The election of 1932 was huge for the Democrats, both nationally and in Indiana. The Depression was taking its toll on the American people, and Democrats brought a philosophy of government that said government could actively help in times like these. The Republicans had been more ambivalent on the subject. Their administrations wanted things to get better for the people, and often they ended up using government to try to help, but they were held back to some degree by a philosophical sense that government should stay out of the way. The Democrats more full throated support of a government active in helping people who were being hurt by the economy was appealing.
Paul McNutt was born in Franklin, Indiana. His parents were school teachers. However, his father became a lawyer and moved the family to Indianapolis where the elder McNutt was the librarian of the Indiana Supreme Court. After that job, he moved the family to Martinsville where McNutt went to high school. He then went to IU where, among other things, he became active in theater productions and became friends and fraternity brothers with Wendell Wilkie. McNutt then went to Harvard Law School and got his degree in 1916. He returned to Morgan County and soon ran for election as prosecutor but was narrowly defeated. He landed a job as an assistant professor with the Indiana University School of Law but left the job after a year to join the army in World War I. McNutt served in Texas and South Carolina as an artillery trainer.
[H]e entered the Second Officers Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis, on August 27, 1917, and left camp on November 27 as a captain in the field artillery.6 By war’s end, he had attained the rank of major.
After the War, McNutt returned to Indiana University as a law professor. He became a full professor in 1920 and, in 1925, at the age of 34, the youngest dean in the school’s history.
Significantly for his political career, McNutt would join the American Legion shortly after the war. As I mentioned in an earlier installment, the American Legion was one of those advocacy groups (like the Anti-Saloon League, the League of Women Voters, and the Klan) that was altering how politics got done in the early 20th century. They were big and influential and didn’t necessarily owe allegiance to any one party. The Grand Army of the Republic comes to mind as a predecessor, but given how the Civil War broke down party lines, it was pretty much a Republican organization.
The American Legion was part social group, part political advocacy group. The nature of its mission ensured that, at the outset, most of its members were fairly young, being recent veterans of the War. It secured an early victory in 1924, getting Congress to pass the Bonus legislation which would give veterans $625 (in 1924 dollars plus interest) in 20 years. It was a significant financial commitment for a conservative Congress that feared inflation. They fought against what they perceived as un-Americanism: pacifists and communists in particular. Their commitment to free speech was a little sketchy when it came to some groups.
In 1933, for example, the “Americanism” committee of the Legion’s Department of Illinois denounced the social reformer and pacifist Jane Addams and the well-known defense attorney Clarence Darrow as communists by virtue of their association with “international-pacifist-defeatist organizations.” “There is room in this country for only one ‘ism,'” declared National Commander Frank N. Belgrano Jr. in 1934. “That is Americanism.”
The Legion could be a political training ground for young men who were shut out of leadership positions in the more established major parties. They gained experience in organization and advocacy.
In his article for Indiana History Magazine on McNutt and the American Legion (from whom a lot of this information is derived), Dean J. Kotlowski says that, in addition to a variety of other reasons for becoming a Legion member, McNutt was a joiner. He was “a Methodist, a Mason, an Elk, a Kiwanian, a Rotarian, a dean, a professor, [and] a colonel.”
In 1926, McNutt became embroiled in a campus political debate. ROTC training was mandatory at the time. The post-war isolationist mood of the country made that less than popular on campus. A pacifist by the name of Frederick J. Libby spoke on campus advocating that ROTC training be made voluntary rather than mandatory. McNutt objected strongly. He felt it was the “”duty of every American citizen to serve this nation in time of war” and that military training was “an essential and proper part of an adequate national defense.” McNutt grew to hate the pacifists. This probably helped his political career, but he was chided by the Kokomo Dispatch for seeing Reds “lurking in Indiana cornfields and briar patches.”
McNutt’s anti-pacifism, anti-communism, and speaking ability started his rise in the ranks of the American Legion. In 1925, his local Bloomington legion needed a new leader. In what would become a pattern (not an unusual one for a Hoosier politician), he would be publicly coy about wanting the job while maneuvering behind the scenes to secure the election.
Such false modesty seemed to confirm an old adage about Indiana , that “every Hoosier baby’s first words are: ‘Although I am not a candidate for any public office, if nominated by the people of my party and elected by the sovereign voters of the great State of Indiana, I will serve to the best of my ability.”‘
McNutt won the leadership position. He liked the victory and began to have ambitions. He launched a recruitment drive for the Bloomington post, exceeding his goal of 250 new members and increasing membership from 87 to over 500 members. The feat caught the attention of the state organization, and McNutt set into motion plans to lead the state department of the Legion. In the 1926 convention in Marion, he out organized and out spoke the competition, and was elected to be the state commander. This, in turn, led to interest in the national leadership. McNutt had become friends and allies with Frank McHale whose support and organizational abilities would be invaluable. McHale would go on to be active in Indiana politics and earn the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike before his death in 1975. With McHale’s help, McNutt was able to win the national commander’s post in 1928. He did so in similar fashion to how he had won the state commander’s post, “McNutt overcame his status as an outsider and an underdog with preparation, organization, tireless speaking, and sheer effort.