The First Cold War Liberal?: Paul V. McNutt and the Idea of Security from the 1920s to the 1940s
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The First Cold War Liberal?
Paul V. McNutt and the Idea of Security from the 1920s to the 1940s

During the first half of the twentieth century, few politicians possessed a more diverse résumé than that of Paul V. McNutt. In the 1920s, McNutt served as state and national commander of the American Legion. As governor of Indiana from 1933 to 1937, he backed the New Deal and went on to become one of the nation’s strongest governors. He later served Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman as federal security administrator (1939–45), high commissioner to the Philippines (1937–39 and 1945–46), chair of the War Manpower Commission (1942–45), and ambassador to the Philippines (1946–47). McNutt hoped to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1940, but FDR’s decision to run for a third term ended that prospect. He next sought the nomination for vice president, until Roosevelt indicated his preference [End Page 540] for Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. A possible candidate for president and a viable candidate for vice president in 1940, McNutt showed what was and what might have been in American politics in the mid-twentieth century.1 According to the historian Lewis Gould, he was a “substantial political figure in the Roosevelt Era.”2

In one respect, McNutt’s significance extended beyond the age of FDR. He may have been one of the first, if not the first, of the Cold War liberals. To be sure, it is hard to pinpoint the first of anything, let alone in an expansive and evolving tradition as American liberalism. Yet it is not hard to see McNutt as an early proponent of what postwar conservatives would chide as the Welfare/Warfare State, for he advocated economic security for Americans at home as well as national security for America abroad.3 Although liberals emphasized different issues after 1945—such as civil rights for racial minorities—the idea of security lay at the heart of their thinking.4 “Job security, life-cycle security, financial security, market security,” the historian David M. Kennedy has stressed, “however it might be defined, achieving security was the leitmotif of virtually everything the New Deal attempted.”5 According to the historian Alonzo L. Hamby, FDR set the parameters, “emphasizing welfare statism and government management of the economy” and “the concept that American liberal values should be defended and extended in the larger world.”6 From the New Deal’s economic security state, one sees a logical progression to the national security state of the late 1940s. To contain communism, the Truman administration, the historian Michael J. Hogan noted, “unified the armed forces, expanded the defense budget, harnessed science to military purpose, and forged new institutions . . . like the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.”7 This legacy, in both domestic and foreign policy, would be accepted by Republican moderates such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, who McNutt knew and befriended during his first stint as high commissioner to the Philippines.8 In the shadow of depression, world war, and cold war, then, the federal government evolved into an instrument to protect Americans from economic insecurity, subversives, and predatory dictators.

McNutt’s reputation as an early Cold War liberal rests on three components. The first was a set of experiences that allowed McNutt to form a holistic perspective on security. Service in the American Legion had inured him to hate Communists, to champion a realistic foreign policy, and to trumpet military preparedness to protect the United States from external foes. Then, as governor, McNutt secured greater relief for Indiana’s unemployed as well as [End Page 541] pensions for aged Hoosiers. As federal security administrator in the late 1930s, he oversaw much of Roosevelt’s New Deal and was able to refine his thoughts on the responsibility of the state to its citizens. Moreover, as high commissioner to the Philippines, he demonstrated a strong interest in geopolitics, stressing that the United States must maintain a defense perimeter in Asia and retain the Philippines as an outpost of American power. On top of that, by the late 1930s he openly abhorred totalitarianism and sought...