What to Do With Hamilton Fish?

Garrison library reviewing founder’s Nazi sympathies

Anita Prentice, board chair of the Desmond-Fish Public Library, and Dede Farabaugh, its director, stopped at a table displaying a new collection. 

Arranged in a semicircle, the book covers blared ominous titles: Black Mail, a history of franking, the system that allows elected officials to send free mail; Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States; and George Sylvester Viereck: German-American Propagandist.

The books, along with two dissertations, represent the first step in what may be a long process for the Garrison library: deciding how to respond to pro-Nazi sentiments attributed to Hamilton Fish III, the late U.S. House member who in 1980 founded the library with his third wife, Alice Curtis Desmond. 

Rep. Hamilton Fish III being interviewed in a barbershop in 1939, soon after he returned from a visit to Nazi GermanyAcme Photo, via MSNBC

Rep. Hamilton Fish III being interviewed in a barbershop in 1939, soon after he returned from a visit to Nazi Germany (Acme Photo, via MSNBC)

In October, Rachel Maddow devoted a segment of her MSNBC podcast series Ultra to Fish’s statements in support of the Nazis and the use of his franking privileges as a congressman to disseminate anti-war materials provided by Viereck, a U.S.-based Nazi propagandist seeking to keep the U.S. out of World War II. 

This year, a subcommittee created by the 26-member Desmond-Fish board (which includes Hamilton Fish V, a grandson of Hamilton Fish III) has not only been researching the history of Fish’s relationship with Nazi Germany and generating ideas for public programs, but taking up the question of whether the library should be renamed. 

“We don’t know what the end result will be, but it is something that has to be addressed,” said Farabaugh. 

Both Farabaugh and Prentice said they were aware of Fish’s opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II but were surprised when some patrons alerted them to the content of Maddow’s podcast (msnbc.com). 

Fish is the focus of the fifth part of the eight-part series, which is described by MSNBC as “the all-but-forgotten true story of good, old-fashioned American extremism getting supercharged by proximity to power.”

The library issued a statement in January that condemned “all anti-Jewish actions, statements and beliefs.” To investigate, at the board’s meeting in January, trustees approved a resolution forming a subgroup of its Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee. The subgroup includes board members, staff and residents. 

Hamilton Fish V said that his grandfather’s experiences leading an all-Black regiment into combat during World War I influenced his opposition to U.S. involvement in World World II, and he denounced Maddow’s reporting. 

“When you pick out one or two highlights, there’s a huge potential for getting it wrong,”’ he said. “For all of his extreme politics and behavior and his associations throughout his life, setting him up as a poster child for an antisemitic sympathetic Nazi is just not accurate.” 

Hamilton Fish: A Guide

Hamilton Fish IHamilton Fish (1808-1893)
Fish served in the U.S. House from 1843-1845, as New York’s lieutenant governor in 1848, as governor in 1849-1850, in the U.S. Senate from 1851-1857 and as secretary of state under President Ulysses S. Grant from 1869-1877. He died in Garrison at age 85 and is buried at St. Philip’s Church.

Hamilton Fish IIHamilton Fish II (1849-1936)
Fish was born in Albany while his father was governor of New York. He attended Columbia University and Columbia Law School and was elected to 12 terms in the state Assembly representing Putnam County. He was the assistant treasurer of the U.S. from 1903-1908 before serving in the U.S. House for a single term. He lived in Garrison and is buried at St. Philip’s Church.

Hamilton Fish III (1888-1991)
Born in Garrison, Fish graduated in 1910 from Harvard, where he was an All-American football player. He served in the state Assembly from 1914-1916 representing Putnam County, and during World War I commanded a troop of Black enlisted men who became known as the Harlem Hellfighters. A Republican, Fish served in the U.S. House from 1920-1945. He lived to be 102 and is buried at St. Philip’s Church.

Hamilton Fish IVHamilton Fish IV (1926-1996)
Fish, a Republican, represented parts of the Hudson Valley for 13 terms in the U.S. House between 1969 and 1995. He graduated from Harvard in 1949 and attended the New York University School of Law. In 1974, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he voted in favor of the first two impeachment articles against President Richard Nixon. Fish was born and died in Washington, D.C.

hamilton-fish-vHamilton Fish V (b. 1951)
Fish, who serves on the Desmond-Fish library board, is a Harvard graduate, former publisher of The Nation and The New Republic, and two-time Democratic candidate for Congress. He is currently editor and publisher of The Washington Spectator.

While Maddow’s podcast focused on Fish’s statements supporting Hitler’s regime and the franking scandal involving Viereck, the library found two dissertations devoted to his isolationist views that noted some of his contradictions. 

For instance, while Fish in 1938 addressed a group of German Americans during a German Day rally at Madison Square Garden, according to one of the dissertations, in that same year he spoke on behalf of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League and sponsored legislation banning Nazi-organized associations, clubs and military organizations. 

He denounced Germany’s persecution of Jews, but once said that he preferred “the Hitler regime to any form of Bolshevism, with its class and religious hatred and avowal of world revolution.” 

Fish faced allegations that he was antisemitic, a charge he always denied, and associated with people like Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who used his national radio show to make anti-Jewish statements. A group that supported U.S. intervention in World War II claimed in 1941 that Fish allowed his franking privileges to be used to mail antisemitic literature. 

“We’ve heard from people who feel hurt and don’t want to come to the library if it has the name Hamilton Fish on it, and we’ve heard from people who feel differently,” said Prentice. “So, we need to have a process that can enable all those voices to be heard.” 

audubon head shotWhat to Do With Audubon?
Three board members for the National Audubon Society quit after the organization voted this month to keep the name of John James Audubon (1785-1851), who enslaved people and held racist views. The vote capped a process that took more than a year and involved research on Audubon and survey responses from more than 2,300 people, according to the organization. The society outlines its namesake’s sins at audubon.org/content/john-james-audubon.

Meanwhile, the board of the New York chapter voted on Monday (March 20) to drop Audubon and come up with new name that is more “inclusive and welcoming.” It will remain an affiliate of the national organization.

At the forefront of that process is the subcommittee. In addition to researching Fish’s history, its members have been generating ideas for programming and reviewing policies that other institutions, including colleges and museums, have for renaming buildings. 

“Inevitably, there’s going to be people who are unhappy with the result whatever it is,” said Farabaugh. “But if we have a good process that is transparent and accessible, hopefully you can’t fault the outcome, even if you don’t agree.” 

In the meantime, the library has postponed an exhibit it had planned at the Putnam History Museum about Nicholas Fish, Hamilton Fish III’s great-grandfather. Instead, it selected Jews Don’t Count, by David Baddiel, for a “community read” scheduled for April 18. 

The Desmond-Fish library has assembled a collection of books and dissertations related to Hamilton Fish III and his views on World War II and the Nazis. Photo by L. Sparks

The Desmond-Fish library has assembled a collection of books and dissertations related to Hamilton Fish III and his views on World War II and the Nazis. (Photo by L. Sparks)

The Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee is contemplating other programs, including additional readings and panel discussions. Hamilton Fish V said he has stepped down as the committee’s co-chair. 

“I’ve tried to pretty much stay on the sidelines and not make it any more awkward than it already is for the people in the institution who work every day there, and also for the board members, all of whom contribute immensely,” he said. 

7 thoughts on “What to Do With Hamilton Fish?

  1. For anyone in the community interested in the discussion underway about the co-founder of the Desmond-Fish Public Library, Hamilton Fish III, and his actions in the years leading up to World War II as the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs and Rules committees, I encourage you to delve into the resource list of books, dissertations and news articles on the topic available on the library website.

    Together, these resources create a comprehensive picture of the times and the individuals involved in U.S. foreign policy. The list is titled: “A House Divided: Hamilton Fish and American Isolationism 1933-1941” (desmondfishlibrary.org/a-house-divided). It’s long, so we suggest starting with The New York Times articles, the dissertation summaries and a Politico article by Steve Usdin, “When a Foreign Government Interfered in the U.S. Election — to Re-elect FDR.”

    Leonard Sparks’ article in The Current ably conveys some of the challenges in easily labeling Rep. Fish’s actions; the subhead (“Garrison library reviewing founder’s Nazi sympathies”), unfortunately, does not. Nor does the photo caption, referring to Fish’s “return from a visit to Nazi Germany”; his August 1939 trip to Germany was one stop on a multi-nation Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to discuss a peace plan as well as resettlement possibilities for European Jews.

    Further, in researching this list of resources we realized that the statement issued by the library in January (and reprinted in The Current) was not fully supported and it has been removed from our website. Our research and discussions are ongoing. We welcome comments and questions; email Director Dede Farabaugh at [email protected] and myself at [email protected].

    Prentice is the president of the library’s board of directors.

  2. The issue is a bit more complicated than the simplistic reporting done thus far. Hamilton Fish III was a decorated U.S. Army officer in World War I who commanded African American troops of the 369th Infantry in combat, the legendary Harlem Hellfighters, who were among the most decorated U.S. soldiers of the war. It was Fish who called for the desegregation and the integration of the U.S. military decades before it occurred. He was one of the founders of the American Legion.

    As a congressman from 1920 to 1945, Fish introduced legislation creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and supporting the Balfour Declaration of Britain, one of the earliest international documents calling for a Jewish homeland in what was then called the Palestine Mandate.

    Fish helped pass, on more than one occasion, anti-lynching legislation in the House that did not become law due to sectional opposition in the Senate.

    While the U.S. military was still segregated in 1940, he amended the military appropriations bill which increased spending in the run-up to World War II and prohibited racial discrimination in the selection and training of military personnel, which is acknowledged as an important step in the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. He was also among members of Congress who protested the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people.

    Fish was a staunch anti-Communist and an isolationist before World War II, in part because of his World War I experiences, as was a large portion of the U.S. population. He opposed much of the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, his fellow Hudson River patrician. His pre-war statements evincing sympathy for the Nazis and the involvement of some of his staff with them is deeply troubling.

    As with all human beings, Hamilton Fish III was flawed. Yet, how does one judge any flawed human being on one issue? How do you look at, and evaluate, the totality of a person’s life? Would any of us wish a scrutiny of every aspect of our lives, public and hidden, especially when we might not be around to say anything in our defense? And, is there anyone here who could completely vouch for their ancestors? [via Facebook]

  3. Hamilton Fish was a part of more than one organization that supported the Jews and the formation of the state of Israel. What to do? Get more information before heating up the tar and loading up the feathers. Whatever happened to doing the research and knowing what you’re talking about before self-appointed judgment? [via Facebook]

  4. People have different takes on Rep. Hamilton Fish III, as The Current’s story and reader comments make clear. Some people’s views have evolved or changed. Anita Prentice, president of the Desmond-Fish board of directors, objected to The Current’s characterization of its co-founder as having “Nazi sympathies,” in an apparent shift from the library’s earlier view, based on its subsequent research.

    A substantial list of research sources has been posted on the library’s website, including an October 1938 article from The New York Times about a German Day rally at Madison Square Garden at which Fish was the keynote speaker. The Times article was titled “German Day Rally Splits With Nazis,” which was somewhat misleading: The article states that while speakers promoting the adoption of Nazism in the U.S. were banned, there were speakers who supported Nazism within Germany. In addition, a swastika was displayed onstage and about a third of the audience responded to a Nazi anthem with salutes, although the paper noted that nobody cried “Heil!”

    Another article on the library’s reading list reports on the use of Fish III’s franking envelopes to distribute anti-Semitic literature that contained an advertisement for the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a situation for which Fish III denied responsibility.

    Without minimizing the commendable aspects of Fish III’s career, notably in civil rights, can we at least agree that the above activities, if not other well-documented ones, constitute the use of Fish III’s power to promote Nazism and antisemitism?

    Assuming there is indeed a there there, how should we think about the question of whether the library should be renamed? Such questions are always difficult. Where is the line between actions having consequences and “cancel culture”? When should someone be given a pass and when held accountable?

    At some level, every bad deed could potentially be understood and forgiven by virtue of some combination of nature, nurture, situational factors and/or the historical zeitgeist one inhabited. But you can’t run a society on that principle, because letting everyone off the hook would weaken societal norms and degrade the collective superego.

    What principles will govern the library’s decision? A judgment on the whole arc of Fish III’s life, the balance of his good and bad acts? The damage potentially caused by him or in his name during the period in question? The present-day distress caused to people by that deeply disturbing chapter, or their understandable concern if it is downplayed? What statement would the library be making by taking down its name, or by leaving it up?

  5. Part of life is learning to do better and be better. The Fish family are fine, upstanding people and need to be seen as such. Find something worthwhile to spend time on. How about education and using them as an example of what good can come from ignorance? [via Facebook]

  6. Why can’t the madness stop? History can’t be changed, but people do and go on doing much greater good. [via Facebook]

  7. As a matter of clarification, the phrase “while speakers promoting the adoption of Nazism in the U.S. were banned at the rally, there were speakers who supported Nazism within the boundaries of Germany” is vague enough to give the impression that Nazis were essentially a German or foreign problem, when in point of fact, antisemitism flourished in the U.S. at that time, and well after. Twenty thousand Bund party members rallied against “Jewish conspiracies” at the same venue (Madison Square Garden) on Feb. 20, 1939. The notion that antisemitism was a European problem was one of the reasons the U.S. failed to act. The sad takeaway is that antisemitism still flourished in today’s America.

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