Calvin Coolidge Goes to Cuba

By Kaleena Fraga

Some of you may know that I’ve started a podcast with a former colleague of mine. Yesterday in Travel focuses on moments in travel history—but there’s quite a bit of overlap with what we like to discuss here at History First.

In our last episode, my co-host and I discussed President Obama’s 2016 trip to Cuba. As part of our discussion, we touched on Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 trip to Cuba and man—that’s a fantastic story.

Today, we’re going to delve into Coolidge’s 1928 trip. At the time, it seemed like a rather serene affair. The wild truth about the trip didn’t come out until decades later.

Why did Calvin Coolidge go to Cuba?

Thirty years before Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since then, the United States, empowered by the Platt Amendment, reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. (The 1903 amendment also leased Guantanamo Bay to the Americans.)

By 1928, attitudes toward the Americans had soured. Even Coolidge, who expressed little interest in foreign affairs, recognized the need for action. His term in office lasted between 1923 and 1929—a lull of a decade between WWI and WWII—and many of the foreign affair issues of the day had to do with American intervention in Latin America. (Coolidge himself had only left the country once before—for his honeymoon in Canada.)

Coolidge went to Cuba in 1928 to attend the Pan American Conference in Havana. The president and his entourage sought to persuade delegates away from passing anti-U.S. resolutions. Many Latin American countries critiqued American military interventions in places like Panama, Hondorus, Nicaragua, and Haiti, and Coolidge wanted to keep the peace. (This was not helped by the fact that Coolidge ordered an invasion of Nicaragua as he prepared to depart for Cuba.)

In Cuba, Coolidge extended an olive branch. He emphasized—in an attempt to quell criticism—that all the countries in the Pan American conference were equal. Coolidge focused on “peace and goodwill” in his public remarks—although he arrived in Cuba on a massive WWI battleship called Texas.

Overall, Coolidge saw the trip to Cuba as a way to begin a campaign for world peace. The ensuing Kellogg-Briand Pact, a worldwide peace treaty that banned war, hoped to avoid the violence of WWI in the future. Of course, sadly, the world leaped into the bloody conflict of WWII not soon after the Pact was created in 1928.

What happened during the trip to Cuba?

If you read the newspapers of the day, you would have the impression that a serious president had conducted his serious mission, seriously. After all, this was a serious time, right in the apex of the Prohibition era in the United States—not that Coolidge was much of a drinker.

But thirty years after the trip, one of the traveling members of the press revealed that Coolidge’s trip to Cuba wasn’t the stodgy affair that it had seemed in the papers. Beverly Smith Jr. had accompanied the president as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1958, he revealed that much of the trip never made the papers.

The 6 day junket to Cuba and return had in it elements of pageantry, drama, comedy, and farce…it became, in its latter stages, a large scale smuggling operation. The whole show took on a special illicit zest because it was conducted under the dour, dead-pan aegis of President Coolidge—Silent Cal, Cautious Cal, austere symbol of the old Puritan virtues, staunch upholder of the Prohibition Amendment.

Beverly Smith, Jr.

The trip got wild from the get-go. Once the party traveling with the president arrived in Key West, they quickly realized that—despite the strict state of Prohibition around the country—alcohol still flowed freely in the bars of this Floridian city.

The president went to bed at a respectful hour. After all, people called him “Silent” Cal not “Fun” Cal. (Someone—perhaps Alice Roosevelt Longworth, although she later denied it—once described Calvin Coolidge as having the expression of a man “who has been weaned on a pickle.”)

When Coolidge’s secretary announced that the president had gone to bed, the party began. “With these words,” Smith wrote thirty years later, “the dignity of the tour began to crack. It was as though mice had been informed that the cat was away.”

The party lasted all night, with many people stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning. The next day, one reporter was so drunk that he fell into the ocean while boarding the ship to Cuba. Smith, looking back, noted that at the time many Americans saw it as their patriotic duty to “[sluice] down any drinks within reach.” Clearly, the traveling press corp felt up to this particular patriotic challenge.

Once the USS Texas landed in Cuba, Coolidge and his party were greeted by a massive crowd—perhaps up to 200,000—of cheering Cubans. In her biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes wrote, “Thousands climbed onto the Morro Castle and the rooftops of buildings, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the battleship USS Texas as it moved into the harbor.”

Smith noted that even the usually subdued Coolidge cracked a smile at the reception. “[The president] showed more animation than usual. He bowed, he smiled, he took off his silk hat.” The crowd included—to Coolidge’s horror, once he made the realization—an enthusiastic group of “highly painted young ladies” from a nearby brothel.

The president once again retired early. Once again, the press took to the streets. There, the group of reporters made a thrilling discovery. One of their own had an uncanny likeness to the president. “I suspect,” wrote Smith, “that there are some older Havanas who believe that Cal, outside office hours, was a gay dog.” (Remember—this was the 1920s!)

At one point during their stay in Cuba, Coolidge was presented with a diplomatic conundrum. At the estate of Gerardo Machado, the president of Cuba, Coolidge was offered an alcoholic drink. At least—someone tried to offer him one. And what was the president to do? He couldn’t take the drink in front of the press corps. But a refusal could be seen as a diplomatic faux pas. Smith wrote:

“Cal himself, of course, was the cynosure of the drama. As the tray approached from his left, he wheeled artfully to the right, seeming to admire a portrait on the wall. The tray came closer. Mr. Coolidge wheeled right another 90 degrees, pointing out to Machado the beauties of the tropical verdure. By the time he completed his 360-degree turn, the incriminating tray had passed safely beyond him. Apparently, he had never seen it. His maneuver was a masterpiece of evasive action.”

Beverly Smith, Jr.

As the presidential party prepared to pack up and leave—back to dreary, dry America—the press suddenly got word that they would not need to go through customs in Florida. So…if no one was going to check their bags…

Yes—a mad dash ensued to buy as much alcohol as possible to smuggle home. (They were just doing their patriotic duty, right?) Some reporters bought extra suitcases. Others threw out their clothing to make room for all that rum.

Smith wondered if the president secretly knew. “Was it, incredibly, Calvin himself, out of that quirky humor which was supposed to lurk behind the vinegary Vermont visage?” Smith wondered thirty years later.

Maybe Cal did have a secret sense of humor. He certainly had a simple, straight-forward way of doing things. One of History First’s favorite anecdotes about Silent Cal is that, when asked if he would run for a second term, he handed his press secretary a note that said simply: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.” (Probably a good decision. The economy crashed in 1929.)

Calvin Coolidge stated simply that he would not run for reelection | Library of Congress

If you’re curious to learn more about President Obama’s trip to Cuba in 2016, then I encourage you to take a listen to our podcast episode! We get into how the trip happened, what happened during the trip—spoiler alert: it wasn’t as wild as Cal’s trip, but, then again, maybe we’ll learn more in 30 years—and what Obama’s trip to Cuba means for Americans who want to go there today.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Herbert Hoover Edition

By Aaron Bauer

Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.

His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.

At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.

The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.

Hoover CRBThe organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.

His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:

                                                    I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,

When it comes to loving you.

By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”

Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:

“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”

One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.

With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Coolidge and HooverRepublican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.

Sources:

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte

Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye