See you in C-U-B-A: Calvin Coolidge in Havana

Irving Berlin’s hit song, “See you in C-U-B-A,” popular in the 1920s, touted the “lively atmosphere” on the largest Caribbean island, exhorting would-be revelers to escape the land of Prohibition and to “travel with us on a train or a bus to Miami where we can begin to plan a wonderful trip on a plane or a ship that’ll take us from Florida to Havana – see you in C-U-B-A!” President Coolidge took that advice, but with a different purpose in mind.

President Coolidge attending a chirch service aboard the U.S.S. Texas

President Coolidge attending a church service aboard the U.S.S. Texas

On his only foreign visit, Calvin Coolidge went to Havana in early 1928 to address the Sixth Pan American Conference there. Coolidge and his delegation, which included Secretaries Kellogg and Wilbur, former Secretary Hughes and Ambassador Morrow as well as journalist/writer H.L. Mencken and humorist Will Rogers, had left Washington by rail (the “Coolidge Special”) on January 13 for Key West (not Miami!) and, having departed there on the battleship (and flagship of the U.S. Navy) U.S.S.Texas early on January 15, arrived at Havana on the afternoon of that same day. Along with hosting Cuban president Gerardo Machado, a large and enthusiastic crowd welcomed him there, celebrating the fact that his visit marked the first time a sitting U.S. president had put his foot not only on the soil of Cuba, but of any foreign nation on the American continent. Coolidge’s address on the occasion of the opening of the conference on January 16 also marked the first time that a U.S. president had thus spoken to a non-U.S. audience.

Continue reading

S. Parker Gilbert (2nd of 3)

Part 2: Reparations Agent

The Dawes Plan of 1924 was the cornerstone achievement of American stabilization policy in Europe, the keystone of efforts to promote peaceful political change and renewed economic growth. It revised the Versailles Treaty by restricting France’s ability to use reparations as a club to use against Germany’s resurgence. Ostensibly the work of expert businessmen and bankers, it nonetheless had the backing of the Coolidge administration. Depsite the administrations claims of non-involvement, Secretaries Hughes and Mellon, as well as Ambassador Kellogg, mediated between bankers, delegates and diplomats while on supposedly private trips to London. Mellon in particular staked his considerable prestige as head of a private economic empire and as chief financial officer of the U.S. by recommending the crucial loan portion of the plan to Morgan partner Thomas Lamont. President Coolidge repeatedly endorsed the plan and was prepared to offer arbitration by Chief Justic Taft in case the London Conference deadlocked.

The Dawes Plan transferred reparations control from the Allies-dominated Reparations Commission to the newly created U.S.-dominated agent general’s office. Some wrangling ensued over which person was going to fill this crucial post. The House of Morgan in particular attached great importance to the selection of an agent general who would be sympathetic to their concerns, effectively vetoing the names of Owen D. Young and James A. Logan. Coolidge in turn vetoed Morgan’s initial candidate, Morgan partner (and Coolidge friend) Dwight Morrow, because he feared that appointment would fuel Robert La Follette’s progressive presidential campaign against Wall Street influence. After intensive consultations between Lamont and Mellon in London, and Morrow and Coolidge in Washington, the administration fully endorsed Morgan and Company’s eventual candidate, S. Parker Gilbert. As we have seen in Part 1, Gilbert had been undersecretary of the Treasury in 1921-22 and had developed an excellent rapport with Mellon before departing government to resume his legal practice.

Continue reading

One man’s isolationism… another’s non-interventionism.As David Boaz points out in a topical post, “isolationism” has long been a verbal big stick carried by war-making presidents and their supporters whenever anybody dares to question the wisdom of a particular exercise of militay power. Happily, as a graph from the Pew Research Center, also cited by Boaz, points out, there is a definite popular trend in the direction that the U.S. should mind its own business (rather than meddle in other countries’ affairs).

By any standard of interventionism, at least where military or overt intervention was concerned, Calvin Coolidge was by instinct a non-interventionist. With WWI still fresh in everyone’s mind, people were wary of active meddling in foreign affairs and there was a majority in favor of a hands-off course – just as there was a majority for “normalcy” in the nation’s economic and fiscal management.

Coolidge thus steered a very careful course, refraining from advocating U.S. membership in the fledgling League of Nations but offering somewhat tepid and qualified support to U.S. participation in the World Court. The only major foreign policy initiative of the Coolidge years was the Kellogg-Briand Pact that renounced war as an instrument of national policy. While critics are quick to point out that practically allof the pact’s signatory powers were embroiled in another disastrous world war just a decade later, the pact has in fact served as the legal basis for international norms characterizing the threat or use o military force in circumvention of international law as unlawful, and indeed for the establishment of the notion of crimes against peace.

Coolidge sought to reduce the legacy of military interventions in the hemisphere.  Faced with escalating crises in both Nicaragua and, more importantly, Mexico, Coolidge relied on diplomacy, dispatching Henry L. Stimson to mediate the civil war in Nicaragua (from where he had recalled the U.S. Marines, only to send them back in 1927 in the face of the Sandino insurrection), and Dwight Morrow as ambassador to Mexico. His explicit instructions to Morrow were to keep the U.S. out of war with Mexico, at a time when the hawks of his day were demanding U.S. military involvement.

As in his economic policies, Coolidge was perhaps the last true conservative in foreign policy. Certainly, presidents of every political stripe have been none too reluctant to employ U.S. power abroad. And, just as is true in the case of government expenditures and the national debt, maybe there ought to be a debate about the wisdom of America being policeman to the world. I think it’s encouraging when Republican presidential hopefuls, rather than toeing the George Bush-John McCain neoconservative line, begin to question whether the U.S. needs to have “boots on the ground” all over the world.

Smoke-filled room or insurrection? The 1920 GOP vice-presidential nomination

Irvine L. Lenroot, 1869 - 1949

Sometimes, reading a patent falsehood on the web or elsewhere will prompt the wish to set things straight with a blog post of one’s own. The other day I read somewhere that Calvin Coolidge was named the 1920 GOP vice-presidential nominee as the result of a cabal in a smoke-filled room. As we Coolidge fans and followers know, that is the opposite of what happened.

The 1920 Republican national convention began June 8, 1920, at the Chicago Coliseum. Balloting for the nomination of the presidential candidate began Friday, June 11. Going in, the leading candidates were Frank O. Lowden, the well-regarded, moderate, and wealthy governor of Illinois, and General Leonard Wood, a long-time friend and associate of the late Theodore Roosevelt – these two were deadlocked. The other leading contenders were the fiery progressive Senator Hiram Johnson of California, and the amiable and undistingished, yet eminently presidential-looking Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio.

Continue reading

The absent-minded Ambassador

From left: Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elisabeth Morrow, Dwight Morrow. Taken in early 1931

Still engrossed as I am reading about Dwight W. Morrow, friend and Amherst classmate of Calvin Coolidge’s, I also found irresistible a couple of anecdotes about Morrow’s alleged absent-mindedness culled from the pages of The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section (vintage 1926):

One story, quite often related, discloses our new Ambassador to Mexico in the Grand Central Station in a deep and restless study, interrupted by an occasional search into his pockets. An acquaintance asked him if he had lost his ticket. “Worse than that,” the financier said, “I have forgotten where I was going.”

On another occasion, while pacing up and down during an earnest conversation with a distinguished businessman seated in his office, he is reported to have absently used the visitor’s bald head to knock the ashes from his pipe.

He is known to have stepped into an elevator of an uptown hotel and to have directed the operator to take him to the Bankers Trust Company.

Mr. Morrow left office one morning to catch a train. A few hours later he called his secretary in New York over the long-distance phone. “Springer,” said he, “why am I in Philadelphia?”¬† His secretary’s voice showed anguish. “You should have gone to Princeton, sir, to make a speech,” he replied. Mr. Morrow got to the college on time, but he barely made it.

Then there’s the story often retold within J. P. Morgan of Morrow riding a train. When the conductor asked for his ticket, Morrow couldn’t find it and restlessly searched every one of his pockets when all the time the ticket was clenched between his teeth. “I bet you thought I didn’t know it was there,” he said to the conductor. “Actually, I was just chewing off the date.”

And once, while taking a bath, he called out to his valet for a soap that lathered better – the problem turned out not to be the soap but the fact that he was still wearing his pajamas at the time.


I would like to give Morrow’s old friend Calvin Coolidge the last word on these episodes. In his foreword to a 1930 campaign biography of Morrow, he writes:

It is said of him by the flippant that he thinks of others so much and of himself so little that when he takes a train he does not always know where he is going. But he never started for anything when he did not reach his destination. He always arrives.

A (very) brief Coolidgean philosophy of government

Dwight W. Morrow on a 1925 TIME cover

I’m currently reading the 1935 Harold Nicolson biography of Dwight Morrow (1873 – 1931), a friend and confidant of, and adviser to, Calvin Coolidge from their days as Amherst classmates, class of 1895. Morrow was a most interesting and admirable man, and I hope to write on him in more detail – he is associated with two major accomplishments of the Coolidge years, namely the report of the Aviation Board that structured the nation’s approach to civil and defense aviation, and the improvement of relations with Mexico, where he served as ambassador.

Nicolson reports an August 19th, 1927 meeting of Morrow and Coolidge at the latter’s vacation spot in Rapid City, where they discussed his pending Mexican mission. In a letter to J.P. (“Jack”) Morgan Jr. quoted by Nicolson, Morrow wrote:

“He said (…) that it was not the business of the Government to do good but to prevent harm, that when Governments tried to do good they generally got themselves and other people into trouble.” (p. 291)

Here, I feel, is really the Coolidge philosophy of government in a nutshell.¬†Trusting in the superior ability of government agents to discern what is “good” for the people, progressives and “liberals” believe in the governments ability, nay, responsibility for “doing good.” Coolidge, supposedly behind the curve as to the then latest fads in ideology, was actually light years ahead of his time, grasping instinctively the dangers of unintended consequences economists and social scientists are discussing today.