IRS as Weapon: History Repeats

Rep. Hamilton Fish III

By Mr. Curmudgeon:

The news is electric with stories of Obama’s IRS targeting Tea Party and conservative groups, and his harassment of news organizations. This is nothing new and did not begin with Richard Nixon.

The 1930s saw the country in the grips of an economic collapse the likes of which it had never seen. With millions of Americans out of work and starving, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Democratically-controlled Congress began an unprecedented expansion of federal power, determined not to let – as was said years later – “a crisis go to waste.” And FDR used federal power to secure his own.

The great legacy of Roosevelt’s Progressive policies is that they condemned America to repeat its evils under Republican and Democratic administrations, magnifying in malevolence at every appearance.

As Obama proved with his manhandling of the Associated Press, Roosevelt was no fan of the fawning news media. “I am all in favor of chloroforming for certain newspaper men,” said FDR of Washington correspondent, Arthur Kroc. “Now take the New York Times, for example,” Roosevelt told Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, “Not that I have got anything against [Times publisher] Arthur Sulzberger, but he’s just plain stupid.” FDR’s distain for Sulzberger may have had more to do with his deep-seated anti-Semitism than critical coverage by the Times of his administration. The president ordered Morgenthau to audit the newspaper.

“My father,” admitted son Elliott Roosevelt, “may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution.”

Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish III was on the receiving end of FDR’s “political retribution.” Having won a seat in Congress in 1920, Fish was a grizzled legislative veteran when FDR was elected president in 1933. Fish was an ardent isolationist, anti-communist and, to Roosevelt’s chagrin, staunch New Deal opponent. It didn’t help matters that Fish represented New York’s 26th Congressional District – the location of FDR’s Hudson Valley home.

Fish and his wife were subjected to IRS audits – twice. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Fish abandoned his isolationism and joined the 387 House members that voted for a declaration of war.

FDR may have had his hands full fighting a two-front conflict with the Axis Powers, but his war on domestic political enemies never ceased. Republican Sen. Clyde Reed of Kansas learned that Roosevelt had phone wiretaps on Fish and many other GOP representatives. Years later, Fish was asked why he didn’t complain to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. “There is a simple answer,” said Fish, “He would have told me there was nothing I could do about it.”

In their book “FDR Goes to War,” authors Burton Folsom Jr. and Anita Folsom recount that a retired FBI agent named William Sullivan told them, “Electronic devices were used freely all through World War II, with a minimum of controls. President Roosevelt made requests of various kinds.”

Roosevelt would use his considerable wartime pull to get the New York state legislature to gerrymander Fish’s congressional district. Fish lost his bid for re-election in 1944 … the year FDR died.


Capt. Fish
Sec. FDR

During World War I, Fish served as a Captain in the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment. The unit was comprised of African-American enlisted men. They boarded ship and sailed to the killing fields of France on December 13, 1917 – with no U.S. Navy destroyer escort to protect their vessel as it plied U-boat infested waters. The 369th was the first U.S. military unit to fight its way to the German Rhine. For gallantry in battle, Fish was inducted into the French Legion of Honor.

Reflecting on the accomplishments of his brave men, Fish remembered how the Navy abandoned them to the mercy of German submarines and their torpedoes; a decision that was most likely racially motivated. Fish dashed off an angry letter to express his outrage to then Under Secretary of the Navy … Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In 1920, the memories of the First World War still vivid in his mind, freshmen Congressman Fish sponsored House Resolution 67. The measure called for the burial in holy ground of an unidentified American soldier killed in France. Others, “known but to God” from later conflicts, would join that soldier at Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns.