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The Perils Of An Attorney General:
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
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.
“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: