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Paul V. McNutt and the Age of FDR

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In this major biography of an important politician and statesman, Dean Kotlowski presents the life of Paul V. McNutt, a great understudied figure in the era of FDR. McNutt was governor of Indiana, high commissioner to the Philippines (while serving he helped 1,300 Jews flee Nazi Germany for Manila), head of the WWII Federal Security Agency, and would-be presidential candidate. Paul V. McNutt and the Age of FDR explores McNutt’s life, his era, and his relationship with Franklin Roosevelt. It sheds light on the expansion of executive power at the state level during the Great Depression, the theory and practice of liberalism as federal administrators understood it in the 1930s and 1940s, the mobilization of the American home front during World War II, and the internal dynamics of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. McNutt’s life underscores the challenges and changes Americans faced during an age of economic depression, global conflict, and decolonialization.

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Introduction: A Man, an Era, and a President

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INTRODUCTION
A Man, an Era, and a President

The tall, tanned, and strikingly handsome man at the podium had perspiration on his face, and his mouth was tightly drawn, almost in a frown. His seriousness contrasted with the animation of his audience, who cheered him on. He appealed for calm, but the crowd would not allow him to speak. When at last he articulated his words, his brief remarks disappointed his supporters. Paul V. McNutt was withdrawing his name from consideration for vice president. It was the most dramatic moment of McNutt’s political life. The date was July 18, 1940, and the setting was America’s second-largest city—Chicago, site of many political gatherings. McNutt was standing before delegates to the national convention of the Democratic Party.

The significance of that moment in 1940 would not emerge for some time. McNutt never became vice president of the United States. And the chief object of his soaring ambition— the White House—would elude him forever. Although McNutt never became president, he was a presence on the national political stage from the late 1920s until his death in 1955. In fact, over the first half of the twentieth century, few politicians possessed a more diverse résumé.   

1. “I See . . . a Great Future” (1891–1913)

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1

“I SEE . . . A GREAT FUTURE”

(1891–1913)

Paul Vor ies McNutt was born on July 19, 1891, and he was running for the

White House the second “his umbilical cord was severed.”1 That was what his critics alleged later on. The truth was much more complicated. “He was a smart boy,” John Crittenden McNutt, his father, remembered, “but we never thought he might be President.”2 Ruth Neely McNutt, Paul’s mother, saw her first and only offspring as a “child of destiny,” although not necessarily bound for the

White House.3 Indeed, as her son launched his campaign to succeed President

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ruth had trouble remembering the precise time of Paul’s birth. It had occurred around four o’clock in the afternoon, but the difficulty of the labor seemingly had clouded her memory. “Too bad,” Ruth related, “we did not foresee the possibility of sometime needing to know the exact time.”4

On one level, there was something commonplace about the young McNutt.

Paul was the scion of a middle-income family residing in the middle section of a midwestern state. As a boy and young man, he sought to be part of a group.

 

2. New Departures, Old Haunts (1913–1925)

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2

NEW DEPARTURES, OLD HAUNTS

(1913–1925)

Fr eshly gr a duated from India na Universit y, Paul V. McNutt was ready to leave the Hoosier State, though not permanently. In the half-dozen years following graduation, McNutt left his native state for two extended periods, first to attend Harvard Law School and second to join the army in World

War I. From those two pivotal experiences, McNutt began to emerge as a man of the nation, if not the world. He entered that exclusive club of Americans who has not only a college education, but a degree from Harvard as well. Association with that school’s name helped to launch McNutt’s career as a law professor and a dean. The Great War had an even greater impact. It focused and kept McNutt’s attention on issues of international relations, national defense, and patriotic service, even though, as fate would have it, he never saw combat overseas. On a more personal level, the war, in an unexpected way, allowed McNutt to “grow up”—that is, to meet his future wife and to begin a family of his own.

 

3. Triumph and Tragedy (1925–1926)

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3

TRIUMPH AND TR AGEDY

(1925–1926)

As Paul M c Nutt’s frustr ation in Bloomington grew, so too did his dreams of escape. He found some diversion playing cards with a few acquaintances in a loft above Bloomington’s Princess Theater. The players all belonged to the local American Legion, which McNutt joined in 1919. As his friends bantered, McNutt drifted off. He would at times emerge from his daydreaming to comment, offhandedly: “It would be kind of nice to be president of the United

States, wouldn’t it?”1 That remark was surely more illustrative of his itch to do something—anything—important than indicative of any pending campaign for the White House.

In the 1920s, McNutt could only dream about occupying elected office, the presidency or otherwise. He was, after all, a Democrat during a time of Republican dominance. The reformist energies associated with the Progressive Era had exhausted themselves by 1920, allowing Warren G. Harding, an orthodox, conservative Republican, to win the presidency. Braced by a generally booming economy, the Grand Old Party (GOP) retained control of the White House in the elections of 1924 and 1928. A similar trend prevailed in Indiana, where

 

4. The Legion and Leadership (1926–1928)

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4

THE LEGION AND LEADERSHIP

(1926–1928)

Dur ing the 1920s, Paul M c Nutt was involved in politics of almost every sort—except the electoral variety. He played academic politics when he wrested the deanship of the Indiana University law school from Charles M. Hepburn.

He coped with family politics, navigating between his wife’s Christian Science faith and his daughter’s illness while accepting assistance, financial and otherwise, from both his parents and his father-in-law. In addition, McNutt became engaged in veterans’ and interest-group politics via the American Legion. Before winning elected office in 1932, he had seen how power could be secured, exercised, and used in a variety of relationships and settings.

The American Legion was special to McNutt. In terms of self-fulfillment, McNutt’s service as a dean at IU never matched his experience in the Legion. The

Legion embodied McNutt’s ideals, honored his past as a soldier, and pointed toward a future beyond Bloomington. It allowed veterans of World War I to continue their soldierly associations and to celebrate their patriotism without the racial, religious, and ethnic exclusivity of the Ku Klux Klan, which had reemerged a force during the 1920s. The American Legion was also thoroughly of, although not limited to, Indiana, where the organization enjoyed widespread support and built its national headquarters. For many men, it was a fraternity— a male-only space where the many convened, discussed, and socialized while

 

5. National Vistas, State Elections (1929–1932)

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5

NATIONAL VISTAS, STATE ELECTIONS

(1929–1932)

As nationa l com m a nder of the American Legion, Paul V. McNutt saw his life change, dramatically and permanently. Holding this office, as one of

McNutt’s staunchest supporters in the Legion emphasized, transformed one into a national figure.1 Kathleen McNutt noticed this change at once, and she disliked it. As reporters and photographers gathered around the newly elected commander, Kathleen walked past the correspondents, approached Paul, and then asked him: “Honey, can’t I even kiss you anymore?”2

Commanding the American Legion in the late 1920s, like serving in the army a decade earlier, widened McNutt’s vistas. His speechmaking continued, but his audiences were larger. The raised platform on which McNutt now stood allowed him to refine his thinking on topics from patriotic service to veterans’ benefits to national defense. On that last issue, he would challenge a president of the United States. In fact, it was during the late 1920s and early 1930s that

 

6. A New Deal for Indiana (1933–1934)

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6

A NEW DEAL FOR INDIANA

(1933–1934)

The inaugur ation of Paul V. M c Nutt as governor of Indiana, on

January 9, 1933, was an occasion brimming with pomp and circumstance, with promises of change and renewal. The Indiana Daily Student dubbed it “the most colorful and elaborate inaugural ceremony” in two decades.1 Front and center was the American Legion, with a band attired in Kelly green uniforms playing in tribute to its former national commander. Spectators at this inauguration could purchase army-style medallions featuring McNutt’s portrait. In a nod, perhaps, to the incoming governor’s literary sensibilities, Meredith Nicholson, the best-selling novelist and a lifelong Democrat, officiated at the inaugural ceremony. And, in an apparent swipe against the Ku Klux Klan, a Catholic priest delivered the benediction.2

The festivities commenced with a blare of trumpets by the National Guard and a presentation of the colors of Bloomington’s Burton Woolery Post, which

McNutt once had commanded, and of the 366th Field Artillery Reserves, in which McNutt served as a colonel. A “piercing wind” ripped through decorations as a drum cohort paced along Senate Avenue to keep warm.3 At noon, spectators saw their governor—tall, slim, erect, and attired in a morning coat and a wing-tipped collar—take his official oath. McNutt’s intonation of “I do,” at the end of his oath, struck one reporter as “firm.”4 “Picturesque” was how the Indianapolis News, a Republican newspaper, described the ceremony.5 The

 

7. “Hoosier Hitler” (1935–1936)

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"HOOSIER HITLER” (1935–1936)
By the mid-1930s, Paul V. McNutt had emerged as a nationally known politician who was capable of inspiring awe as well as angst. In 1935 a Hoosier traveling through Ohio and Kentucky claimed that everyone had heard of“Indiana’s wonderful Governor.”

1 Yet not everyone was enamored of McNutt.Louis Howe, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s oldest political adviser, heard complaints about McNutt’s reorganization and patronage policies. “Various” Democrats in Indiana, he warned the governor, “do not love you as much as they might.”

2 Looking ahead to Roosevelt’s reelection campaign, Howe worried about factionalism in Indiana politics, which he characterized as peculiarly “complicated,” “impossible” to fathom, and, generally speaking, “a mess.”

3 To encourage the Hoosier Democrats to become more united, Howe held “several talks” with the governor.

4 But McNutt never reconciled with his former ally, R. EarlPeters.In 1935 and 1936, the formula of McNutt’s life was two parts Indiana and one part national politics. He had a legislature to lead, a machine to tend, and a strike in Terre Haute to resolve. McNutt’s handling of the last of these proved controversial, providing fodder to critics and earning the governor a nickname—“Hoosier Hitler”—that was as unfortunate as it was alliterative.   

8. Breaking Away (1937–1938)

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8

BREAKING AWAY

(1937–1938)

As 1937 opened, Paul V. M c Nutt found himself in a strange but not entirely unique position. Like many Americans, he was out of a job, a victim of

Indiana’s constitution rather than the forces of market capitalism. So, for the first time in a decade, he was free to contemplate what he might do next. There was talk of his opening a law office in Indianapolis. But what he really wanted was a spot in the cabinet of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he thought that his record, his support for the president in the election of 1936, and the victory of the Hoosier Democratic Party that fall merited such a reward.1 Some observers speculated that McNutt, because of his leadership of the American Legion, would be named secretary of war.2 When a fellow governor asked about the rumor, McNutt “waved his cigar” and declared: “It depends on me and only on me.”3 In truth, McNutt had to wait for his assignment from President Roosevelt, and it would not be the War Department. In the meantime, Louise McNutt came up with a tart reply to queries about her father’s future: “I think he is going on relief.”4

 

9. Humanitarian—and Home (1937–1939)

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HUM ANITARIAN—AND HOME

(1937–1939)

The circumsta nces th at brought Paul V. McNutt to, and kept him in, the Philippines wound up saving lives. Between 1937 and 1939, the United

States high commissioner helped approximately 1,300 Jews secure visas to flee

Nazi Germany and resettle in Manila. The story, including McNutt’s part in it, is important, for it revises the argument that the United States government used

“paper walls,” that is, bureaucratic rules, regulations, and various decrees, to prevent Jewish refugees from reaching American shores in the 1930s, and then

“abandoned” European Jewry to Hitler’s Holocaust during World War II.1 It also reveals another dimension of the career of the powerful governor reviled by organized labor as the “Hoosier Hitler.”2

The portrait of McNutt that emerges is one of a practical politician who, for a variety of reasons, became the instrumental force behind making Manila a haven for refugees. McNutt had developed sympathy for the persecuted. He then reacted to the pleas for assistance from Jewish leaders and exploited unique circumstances to open the Philippines to refugees. McNutt, on one level, was idealistic—someone who believed in a tolerant America, where citizens were defined by their patriotic service rather than their national origin, religion, race, or creed. Yet, on another, more realistic level, he was aware of sinister forces that threatened this vision, at home and abroad. McNutt believed in meeting

 

10. Paul V. and Franklin D. (1939–1940)

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Paul V. and Franklin D. (1939–1940)

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ship of the FSA will be covered in chapter 12.) The Hoosier did not know it, but his return to Indianapolis marked the beginning of the end of his political career. vvv

The selection of McNutt to run the Federal Security Agency bewildered many observers. Most of the confusion was expressed by journalists, who read the choice either as an endorsement by the president of McNutt’s ambition, as a Roosevelt-style experiment to determine whether McNutt might make a suitable running mate in 1940, or as a Machiavellian attempt to bury the Hoosier beneath a blizzard of paperwork. Within the administration, the biggest hue and cry came from staunch liberals, who suspected that McNutt was not one of them, and Roosevelt confidants, who distrusted the Hoosier’s thirst for higher office. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes reacted to the appointment by privately denouncing McNutt as “intensely ambitious and hard”; as the architect of a “ruthless political machine in Indiana”; as someone “with no social point of view”; as a conservative who enlisted troops “to suppress a strike at the drop of a hat”; and as a “fascist at heart.”1 Following the announcement of

 

11. Ambition Frustrated (1940)

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11

AMBITION FRUSTR ATED

(1940)

Nineteen fort y was the most exciting, and frustrating, year in

Paul V. McNutt’s life. It started out on a sour note. The Treasury Department’s investigation of McNutt’s finances, and those of his machine, had left scars.

Other ghosts haunted McNutt, such as his decision to send troops into Terre

Haute, which continued to draw fire from labor leaders. McNutt also was in a state of limbo. He had promised not to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt for the

Democratic nomination, but the president had said nothing of his own plans.

If being held in check like that upset McNutt, he concealed his feelings. His staff insisted that he remained unflappable, “vigorous,” and “rugged,” meaning ready to fight.1

Fight McNutt did, throughout 1940, against formidable odds. Round one, which took place during the spring, involved the race for the Democratic nomination, the ascent of the third-term forces, and the transformation of McNutt’s presidential campaign into a bid for the vice presidency. In round two, spanning the Democratic National Convention, McNutt’s pugilism entailed more jabbing than punching. Having made himself available for the vice presidency, McNutt did not press the matter as strongly as he might have after Roosevelt tapped someone else. His loyalty to FDR affirmed, McNutt entered round three— the fall campaign—pounding away against Wendell L. Willkie, his old college chum and the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party (GOP). On the outside,

 

12. Dimensions of Security (1939–1945)

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12

DIMENSIONS OF SECURITY

(1939–1945)

Being passed over for the vice presidency represented the first serious setback in Paul V. McNutt’s political career. And yet he had reason to look forward as 1940 turned into 1941. Scuttlebutt around Washington had McNutt replacing Josephus Daniels as ambassador to Mexico. Others thought that he would head a new cabinet department to oversee public welfare.1 If these were not the most prestigious assignments, rumors of McNutt occupying them suggested that he still was needed in the administration. His public career was hardly over, and he continued to head the Federal Security Agency (FSA), which oversaw much of the New Deal.

The Federal Security Agency both frustrated and challenged McNutt. He was not an enthusiastic bureaucrat and the period that he headed the FSA, from 1939 to 1945, proved to be one of tremendous change. Among other things, World

War II caused McNutt to broaden and deepen his conception of what “security” meant for Americans. The FSA took on new responsibilities, using its health and welfare programs to enhance America’s fitness for fighting. It also oversaw the beginnings of the U.S. government’s research in biological weapons—an early program of homeland security. The goal of “security,” so evident in the social and economic realms in the 1930s, had expanded into the military and international spheres by the 1940s.

 

13. Mobilizing Manpower (1942–1945)

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13

MOBILIZING M ANPOWER

(1942–1945)

In a ddition to the Federal Security Agency (FSA), Paul V. McNutt headed another, even more visible office during World War II: the War Manpower Commission (WMC). Manpower represented “the ultimate challenge for the nation’s mobilizers” because victory depended on finding enough workers to produce war materials and enough men to vanquish the enemy.1 As head of the WMC, McNutt became a familiar presence on the home front—“Uncle’s

Sam’s Personnel Boss,” commented the Kansas City Star.2 In time, however, the press criticized his stewardship of the commission; cartoonists drew an overwhelmed McNutt fighting with military authorities over human resources, trying to “umpire” the wartime mobilization, and drowning in a “manpower muddle.”3 In many ways, chairing the manpower commission was a more arduous and politically divisive task than McNutt’s duties at the wartime Federal

Security Agency, when he worked to mobilize the federal government’s health, educational, and recreational programs to enhance America’s defenses. At one point, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the manpower problem as

 

14. Returning to the Philippines (1945–1947)

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14

RETUR NING TO THE PHILIPPINES

(1945–1947)

Nineteen fort y-fi v e was a nother year of change, for the United

States and for Paul V. McNutt. World War II ended, a new president entered the

White House, and McNutt returned to the Philippines as high commissioner and then as ambassador. “There is nothing complicated or devious about the

McNutt appointment,” one correspondent noted. “War Manpower is obviously due to fold . . . McNutt, a good and loyal Democrat but a little too ambitious to have around in peacetime, needs a job. He made a good record during his former service in the Philippines.”1 By going to Manila, McNutt was returning to the scene of past triumphs rather than attempting to revive his political career. Indeed, he accepted the post of high commissioner reluctantly, at President Harry S. Truman’s insistence. “I thought I was beyond draft age,” McNutt joked. “However, this was a draft.”2 McNutt no doubt sought to forsake the firing line of Washington politics for distant—and familiar—shores.3 A reporter noticed the toll that the manpower job had taken on McNutt: “His working day stretches to 18 hours. He looks a little tired . . . One senses a restlessness about him.”4 But McNutt retained a strong attachment to the Philippines, and he wanted to help Filipinos “return to normal life” following the war.5 And since he had firsthand knowledge of the Philippines, his recommendations with respect to U.S.-Philippine relations were likely to receive serious attention

 

15. Fading Away (1947–1955)

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15

FADING AWAY

(1947–1955)

W hen Paul V. M c Nutt r etur ned to the United States in 1947, there was little sense of anticipation, few crowds, and scant press coverage. Martinsville did organize a “gigantic” welcome-home rally, and McNutt spoke, as he often had, in an unapologetically partisan fashion.1 But McNutt was not the sole attraction that day, for the event almost doubled as a Democratic Party powwow—and it took place three months after his return. Organizers had no need to hurry. McNutt had no presidential campaign to launch or government job to assume. After submitting a final memorandum on Philippine policy to

President Harry S. Truman, McNutt resigned as ambassador, calling it “my last public office.”2

Politically, McNutt faded away during the final decade of his life. He relocated to New York, opened a law office, undertook an array of business-related ventures, and made money so that Kathleen and Louise might enjoy financial security.3 If familial responsibilities dissuaded him from considering another run for office, reality—the fact that he was more has-been than rising star— closed the door on any candidacy. McNutt’s departure, however, was only as a full-time politician, for he missed the partisan and ideological engagement that characterized public life. McNutt kept mementoes of past triumphs and reminisced about Indiana. He commented on burning issues, even appearing before the U.S. House of Representatives during the second Red Scare. And

 

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