I first met Hamilton Fish when he was 99 years old, at a monthly meeting of World War 1 veterans in New York City. He had mammoth shoulders, moved with a walker, had bad teeth, and an assertive manner when he spoke that was full of dignity. He was a newlywed, recently married to his housekeeper. He called his French poodle "my baby." A monthly harangue at those meetings, by Mr. Fish and by my old friend Judge Dorothy Frooks (a recruiter for the navy during WW1), was over how much they disrespected FDR, sixty years in his grave. Anger over Roosevelt's third and fourth terms hadn't diminished in them. "Ham" Fish was disgusted over the historical cachet Roosevelt had. He considered the man a sneak, although I heard him say he never met Roosevelt once he became president.
Occasionally I'd try and get Ham Fish to talk about WW1 with me. I'm a First World War buff--the reason I attended the meetings. One or two people always interposed themselves between us. I thought they were protecting him from me--which was irritating because I'm a nice, polite man. I realize now it was the other way around. Hamilton Fish's temper went off like a rocket at the mention of certain issues. For example: At 100 years old they took Mr. Fish to a First World War memorial service in Washington D.C. He used a wheelchair by then. Some of the vets told me he started yelling when he saw Russians in uniform sitting on the speaker platform. His caregivers wheeled him away. I once heard him refer to his (liberal) Congressman son in a guttural voice as advocating "a very dangerous position." As he spoke he somberly shook his head. That stuck in my mind, although at the time I didn't know what it was about.
From his autobiography I get the impression Hamilton Fish was a highly principled man who was often at the center of large things, but who paid the price for disregarding pasteboard self-promotion. Politics require unctuous self-promotion and drum-beating in large measure, with a chameleon's ability to change colors and shift shapes. Lesser men with vacillating convictions went farther than he because they played the change game. And they made certain credit glittered upon their shoulders like star dust. Ham Fish viewed FDR as a fake who forgot his early convictions and bent with the wind to be president, and stay president, and get his own way with Congress and the Supreme Court, and was a publicity hound who twisted public perceptions through the media. Hamilton Fish's beliefs by contrast were wrought iron. Right or wrong, they never bent:
Communists weren't any more moral during World War II than they had been during the 1920s and 30s, he writes, and they exposed their skunkhood to the world again at the war's end. FDR wanted to throw the Constitution out the window and govern like a dictator; even if his ideas were good his dictatorial tactics were egregious--to be resisted and denounced. Anti-lynching laws should have been passed and too bad if Southern Democrats were distressed and embarrassed by them. We should stay out of wars unless we ourselves are attacked. Who cared what sort of government [...] Germany had?. That was Europe's lookout. Hold talks and form alliances rather than fight.
Fish's personality was pronounced, his hand heavy on his life tiller. He preferred diplomacy to resolve world problems but refused to bob and weave in Congress; the old Harvard football captain charged right through the middle of the line. He smacked up against Roosevelt doing that and made the president angry. In old age he seems let down by the unfairness of how these clashes are remembered. He had done so much, yet other politicians of his day ended up more admired. Roosevelt is even loved. But Roosevelt hadn't trusted the people, writes Hamilton Fish. That's the reason he acted like a dictator. Rather than asking voters or Congress to sanction his New Deal policies through consensus-building, he rammed them through on his own like a little king. He didn't trust the people to do what was good for them. He was a threat to constitutional government.
I think Ham Fish was disappointed history hadn't favored his version of events, with their political implications. His version is important. It is supported by more than a few facts. There is absolutely no doubt that Mr. Fish and other non-interventionists who delayed United States entry into WWII until the [...] army smashed itself against the Soviet one saved tens of thousands of American lives. This musses up the symmetry of popular history without being reversionary. But his version is popularly ignored. Deep down I think he felt before he died that it wasn't fair his version was forgotten.