after World War II. Before it was regional and there was some crossover between region and left-right ideology after the war, but when it came to matters such as employment and housing discrimination, the most conservative of Republicans took the side of business and property owners, which given the origin of many of the early Republicans as Whigs adds up. The Democrats, standing as the party of the working class, used different means to support said class over time. The alliance between civil rights activists and labor that was forged after World War II was in truth a gargantuan accomplishment, as protection from competition was at one time a justification for regressive laws on the subject of race, such as bans on immigration based on race. President Nixon briefly revived the conflict with his proposed Philadelphia Plan that I covered before, but this was at this point no more than a notable blip in the alliance. The Democratic story told by DW-Nominate is odd and my system certainly has significant disagreements with it, but it does at least spell that the Democrats were not even close to as conservative back then as thought.

The GOP: A DW-Nominate History

It is widely reported that the GOP has grown far more conservative in the last forty years, and although this is undoubtedly true, to what extent is it so? What’s more, how does it compare to the party’s history? At some point I will have an MC-Index scale for this, but I am still working on it. In the meantime, I have the one and only scale currently available to fulfill this purpose, DW-Nominate.

The GOP first starts appearing as a legislative party in the 35th Congress (1857-59) so I’ll start there. For those still unfamiliar with DW-Nominate, the scale is between -1 and 1, with the former being most liberal and the latter being most conservative. The lowest score for the GOP in the House was in the 90th Congress (1967-69), in which the average was 0.243. This made them a moderately conservative party overall. The highest? Why that would be the last Congress! The score was 0.503. This makes them an ultra-conservative party and on average over 100% more conservative than they were fifty-two years before. The lowest score for the GOP for the Senate was back in the 37th Congress (1861-63), at 0.2. The highest for the Senate was also the last Congress, the average being a 0.498. Thus, the average Republican in the House in the last session was as conservative as Samuel Devine (R-Ohio) in the 90th Congress, who was the 7th most conservative Republican in that session! The best representative of the average Republican of the 90th Congress in the last Congress is Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), and many Republicans are rather unhappy with him to say the least. There are a few caveats to be aware of here, however, before we take this as “objective truth” and I’m pretty sure I’ve gone over this before, but I feel its worth repeating.

First, most of the people who served in the last Congress are continuing to serve! Thus, their scores are subject to go up and down over time. Second, the DW-Nominate counts what are called “first dimension” votes. These are issues that fundamentally split left-right and excludes certain lifestyle and regional issues, and this constitutes most votes. Thus, votes on the subject of slavery would be splits between slave and free states, and counted as second dimension issues as it is fundamentally regional. Third, this is a quantitative rather than a qualitative measure. Thus, if there are two votes in a session of Congress on the income tax and, say, fifty on tariffs, guess what’s going to be weighed a lot heavier? Would it also not be true that there would be a bit of an imbalance how the House and Senate are weighted if the Senate casts fifty votes on tariffs given the chamber’s set up as being the one of greater deliberation and debate while the House casts two? Fourth, a lot of procedural votes get counted, which means that partisanship gets mixed in with ideological judgments and may obscure some more significant differences. And fifth, and this is more of an issue of public understanding and perception than anything else, there is an issue of translatability of past issues to modern day. However, thanks to a few transitional long-serving figures, this isn’t as great of a problem as you might think and can be overcome through examination of the subject, of which I can help!

All this being said, DW-Nominate is in fact quite good at distinguishing moderate-liberal Republicans from conservatives, and its overall validity over time was recently once again reaffirmed to me when I looked back to the 1st Congress and found as the most conservative in the House to be Fisher Ames of Massachusetts. Look up Ames and you will find a rigidly conservative, nationalistic, and capitalistic Federalist with a deep-seated fear of anything that had the appearance of radicalism. This included Jeffersonian democracy.

Comparable Era

Although this is not as conservative an era for Republicans as the past twelve years, it is the closest comparison: The Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In the 51st Congress, for the first time, the Republican average went above 0.4. The Senate would not achieve the same feat until the 58th Congress due to a higher number in proportion of Republicans who supported inflationary silver for currency. From the 58th (1903-05) to the 66th (1919-21) Congresses, both the Republican House and Senate would be above 0.4. This was despite efforts of Theodore Roosevelt to move the party in a moderately progressive direction. By the mid-1920s, however, Republicans in both Houses had moved to an average of below 0.4 and it would take the House Republicans until the 105th Congress (1997-99) to go above and Senate Republicans until the 111th Congress (2011-13) to do so. In fact, the party would be below 0.3 in both Houses from 1947 to 1981.

This is, bear in mind, one measure of how to determine ideology and it emphasizes party crossover a bit less than I do, as I use key votes that are designed to highlight differences between liberal and conservative wings of the parties.

A More Conservative Party?

Although Republicans made a record in the last Congress for conservatism and may exceed it in this one by DW-Nominate, they are not the most conservative major party. That would be the Federalist Party. The Senate Federalists never scored below a 0.528 average, and the House Federalists didn’t score below a 0.5 until their last three Congresses. However, be warned, conservatives, for this party DIED!

To do some data research of your own, go here:

“Socialism, Communism, Devilism”: The Strange History of the Income Tax from 1861-1913

Income Tax to Fund the War of the Rebellion & Post-War Developments

In the first year of the War of the Rebellion, it became clear that the current and accepted methods of taxation were insufficient to fund the war effort. Republicans were strongly supportive of higher tariffs, but they were not doing the trick. So Representative Justin S. Morrill (R-Vt.) proposed the nation’s first income tax. Although as law professor Sheldon D. Pollack (2013) notes, “Unsurprisingly, conservative Republicans in the Northeast adamantly opposed the impost. Despite this opposition, a majority of Republicans eventually acquiesced to this “odious” tax based on the need to fund the Union war effort” (1). This was also considered to be by them the best option they had. A leading alternative that was considered unacceptable to them was a land tax. As future Speaker and Vice President Schuyler Colfax (R-Ind.) stated, it was the “most odious tax of all we can levy” (Pollack, 7). At the time of the rebellion, the income tax was already in existence in England and this was used as a model for what the US adopted. To not have adopted an additional method of revenue collection would have guaranteed the end of the United States. The 1861 law, however, lacked an effective enforcement mechanism and this was corrected with a stronger measure the next year and the taxation progressive despite the objections of sponsor Justin Morrill (R-Vt.). In 1864, taxes were increased as the revenue provided in the 1862 law was insufficient to cover war expenses. Taxes on numerous commodities were also imposed in these revenue acts. However, the income tax was widely regarded as to fund war and the conservative wing of the GOP in New England was keen on its repeal after the war’s end.

In 1870, Representative James A. Garfield (R-Ohio) proposed making tax information private, and this rule against publicity was signed into law as part of the Revenue Act of 1870, which extended the income tax through 1871. He would also denounce in his writings progressive income tax rates, holding them to be “unconstitutional and communistic” (Shepard, 144). This would become increasingly objectionable to progressives and there would be efforts during the 1920s and 1930s to publicize wealthy taxpayer information. Garfield’s proposal was indicative of both where the GOP was and where it was heading.

However, there was ideological crossover on the issue. Constitutional history professor Paul D. Moreno (2013) notes, “The income tax issue was no simply masses-versus-the-classes dispute. Before the 1890s, socialists had condemned it, while laissez-faire doyen William Graham Sumner defended it. Classical liberals preferred the income tax to the redistributive tariff, and some tariff advocates (particularly John Sherman) regarded the income tax as a way to preserve the tariff – as a kind of sop or palliative to prevent a radical change in public finance. Congressman Uriel S. Hall of Missouri called it “a measure to kill anarchy and keep down socialists”” (42). This was an early version of the argument FDR’s supporters would use for the New Deal, that it was a killer of rather than a road to socialism.

The Sherman Switch

Bureau of Engraving and Printing portrait of Sherman as Secretary of the Treasury

Perhaps the best person to use as an example of the changing politics surrounding the income tax was Senator John Sherman of Ohio. He was a key figure in economic debates of the late 19th century as a senator and as Rutherford B. Hayes’ Treasury Secretary and valued stability. His policy preferences, even as they shifted, reflected this. In 1870, Sherman called for a retention of a small yet flat income tax at least for the time being to politically protect the tariff system that the GOP stood for. He was concerned, as noted earlier by Moreno, that a radical push to overhaul this system could arise in the absence of the income tax, stating “The income tax expires with the collection of the tax of 1871…A few years of further experience will convince the body of our people that a system of national taxes which rests the whole burden of taxation on consumption, and not one cent on property or income, is intrinsically unjust. While the expenses of the national Government are largely caused by the protection of property, it is but right to require property to contribute to their payment” (Pollack, 21-22). However, Sherman didn’t win this battle, with the income tax’s sunset per the Revenue Act of 1870 occurring at the end of 1871. Income taxes were to be left entirely up to the states. This law also repealed the inheritance tax, a reflection of the GOP’s fervently capitalist perspective.

Despite his 1870 argument, Sherman would by 1894 come to see things differently. He responded to the Democratic income tax measure contained in the Wilson-Gorman Tariff thusly, “In a republic like ours, where all men are equal, this attempt to array the rich against the poor or the poor against the rich is socialism, communism, devilism” (Shepard, 144).

The Democrats Oppose, Then Push for Income Taxes

Democrats opposed the income tax in the 1860s and 1870s as they wanted even more equitable means of taxation, including a “equal taxation of every species of property, according to its real value” (The American Presidency Project). However, after the end of Reconstruction, Democrats were calling for a reinstatement of the income tax. One proposal to report an income tax bill failed under suspension of the rules 165-89 (D 111-21; R 52-68; ID 2-0) of February 4, 1878. Among the nays were future presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley. The following year an income tax failed again under suspension of the rules, this time it was on a vote of 111-94 (D 92-10; R 6-84; G 9-0; ID 4-0) on May 12th.

Although Professor Moreno noted that socialists denounced the income tax before the 1890s, the Socialist Labor Party in fact called for a graduated income tax in 1887. The Populist Party followed suit in 1892, and the Democrats, pushed by Representatives William Jennings Bryan (D-Neb.) and Benton McMillin (D-Tenn.), got into law a 2% income tax for individuals with income above $4000 a year and a 2% tax on income and profits for all for-profit entities in the United States, the “socialism, communism, devilism” that Sherman spoke of. Indeed, the law fundamentally applied only to the rich, and the very rich at that. Senate Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to kill the provision on June 28, 1894, which was defeated 23-40 (R 20-6; D 3-31; P 0-3). The “yea” votes included Sherman himself and the elderly Justin Morrill (R-Vt.) who had authored the first income tax legislation. However, this tax was struck down as unconstitutional in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. (1895) as the majority regarded it as an unconstitutional unapportioned “direct tax” rather than a constitutional tax equally apportioned among the states. This decision was 5-4 and deeply unpopular at the time. Conservatives would pull out all the stops to try to prevent a reinstatement of the income tax. However, by this time most Democrats had come around to an income tax and moderate Republicans were increasingly embracing it, one of them being Theodore Roosevelt. I have already covered Senator Nelson Aldrich’s (R-R.I.) backfiring scheme to prevent an income tax by making it a constitutional amendment, and after that failure the Underwood Tariff of 1913 established firmly the nation’s first permanent income tax. The overall legislation met the approval of most Democrats and the opposition of most Republicans, for reasons surrounding both reduced tariffs and the establishment of the income tax.


1868 Democratic Party Platform. The American Presidency Project.

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IRS History Timeline. (2019, March). IRS.

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Moreno, P.D. (2013). The American state from the Civil War to the New Deal: the twilight of constitutionalism and the triumph of progressivism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pollack, S.D. (2013, October 25). The First National Income Tax, 1861-1872. University of Delaware.

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Shepard, C.M. (2010). The Civil War income tax and the Republican party, 1861-1872. New York, NY: Algora Publishing.

The Origins of Republican Tax Policy. SUNY Press.

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To Amend H.R. 4864 By Eliminating All Sections Relating to the Income Tax. Govtrack.

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To Suspend the Rules and Adopt a Resolution Providing That the Ways and Means Committee be Instructed to Report a Bill Imposing a Graduated Tax Upon the Excess of Income Above a Reasonable Minimum Fixed Law. (1878, February 4). Govtrack.

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To Suspend Rules and Pass H.R. 1997, A Bill Restoring an Income Tax. (1879, May 12). Govtrack.

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