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What Warren Harding Can Teach Us About Sex And Foreign Influence In American Politics

11/22/2017 09:36 EST | Updated 11/22/2017 12:38 EST
Library of Congress
Isabelle and Carrie Phillips in Berlin, 1912

What a time we live in. A long hushed horror over sexual harassment risks spilling over into hysteria, mainly because its mere mention has been repressed for so long. Our citizenry seems hopelessly divided; mutual distrust runs rampant. And a foreign power seeks to influence our national politics, driving a wedge between otherwise loyal Americans. Have we ever seen such a confluence of confounding events?

Perhaps Warren Harding might have something to teach us. He is the favorite target of HBO’s John Oliver, but if only Oliver knew the half of his story.

Harding was our 29th president, elected almost a century ago in 1920. He is considered one of our worst presidents, but his record defies that badge of dishonor. He helped stitch the nation and world back together after the most disruptive war in human history. He established the Office of the Budget, oversaw the world’s first arms limitation treaty, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to warn that democracy was a lie if African Americans were not provided full rights as citizens, and he let Socialist Eugene Debs out of prison, commuting a ten-year sentence he received for simply speaking out against the war.

Woodrow Wilson refused every request for clemency; Oliver Wendell Homes affirmed Debs’ conviction in the Supreme Court. It was Warren Harding who did the decent thing—defending the Constitution and the First Amendment’s precious protection of the right of free speech.

A newspaper editor from a small town in Ohio, Harding would be blazingly angry over the current White House occupant’s attack on the free press. Even in a time of world war, Harding voted against a provision Woodrow Wilson wanted to insert in the Espionage Act of 1917 that would have censored the press over war news.

So tell me you know about Warren Harding and how he was such a bad president.

But there is even more about Harding’s story that is edifying in our confusing times. Because his mistress kept his love letters, we have an inside look at why politicians (or any men of power) find their love lives so byzantine and troubled. And because there is pretty good evidence that this mistress was working with the Germans during the lead-up to war, we have a remarkable record of how espionage can attempt to influence and pervert our democracy.

A two-fer.

Actually a three-fer. Hysteria took no backseat to any time in history during the years 1914 to 1918. In the United States, almost 20 percent of Americans were German-born or of recent German descent. The nation was hopelessly divided over to whether to join the war in Europe and if so on which side. Many saw the English as the villains with their unlawful blockade on the high seas; most saw the Germans as beasts after they smashed through neutral Belgium to try to take Paris in a lightening maneuver out of the Schlieffen Plan.

Consequently, this country was awash in German and British spies. Both sides bought and sold journalists who wrote propaganda stories for their masters (something we would call fake news today). Because the United States was sending munitions to the Allies and the British choked all trade with Germany, German spies in the United States sabotaged factories and ports here. In the summer of 1916, the Statute of Liberty was riddled with shrapnel from the explosion of munitions caused by deliberately set fires on the nearby Black Tom Island.

To counter the internal threat, President Wilson sanctioned the formation of a huge vigilante organization of businessmen in every city and village of the nation known as the American Protective League. Overnight, almost 250,000 American citizens were deputized, provided badges, and asked to spy on their neighbors. Arrests were made, homes were searched, and mail was opened. No one knew who to trust.

German Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, an analogue for our modern-day Sergey Kislyak, was eventually expelled from the United States once his meddling was established through the aid of documents stolen from a German Privy Counsellor who fell asleep on a train in New York City. The contents were Wikileaked to New York’s The World newspaper by the Wilson administration. “How Germany Has Worked In U.S. To Shape Opinion, Block The Allies And Get Munitions For Herself, Told By Secret Agents’ Letters,” read the scandalous headline in August 1915.

Warren Harding’s affair with his married neighbor, Carrie Phillips, was uncovered by the Wilson administration through the efforts of the American Protective League, military intelligence and the Bureau of Investigation. She was followed by authorities because of her pro-German talk and the fact that she and her daughter turned up outside an Army training camp on Long Island just as draftees, including Irving Berlin, arrived to prepare to join the European conflict. The Germans stationed women spies outside camps across the United States to get intelligence on how quickly the U.S. was mobilizing.

While this affair was entirely consensual, the question that arises is why? What was it about Harding’s make-up that provided the impetus for this long-time extramarital affair (it lasted over 15 years)? We know through recent DNA testing that he also had an affair with a younger woman, Nan Britton, with whom Harding had a daughter. What hole was he filling in his life that led to these dalliances? And do we see this pattern in other men of power, especially politicians?

I found a recent article in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan to be particularly enlightening on this topic. Flanagan’s article, entitled “Bill Clinton: A Reckoning,” provides this highly illuminating observation: “History instructs us that for countless men, the ability to possess women sexually is not a spoil of war; it’s the point of power.”

I suspect Caitlin Flanagan has never read The Harding Affair or tried to sift through his difficult-to-read letters now available in the Library of Congress. But she is on to something.

Harding wrote repeatedly of his desire to “possess” Carrie Phillips. That was a catchall for his longing for sexual intimacy and exclusivity. But he also wrote that his involvement in politics was to make himself desirable to her, to make him seem “worth while” in her estimation. She was the point of his seeking higher office.

In 1911, as a result of years of misunderstandings from the illicit affair, not to mention local whispering in Marion, Carrie decided to take her daughter, Isabelle, to Berlin to educate her. She intended to remain one school year but found life in the Imperial Capital of the German nation bedazzling, so she stayed. She would not return to the U.S. permanently until the summer of 1914, just before general war was declared (she did travel back twice to meet secretly with Harding, but stayed only for a week or two each time).

By the time Carrie arrived in the United States in July of 1914, Warren was knee-deep in a run for the United States Senate. It was the first direct election of senators (previously senators had been appointed by state legislatures) and Harding poured himself into the campaign, convinced that he had lost Carrie. He won by a large margin, making him an instant presidential prospect, especially given his Ohio pedigree (Ohio was the “mother” of eight presidents, most post-civil war).

Harding planned a vacation to Texas, California and Hawaii in January 1915 to get away. Carrie was hurt and wrote as much in a letter she slipped him as he boarded the train. When he read the letter, his heart sank. He had believed she no longer cared.

From the Palace Hotel in San Francisco (ironical given he would die in this hotel while president in August 1923), Harding wrote

I am wilder than ever to possess you and hold you all mine. True, I went into politics for diversion and distraction at a time when you seemed lost to me (and evidently you were in part at least) but all the while I was thinking I could hold your esteem by being worth while, and never a day passed but I felt political success could afford us opportunity.

What Warren Harding did not know—until confronted by military authorities in 1918, was that Carrie Phillips was likely working for the Germans after her return from Berlin in 1914. She threatened Harding in 1916 with exposure of their affair if he pursued the Republican nomination for president. At the time, Wilson was keeping the nation out of the war and the Germans thought that a Republican victory was more likely to bring the United States into war. Harding, a popular Ohioan, would surely have defeated Wilson—as it was Wilson won in part because Ohio went for him. Four years later in 1920, Harding indeed won in a landslide.

Carrie and Isabelle did “vacation” outside Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, New York, in the late summer of 1917 as 670,000 recruits made ready to go to war. Isabelle became engaged to a young man whose wealthy New York family was chock full of German spies, including the Baroness Zollner, arrested outside a camp near Chattanooga with a soldier half her age hiding under her bed and code in her purse to alert her when troops would embark for Europe.

When Harding was told of suspicions about Carrie, he wrote her to stop what she was doing. He even wrote to Carrie’s husband, Jim Phillips, pleading for Carrie to subside lest she be arrested.

There is little question of the intent of the Germans to impact American politics. They wanted the United States to remain neutral. Carrie brought pressure to bear on Harding when it came time for him to vote on war with Germany. Despite her threats and his own recognition that he might be signing his political death warrant by voting for war (Ohio, especially Cincinnati, had a large number of German-American voters who voted Republican), Harding voted for war.

The rupture over the war effectively ended their relationship and was coincident with Harding’s affair with Nan Britton.

But Carrie Phillips—out of love and fear—kept Harding’s love letters the rest of her life, probably as some sort of assurance she would not be arrested.

I established in the Harding Affair that the Wilson Administration knew of Harding’s relationship with a woman who was being watched as a spy—yet they did not use this information in the campaign of 1920. Harding and Coolidge soundly trounced Ohio governor James Cox (today Cox Communications) and a neophyte to national politics, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There are lots of people more qualified than I am to guess what Freudian principles account for politicians, entertainers, rock stars and CEOs being “overcharged” when it comes to their sexual relationships with woman or, worse, their sexual attacks on women. But there seems to be a correlation here—politics attracts the type. Sex is the point of power.

None of the Harding letters suggest he ever abused women. However, he did place himself at great risk with Carrie Phillips. In the end, he acted by putting country first, but that is not always going to be the case. Politicians who seek power to gain acceptance from the opposite sex, it seems to me, are also more likely to bow to foreign intrigues that might help them gain that power. Draw your own conclusions.

James D. Robenalt is author of several nonfiction works including The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During the Great War (Macmillan, 2009). He currently lectures nationally with John W. Dean, Nixon’s former White House Counsel on legal ethics. www.watergatecle.com

Library of Congress
Warren Harding campaign photo from 1910. He wrote a love note on the back of this photo and gave it to Carrie Phillips on Christmas Eve 1910.
Library of Congress
Soldiers marching at Camp Upton, Yaphank, Long Island, New York