Monday, July 2, 2007

Flashback: Tommy the Cork—From Domestic New Deal White House Staffer-Liberal to Foreign Policy Isolationist and Tough Anti-Communist to Aggressive Multi-Million-Dollar Money Machine…All in One Fell Swoop.


[More than 50 years of politics, a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

The first unwritten rule of U. S. history is that presidents have had counselors but most of them fall from grace at one time or another. Hamilton did with General Washington (the general thought him too arrogant then) but returned to favor as secretary of the treasury and ghost-writer and kept up his influence as a private citizen. Probably no one was as multi-skilled as FDR’s Thomas Corcoran (1933-40), from the standpoint of legal draftsmanship, congressional relations and astuteness. But Tommy didn’t fall from FDR’s grace; FDR fell from Tommy’s grace. Still Tommy kept up his contacts in private life and set the mark for all of us who have engaged in the lobbying game. He became our ideal: (a) making a lot of money and (b) at the same time doing what he wanted to do. I succeeded in (b) but not necessarily (a); yet I’m fairly comfortable.

Woodrow Wilson’s alter ego Colonel Edward House (the “Colonel” title was honorific) was a private citizen whose influence lasted only until Wilson married a second time wherein House was gone since the new Mrs. Wilson didn’t like him. Karl Rove is a powerful aide to George W. Bush but only in giving advice and designing an electoral strategy, not as Tommy was: adviser, the first real full-time liaison with the Congress that a president had (earlier the cabinet officers did their own lobbying), a superb legal draftsman who co-wrote the SEC laws.

Harry Hopkins probably had more sustained influence with any president than anyone else and over a wider range of issues and for a longer time until he fell from grace. But Hopkins wasn’t good at domestic political strategy and couldn’t be used by FDR to lobby the Congress (he had the personality of a recluse). But Hopkins was a first-class public administrator. Corcoran wasn’t that . I would guess that Corcoran came closest to Hamilton as a White House counselor than anyone else in U.S. presidential history.

Most close confidants to president fall from grace; not so Tommy. It was the other way around. FDR disillusioned Tommy and he…Tommy…chose the exit. How did Tommy get disenchanted with FDR? I was told at the lunch not to quote Corcoran directly; hence I will honor that pledge even after Tommy’s death, only quoting when he gave me full sanction to do so. So--what was the reason for Corcoran’s disenchantment with his boss?

“Because I was too Catholic to trust the Russians and too Irish to trust the English,” was the only quote he authorized to me but adding that it was what Hopkins had made about him. Corcoran felt that FDR was trying to emulate his distant cousin Teddy by seeking to play a major impresario role on the world stage…which meant getting involved in secret negotiations with Winston Churchill to intrigue America into World War II to help the British. Corcoran felt very strongly like Fr. Charles E. Coughlin that certain Jewish influence in this country was backing Roosevelt to get us to join the war in order to punish the Nazis…whereas Corcoran felt that while the persecution of the Jews was wrong, it still was untenable to go to war for Jews or anybody else except for to retain the peace and freedom of the United States. But he made an exception; and that was communism. He hated it and willingly would commit us to any battle to defeat it. Entering World War II, however, was not his cup of tea.

Here my own views might be shared, although I didn’t give them to Corcoran since the interview was his and my opinions stayed apart from his. Our entry into the war…no matter how contrived it was by FDR…saved western Europe from two specters: Nazism and Communism. The original view of then Sen. Harry Truman that we should remain out and allow both evils to contest one another with us picking up the leavings sounded good but was impractical. The two might well have reunited and become impregnable. However the dreadful maneuvers to get us into the war by Roosevelt against the will of the United States…73% being unalterably opposed to involvement…seriously deserved his impeachment by the House if not conviction by the Senate. Saying that the end saved the West from the two tyrannies does not justify the immoral means by which we entered the war. (I’ve written extensively about that much earlier in these papers).

Now back to Corcoran.

Because Corcoran sided with Franco Spain against communist insurgents who were involved in the civil war, he took a decidedly different course than did Roosevelt whose Lefty views became increasingly pronounced. Tommy sealed an alliance with Jimmy Roosevelt (later after service as a liberal congressman from California to become a conservative backer of Ronald Reagan), Roosevelt’s son, and the two paved the way for the appointment by Roosevelt of Joseph P. Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain—Tommy recognizing that Kennedy was an ally against our ultimately going to war. Whether Jimmy recognized that is another thing…I would guess not.

At the same time, Tommy was stridently anti-communist and was not disinclined to do whatever it took to defeat communism. He did not feel as strongly about the Nazis as he did the Communists; of this there can be no doubt. All the while people like Henry Morganthau, Jr. the treasury secretary and Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, FDR’s oldest child, believed Corcoran was a bad influence and they petitioned the president to get rid of him.

Roosevelt could see their point but, grand Machiavellian that he was, decided to get rid of Corcoran as a White House presence and still make use of his invaluable political services. Roosevelt suggested that Corcoran leave the White House and establish a private corporation to help the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek obtain war materiel in the U. S., suggesting that Chiang’s survival also was important to keep China free of Communism (this was duplicitous but designed to influence Tommy, as it did). The Congress didn’t want us to get involved in the China-Japan war but the corporation would see to it that the views of Congress would be subverted. Roosevelt suggested that his own uncle, Frederick Delano be co-chairman of the company along with Chiang’s former finance minister Tse-ven Soong at the other co-chairman. Tommy disdained an official role in the corporation, serving as outside counsel—deciding to vary this with lobbying with the goal of making $1 million and returning to government without a worry as to income.

T. V. Soong was the brother of the famous Soong sisters (daughters of a successful printing magnate, Charlie Soong), one of whom was Mme. Chiang kai-Shek, wife of the president of the Republic of China and an ardent anti-communist. Her maiden name was Soong May-ling. Her sister, Soong Ching-ling was much the other way and married a revolutionary grandiosely called the Father of China, Sun Yet Sen…but who was all but officially Communist. A third sister, Soong Ai-ling didn’t do too badly either but became wife of the richest billionaire in China H. H. Kung.

Tommy managed back-street, highly compromised negotiations with Chiang with the help of Mme. Chiang which were illegal and illegitimate. They involved getting a retired flyer from World War I, Gen. Claire Chennault, in his late 60s, to start a voluntary private “air force” to help Chiang fight the Japanese. They called their force the “Flying Tigers.” Walt Disney, a friend of Chennault, drew the tiger emblem for the Chennault planes. Roosevelt at Tommy’s instruction signed a covert executive order approving the recruiting of U.S. reserve officers from the army, navy and Marines to wage a private war against Japan.

Did this bother Tommy the isolationist? No, because he saw it as a war not so much against Japan but a war to stabilize the anti-communist government of Chiang which even then was being beset by the forces of Mao Tse Tung, the communist. Corcoran recognized this because in talking with Mme. Chiang she gave him the info that her own sister was pulling for the Japanese to win so that the Communists could then wage a united front for the next step, the takeover of China. In the meantime, the divorced aging and vulnerable Claire Channault met a young lady, Chen Xiangmei, who served as inspiration for him to get even further involved—a young 20sh correspondent for the Central China News who would become Mrs. Chennault and a good friend of Tommy’s.

A crotchety old guy with aches and pains, unwell, who had been a flyer in World War I and chief of pursuit planes for the Army Air Force in the 1930s, mustered out with his life seemingly behind him…now transformed by a lithe, slender 20 something beauteous, smart young woman who told him young men were unattractive to her and that she was drawn to older men who had lived. It makes all the difference in the world—to him. And as it proved, to history.

Ah, how the complications of war and romance intersect in history. At any rate, in July, 1941 Chennault along with ten pilots and 150 mechanics were supplied with fake U. S. passports and sailed from San Francisco to Rangoon for the secret war against Japan. The pilots were to be paid $600 a month ($674 for a patrol leader) and were to receive a bounty of $500 for every Japanese plane they would shoot down. The Flying Tigers were instrumental in saving the Burma Road a key supply lifeline to China by destroying 296 planes, losing 24 men, fourteen while flying and 10 on the ground. Tommy wisely decided not to be paid by the shell corporation financed by FDR’s uncle but drew a $25,000 salary (then a top wage) from Henry J. Kaiser whom he first met when he helped Kaiser get government contracts from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

Was Tommy a born-again internationalist? Hell, no. A total anti-communist isolationist. How can that be possible? He was an isolationist but anti-Communist first. He saw his big role as opposing a Communist takeover of China by helping Chiang stave off Japan (and prepare to face Mao who was sitting on his hands during the Japan war, saving his strength for a hoped-for takeover of China after Japan won). If you think that’s complicated, contradictory, accept it: that’s the way he was.

All the time, Tommy wasn’t neglecting his own opportunities. He introduced his client Kaiser to the head of the Office of Production Management in FDR’s administration, William S. Knudsen, formerly of General Motors, an introduction that gained Kaiser contracts of $645 million at his ten shipyards. A glimpse into the future: Kaiser’s two big business partners were Stephen D. Bechtel and John A. McCone…names that will figure later, Bechtel and McCone starting the famed Bechtel construction company (which George Shultz would one day head) and with McCone ultimately becoming head of the CIA under JFK. Another early client of Tommy’s”: the Brown brothers, George R. and Herman, who started Brown & Root, now a piece of Halburton.

Tommy had moved from being the most important staffer in Roosevelt’s administration (having recommended and steering confirmation of Supreme Court picks like Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter and William O. Douglas, to maneuvering to get FDR to name Joe Kennedy to Britain, a fellow anti-Communist and isolationist, to pushing a private air force to enable Chiang to beat the Japanese and hold off the Chinese Communists. Is this a great country or what?

But now there appeared trouble on the horizon back in Washington with FDR. Of that, more later.


  1. Jimmy Roosevelt was later executive offcer to Evans Carlson -FDR's Man with Mao - in the Marine Raiders. Carlson, was a pariah among Marine regular officers especially Merrit Edson, also a Raider.

    One officer sated about Carlson that 'He might be Red, but ain't Yellow.'

    I can not remember if Corcorran ranup against the other great personality in China - Joe Stillwell. Tom, time this boy to re-read Tuchman's 'Stillwell and the American Experience in China'

  2. A wonderful recollection, but like many stories from memory it wanders a bit from history. If there was a "secret executive order," it was so deeply secretive that in 66 years it has never surfaced. (And I went through the FDR Library for two days in search of it.) Further, such an order would have been against Roosevelt's style, which was to give a wink and a nod, and let the underlings take care of it. In this case the underling was Lauchlin Currie, a naturalized citizen (he was Canadian born) who in the 1950s had his citizenship revoked because he was fingered as a Communist spy. (He was almost certainly a Communist, but the spying bit was never proved because he was outside the country and didn't come back.)

    Corcoran wrote a memoir, never published, called "The Pacific Wars" about his part in the creation of the Flying Tigers. Anna Chennault had what seemed to be the original, and made a copy for me. I quote from it in my history "Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942".

    Blue skies! -- Dan Ford