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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,379

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This is the grave of Robert Rice Reynolds.

Born in 1884 in Asheville, North Carolina, Reynolds was…..a piece of work. Even by the less than august standards of the U.S. Senate, this guy…..Anyway, Reynolds grew up super rich and played football at the University of North Carolina. He never bothered graduating, I guess when you are that rich, it doesn’t matter. He attended the law school at UNC despite never actually being admitted and he passed the bar in 1908.

Reynolds’ brother had a law practice back in Asheville and so the younger Reynolds joined it. He had political ambitions though. It took awhile for this lead to too much. He was elected prosecuting attorney in Buncombe County in 1910 and held that for four years. He went into the National Guard in World War I, a good way to avoid any action. He ran for lieutenant governor in 1924 and the Senate in 1926, but lost the Democratic primary both times. Also during these years, Reynolds traveled a lot, both domestically and internationally. While this theoretically would open one’s eyes to the complexity of the world, Reynolds responded, uh, differently.

In 1932, Reynolds would try again for the Senate and he discovered a good way to appeal to North Carolina voters–extremist rhetoric about scary outsiders. Now, Cameron Morrison was presently the senator from North Carolina, but he was only appointed after Lee Overman died. So he wasn’t that powerful. But let’s be clear, Morrison was a horrible human being. He actively participated in the 1898 coup in Wilmington that overthrew the biracial governance of the city, the final blow against anything looking like a Reconstruction vision for the South. As governor, he demagogued the teaching of evolution in the schools. This was no good guy. But he was a believer in public works programs. So was Reynolds, but no matter. This gave Reynolds an opening. Reynolds basically said that Morrison was a communist. Cameron Morrison was….not a communist. But Reynolds went full red-baiting. One of his favorite lines was “Cam likes fish eggs and Russian fish eggs at that. Don’t you want a senator who likes North Carolina hen eggs.” This is great stuff if you like stupidity with those North Carolina hen eggs. Reynolds could accuse Morrison of being one of those urbane elites who likes fancy food AND accuse him of being a red sympathizer at the same time. North Carolina voters ate this up, largely being morons, and Reynolds cruised in the primary, the only election that mattered in the South. He also won because he supported the end of Prohibition and that was popular in North Carolina.

This campaign pretty much is how Reynolds spent the rest of his career. Now, on economic issues, Reynolds was basically fine. He was a pro-development southerner, which meant he liked the New Deal. He wanted to build the tourism industry and so supported the New Deal programs to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, as well as the electrification programs of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He supported the Agricultural Adjustment Act too because it would raise tobacco prices for North Carolina farmers. He even went so far as to support the Fair Labor Standards Act once all the work that Black people did in the South was excluded from coverage. At first, he also supported FDR’s court-packing plan, but backed off from that once he realized it could hurt him politically.

No, it was the foreign policy and race stuff where he was a total lunatic and weirdo. He was both a big national defense guy and a seriously hard-core isolationist. For Reynolds, you needed the former to make sure you could have the latter. Also, he was pretty damn close to pro-Nazi. There’s your isolationists and then there is Robert Rice Reynolds. See, Reynolds wasn’t just close to Father Coughlin, though he was. He was close to the German-American Bund and American Nazi Party. He toured Nazi Germany and he really liked what he saw.

Reynolds came home from Nazi Germany and wanted most of that here. He sponsored a bill that would end all immigration to the United States for ten years and would register all immigrants already in the U.S. with the government so they could be watched. Previewing Donald Trump much later in American history, Reynolds stated on the Senate floor,

“I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”

Now, remember the context here. This wasn’t really about keeping Mexicans out like Trump wanted. It was about keeping Jews fleeing Hitler out. This was the Senate that refused to allow the refugees from the St. Louis to enter the U.S. Many of them later died in the concentration camps. So the U.S. has plenty of reason to feel shame about its actions or lack thereof in caring about the impending Holocaust, not that the college students who sign up for Holocaust courses by the hundreds but won’t touch slavery or Native American courses want to hear about their own nation’s complicity.

It goes without saying that Reynolds was terrible on racial issues around Black Americans as well. He was one of the leaders in the filibuster of the anti-lynching bill liberals pushed for. But his real hatred was toward immigrants.

Despite generally being a pro-New Deal senator, Roosevelt included him in his list of targets to defeat in 1938. But like most of these, the incumbent won. In 1939, Reynolds started something called the Vindicators Association that was an anti-war, anti-immigrant, isolationist organization. He actively spoke out against the 1939 bill to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the nation to get them away from the Nazis. Most Americans didn’t want them. Polling after Kristallnacht demonstrated that 67 percent of Americans opposed accepting Jewish refugees and even when that was limited to children, it was still 61 percent. Nits make lice and all. Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund was in the front row for that speech. Kuhn said, “I liked it very well, I would underline everything.” Reynolds himself was a bit more reticent to go into open anti-Semitism, at least in public, so he usually couched all this in language that was more about the evils of immigration. And on that, he urged mass deportations of immigrants already in the United States…in 1941. Yep, that’s right, in the middle of World War II, he wanted to deport immigrants back to certain death.

As the nation moved toward entering the war, Reynolds started praising Mussolini especially more directly and was concerned about demonizing the good European dictators, including Hitler. It is again worth noting that this was not a completely out of touch position in America, at least until about the middle of 1941. I’m currently reading Mark Harris’ Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, the story of Ford, Stevens, Huston, Wyler, and Capra and the war propaganda work they did. One of the points Harris makes is just how much pro-fascist and anti-Semitic sentiment there was in nearly all parts of American life until well after September 1939. So it’s hardly surprising that Reynolds despised the Lend-Lease Act and other preparedness measures. Moreover, thanks to seniority, he became head of the Senate Military Affairs Committee in 1941, which got the New York Times to rail against the horrible seniority system in the Senate. Good thing that hasn’t changed…

After Pearl Harbor, Reynolds sort of walked some of this back. But by 1944, he was back on his anti-foreigner bit, attacking the idea of a United Nations. By this time, he was such an embarrassment that the North Carolina Democratic Parry wanted him gone. He chose not to run for a third term in 1944 due to this. He did try to come back in 1950, but finished third in the primary. He went back to Asheville to practice law and be a rich asshole.

While Reynolds’ personal life is not as important as his Nazi sympathizing way, it was….something. He was married five times. There’s a famous photo of him grabbing Jean Harlow for a kiss on the Capitol steps. The first wife died in 1913, not sure why. Then he married a 17 year old and walked out on her the next year after they had a daughter. In 1921, he met a woman by running her over with his car. She was evidently OK and they got married five days later. That marriage lasted a year. In 1931, he married a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who had come down with tuberculosis. She died after three years. Then for his fifth marriage, now 57 years old, he married the 19 year old daughter of the owner of the Washington Post and the owner of the Hope Diamond. She died of a sleeping pills overdose five years later. They had a daughter who later would be the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500. On top of this was the endless affairs.

So yeah, when I say Reynolds was a piece of work, I am not joking.

Reynolds died of cancer in 1963. He was 78 years old.

Robert Rice Reynolds is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina. If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1932, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hattie Wyatt Caraway is in Jonesboro, Arkansas and Frederick Van Nuys is in Anderson, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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