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The Perils Of An Attorney General:

July 2024
4min read

I. The Radio Priest from Royal Oak

The handling of wartime seditionists was at all times a thorny problem, and especially in the case of Father Charles E. Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” of Royal Oak, Michigan. Coughlin had become prominent through his antiSemitic and anti-New Deal tirades on the air and in his weekly newspaper, Social Justice . According to Biddle, Father Coughlin’s opposition to the war effort and his predictions of defeat posed a very real danger, for even after Pearl Harbor the priest still commanded a huge following. Ordinarily, Biddle would have instituted legal action, but he feared that a sedition indictment against Coughlin would stir widespread resentment among the Catholic population and from the powerful isolationist press at a time when national unity had to be preserved at all costs. Another means of quieting the troublesome priest had to be found.

I asked Leo T. Crowley, a prominent Catholic layman and a close friend of the President whom I knew well and trusted, to lunch with me. He was then chairman of the board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He was very skillful at settling rows and cleaning up messes. I went over the priest’s past activities—and his future—in some detail. If the grand jury indicted Coughlin, I told Crowley, the resulting controversy might do infinite harm to the war effort. Why could we not appeal to the Church hierarchy to silence Coughlin? Surely the Church did not want that kind of a fight—and we would have to go through with it if we started. The point was to win the war—not to indict a priest for sedition. Who was the man, I asked him, to whom we could appeal, a man of real power, who could and would act? The grand jury might indict Father Coughlin at any moment.

Archbishop Edward Mooney of Detroit, he answered at once, was the only prelate who had authority and would exercise it. Father Coughlin was directly under him. “Do you know him?” “Well,” he said. “Will you see him at once?’ He agreed; he was certain he could persuade the Archbishop. He would fly out to Detroit the next day. Should we talk to the President first? On the contrary, Leo said, that would embarrass both of them—“I’ll bring it back tied up—then we can tell the President.”

In three days he was again in my office, smiling and rubbing his hands at the success of his mission. The Archbishop had agreed at once, without any stipulation or condition. He had sent for Father Coughlin and told him that he must stop all his propaganda, on the air or by pen, for the duration. Social Justice should not be published again. The Archbishop wanted his word. The alternative was being unfrocked. The priest agreed, and the Archbishop confirmed his understanding of the arrangement in a brief letter to the President. F.D.R. was delighted with the outcome. That was the end of Father Coughlin.

II. The Intractable Mr. Avery

“No act of mine as Attorney General,” Francis Biddle writes, “caused more sharp resentment and blame than the part I played in connection with the seizure by the government of the Chicago plant of Montgomery Ward ir Co. The criticism came chiefly from those who were opposed to President Roosevelt and the New Deal… But the seizure was, I regret to say, unnecessarily melodramatic, and had the quality of opéra bouffe, for which I must share the blame. Yet it was essential for the war effort that the step be taken.

The dispute revolved around the intransigence of the chairman of the board and president of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Avery, “a shrewd and thoroughly reactionary individualist,” in Mr. Biddle’s phrase, “who fought organized labor all his life.” For years he had successfully barred unions from his company. Then, in the early days of 1942, a C.I.O. local won an election in his Chicago plant. Avery refused to recognize it as a bargaining agent, and repeatedly defied the efforts of the War Labor Board to mediate. Since the resistance of such a large corporation could affect the precarious stability of wartime labor-management relations, thereby jeopardizing war production, the President ordered the Secretary of Commerce to seize the Chicago plant. Avery still balked, and as the situation deteriorated, Attorney General Biddle, the nation’s highest-ranking legal officer, was brought into the fray. Flying to Chicago, he confronted the government’s powerful adversary:

Mr. Avery walked into his office at five minutes before ten. He had evidently got wind of our arrival—there was a reporter at the airport when we got there. I told him that we were extremely sorry to interfere with his business, that we were obeying orders, acting under the President’s direction issued under the law. I asked him to co-operate. Avery bluntly refused to do so. I suggested he direct that the company’s books be turned over to the government bookkeepers, so that a new set of books could be opened. This, too, he declined to do. He said that he was the boss, and would do things his own way. Wayne Taylor [the Undersecretary of Commerce, who had been directing the operation up to that point] suggested Avery call a meeting of his staff and ask them to co-operate with us. Avery said he would do just the opposite—“To hell with the government.” There was a pause. I was deeply shocked. This reckless old man was paralyzing the national war effort that had been built up with such infinite pains. Turning to Taylor I said: “Take him out!” Avery looked at me venomously, summoning the most contemptuous words he could think of; and finally—“You New Dealer!” he managed to say. Taylor suggested to the officer in command of the half dozen soldiers who were waiting that, “on advice of counsel,” he should remove Mr. Avery. Under the directions of the officer, who kept apologizing to Avery, two soldiers gingerly picked him up and put him on a “hand-seat,” crossing their hands and gripping each other’s wrists under him, while he sat, comfortably relaxed, and as dignified as the circumstances of his ride permitted, his hands crossed benignly over his stomach. They put him on an elevator which bore him to the ground floor, and finally deposited him near a “no parking” sign where his car and chauffeur were waiting. He bowed to the crowd, smiled frostily, and stepped into his car. One photographer who somehow had been locked out of the building when the government took over was

there when this solemn and absurd little group arrived, and managed to get an excellent photograph of Avery (at left) carried by the soldiers, before he got into his car—an exhibition that was destined to flame with accompanying headlines in every paper across the country: U.S. TROOPS EJECT AVERY … The picture did more to rouse the country to Avery’s defense than any argument on the merits of the controversy. Jesse Jones called me from Washington: “I hear you’ve been wrapping packages all day,” he said. “Only one,” I told him.

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