Dean J. Kotlowski has written a strong biography of former governor of Indiana and high commissioner to the Philippines, Paul V. McNutt. An efficient and well-researched book, Kotlowski offers a nuanced interpretation of the notable aspects of McNutt’s life, while also integrating the obscure events in which McNutt played a role, such as his efforts to help 1,300 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression settle in the Philippines and his oversight of the United States’ first biological weapons program. A gifted politician, McNutt very well could have been president of the United States. However, Kotlowski reveals that McNutt’s political miscalculations and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s political maneuverings ultimately thwarted his dream of occupying the oval office.
Beginning with McNutt’s formative years in the early twentieth century, Kotlowski shows that McNutt had a knack for leadership and a penchant for politics early on. These skills, honed through his experiences as an officer in World War I, a law professor, and national commander of the American Legion, helped mold McNutt into a powerful player in the Democratic Party and a presidential contender. Evident throughout these chapters is McNutt’s sense of duty and [End Page 271] loyalty, traits that Kotlowski successfully carries throughout the book.
Kotlowski then focuses on McNutt’s time as governor of Indiana, high commissioner to the Philippines, and head of the Federal Security Agency. Ideologically, many of McNutt’s political positions with regard to foreign and domestic policy were tied to a notion of security. Thus, McNutt championed New Deal–style reforms designed to ensure people’s economic security, while also advocating military preparedness and anticommunism well before such ideas made it into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Kotlowski notes that McNutt’s political positions “provided a notable link between the two phases of American liberalism: the New Deal and the early Cold War” (p. 406).
Elected governor in 1932, McNutt’s administration quickly pushed through a host of reforms that reorganized Indiana government, altered the tax code, and regulated the banking system. These achievements were notable in their scope and in their timing, as Kotlowski notes that McNutt’s administration managed to finish these efforts just days after Roosevelt took office and began the New Deal. Despite drawing some criticism for his administration’s partisanship and machine-style approach, McNutt’s successes as governor positioned him for national office.
However, Kotlowski shows that McNutt struggled politically after leaving Indiana, lacking the support of his own political machine and frequently checked by a president who considered him a political threat. Thus, while Roosevelt rewarded McNutt by making him high commissioner to the Philippines in exchange for his support in the 1936 election, the post also kept McNutt out of the political limelight.
Kotlowski reveals that McNutt’s own miscalculations also hindered him. Having positioned himself to be the Democratic nominee for vice president in the 1940 election, McNutt’s loyalty to his party and president kept him from challenging Roosevelt’s pick of Henry Wallace for the nomination. This challenge would have likely succeeded and could have positioned McNutt to be Roosevelt’s successor. However, Kotlowski explains that the 1940 election represented [End Page 272] the beginning of the end of McNutt’s political career, as, although McNutt would run the Federal Security Agency through 1945 and would return to the Philippines, “McNutt shrank as a possible candidate for national office” (p. 303).
Overall, Kotlowski provides a compelling interpretation of Paul V. McNutt. Although later parts of the book, in particular the discussion of McNutt’s struggles with the War Manpower Commission during World War II, lack the pacing of earlier sections, Kotlowski breathes life into the story of a character whose career intersected with the Depression, colonialism, war, and communism. The book thus speaks to the virtue of biography as a vehicle for interpreting the past, as McNutt’s career offers insight on many of the major issues in American politics during the 1930s and 1940s.