Five men are sitting in a jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. The leader of the group—a middle-aged, mustached, and unassuming figure—had been arrested on charges of “vagrancy and ‘for investigation’,” according to the local police chief. But it wasn’t a drunk or an unlucky drifter sitting in the cell. It was the leader of an American political party and its nominee for President of the United States. He had tried to give a speech in Terre Haute when arrested by the local authorities. His case became a statewide and even national discussion on the importance and limits of free speech. Now, who could’ve caused all of this ruckus? It was Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States.
Music: “And Then She Left” by Kinoton, “Echo Sclavi” by the Mini Vandals, “Namaste” by Audionautix, “Myositis” by the United States Marine Band, “Finding the Balance” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Dana” by Vibe Tracks
In addition to Wendell Willkie, another ambitious Hoosier almost won the U.S. presidency. Paul V. McNutt, Governor of Indiana from 1933-1937, set his sights on the presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly of Jews during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a “Dark Horse” candidate on the Democratic side if Franklin Roosevelt did not run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. Yet, his chance to become President never materialized.
Born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana, McNutt was exposed to law and politics at a young age by his father, attorney John C. McNutt. After graduating from Martinsville High School in 1909, he attended Indiana University from 1909-1913, earning a BA in English. Willkie and McNutt both attended IU at the same time and held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake notes that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.
McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917, but national service disrupted his teaching. The United States formally entered into World War I in April, 1917, and within a few months, McNutt registered for military service. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. McNutt returned to the IU Law School faculty in 1919, and by 1925, he was elected Dean. Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until he became Governor of Indiana.
During his four years as Governor, Paul McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. He also advocated fiscal discipline. While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”
Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews during the rule of Adolf Hitler. He gave the keynote speech at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, showing his opposition to the German leader’s treatment of Jewish people in Germany. In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need for combatting Germany’s injustice:
“… Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice? What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.”
Furthermore, he advocated for Americans ravaged by the Great Depression. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:
In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.
After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming their first Ambassador the United States after they gained independence in 1946. Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht (a night in the fall of 1938 where Nazi soldiers attacked Jewish homes and destroyed their belongings) and ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands in 1938-39. These policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s; entering the United States was often difficult for Europeans fleeing fascism. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s most enduring legacies.
During his time as Commissioner, McNutt began being touted as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as President, displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President.
Two major publications profiled McNutt’s presidential ambitions. Jack Alexander’s piece in Life magazine highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as fairly strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.
However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.
Even though Paul V. McNutt never resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his political life influenced the future of American politics. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy became the standard for the Democratic Party even to this day. To many during his time, he was seen as the heir apparent to Franklin Roosevelt. Alas, it never happened; circumstances and personal mistakes dashed his chances. McNutt’s story parallels that of Icarus, whose ambition brought his waxen wings too close to the sun, melting them, and he fell into the sea. Nevertheless, Paul V. McNutt remains one of Indiana’s most successful Governors and statesmen.