April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
On April 15 Sen. John B. Kendrick of Wyoming introduced a resolution requesting information about “all proposed operating agreements” involving a government petroleum reserve known as Teapot Dome. The site, in Kendrick’s home state, had been set aside to provide a secure source of fuel for naval vessels, and when local oilmen heard rumors that it had secretly been leased, they asked Kendrick to investigate. He and Wyoming’s congressman, Franklin W. Mondell, had made informal inquiries at the Interior and Navy Departments and gotten a runaround. Kendrick, a Democrat, was not inclined to let charges against the Republican administration drop so easily.
Kendrick’s resolution quickly passed the Senate, and a few days later the Interior Department admitted that Teapot Dome had indeed been leased without bids being asked for. Secretary Albert Fall explained that time had been of the essence because the owners of adjoining lands were depleting the field by setting up wells along its edge. And since tensions with Japan were starting to flare up in the Pacific, Fall had thought it prudent to keep quiet his development of Teapot Dome, as well as of a similar naval reserve in California. The explanation satisfied most congressmen and the few members of the public who took any notice of the affair.
But Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin smelled a rat. After decades spent fighting big business and government graft, he was not about to accept the private leasing of oil fields worth hundreds of millions of dollars (“a special privilege in value beyond the dreams of Croesus,” he called it) on the basis of a few bland assurances. On April 28 he pointed out to the Senate that during the prior three weeks stock speculators had made a thirty-million-dollar killing on shares of oil companies involved in the leases. Calling the Interior Department the “sluiceway for 90 percent of the corruption in government,” he demanded a full investigation. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution to that effect the next day.
Following this two-week flurry of attention, Teapot Dome seemed to disappear. Since La Follette was too busy to attend to the probe himself, Sen. Thomas J. Walsh of Montana took the reins. He spent a year and a half meticulously gathering evidence, chasing down leads, untangling corporate finances, and following money trails. During that time Secretary Fall retired, President Harding died, and development of the oil fields followed its normal course. By the time of the first Senate hearing, in October 1923, Teapot Dome had been virtually forgotten.
It did not stay forgotten for long. Walsh’s investigation revealed a tangle of perjury, influence buying, hush money, coded telegrams, unsecured loans, suitcases full of cash and bonds, secret meetings in private railcars, and mysterious improvements on Fall’s foundering New Mexico ranch. It also revealed a clueless Navy Secretary who was ignorant of the most basic workings of his department and thus an easy dupe for oil-business sharps. The Senate hearings stretched on for a year, and the last criminal prosecution was not concluded until the early 1930s. By that time Teapot Dome had become shorthand for a series of scandals that had permeated the Harding administration. It also symbolized the moral decadence of a freewheeling era that, as the Depression took hold, came to seem as remote as ancient Babylon.