Falls short of ‘consensus’ for formal recommendation

A committee created by the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison to investigate whether the name of co-founder Hamilton Fish III should be removed because of his alleged sympathies for the Nazi regime before World War II failed to reach a consensus, but seven of its 10 members supported renaming, according to a report released on Friday (Feb. 16).

The committee was created by the library’s board in response to a review of Fish’s actions in the 1930s by Rachel Maddow in an MSBNC podcast called Ultra. In the series and a subsequent book in which she mentions in passing the discussion over renaming the library, Maddow examined how fascist leaders in the U.S. in the years before World War II attempted to undermine democracy.

After the Name Review Working Group was “unable to arrive at a consensus,” according to the report, seven members supported changing the name in two informal votes on whether it should be kept, changed or modified. The report, which the library trustees will discuss during their next meeting on March 9, notes that some members would be OK with keeping the name if there were other “reparative actions.” If there is a vote, state law requires a three-fourths majority of the 25-seat board (which has one vacancy) to change the name on the charter, and the state Board of Regents would also need to approve, noted President Anita Prentice.

Desmond-Fish Library
The Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison (File photo)

The 35-page document, which is posted at bit.ly/renaming-report, followed months of research by the working group into Fish’s activities in the years preceding the entrance by the U.S. into World War II in December 1941.

congressional franking, or free postage, privilege to mail propaganda.

Some members of the committee felt that the claims about Fish, who co-founded the library in 1980 with his third wife, Alice Curtis Desmond, were outweighed by his decades of public service, and that many of the allegations “were tainted by misinformation campaigns carried out against him by political enemies and foreign governments,” according to the report.

The committee included Prentice and two other trustees, two library staff members and five members of the community. Its members asked the library board members to consider the range of their viewpoints.

Prentice wrote in the report that Maddow never mentioned the campaign to discredit Fish, an anti-interventionist who opposed U.S. involvement in World War II, when she broadcast a segment about him in October 2022.

Hamilton Fish III
Hamilton Fish III in front of the Capitol
(Library of Congress)

Prentice also lists Fish’s decades of achievements, including leading a regiment of Black troops in World War I and helping Jewish people in the 1930s secure exit visas from Germany and Poland. He also was instrumental in the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921.

“If in his non-interventionism he was on the wrong side of history, that is a story the library can and will tell through reparative actions,” Prentice wrote. “But the positive contributions he made to his country and to this community over his long life warrant keeping his name on the library he and his wife co-founded.”

The report also included statements from two unidentified members of the group, explaining why they believed the library should be renamed. One member wrote that although Fish condemned the treatment of Jews in Europe, “he and his office offered active aid to the people perpetrating that suffering.”

“It is not necessary to decide if Fish’s positive actions ‘outweigh’ the negative ones,” one of those unidentified members wrote. “You are not asked to sentence a man to prison; you are asked to signal to the community that the library is a place of trust — an honest place, and a humane one.”

One committee member suggested the library be called “The Garrison Public Library founded by Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish III” as a “bridge-building solution.”

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

After the library was notified of the segment’s broadcast, the board in January 2023 issued a statement condemning antisemitism and announced that it would form a committee to investigate Maddow’s claims. It also posted a page of resources on its website.

The working group began meeting biweekly in August 2023. In addition to reviewing printed materials, and videos of three community conversations convened by the library, the group pored through 521 responses to a survey created to gauge the views of residents.

Of those who responded, 52 percent supported keeping the name, 29 percent believed it should be renamed and 15 percent called for modifying the name.

Nine percent of the residents who supported keeping the name also said they believed the library should undertake reparative initiatives.

The report recommends a list of possible initiatives, such as strengthening programs such as Holocaust remembrances; adding books by Jewish authors and those from other marginalized groups; and replacing Fish’s portrait in the library with artwork built on themes such as anti-bias, tolerance and social justice.

Who Will Decide

The Desmond-Fish Public Library board has 25 seats, including those held by Hamilton Fish, a grandson of Hamilton Fish III, and Eliza Mackenzie Fish, a great-granddaughter. There is one vacancy.

Anita Prentice (president), George Lansbury (1st vice president), Elizabeth Anderson (2nd vice president), Derrick Hopkins (treasurer), Susan Landstreet (secretary), Sarah Bayne, Erik Brown, Robert Culp, Sundance DiGiovanni, Eliza Mackenzie Fish, Hamilton Fish, Kyle Good, Dr. Peter Hofmann, Taro Ietaka, Madeline Julian, Jonathan Kruk, Dr. Frank Lucente, Fred Osborn, Michael Rauch, Jennifer Schmalz, Charity Shumway, Kristin Sorenson, Richard Syrek, Neal Zuckerman

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Peekskill resident is a former reporter for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, where he covered Sullivan County and later Newburgh. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Morgan State University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of Expertise: General.

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. I certainly agree that Mr. Fish had many faults, well known to many. As Rachel Maddow, whom I admire and follow with enthusiasm, would herself be the first to agree, the sources she used are in the public record. Mr. Fish himself had political and social opinions I find heinous. Like many of his contemporaries, he detested FDR. So did my grandfather, who even while I was living on Roosevelt Island referred to, “that man in the White House.” Mr. Fish did not allow his preference for fascist structure, at a time before any war was underway, to interfere with what he believed his duty to our country when war was declared.

    It would be shameful to ignore the possibility of redemption and self-righteously remove his name. If reparation be called for, it would certainly be worthwhile, and we should examine how it might be achieved. Let’s not be smug.

Leave a comment

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. All online comments are moderated, must include your full name and may appear in print. See our guidelines here.