Thursday, December 7, 2023

This Day in New York History (Birth of Hamilton Fish III, Political Scion and Arch-Isolationist)

Dec. 7, 1888— A shared upstate patrician background might have sufficed to put Franklin Roosevelt and Hamilton Fish III on a pleasant personal, if not political, basis.

Instead, the Republican Fish—born on this date in Garrison, NY—became an increasingly vociferous Congressional opponent not only of the Democratic President’s New Deal domestic policies, but also, problematically, of his attempts to “quarantine” Fascist dictators through aid to Western democracies at the outbreak of World War II.

Relations between the two Hudson Valley politicians (Fish was the congressman for the President’s own district) became so tense that FDR lumped the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with fellow GOP isolationists Joseph Martin and Bruce Barton, in the scornful, rhythmically charged phrase “Martin, Barton and Fish.”

For most of the postwar period, Fish has been regarded just as a cranky reactionary foil to Roosevelt, with, at worst, hidebound isolationist views. 

Since the airing of Rachel Maddow’s podcast Ultra last year, however, long-forgotten aspects of his approach to dealing with Nazi Germany have raised serious questions about his office’s involvement in disseminating Nazi propaganda and supporting violent far-right hate groups.

Those questions have been troubling enough that the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison, after pointed and persistent inquiries from residents, is reviewing whether it should rename itself and/or engage in a “restorative justice” effort.

In the fall of 1941, during a federal investigation of Nazi activities in the U.S., George Hill, a top staffer for Fish, was seen carrying large bags to a Capitol Hill storage room and to the D.C. headquarters of the America First Committee that promoted non-intervention in World War II. 

The links to Fish were eye-opening and multiple: the congressman not only employed Hill but also controlled the storage room and had spoken at an America First rally. When files were destroyed at the America First office, a scandal arose as to whether Fish might have been the effort to tamper with evidence.

As investigators dug further, they found that Nazi agents had used Hill to send out order forms for recipients who wanted copies of the notorious antisemitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It was all done with the “franking privilege” that allows members of Congress the right to mail material to their constituents for free.  

It is too bad that Maddow became so fascinated by the unmistakable contemporary echoes of the Nazi plot to undermine democracy that she did not explain why the isolationist movement that Hill hoped to exploit enjoyed broad-based support, across multiple ethnic groups and ideologies. 

But her revelations about isolationist Senators Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota and Burton Wheeler of Montana will surely lead many to look further into the careers of these once-boldface names in politics.

For me, though, the story of Fish—part of a political dynasty that included a grandfather who became governor of New York and Ulysses Grant’s secretary of state, as well as a father who also served in Congress—is particularly fascinating. It’s not just because his office was at the heart of the hullabaloo.

It’s also because a politician like Fish—who, like FDR, was inspired to join the Progressive movement by the President’s distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, and who led an African-American regiment in WWI—became associated with some of the most arch-conservative elements in American politicians.

Consider, for instance, that in 1921, shortly after he began his term as a U.S. representative, Fish sponsored legislation creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or that a year later, he secured passage of the resolution calling for a homeland in Palestine for the Jews; or that, in 1924, he secured passage of “adjusted service” certificates redeemable in 1945 for war veterans—legislation that President Coolidge feared constituted an undue burden on taxpayers.

But in 1930, he led a committee investigating Soviet Communist influence in the United States that, while uncovering no subversives, gave early exposure to the extremist views of Fr. Charles Coughlin.

Though he started out by wishing FDR well after the governor of New York won the Presidency, Fish quickly came to believe that the New Deal—and, consequently, the Democratic Party that supported it—was riddled with socialism.

From then on, Fish’s beliefs and actions drifted towards the fringe, as he:

*denounced FDR for establishing diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1933;

*called for Roosevelt’s impeachment following his 1937 “quarantine” speech;

*spoke at a German Day rally in 1938 at Madison Square Garden, where the stage was filled with swastikas;

*took the personal airplane of Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to an August 1939 conference in Oslo, then stated that German claims to territory were “just”;

*led GOP opposition to the Lend Lease Act, a “fascist” piece of legislation that would make FDR a “dictator.”

It might fairly be said after that last characterization that Fish couldn’t recognize a real dictator if he stumbled over one. Although he denied being antisemitism, pointing to his early advocacy for a Jewish homeland, it can fairly be stated that, like British appeasers, he saw Nazi Germany as a bulwark against the rise of international Communism.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was anything but a happy 53rd birthday gift to the congressman. It left Fish scrambling for cover, as he was among the first to call for a declaration of war against Japan (although years later, he characteristically reversed himself, charging that FDR had conspired to get the U.S. into the conflict).

These days, it has become fashionable for some observers to say that the fate of Donald Trump should lie not with jurors but with voters. The termination of Fish’s political career does not exactly conform to this model.

True, Fish escaped legal accountability for any part he might have played in the Nazi subversion scheme when the investigation into that stumbled. 

Even with the growing pro-war feeling of the public during the war, he might have continued to represent his district except that he’d made a powerful enemy in his own party: Thomas Dewey.

Annoyed by Fish's support for fellow isolationist Robert Taft for the GOP Presidential nomination in 1944, the New York Governor helped redraw the boundaries of his congressional district, leading to Fish's loss of his seat. 

Maybe the true lesson of Fish's political termination--as well as those involved in the January 6 insurrection--could be that while voters might possess the ultimate power over a politician, they can be provided a great assist by fellow party officeholders who punish them primarily for their own reasons.

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