Decision ends review of Hamilton Fish III actions

Trustees for the Desmond-Fish Library voted overwhelmingly on Saturday (March 9) to retain its name after a review triggered by allegations that namesake Hamilton Fish III was a Nazi sympathizer who helped spread propaganda for the regime.

Just four of the 22 trustees in attendance — far short of the three-fourths majority needed to change the name on Desmond-Fish’s charter — voted against a motion to keep the name of the library, which Fish co-founded in 1980 with his third wife, Alice Curtis Desmond.

The vote capped a process that began 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.

trustees-vote
The trustees for Desmond-Fish Library voted 18-4 to keep its name. (Photo by L. Sparks)

Maddow focused in the series’ fifth episode on alleged complicity by Fish and other members of Congress, leading the board to form a committee composed of three trustees, two library staff members and five residents.

In a report released in February, the committee said it had failed to reach a consensus on stripping Fish’s name from the library, although seven supported doing so in two informal votes. But there was much less support among the board.

Many of its members said that statements by Fish minimizing the dangers of the Nazis stemmed from his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II because of his experiences leading a regiment of Black troops in World War I, as well as his dislike for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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

Supporters for keeping the name also said that Fish wholeheartedly backed U.S. involvement after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and that he accumulated a lifetime of achievements, including supporting the establishment of Israel and creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“People who have fought in battle will tell you that war changes you,” said Hamilton Fish V, one of the library’s trustees. “My grandfather declared when he returned from Europe that he would never again have a hand in sending an American soldier to fight on foreign soil.”

Neal Zuckerman, one of the four voting to rename Desmond-Fish, said he did not see any evidence that Fish was antisemitic, but that he did have “flirtations” with fascism and was “adjacent” to efforts by Nazi agents to distribute propaganda using the mailing privileges of congressional members.

Fish 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.” In addition, Fish visited Germany in 1938 and met with Joachim von Ribbentrop, minister of foreign affairs for the Nazis.

Zuckerman read a passage from Fish’s 1991 autobiography in which the then-retired congressman wrote that he regretted not accepting an invitation by Ribbentrop to meet with Hitler on that trip.

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

“Even though these associations were done, as we understand, to help stave off war — given Fish’s intense distaste for war — and maybe as a political move to irritate FDR, they were done nonetheless,” said Zuckerman.

The report issued by the working group recommended a list of possible initiatives, such as strengthening programs such as Holocaust remembrances; adding books by Jewish authors and 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.

In line with those recommendations, the library “will continue to host programming that is informative about the era,” add a collection of books and online materials about Fish that were created in response to Maddow’s podcast and “plan other actions,” said the board, which tasked its Executive Committee with directing those efforts.

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.

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3 Comments

  1. There was a 337 percent increase in reported antisemitic events in the two months after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, according to the Anti-Defamation League, yet nearly every member of the library board who voted to retain the name mentioned the “murky” and “nuanced” past of Hamilton Fish III.

    On March 9, the board decided that murkiness and nuance outweighed the opportunity to take affirmative action to say it has zero tolerance for any taint of Nazism. The contortions to justify that tainted history will be part of its defense of this decision to choose moral murkiness over moral clarity.

  2. Thank you for covering the Desmond-Fish Public Library board meeting on March 9.

    As a trustee who voted to retain the library’s name, I was influenced by extensive research that confirmed that Hamilton Fish III was not a Nazi nor did he “sympathize” with them. He condemned Hitler for decades, calling him a “tyrant,” a “dictator,” a “bloody murderer” and a “gangster.” On June 6, 1933, Fish said in Congress: “No nation and no people can remain silent at the cruel, brutal and systematic policy being pursued by the German government to turn the hands of progress back three centuries and force peaceful and law-abiding Jewish citizens back to the poverty and disease of the ghetto. The fight has just begun and must continue until human rights and Jewish rights prevail.”

    On Oct. 2, 1938, Fish did speak at a German Day rally that was billed as excluding Nazis but where the swastika was on dis-play and the Nazi salute was given. He praised German Americans who fought in World War I but did not criticize Hitler’s government. On Nov. 17, 1938, Fish joined with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in strongly condemning Kristallnacht and then proposed legislation to outlaw pro-Nazi groups such as the German-American Bund.

    On June 1, 1939, Rep. Fish added his voice to those protesting the fate of the liner St. Louis, carrying more than 900 Jews who were denied entry to Cuba despite holding visas and about whose fate FDR remained silent. Fish traveled to Europe in August 1939 and met individually with the foreign ministers of Ireland, Britain, France and Germany with his own proposal for a peace plan and a plan for Jewish refugee resettlement in Africa first developed by Bernard Baruch.

    German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop kept Fish waiting and then sent him on to a conference in Oslo in an “official German plane” — Fish’s only trip in such a transport. Fish flew alone; Ribbentrop was at the same time secretly negotiating the non-aggression pact with Vyacheslav Molotov of the Soviet Union that would prove so horrific for Poland, Europe and the world.

    Of great importance to me was Fish’s lifelong support of civil rights for Black Americans, beginning in World War I. He introduced four anti-lynching bills in Congress and deplored FDR’s inaction. In 1938, he worked with the NAACP to create more opportunities for Blacks in the military. An active colonel in the Army reserves for 25 years, he often trained with Black regiments, including in July 1941.

    On Dec. 17, 1941, he spoke in Congress about the importance of allowing Black citizens to enlist in the armed forces, and Fish applied to serve again with Black troops but was turned down by Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

    I was also influenced by learning of the existence of a damaging “fake news,” five-year-long smear campaign designed to oust Fish from elected office and carried out by British secret agents who worked with the reporters revealing the franking story, columnists and members of FDR’s administration. FDR and Fish had an early friendship that fractured in part as a result of FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933.

    Neither Fish nor FDR could foresee the terrible destruction that would be tragically unleashed on the Jewish people and the entire world by the combined maniacal ambitions of Hitler and Stalin; an estimated 20 million people died in World War I while more than 60 million perished in World War II.

    The Hamilton Fish III story is a complex one — he had many faults — unfolding in a complex historical period, and I recommend the library’s extensive resource list at desmond-fishlibrary.org, which includes primary sources for all the points made above. The library co-founded by Fish and his wife provides information and knowledge resources enabling people to reach their own conclusions and resist disinformation.

    These are my views; I am not speaking for the board or the library.

  3. I applaud the Desmond-Fish library board, which did not succumb to cancel culture. The library is a place to educate one’s self and to resist propaganda, not to erase the point of view of others. Maybe Rachel Maddow should examine U.S. military sup-port for neo-Nazis in Ukraine and not the war-hesitant, peace-seeking Hamilton Fish III.

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