Fish, Hamilton

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Fish, Hamilton

(b. 7 December 1888 in Garrison, New York; d. 18 January 1991 in Cold Spring, New York), sports hero and military officer who, as a congressman, became a leading conservative and isolationist critic of the New Deal.

Fish, the son of Hamilton Fish, a politician and lawyer, and Emily Mann, a homemaker, was a member of a New York political dynasty that traced its roots back to Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor who surrendered Manhattan to the English in 1664. His grandfather, also Hamilton Fish, was the Empire State’s senator and governor before becoming the U.S. secretary of state. His father served in the U.S. House of Representatives, as Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and in the U.S. Treasury Department. Fish’s own son later served in Congress. Befitting a member of the Hudson Valley aristocracy, Fish was educated at the Chateau de Lancy in Geneva, Switzerland; at Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts; and at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, before he entered Harvard in 1906 as a member of the storied class of 1910. Strongly built at six feet three inches tall and weighing 200 pounds, he captained the Harvard football team and was named tackle on Walter Camp’s “all-time, All-American team.” Fish is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. After graduating cum laude with a B.A., Fish studied law for the 1910–1911 academic year at Harvard and then traveled to tsarist Russia. On returning he won election to the New York Assembly as a Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Progressive. During Fish’s tenure in Albany (1912–1916), his friend Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to recruit him for the Democratic Party.

When the United States entered World War I, Fish was commissioned (15 July 1917) a captain in a unit that subsequently became the 369th Infantry, the “Harlem Hell-fighters.” As the white commander of black soldiers, Fish demonstrated his lifelong commitment to civil rights and black advancement long before a national movement emerged. His unit spent more time in the trenches than any other American regiment and suffered 30 percent casualties. Fish won a Silver Star, the croix de guerre, and a citation in General Orders. He graduated from the Army Staff College before his discharge as a major (14 May 1919).

Fish’s career in national politics began in 1919, after Edward Plan’s unexpected resignation created a vacancy in the Twenty-sixth Congressional District. Fish was elected to the House of Representatives in 1920. On his first day in the House, Fish introduced a resolution to create a tomb for America’s “unknown soldier.” His commitment to his comrades was absolute. He helped found the American Legion and later supported bonus payments for veterans. In 1920 he married Grace Chapin, with whom he had two children. During his first decade in the House, Fish endorsed antilynching legislation, prison reform, German food relief, and prison sentences for those who had betrayed President Warren Harding. Although he supported traditional Republican positions on balanced budgets, high tariffs, and tight money, his several forays at higher office failed. Hardly a model isolationist, he endorsed American membership in the World Court, participation in disarmament conferences, and the Kellogg Pact (1928). Disillusioned during a visit to the Soviet Union, Fish convinced the House to form a special committee to examine domestic communist activity. The investigation found little (one raid netted only lettuce), and its harsh recommendations in 1931 were ignored. But Fish became notable for his “wind-milling arms, roof-raising voice and not-quite-legal logic.”

The coming of the New Deal transformed Congress from a quiet Republican preserve into a dynamo of action. Fish informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 24 February 1933 that Congress would provide “any power that you may need,” but he soon viewed the torrent of legislation as dangerous to “individual liberties and human rights.” He believed that recognition of the Soviet Union was unwise. When Roosevelt argued that religious freedom still existed in the Soviet Union, Fish scornfully said the president should invite Joseph Stalin to the United States and baptize him in the White House pool. Gradually Fish came to see Roosevelt as a class traitor, and his opinion of the reform administration turned rancid. As the ranking Republican on both the Rules and Foreign Affairs Committees, Fish supported Social Security and the minimum wage, but he also called for withdrawal of American troops from the Far East, naval parity with Japan, a referendum on any war, and nondiscriminatory arms embargoes. Communism and foreign war were his greatest fears. In October 1938 Fish, standing on a platform festooned with swastikas in Madison Square Garden, accused the administration of undermining relations with Germany, Japan, and Italy. He subsequently organized the Committee to Keep America out of Foreign Wars (1939). During Fish’s trip to Europe (August 1939), the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop refused Fish’s offer to mediate the Danzig (Gdansk) question. After 1940, certain that President Roosevelt secretly sought to enter the conflict, Fish opposed repeal of the arms embargo and twice voted against conscription.

As a congressman Fish loyally served his constituents, including one named Roosevelt. But during the fall of 1940 both the president and Wendell Willkie found Fish’s attitudes appalling and opposed his renomination. On 28 October, Roosevelt explained to an appreciative Democratic crowd that his efforts to aid Great Britain would never have borne fruit if “the decision had been left to [Congressman Joseph] Martin, [Congressman Bruce] Barton, and Fish.” President Roosevelt had practiced the cadence, and the audience loved it. Willkie clearly perceived defeat in their chanted response. Nevertheless, Fish was easily reelected, and in 1941 he led the Republican opposition to a “fascist” Lend-Lease Act that made Roosevelt a “dictator.” In response Roosevelt refused to let Fish enter the White House, although some observers believed the reason was not politics but a long-forgotten slight to Roosevelt’s mother. The animosity continued despite Fish’s goal of “final victory, cost what it may in blood, treasure, and tears.” In 1942 one of his aides, George Hill, was convicted of allowing proNazi groups to use his office’s franking privileges, yet Fish was still powerful enough to survive politically. Fish’s repeated offers to lead black troops again were ignored. In November 1944 disfavor and a district gerrymander finally cost Fish reelection.

In the postwar United States, Fish quietly managed his business holdings and became a prolific author. Publisher of Today’s World from 1946 to 1947, he was militantly anticommunist, and in 1954 he founded the isolationist American Political Action Committee. Fish sought internal strength for the United States and believed foreign commitments would cause war. He testified before the House against joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1955. Fish’s first wife died in 1960. In 1967 he married Marie Choubaroff Blackton; they had no children. His second wife died in 1970, and in 1976 he married Alice Curtis Desmond. They had no children and divorced in 1984. His series of anticommunist, anti-Roosevelt volumes culminated in Tragic Deception (1983), published when he was ninety-five. Fish lived long enough to watch with “enormous pleasure” the rebirth of American conservatism after 1970. In 1988 he married Lydia Ambrogio. On his 100th birthday the unrepentant aristocrat recalled his vendetta with the president, stating, “I don’t hate Roosevelt—but frankly I despise him.” Fish died of heart failure and is interred in the family plot at St. Philip’s Church in the Highlands in Garrison.

Fish’s papers are in the Alice Desmond and Hamilton Fish Public Library in Garrison. Fish’s beliefs are presented in his autobiography Memoir of an American Patriot: Hamilton Fish (1991), which has an epilogue by Brian Mitchell; as well as in his other works The Challenge of World Communism (1946), The Red Plotters (1947), FDR: The Other Side of the Coin (1976), The American People are Living on Top of a Nuclear Volcano (1976), and Tragic Deception: FDR and America’s Involvement in World War II (1983). He also wrote New York State: The Battleground of the Revolutionary War (1976). Fish is remembered primarily as an unthinking isolationist, but more nuanced interpretations are in Richard Kay Hanks, “Hamilton Fish and American Isolationism, 1920–1944,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Riverside, 1971; and Anthony C. Troncone, “Hamilton Fish Senior and the Politics of American Nationalism, 1912-1945,” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1993. An obituary is in the New York (Times (20 Jan. 1991).

George J. Lankevich