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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 841

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This is the grave of Paul McNutt.

Born in 1891 in Franklin, Indiana, McNutt grew up in the middle class. His parents were initially teachers, but then his father became a librarian and then got a law degree. McNutt went to public schools and then to the University of Indiana. He became good buddies with Wendell Willkie, the future Republican candidate for president in 1940, but at that time, Willkie was a Democrat. So was McNutt and he would not change that. McNutt went on to Harvard Law, did a spot of journalism, returned to Indiana, lost a county prosecutor race, and became a professor at the Indiana University School of Law.

When the U.S. entered World War I, McNutt quit his law school gig to sign up for the military (can you imagine any young law professor doing this today, lol). He went to officer training school and trained soldiers in field artillery skills, leaving the military as a major in 1919. He returned to Indiana, got his job back, and became dean of the law school in 1925, even though he was only 34 years old. Politically ambitious, he took the most classic twentieth-century path to this: promoting his own military service and attacking leftists. He used his pulpit as dean to denounce leftists and pacifists. He also denounced anyone who would challenge his goal of compulsory military training on college campuses. Not surprisingly, he was heavily involved in the American Legion, which today is seen as a place where old men drink $1 draft beers, but at the time was a proto-fascist organization deeply involved in the oppression and murder of leftists, although the latter was more on the west coast than in Indiana.

McNutt became a rising star in the Indiana Democratic Party, becoming state party chair in 1930. Indiana was coming out of its political control in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan. So I looked up to see if McNutt had anything to do with the Klan and it turns out that in the Hoosier State, the Klan were mostly….Republicans. This is odd, but the second Klan was an odd organization. And it was a weird time politically. Anyway, despite politics that would seem to fit quite explicitly into the Klan, McNutt wasn’t part of that. He was building his own political machine. He led the state’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1932 and held out until the very end to defeat FDR. For this, Roosevelt hated McNutt. I mean, he really hated him. He routinely referred to him as “that platinum blond S.O.B from Indiana.”

But Roosevelt could not ignore McNutt, for the latter also won his state’s governorship that year and Indiana was an important state. He was a combination of an old-school machine pol and a New Dealer. He completely gutted laws in the state that gave a lot of control to the state legislature, centering power in himself. He reorganized the state government so that he could fire all his political opponents, including other Democrats who were not on board with his machine. With Prohibition ending, he controlled the beer distribution networks as political patronage positions. For some damn reason, he was also obsessed with getting John Dillinger released from prison, to the extent that he played with the official record to help the criminal make his case. So this was not great. On the other hand, he got statewide income taxes passed and he fought hard for his state’s share of Works Progress Administration and other New Deal direct employment jobs. So his embrace of the New Deal as a jobs creation program definitely helped his state. But he was also anti-striker and was quite aggressive in using the National Guard as a strikebreaking force. The labor movement began referring to McNutt as “The Hoosier Hitler.”

McNutt really wanted to be president. He hoped that FDR wouldn’t run for a second term. In fact, he announced his candidacy. Of course, Roosevelt crushed him. So McNutt wanted to be VP. But FDR still hated him. So did most of Roosevelt’s closest advisors. In fact, Roosevelt hated him more than he hated John Nance Garner, which was a high bar. So, no. Knowing McNutt was ambitious, Roosevelt decided to ship him overseas to get him out of the way. So he named him High Commissioner to the Philippines in 1937. McNutt thought this would help get him into the Oval Office. He stayed in the Philippines for two years, where he was known for two things. First, he spent a ton of money to build a fancy “summer palace” in the mountains to get out of Manila. Second, and very much to his credit, he allowed significant Jewish refugee migration from Europe into the Philippines. About 1,200 people managed to flee Nazi Germany thanks in part to McNutt. Historians have noted that there’s no clear reason why McNutt went to these lengths for Jews since there really wasn’t anything in his career prior to this to suggest he would. But he did and that’s what matters.

McNutt schemed to get back to the U.S. before the 1940 election, getting himself named head of the Federal Security Agency, which was an overarching structure to govern most of the New Deal programs. But once Roosevelt announced his third term in 1940, he knew he could not win. He still wanted to be VP and there was still no way Roosevelt would allow this. During World War II, Roosevelt tapped McNutt to head the War Manpower Commission. The WMC theoretically was dedicated to labor issues, but really had very little power and was another way to sideline someone Roosevelt needed to give something to but also wanted nothing to do with. He also managed to advocate publicly for the complete extermination of the entire Japanese people during the war. When asked to clarify, he said he meant to say all the Japanese, not just the military. So that was something. He still wanted to VP in 1944, but nothing had changed on that front with FDR, even if he was dumping Henry Wallace.

When Truman took over as president, he sent McNutt back to Manila to see the transition of the islands to independence and lead their rebuilding after the war and the brutal campaign to get the Japanese out of the city. He then became the first ambassador to the new nation in 1946. He stayed until 1947 and then came back to go the senior politician route of combining practicing as an elite lawyer and a lobbyist. He chaired the Philippine-American Trade Council, among other things. He also briefly served as chairman of the board for United Artists in 1950, which I assume was about political connections much more than any sense of film and art.

McNutt died in 1955, at the age of 63, after a lengthy illness. He tried to return to the Philippines as a way to recover his health, but it did not work.

Paul McNutt is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers on my last big trip to the South. If you would like this series to visit other High Commissioners to the Philippines, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Murphy, later a great pro-labor governor from Michigan and then Supreme Court justice, is in Harbor Beach, Michigan and Francis Bowes Sayre is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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