Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Last of the Muckrakers: An Appreciation of Walter Liggett
Today we expect, if not a free press, one that has been honestly bought and paid for.
And we hope for, if not an independent and professional national security apparatus, one that understands that the political demands of the executive branch are best honored in the breach, cautiously and discretely.
In the first half of the 20th century these boundaries between media and propaganda, and security and oppression, were irrevocably breached in Europe by Fascism and Communism.
One of the fascinating and neglected aspects of American history in this period is how close these boundaries came to dissolving in the United States, as well.
This post discusses how Herbert Hoover misused the executive powers of his office and employed the Office of Naval Intelligence and other federal agencies to harass a group of authors, including distinguished muckraker Walter Liggett, who were preparing anti-Hoover biographies.
The story then follows Liggett to Minnesota, where his reporting aroused the ire of another powerful political figure, Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson.
Olsom frankly used his executive authority to reward his friends, promote his ambitions, and not only intimidate and harass but ruin his enemies.
Olson’s machine grew so powerful that for a short time Olson was recognized as a national power broker both by President Roosevelt and the American Communist Party.
Often his target was the independent press, which he attacked by misuse of his executive, police, and regulatory powers, and through the business and underworld connections that formed important cogs in his political machine.
And in 1934 and 1935, Olson’s prime target in the Minnesota newspaper world was Walter Liggett, a nationally known investigative journalist who had run exposes of Olson’s regime and was editorializing continually for Olson’s impeachment.
An escalating campaign of harassment and intimidation by Olson’s legal and extra-legal creatures-- including a trumped up legal case and a savage beating-- demonstrated that Liggett had been stripped of the protections that the Constitution is meant to provide an American citizen and a journalist.
Then, in December 1935, Liggett was dead, assassinated in a professional hit probably orchestrated by people close to Olson.
Liggett quickly faded from the public consciousness.
Olson died soon after of cancer, but his image as a revered midwest progressive has survived.
We are only able to re-examine Liggett’s legacy because of the clear-eyed determination, tenacity, and formidable research skills of his daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury.
Her book, Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett provides a look at a time when America skated near the brink of totalitarianism, and is a sobering reminder of what we almost lost—and may still lose if we don’t realize that American freedom is a transitory, equivocal phenomenon that is not innate to our nation or to our system.
It persists only because of the struggles and sacrifices of people like Walter Liggett.
Most people die in deserved obscurity.
Others have their memory and reputation snatched away by forces eager to diminish and deny their accomplishments.
Walter Liggett was such a person.
Walter Liggett was a pioneering muckraker, a journalist who lived—and died—pursuing the biggest story of his generation: the collision of money, power, crime, democracy, and freedom in the United States during the Great Depression.
I only became aware of Liggett because I stumbled across his book, The Rise of Herbert Hoover, in a hotel lobby. It laid out the little-told story of Hoover’s leading role in the alienation of the vast Kaiping Coal Mines in northern China.
I describe the Kaiping affair, its impact on Hoover’s fortune, and what it revealed about the man and his methods, in Herbert Hoover: Made in China.
It will be a fascinating piece of literary forensics to learn how Liggett generated his generally accurate description of the convoluted Kaiping case, which Hoover had devoted much money and energy to suppress. It has been asserted, to my mind credibly, that rich and powerful opponents of Hoover orchestrated the collection of information that would reflect badly on the president and could have provided this information to Liggett and other hostile biographers.
According to Hoover’s official biographer, George Nash, some of the answers may be found in the Hoover archives in Iowa.
Today, more than 80 years after The Rise of Herbert Hoover and a concerted effort by Hoover apologists to consign Liggett to infamy and neglect, one would expect that any attempt to understand the life and legacy of Walter Liggett and take the true measure of the man would be frustrated by a dearth of reliable first-hand material.
Liggett is known to historians primarily as the author of his anti-Hoover biography, one of several books that were ostensibly inspired and promoted by Hoover’s enemies in an attempt to derail Hoover’s presidency.
Since Hoover was ferocious and unscrupulous in the protection of his reputation, Liggett’s profile and reputation suffered accordingly at the hands of Hoover’s protectors both while Hoover was alive and in the present day.
In an article in Spring 1984 The Annals of Iowa (Iowa is Hoover’s birthplace and the location of his presidential library and extensive archives), entitled Hoover and the Smear Books, Ruth Sizer describes some elements of the campaign to diminish the impact of the anti-Hoover tomes:
...the second phase of the refutation campaign began with a systematic collection of documents exonerating Hoover and careful monitoring of the books’ sales. Letters were sent to newspapers nationwide disclosing the nature of the books and strongly suggesting that the papers refuse to print advertisements for them. Moreover, agents were sent to bookstores to collect sales statistics. The efforts to stifle sales became almost comic when Hoover’s supporters shared a limited number of books, fearful that if they bought even one more copy they might encourage another printing.
Enthusiasm for the refutation effort waned after Hoover’s loss to Franklin Roosevelt in the November election. Still Hoover’s die-hard supporters did not unceremoniously forsake their leader; they attempted to buy and dispose of as many of the smear books as possible—some were purchased for as much as fifty dollars a copy.
A fascinating document discovered in 1992 reveals that Hoover’s minions were a little more hands-on and proactive in their attempts to stifle the anti-Hoover publishing industry than Ms. Sizer was perhaps aware.
In the pages of American Heritage, under the title Hoovergate, Barton Bernstein of Stanford University reported on the private diary of one Glenn Howell, director of Naval Intelligence for the New York area under the Hoover administration.
Bernstein quotes at length from the diary, and so shall I. It’s that good.
May 21, 1930
The existing situation is this:
During the Presidential Campaign of 1928 [the Democratic candidate] Al Smith and [John J.] Raskob, his campaign manager, hired a man named O’Brien to collect some documentary dope on Hoover, drag out some written evidence that there were unsavory episodes in his past. However, what O’Brien collected and gave to Smith and Raskob was evidently valueless, for they used no mud during the campaign. For that matter neither did the Republicans.
It now seems that O’Brien didn’t give to Smith and Raskob the worst he got. He is again in the pay of Tammany and is in an office in the Salmon Towers, evidently preparing to publish these letters or whatever the documents are. [Smith’s friend William F.] Kenney owns the Salmon Towers, with Salmon, and Kenny is very thick with the Tammanyites.
Strauss told me that the President is anxious to know what the contents of these mysterious documents are; that he has no fear of them; but that he merely wants to know what they are about so that he will be in a position immediately to rebut them as soon as they are published, since prompt denial and rebuttal are the only things which can properly scotch such accusations.
To Strauss has been entrusted the job of finding these documents and arranging for a secret look at them by one of the President’s Secretaries—probably Larry Richey.… And Strauss is authorized by the President to utilize the services of any one of our various government secret services. So, belonging to the Naval Intelligence Reserve and knowing me, he decided to ask me to do this job. It is my function to arrange matters so that Strauss and Richey can have a look at these documents without their possessor knowing it.
Did Hoover know? There's no smoking gun.
But given Strauss’s assertions about the president’s desire to find out what was in those papers and cognizant of the fact that the campaign was coordinated and perhaps instigated by Hoover’s confidential secretary, Laurence Richey, Bernstein is not going too far out on a limb when he states that the evidence
... suggests—that is an acceptable inference—that President Hoover himself may have been involved.
In subsequent diary entry, Howell relates the harmless subterfuge used to gain access to the office of a Mr. Meehan, which was adjacent to O’Brien’s:
I had had Meehan thoroughly looked up and knew that he was all right. Then after a little talk with him, I was entirely satisfied that I could take him into my confidence to a certain extent. So I established my identity to his satisfaction, asked if he desired to do his country a patriotic service, and upon his eager affirmative told him that in this building were working the agents of a foreign government against our own United States. I explained to him that it was essential that I get at the files of these foreigners and that I probably would need to photostat some papers.
After a minor glitch (O’Brien had routinely moved himself and all of his files and furnishings out of the building to a new address while the detective shadowing him was off somewhere else and blissfully unaware, resulting in a pulse-pounding nighttime break-in of an absolutely empty office) and some good detective work (they found the destination of the moving van and re-acquired O’Brien!) Howell connected the dots:
I came to the conclusion that no President of the United States need be afraid of a ham-and-egger like this O’Brien.
I told Lewis Strauss that my opinion was that the O’Brien has been these many months stringing along Tammany with the tale that he had the goods on Mr. Hoover. I believe that Tammany provided him with office space and facilities for preparing a book. I further believe that Tammany finally called him for a showdown and that the result of this showdown was the throwing out of Salmon Towers of the O’Brien—on his ear.
All these beliefs I duly retailed to Lewis Strauss, who transmitted them to Larry Richey who informed the President who told Larry to tell Lewis to tell me to call off my watch and to consider the case closed.
So closed it is, and that’s that.
But that wasn’t all for George O’Brien and his Hoover dirt. He purveyed it John Hamill, who incorporated it into The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags (New York, William C. Faro Inc., 1931), which became the main object of Hoover’s fury.
Rehabilitation of John Hamill’s reputation is beyond me and perhaps beyond the power of any historian. The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover is written in a racy, hyperbolic, and sensationalistic style but I believe that the picture of the seamier side of international resource development and finance in the early years of the 20th century, if one-sided, is useful and important.
Bernstein lumps Hamill together with George O’Brien as a “fellow blackmailer” and relates that Hamill and O’Brien had a ruinous falling out that ended up in court with O’Brien suing Hamill for using without compensation material whose acquisition O’Brien had paid for.
Hamill did not help his own cause by signing an affidavit repudiating his own book.
Sizer writes that in February 1932, a friend of Hoover’s, George Barr Baker
...obtained a confession from John Hamill that his book was an utter lie. This confession was soon elaborated into a 188-page affidavit signed by Hamill on June 4, 1932. Although Hamill swore in the affidavit that he had written it without aid or coercion, it seems unlikely that Hamill was the author...George Barr Baker would have been a more likely author...
One can connect a few dots here: Hamill, fighting a losing battle in a lawsuit with his unacknowledged and injured co-author, sees the Hoover forces piling on, raises the white flag, and gives Hoover’s agent the hand-crafted, custom-tailored pro-Hoover affidavit they demand.
In a footnote, Sizer adds:
...some evidence suggests that Baker may have employed strong-arm tactics in dealing with Hamill.
Sizer is remarkably blase about the apparent thuggery involved.
Since the Howell diary had not yet come to light when she wrote her article, she is entitled to her view that the campaign against the smear authors was the expression of simple, honest outrage by Hoover’s upright friends, and not dishonorable skullduggery by Hoover and his minions.
Framing her argument, Sizer writes:
Perhaps indicative of Hoover’s nature, once a campaign of refutation was accepted, it was conducted with the utmost logic and an engineer’s skill...
...it is difficult to fault a campaign, however misguided, which was engendered by such a sense of mutual loyalty and respect.
Ms. Sizer proved to be an unworthy heir to these noble efforts as she illogically and unskillfully tarred Walter Liggett with the same brush as John Hamill.
She characterized Liggett’s The Rise of Herbert Hoover as “one of six unmitigated smear books about Hoover” and wrote “In fact, Liggett plagiarized Hamill’s book heavily”.
Sizer attributed Liggett’s hostility to Hoover to Hoover’s closing down of a “pro-Soviet” post-World War I Russian relief organization with which Liggett was affiliated .
A final dig referred to Liggett’s libel suit against Herbert Corey. Corey’s The Truth About Herbert Hoover was a major salvo in the Hoover camp’s campaign to discredit and denigrate the smear books and their authors:
This ironic (emphasis added—ed.) case seems never to have reached court—Liggett was murdered in a gang-land killing in Minneapolis in 1935.
There you have it: Walter Liggett, smear book writer, plagiarist, Com-symp, libeler, and filer of ironic lawsuits who ran with the gangster crowd.
Unfortunately for Ms. Sizer, Walter Liggett’s daughter, Marda Liggett Woodbury was still in a position to defend her father’s memory, which she did in a scathing letter printed in the Winter/Spring 1988 issue of The Annals of Iowa.
Ms. Woodbury noted that Walter Liggett’s papers, preserved at the New York Public Library, clearly show that he had worked on the Hoover book for years and much of it had already been written by September 1931, when the Hamill book came out.
As to the bad blood between Hoover and Liggett, Hoover does not emerge as the innocent or injured party. Woodbury wrote:
...shortly after the Committee [the American Committee for Russian Famine Relief] was launched, Mr. Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce...commissioned...an FBI investigation of Walter W. Liggett and [the Committee] for alleged radical activities...Congressman Keller [of Minnesota] volunteered [to the FBI agent assigned to the case], “I don’t know whether you know this or not but Hoover...has been doing everything possible to discredit this fellow Liggett.”
Most damningly, Ms. Woodbury refuted Ms. Sizer’s lazy conflation of Liggett with gangsterism by citing the resolution by the American Newspaper Publishers Association condemning Liggett’s murder by criminal and political forces in Minneapolis threatened by his investigative reporting:
Whereas the oppressions of the press have been characterized by a campaign of violence against editors criticizing improper political gangster alliances, culminating in the murder of Walter Liggett, therefore be it
Resolved. That the press of this country should resist the attempts of such alliances in Minnesota or any other state to abridge the freedom of the press...
Ms. Woodbury campaign to set the record straight didn’t end with writing a letter.
She wrote an entire book.
It’s called Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett (1998, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) (hereinafter STP).
It is not only a personal memoir. It is a carefully and intensively researched and documented portrait of an important figure in American journalism and a key period in American history.
The portrait of Walter Liggett that emerges from these pages is that of a true American striver and optimist.
The guiding principle of his life was radical rural progressivism. Inspired by a speech by Robert La Follette in 1917, Liggett joined the Farmer Labor Party. He worked, wrote, and agitated on behalf of the party through 1920 and founded and managed a network of farmer-owned newspapers in the party’s stronghold in North Dakota.
Liggett then moved east and found success in New York as city editor for a Socialist paper, the New York Call. Then he worked for mainstream papers the New York Sun, the New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York News while promoting the causes of Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom Mooney.
Liggett made his reputation with a series of articles in Plain Talk describing the catastrophic impact of Prohibition on the integrity of law enforcement and local governments. His expose “Bawdy Boston” was banned in Boston; the Kansas legislature proposed a motion calling him a liar for “Holy Hypocritical Kansas”; and the Michigan State Police tried to suppress “Michigan, Soused and Serene”.
After [Michigan—ed.] state officials frightened off an independent distributor, Plain Talk had to hire its own trucks to circulate the issue. Despite the threats, fifty thousand copies were sold in Michigan. People borrowed issues, resold them, and rented them out for fifty cents a day. One Michigan editor estimated that some three hundred thousand Michiganders had read the article. (STP, p. 29)
Liggett’s successful newspaper and magazine writing provided the opportunity to publish a book on a long-time interest of his—Herbert Hoover.
Amid the intimidation and rising violence against newspaper people that characterized the Prohibition era, the strongarming associated with the Hoover book appears as little more than a brief sidebar:
The prospective [Hoover—ed.] book was a hot property...Albert Boni of Boni and Liveright offered royalties of 17.5 percent after 15,000 copies, pointing out that this was higher than royalties paid to best-selling authors Thornton Wilder and Will Rogers...Walter either did not realize or did not care that government and private detectives were investigating and reporting on him while he worked on the biography. But the government investigations may have hurt his rapport with his publisher...Boni abruptly asked him to eliminate certain sections. Then he found another publisher—which later unexpectedly dropped the book.
Peggy Walter wrote in...Plain Talk that “government dicks reminded the publisher that his penchant for taking ladies on weekend parties to his villa” was a violation of the Mann Act. The next publisher’s printer was warned that his father’s estate taxes might balloon if he finished printing the book—and Walter was trailed by government agents when he accompanied the type that was removed from the shop.
(Sam Roth, who had published John M. Hammill’s Strange Career of Mr. Hoover under Two Flags, had a similar story. After Hammill’s book appeared, three income tax detectives ransacked his office. A few days later he heard that a postal inspector was warning booksellers not to buy his other books.) (STP, pp.32-33)
In 1933, with the Hoover book out and its subject gone from office, Liggett decided to abandon big city journalism to return his roots in farmer populist newspapering in Minnesota.
Fatally, it was a time in which pseudo-populism, gangsterism, and third party politics had converged in the person of Floyd Olson, governor of Minnesota.
Olson, a clever, charismatic, and eloquent pol, had started out as a prosecutor during the wide-open prohibition days and graduated to machine politics. He aspired both to the US Senate and leadership of a nationwide Huey Long-esque populist political party and used the power of his office and his business and gangster connections to intimidate his enemies, reward his friends, and promote his career.
Olson drew political sustenance from his control of the once-radical Farmer-Labor Party, which Woodbury describes as having devolved by 1930 into
...an uneasy amalgam of machine-dominated county organizations, local Farmer-Labor clubs, old-time radicals and reformers, and the All-Party clique of Republicans and Democrats, who contributed to Olson’s “personal campaign funds” and usually expected a quid pro quo. Racked with patronage problems, factional disputes, and the cult of personality the party directed its efforts into pork-barrel enterprises and keeping up appearances rather than social reform. (STP p. 54)
Olson heightened his national political profile with by allying with Franklin Roosevelt and late in his career enjoyed the support of the American Communist Party, which switched to a pro-Olson line as part of its Popular Front tactics.
After Olson met secretly with Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, in October 1935, the Minnesota Communist Party declared:
“...the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and its progressive leadership can and must become the leader of all progressive movements in the country...The Communists will support the Farmer-Labor Sate Administration.” (STP, 127)
Olson’s constellation of Democratic and left-wing affiliations was perhaps fatal to Liggett.
At key points in the unfolding drama, progressives such as Upton Sinclair and Roger Baldwin of the ACLU failed to throw their resources into the battle behind Liggett because of their faith in Olson as a crucial Midwest progressive force.
Even today, Olson is revered by those on the left as the paragon and progenitor of Minnesota’s progressive political tradition.
However, Walter Liggett regarded Olson from the privileged perspective of someone who had been present at the creation of the political movement he now saw Olson crassly exploiting:
I was present at the conference in 1918 when the Farmer Labor party was founded, unlike Olson who did not hop aboard the bandwagon until all was over but the flagwaving. The radical cause in the Northwest means more to me than political graft. (STP, p. 76)
...John Dewey and all his third party group...think Olson is the second brother of Jesus Christ, whereas he is a damned sight more of a racketeer than he is a radical.” (STP, p. 67)
In his machine politics machinations, Olson was clearly more Huey Long than Hubert Humphrey.
Sorting out the significance of Olson’s progressive legislative legacy—which Liggett and Woodbury derided as empty, ineffectual political show—should offer plenty of grist for political historians.
In 1934, Olson showed his less than radical side when, in response to a Teamster strike, he placed Minneapolis under martial law. The Proclamation of Martial Law banned “publish[ing] newspapers defaming the state of Minnesota or any member of the Minnesota National Guard in the field”.
The New York Times characterized Olson's actions as the establishment of “a military dictatorship over the press of Minneapolis.” (STP, p. 56)
The combination of Olson and Liggett—who had built his career on attacking the nexus of gangsterism and machine politics was at the core of Olson’s reign—was combustible and fatal.
Liggett had returned to Minnesota to reconnect with his first political love, the Farmer-Labor Party--and ready to support Floyd Olson as its flagbearer.
However, by 1934 Liggett’s disillusionment with Olson’s unprincipled political alliances with Republicans and Democrats, his unsavory gangster ties, and his ruthless and corrupt machine politics led him to write Upton Sinclair:
I believe that a third party based on radical principles is IMPERATIVE if this country is to be saved from the twin threats of Fascism and Communism. I came back to the middle west to work for such a party—only to find to my disgust that the Olson regime combines all the worst features of both the old parties with some new underworld racketeering connections of its own. (STP, p. 74)
In September 1934, Liggett decided to support a reform challenge from a splinter group of the Farmer-Laborer Party and employ the pages of his newspaper, the Midwest American, in a crusade to expose Olson’s transgressions and drive him from public life.
Liggett underestimated the ferocity of the Olson machine’s response.
In the pages of the Midwest American he wrote:
My wife and I have lived for several years in New York City under Tammany Hall and are thoroughly familiar with the underworld tactics of professional spoilsmen. That is one reason why we object to the Tammanyization of Minnesota by this All-Party group of racketeers. We knew precisely what to expect when we began our expose of Floyd Olson and his crew of political hatchet-men.
However, I don’t think they will have me killed. It wouldn’t look good for one thing, and for another thing the whole damned cowardly crew know that they can’t find one scintilla of evidence to besmirch my professional reputation in an attempt to justify a cold blooded murder...(STP, p. 66)
As if Olson’s allies took his words as a personal challenge, Liggett was proved wrong in every particular.
Liggett was confronted with an escalating campaign of harrassment and intimidation.
It began with efforts to steer typesetters, advertiser, suppliers, and distributors away from the Midwest American and drive it out of business.
Then came anonymous, threatening phone calls.
In June 1935 came a trumped up charge of sexual felony, meant to discredit, distract, and if possible imprison Liggett.
The case featured obviously coached witnesses, contradictory testimony, and implausible circumstances.
The nadir for the prosecution occurred when one of the supposed objects of Liggett’s interest in “unnatural love” testified that an assistant Hennepin County attorney had misrepresented himself as a bill collector and threatened to tell her parents “all about her [previous transgressions]” if she did not sign an undated affadavit that would only be used to get Liggett to pay back “a lot of money” he supposedly owed people.
The case did not hold up in front of a jury and Liggett was acquitted.
During the trial, in October, Liggett was lured to a hotel with the promise of information and then savagely beaten by a group of more than half a dozen men led by gangster Kid Conn. The Minneapolis police were content to propagate the slur that a drunken Liggett had called Conn out when Liggett’s attempt to shake him down for a bribe had failed.
Finally, on December 9, 1935, Walter Liggett was gunned down in front of his wife, Edith, and ten-year old daughter, Marda. Liggett’s widow insisted that the grinning hit man who leaned out of the window of a passing car and fired the five fatal shots was none other than Kid Conn.
Marda Woodbury did not find it likely that Governor Olson ordered the murder. Instead, she believed the crime looked like the pro-active effort of the fixers and gangsters who partnered with Olson in the running of the state—an act that Olson might not initiate, but something he might not have found necessary to forestall, condemn, or investigate:
My belief is that Olson would have preferred not to know the details. I also assume that he—unlike some Minneapolis hoodlums—was astute enough to realize that my father’s murder could prove to be more troublesome than my father alive...certainly, some of [Olson’s] less savory companions might have undertaken the task as a favor. I believe that the atmosphere was sufficiently poisonous and that criminals had sufficient clout to know they would not be convicted. (STP, p. 216)
The big city media that could not be interested in the sordid frame-up of Liggett on a sex charge flocked to Minneapolis to get the story on the assassination of a fellow scribe.
They found Governor Olson content to characterize the murder of the journalist who had repeatedly called for his impeachment on account of his underworld ties as nothing more than a sordid falling out between gangsters.
Woodbury quotes the reportage of Forrest Davis of Scripps-Howard, a long-time Liggett sympathizer:
In his December 10 story, Davis noted that the governor had “proceeded with finesse, shrewdly, legalistically, to extinguish the reputation of Liggett.” The “official theory” was that Walter, pressed for funds, had solicited money frot he same liquor dealers he had been attacking. “A fable is being constructed of Liggett the blackmailer, the underworld chiseler,” Davis wrote. “Visitors to his apartment and his printing office find it difficult to accept this view”...
”I suppose Liggett was the victim of what the Marxists call economic determinism,” the governor said. “He had to have the money, and he went out to get it.” (STP, pp. 159-160)
Walter Liggett left an estate of $1,324.
Kid Conn, in possession of an ironclad alibi, went to trial but was acquitted.
Ironically, Governor Olson, on whose behalf so much ink and blood had been spilled, died of stomach cancer in 1936, his dreams of a Senate seat, third party political power, and, perhaps, national office unfulfilled.
Another footnote to Liggett’s life and death was the determined effort of Walter’s widow, Edith, to secure a libel judgment against the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker.
In the service of the Popular Front policy of supporting Olson, The Daily Worker published a series of articles attacking Liggett in early 1936, pushing the line that Liggett had been murdered in retaliation for his failed shakedown racket against liquor interests.
The first article was entitled Liggett Was Murdered by the Underworld for his Scavenging and declared of Edith Liggett, “it is especially disgusting to see the widow of the slain publisher selling the corpse limb by limb to the highest bidder of the Minnesota Republican Party.” (STP 198-99)
After six years of legal and corporate gyrations by The Daily Worker, Edith Liggett finally prevailed and received a $2100 settlement.
In this libel case, contra Ruth Sizer, the final irony is that Liggett’s reputation was vindicated despite the fact that the ACLU was writing The Daily Worker’s appeal briefs for them.
Liggett’s travails at the hands of Floyd Olson bookend his experiences with Hoover in an interesting manner.
Liggett’s livelihood and reputation were subjected to the same kind of concerted, unscrupulous extralegal attacks by Hoover, a Republican pillar of the international business and political establishment at the apex of power in Washington, and by Floyd Olson, a self-styled radical populist and FDR ally from the midwest.
In both cases, his enemies used their power as shield, sword, and cloak, employing their positions of privilege to obstruct, attack, and denigrate their critics.
Hoover and Olson’s reputations have survived, carefully constructed and lovingly maintained false facades that seem too majestic, too impervious, and too familiar to even consider tearing down.
The price of cherishing these monuments is to disappear Walter Liggett, together with the facts he collected, the words he wrote, and the impact he made.
The fact that Hoover and his circle did not stoop to murder in the destruction of his enemies is faint praise.
Comparing and contrasting Hoover’s methods with those of Olson’s undercuts the assertion that Hoover’s actions to preserve his reputation were an isolated response to an unprecedented affront against one of the misunderstood Paladins of the age.
Instead the actions of Hoover and his circle look depressingly familiar: the standard operating procedure of every modern manipulator steeped in the corrupting process of acquiring and preserving political power.
Destroying reputations and lives isn’t just the cost of doing business in modern American politics.
It erects false heroes while it casts down real ones.
And it leaves the discovery of the truth, or at least part of it, to a chance encounter with a battered old book in a hotel lobby—or the emergence of a woman with the clear-eyed tenacity to sift through a mountain of lies, distortions, and omissions in order to present the world with a true picture of her father.
Delbert Smith of the New York Times eulogized Walter Liggett:
The assassin who struck down Walter Liggett in Minneapolis removed from the American scene one of the last of the old-school crusading journalists, miscalled “muckrakers”, who for personal integrity stood head and shoulders above the common ruck.
As a former editorial associate of Liggett, I wish to pay my small tribute to a man whose principal fault, if it can be called that, was his disinclination to look out for his own interests—the rash courage which made him an easy target for the guns of the underworld. (STP, p. 144)
Marda Woodbury wrote:
Edith had married my father for love and happiness—for his looks, intelligence, ideals, warmth, humor, and joie de vivre. In my childhood cosmogony, our family was a self-sufficient unit. My father was our sun, warm and benevolent if somewhat distant, and family life revolved around him. We lost our core when he died. (STP, p. 210)
Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett by Marda Liggett Woodbury is still in print and available on Amazon and at Powell’s.
Friday, December 08, 2006
Herbert Hoover: Made in China
The mills of the Internet grind slow but exceeding fine, and I am grateful to Professor Brad DeLong for discovering and exerting this post on his website on July 26, 2007, about a half year after I wrote it.
By coincidence, I had been intending to repost my pieces on Hoover in commemoration of his role in the summer movie blockbuster Transformers. I don’t think I am spoiling the film for serious cineastes by revealing that Herbert Hoover is depicted as the leader of the government/business consortium that covers up and exploits the capture of arch Decepticon Megatron in the early 20th century.
This depiction of Hoover’s powerful industrialist/financier/insider mojo is a welcome reminder that he was more of an implacable, relentless, and reflexively secretive Dick Cheney type than the hapless Elmer Fudd mocked by his post-Depression critics.
For interested readers, here are links to the two other Hoover-related posts I wrote at the same time.
Walter Liggett, Last of the Muckrakers, provides a history of the journalist who brought the story of Hoover’s role in the Kaiping affair before the American public in his 1930s biography, The Rise of Herbert Hoover. A well-known journalist and progressive in his time who was murdered for his crusade against crime and corruption in Minnesota, he was smeared as a blackmailer by Herbert Hoover’s supporters and virtually forgotten. That he is known to us today is a tribute to the indefatigable efforts of his daughter, Marda Woodbury, to document her father’s life and contributions and defend his reputation.
The Coolie Quagmire: Flogging, Sodomy, and Imperial Overreach on the Rand describes an early attempt to turn labor into a controlled, scientifically-managed global commodity to maximize the profitability of resource projects in distant corners of the world: the export 50,000 Chinese laborers to work in the South African gold fields in the 1900s. The project—for which Hoover’s China Mining and Engineering Corporation, owner of the Kaiping mines, organized the supply of coolies—was a disaster. How this system collapsed, as Chinese workers perversely refused to respond as expected to the array of positive and negative incentives designed to elicit submission and productivity, and helped bring down the Tory government at the same time, is one of the great cautionary tales of 20th century capitalism.
China Matters jumps into the wayback machine, sets the controls for Tianjin 1900—the Boxer Rebellion-- and revisits one of the great political coverups in 20th century US political history: Herbert Hoover’s suppression of his pivotal and deplorable role in the alienation of China’s Kaiping Coal Mines from Chinese ownership.
In his indefatigable attempt to obscure his actions, Hoover took image control and management to a high level that students of 21st century American politics may find instantly recognizable.
Ironically, by suppressing the truth about his opportunism, ruthless determination, and undeniable business acumen, Hoover made it possible for the image that he detested—that of the out-of-touch, blundering plutocrat-in-chief who touched off the Great Depression—to take hold in the public mind.
The post includes a detailed relation of the Kaiping affair.
The legacy of Herbert Hoover is remarkably contested.
Ever since the 1920s, pro and anti-Hoover forces have engaged in a fierce, no-holds-barred battle to establish the verdict on this intelligent, determined, introverted—and cold, callous, and intensely manipulative--man.
To the general public, Hoover is a punchline in jokes about the Great Depression. But for serious students of Hoover, the emphasis has always been on taking the moral measure of the financier and humanitarian who achieved remarkable wealth, power, and worldwide recognition long before he ascended to the Presidency.
Was he a ruthless, unscrupulous profiteer or a misunderstood apostle of rational business administration, economic efficiency, and benevolent progressivism?
Remarkably, the best documented and most accurate picture of Hoover can be found at the beginning of his career, in China, in the case of the alienation of the vast Kaiping Coal Mines from Chinese control.
Thanks to a notorious court case—and Hoover’s determined attempts to obscure and distort revelations that reflected badly upon him—we can form a relatively unambiguous judgment of the man and his methods.
The story, briefly, is this.
Herbert Hoover came to China in 1899, a young man of 24, with a reputation earned in the Australian gold fields as a shrewd, capable, and energetic mine manager—and as an ambitious, Machiavellian manipulator who had schemed unsuccessfully to supplant his boss.
He was sent to China by the London mine management firm of Bewick, Moreing & Company, to expand a relationship it had developed with the Kaiping Coal Mines and their manager, Chang Yan-mao.
Kaiping was one of the crown jewels of Li Hung-chang’s self-strengthening movement. Located above an immense coal reserve near the present-day city of Tangshan, the mines had flourished under the administration and financial management of Tang Ting-shu, an able comprador, and were producing almost 500,000 tons per annum by the turn of the century.
However, the general manager position passed to an apparently less capable individual, Manchu bannerman and court insider Chang Yan-mao, who was unable to introduce needed capital for the mine from either domestic private or government sources. In the disastrous aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, with the possibility of China collapsing into spheres of Western and Japanese influence, Chang began an awkward flirtation with Bewick, Moreing to gain capital and some measure of security for the enterprise from British interests.
Hoover was dispatched to China in furtherance of this strategy, to protect Bewick, Moreing’s interests (the firm had bought and distributed Kaiping’s debentures—unsecured debt—to finance the construction of the port of Qinhuangdao), and to promote its participation in the Kaiping mines and other potential natural resource projects in the area.
Events took a dramatic turn with the explosion of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Chang Yan-mao and Hoover were both in Tianjin during the siege. Chang was suspected of sympathy with the court and the Boxers and narrowly escaped execution by the Allied command inside Tianjin. Russian troops occupied the Kaiping fields, creating anxiety in Chang’s mind that the mines might be confiscated without compensation as a war reparation.
Chang decided that the enterprise had to be placed under the protection of a benign foreign power, namely Great Britain, through the good offices of Bewick, Moreing & Co., by means of a voluntary, non-hostile transaction that would ensure that the interests of the existing stockholders and, not least of all, Chang Yan-mao himself, would be protected.
Therefore, Chang hurriedly deeded over the entire enterprise to Hoover as trustee, contingent that the enterprise be recapitalized with an additional 1,000,000 pounds and reconstituted as a joint Sino-British enterprise.
If the story ended here, Hoover would have probably received a well-earned attaboy from history for realizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so perspicaciously and resolutely.
However, events—and Hoover’s role in them—quickly became more tangled and less laudable.
The wealth of Bewick, Moreing’s partners came not from the profits of the firm, but from their private speculations in the stocks of the mines with which they were affiliated.
The agreement that Hoover took to London defined him as trustee for a Kaiping enterprise whose assets and ownership should be converted directly into the new Sino-British company.
This left no provision for “promotional fees”, the distribution of shares without compensation to middlemen such as the Bewick, Moreing partners, their friends, and associates in return for their efforts in midwifing the new corporation.
Hoover was thereupon sent back to obtain a revised agreement which listed Hoover as the agent of Bewick, Moreing lead principal C.A. Moreing, thereby freeing Hoover from sole and explicit duty as trustee to protect the interests of Kaiping, and allowing the transaction to be structured to include benefits for Moreing and other promoters.
To obtain Chang’s agreement to this significant revision, Hoover concluded a side agreement with Chang defining the new company as a joint Sino-British enterprise with equal say in management, a China board and a London board.
Again, this could be regarded as an understandable, if awkward measure to ensure that Bewick, Moreing (or at least its partners) received the incentive and reward necessary for lining up the financing for this new venture.
However, Hoover spent the next seven months in China browbeating and marginalizing the existing management, sidelining and denigrating the China board, unilaterally placing his people in key positions inside the enterprise and, in general, consolidating foreign control of Kaiping in violation of the agreement.
The fatal piece of overreach by Bewick, Moreing, however, was its disregard of the requirement that the enterprise be recapitalized.
Other than the injection of 100,000 pounds of capital as earnest money needed to secure physical possession of the deeds to the mine by Hoover (and one hostile author, John Hamill, claimed that the money was simply wired into an account in Tianjin for one day and then wired out again), Bewick, Moreing did not arrange any significant new equity for Kaiping.
Instead, it burdened the new enterprise with new debt, in the form of 500,000 pounds of debentures bearing 6% interest.
By 1902, widespread dissatisfaction among the original shareholders of Kaiping (who now included many foreigners) was reported.
Then, fatefully, in November 1902, local Chinese managers raised the dragon flag over the mines to honor the empress dowager’s birthday. They were rebuffed by foreign management, which took down the Chinese flag. A contingent of Chinese troops arrived the next day to put the Chinese flag up again.
This incident concentrated the baleful attention of Yuan Shih- kai, the major power not only in North China but in the empire by virtue of his command of the Beiyang Army and his position as commissioner for Chihli and Jehol, the area in which the mine was located, on the enterprise and the convoluted transaction that had somehow alienated this crown jewel of Qing industrial policy from imperial control.
Chang Yan-mao had tardily and incompletely memorialized the throne on the deal, the details of which, when they became known to Yuan Shih-kai, incensed him.
Yuan demanded that Chang recover the properties for the empire. Remarkably, the throne accepted that the case be argued in the British courts.
The case went to trial in London in 1905 and apparently caused quite a sensation. It laid bare the seamier side of Bewick, Moreing’s business and methods, as well as featuring the oriental exoticism of Chang’s appearance in late imperial finery in court to give testimony.
The trial revealed that the reconstitution of the company had left it gutted.
Only 375,000 shares remained in the hands of the original shareholders. Most if not all of the balance of 625,000 shares had been distributed without compensation as promotional fees or as bonuses for the buyers of the new debentures.
The stock was watered and the rights and interests of the original shareholders had been trampled on. The corporation, instead of being recapitalized, was encumbered with new debt. Little if any of the money from the debenture issue had actually reached Kaiping.
On top of this, Hoover’s activities in violation of the joint management agreement he had concluded were fully aired, including some indiscreet remarks denigrating the China board.
Bewick, Moreing lost the case and was subjected to some pointed words from the bench. Hoover, both as partner in Bewick, Moreing and as the individual executing the skullduggery firsthand, was undeniably culpable.
Since the underlying transaction had not been repudiated—only Bewick, Moreing’s good faith in executing the agreement for joint management—the Sino-British company remained, with the proviso that the provisions of the agreement had to be put into effect.
Although the judge felt there were clear grounds for pursuing a criminal case against the individuals involved, in a piece of good news for Bewick, Moreing and Hoover, the Chinese government apparently had had enough of Western litigation.
After its position was legally vindicated, Yuan Shih-kai concentrated his efforts on developing a competing enterprise, Kailuan, in the same area. His faith in the oligopolistic theory of modern enterprise was rewarded when the resulting price war pushed Kaiping and Kailuan to merge operations in 1912.
For Hoover and Bewick, Moreing, the deleterious effects of the Kaiping debacle were minimal.
Hoover left China, aged 27, as a partner in Bewick, Moreing, purportedly already wealthy, with a pocketful of Kaiping shares, and his career launched as a global financier involved in virtually every resource industry from tin to gold to petroleum.
During the First World War he burnished his image as a benevolent, progressive, and supremely capable and honest captain of industry by orchestrating Belgian relief and the postwar food program. After service in high positions in the Harding and Coolidge cabinets, he convinced the American people that he was uniquely qualified to manage and expand America’s postwar prosperity.
Hoover’s reputation for probity and capability were important to him in his business dealings as well as his later political life, and his efforts to protect and advance his reputation became legendary.
When he entered political life, he employed sophisticated public relations efforts to achieve favorable coverage in the press. When he learned that anti-Hoover books were in preparation, Hoover did not limit himself to outraged rebuttals. He unleashed the FBI to perform background checks on the authors. His secretary, Lewis Strauss (later the spearhead in efforts to revoke Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance) organized a burglary of one author’s office.
During Hoover’s career, the Kaiping affair hung over him like a dark cloud that he labored energetically to dissipate.
His agent went to England to secure all copies of the trial transcript to deny its contents to his enemies (at least one copy survives, in the library at Oxford).
He concocted a story in which he himself was the protector of Chang Yanmao and Kaiping appearing in the case as a neutral witness, while in truth he had been instrumental in efforts to sideline Chang and the Chinese management, and had provided information useful to the prosecution only under cross-examination.
Hoover orchestrated a blizzard of bespoke testimonials from supporters, had his version of events entered into the Congressional Record, and had his alleged heroics on behalf Kaiping retailed in The Making of Herbert Hoover, a piece of Tom Sawyer meets Horatio Alger meets Tom Swift hagiography penned by family friend Rose Wilder Lane (later author of the Little House on the Prairie series).
Last but not least, a campaign of denigration was launched against the spate of anti-Hoover books published in the early 1930s, which included The Rise of Herbert Hoover by Walter Liggett and The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover by John Hamill.
These books are significant for how much they got right in the Kaiping case.
The case itself was mindnumbingly complex, with the principals of Bewick, Moreing intent on concealing their intentions and actions from public scrutiny by manipulation of the corporate record. Documents and witnesses were inaccessible, both because of Hoover's efforts and because the principals were in England and not the United States. The legal case, which addressed commercial matters and corporate obligations more than individual liability, did not provide an easily identifiable "smoking gun".
The conclusion is inescapable that powerful and informed enemies of Hoover assisted the authors in unraveling the tangled financial and legal skein of the case, filling the documentary gaps Hoover had torn in the record, and pinpointing Hoover’s evasions and deceptions.
The anti-Hoover books that provide a relatively accurate accounting of Hoover’s role in the Kaiping affair are long out of print and exist in a few dusty libraries (reportedly, friends of Hoover went to significant effort and expense to suppress the books and remove them from circulation).
I came across The Rise of Herbert Hoover, by pioneering muckraker Walter Liggett, in a New England inn, courtesy of an interior decorator who bought used books by the case in order to give the lobby the look of a cozy library.
Given the complexity of the case and the amount of chaff the Hoover camp has thrown around, it would be impossible to realize a full picture of the Kaiping episode today without the efforts of Ellsworth Carlson and George Nash.
Carlson’s Harvard monograph, The Kaiping Mines (1877-1912), describes the events in detail, unravels the twisted financial machinations as much as possible, and concludes that “the greed and bad faith of Moreing and his associates in 1901 and 1902 [were] indisputable”.
Nash can be considered Hoover’s official biographer, who was recruited by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to chronicle the great man’s history. He is a well-known conservative author, sympathetic to Hoover, and in the body of his book describes the Kaiping events with careful neutrality.
He is also scrupulous in following up on and dissecting Hoover’s version of events.
In a four-page footnote(pp. 656-9) in his “The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer 1874-1914, Nash details Hoover’s efforts to secure all copies of the trial transcript and elicit testimonials (drafted by Hoover) that presented a misleading version of Hoover’s actions and the nature of his participation in the trial intended to attest to “his honorable and/or tangential involvement in the case”.
In the footnote Nash remarks that “Hoover’s later explanations of his conduct in China often diverged from the account provided by the trial transcript and by documents entered in evidence at the trial…Hoover’s role…was scarcely a peripheral or ‘accidental’ one…As a key participant in the 1900-1901 transfer negotiations, his conduct was under severe scrutiny at the trial…Nor did Hoover’s testimony really win the case for Chang Yen-mao…Hoover’s later defenses also contained significant omissions.”
However, I do take issue with Nash’s concluding comment:
“In short, Hoover’s later defenses of his conduct in China did little to illuminate his role in the murky Kaiping drama. But that, of course, was not their purpose. In the 1920s particularly, when Hoover was obliged to retell the story of his days in China, he was under intense pressure to fend off potentially fatal threats to his continuance in public life. The effort to block his aspirations by ‘exposing’his past is a largely untold story that came to involve some prominent members of both political parties. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that Hoover and his associates devised a defense that fit the requirements of political survival.”
I think this statement improperly conflates Hoover’s misdeeds in China and the subsequent cover-up, and thereby reduces the Kaiping issue to one of Hoover’s right to practice the art of political self defense, whose exercise should not darken the reputation of the great and good man Nash considers Hoover to be.
Especially in retrospect and in consideration of Hoover’s dismal record as president, it is difficult to assert that the political enterprise named Herbert Hoover was so vital to history and the national interest that his skullduggery both in China and in suppressing the events deserved to be covered up. In terms of Hoover’s personal position, he was an extremely wealthy man and a powerful political force, if not a gifted politician. Personally and probably politically he could have survived a full and honest airing of the events in China.
But perhaps China was the true measure of Hoover. It made his fortune and also confirmed him in habits of secrecy, deception, and manipulation that carried on into his business and political career.
A cruel but not entirely spurious argument could be made that if Hoover had not yielded to his ego, passion for manipulating his public image, and his opaque and implacable style of dealing with people and situations that stood in his way, he might have made a better president than the one who backed into the Hawley-Smoot tariff act, declined to jawbone the Federal Reserve into standing up to Winston Churchill’s ruinous attempt to restore the English pound to the $5/pound exchange rate, and floundered through the beginning of the Great Depression.
Herbert Hoover’s fortune was made in China.
Perhaps the seeds of his downfall were sown there as well.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
The Poisoned Cup: Racial and Neo-Colonial Politics in Fiji
You’ll probably be reading about how the guy who executed the coup, Commodore Vereqe Bainimarama, is a dangerous nut.
What you’ll probably be reading a lot less about is how Andy Hughes, the Australian who served as Fiji’s Police Commissioner, precipitated the coup by going after Bainimarama and his political base on a sedition charge.
Just before the coup, Hughes bugged out to Australia, where he pontificates long distance on what was either a colossal misjudgment or a piece of crude political hatchet work on behalf of Canberra’s man in Fiji, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.
It’s difficult to tease out the truth about Fiji because Fiji is unwilling to come to terms with its own identity.
The best place to start is the South Pacific Travel Blog. Also, Wikipedia has an astounding amount of information on Fiji, seemingly updated hourly.
The population is almost half indigenous Fijian and half Indo-Fijian. The descendants of Indian immigrants occupy a key role in the commercial sector and the sugar industry.
Significant elements of indigenous Fijian society have toyed with the idea of racialist policies meant to disenfranchise the Indo-Fijians and maintain native dominance of the government and economy. Fatally, they have received encouragement from certain Fijian political and tribal elites.
In 2000, an adventurer, George Speight, attempted a putsch against the government and held it captive for 55 days. In order to strengthen his political hand, he played the race card against the Indian community and portrayed himself as a champion of indigenous interests.
The putsch failed, largely through the efforts of army commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama who himself escaped a murder attempt by soldiers loyal to Speight.
The successor government, which Bainimarama installed, succumbed to the temptation to consolidate its power through racialist policies under Prime Minister Qarase, and placed partisans of Speight in the government and cabinet.
In an ominous development for Fijian society, Qarase’s government has apparently co-opted several of the Fijian chiefs, whose Great Council of Chiefs control the appointment of the Presidency, Vice Presidency, and 14 Senate (a.k.a. Fijian House of Lords—we’re not talking pure democracy here) seats, setting up the same potential elite vs. commoner split within indigenous Fijian society that has riven Tonga and the Solomon Islands.
Events reached a sorry climax with the Qarase government’s attempt to push through a so-called Reconciliation, Toleration, and Unity Bill, which opponents saw as nothing more than an effort to shield the backers and perpetrators of the 2000 coup from further public exposure and legal liability, and institutionalize their safe haven under the aegis of the Qarase government.
Baianimarama was profoundly suspicious of the Qarase government and not willing to see political control slide into the hands of the gang that orchestrated the 2000 coup and nearly killed him.
He confronted the Qarase government with a series of statements and ultimatums and, at last, deposed the government by a process he characterized as a constitutional exercise, but one which looks, walks, and quacks like a coup.
Fiji seems to be a place in which Australia, China, India, and Taiwan would like to drive events to serve their interests, but everyone has been stymied by the perilously dysfunctional character of Fijian society.
Fiji recognizes the People’s Republic of China. President Wen Jiabao paid a visit in April of this year.
However, China had its problems with the Qarase government, which afforded Taiwan’s Chen Shuibian the opportunity to pay an unofficial visit spring 2005 that included a friendly greeting at the airport, meetings with the Fijian Vice President and other bigwigs, and apparently, an unannounced meeting with Qarase.
The motivation for this diplomatic maneuver is unclear, though it might have something to do with Fiji’s stated concern that China threatens Fiji’s textile exports to Australia.
Certainly some sort of economic chainyanking on a more or less exalted level vis a vis PRC & ROC was going on.
Fortunately for Beijing and Taipei, Fijian politics, unlike those of Tonga and the Solomon Islands, are thankfully devoid of the complicating factor of a significant ethnic Chinese minority or its politically convenient and attractive accessory: a Chinatown ripe for shaking or burning down.
Australia apparently had few principled objections to Qarase’s government, which played the race card more and more openly. Graham Davis’ op-ed in The Australian lays out the case against Qarase’s policies—and the moral and political pitfalls of Canberra’s support for him--quite persuasively.
Canberra also had the inside track influencing Fiji through the selection of an Australian national, Andrew Hughes, as Fiji’s Police Commissioner. He was a popular and effective choice at first, but his prestige and reputation for impartiality fell victim to the political turmoil.
Hughes was proceeding with an investigation of Bainamarama for sedition for his bullyragging of the Qarase government.
On November 23, Hughes was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
JOHN STEWART: Three weeks ago Fiji appeared to be sliding towards a military coup. Commodore Frank Bainimarama called his army reservists to duty and told them to show courage in the days ahead. But today Fiji's police force got the upper hand. The Australian born Police Commissioner, Andrew Hughes, announced that Commodore Bainimarama and a group of senior military officers, civil servants and politicians will be charged with sedition.
ANDREW HUGHES: We believe that the commander here is a front-man for some shadowy figures operating in the background. We have a fair idea who they are now and we are going to drag them into the sunlight for the world to see. We've got Parliamentarians there, we’ve got former senior military officers, we’ve got senior civil servants involved.
So there you have it.
While the investigation of the coup that already happened in 2000 putters along, with the prospect of pardon for the plotters (and Qarase’s allies) in the offing, Hughes accelerates plans not only to arrest Baimarama but also to gut his faction on a sedition charge.
It’s interesting that the fact that an Australian policeman was attempting to topple Fiji’s top military man, who regards himself as the protector of his nation’s multi-racial society, has not been discussed very much as what it must have been: a key precipitating factor in the coup.
Hughes has made a fetish of proclaiming his impartiality.
There's not enough evidence to impugn Hughes' honesty when he declares he was not intentionally advancing Qarase's sectarian interests or Australia's regional agenda.
But one can certainly question his judgment as a foreign national exacerbating a constitutional crisis and provoking a coup in a dangerously divided and distrustful nation smack in the middle of Australia's neo-colonial "patch".
On November 25, Bainamarama demanded Hughes’ removal for searching the President’s office while trying to make the case against him:
[Baimimarama] says that Police did not respect the President.
"(Prime Minister Laisenia) Qarase is selling us out very quickly especially to Australia - allowing an Australian to search our President's Office.
"It is carried out by an Australian. He is selling our sovereignty. I am condemning everyone involved in that action, including the Fijian police officers.
"I don't have time for the Police Commissioner especially after what transpired yesterday. I demand that they remove this guy.
"If government is not going to do it, the military is going to do it.
"One day I had a friendly discussion with Hughes. I told him that someday things are going to explode. I warned him that if that happens I will warn him to leave. I am warning him now."
Hughes fled Fiji and got his two cents’ in after the coup::
Fiji police commander Andrew Hughes predicted the fourth coup in 20 years would fail because Bainimarama lacked popular support.
"He doesn't have the support of the government, of the president, of the police, of the churches, of the chiefs, of the people of Fiji, and I can foresee a popular uprising," Hughes told Australia's ABC Radio. "I think people are waking up that this guy is not mentally sound, that his strategy is flawed," he added.
We’ll see whether Bainimarama has over-reached in an attempt to break Fiji’s political and social impasse.
According to Pacific Islands watcher David Stanley, “support for the Bainimarama and Qarase camps is about evenly split within Fiji”.
Bainamarama made a point of leaving the Fiji for a trip to New Zealand last week in advance of the coup to demonstrate that he was confident of rock-solid support from the army.
However, the President of Fiji has issued a statement that he neither supports nor condones the coup.
Hughes’ right-hand man in the Fiji police and acting Commissioner, Moses Driver, is passively resisting the coup and has denounced an order undercutting police autonomy by requiring joint military police operations.
The Fiji Council of Churches is apparently openly backing Qarase.
Australia and its allies are busy painting Bainimarama as a coup-happy rogue officer instead of a patriot attempting to preserve the unity of his nation and society, according to the New Zealand media:
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters has labelled Bainimarama a dictator, while Prime Minister Helen Clark says he's deluded.
The website Just Pacific has posted an indignant riposte to the Australian/New Zealand position.
Military intervention by Canberra to place Fiji firmly within the sphere of Australian influence has been bruited, but Australia would have to think twice before trying to insert a force firmly opposed by the Fijian military.
For the time being, cooler heads have prevailed:
Both Clark and Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Tuesday turned down Qarase's last-minute appeal for military intervention, saying sending troops would make matters worse.
Today, with Bainimarama calling the shots, Australian influence must be close to its nadir.
Conceivably, China could become embroiled in the crisis as Bainamarama casts about for international support.
David Stanley comments:
Australia and New Zealand have announced sanctions against Fiji and it’s quite likely that Fiji will be suspended from the Commonwealth later this week. It’s also probable that Bainamarama will try to turn to the People’s Republic of China as an alternative. Yet in light of the anti-Chinese rioting in the Solomon Islands and Tonga recently, China may be wary of aligning itself with an illegal regime.
Although Bainimarama visited China at the PLA’s invitation, and there is no love lost between Beijing and Qarase after the Chen Shui-bian stunt, it is difficult to see China, which has zero internal political, military, or diplomatic leverage in Fiji, openly supporting Bainimarama.
The one thing that would certainly provoke Australia to a military response to the Fiji crisis would be the opportunity to catch Beijing with its geopolitical reach exceeding its grasp and give a perceived Chinese proxy a black eye in the South Pacific.
Although Bainimarama champions the rights of the Indo-Fijians to equal treatment and protection under the law, India can’t do anything more than keep its head down and hope the Bainimarama vs. Qarase conflict doesn’t escalate into something bigger, nastier, and featuring anti-Indian violence.
So it will be pretty much up to Bainimarama to make his coup work with what he’s got going for him inside Fiji.
Hopefully, Fiji’s society has not drunk too deeply of the poisoned cup of racialist politics.
However, with Qarase calling for “people power” to reverse the coup, opinion within Fijian society split, and Australia and New Zealand, the main regional powers, eager to expel Bainimarama, it is likely that the turmoil in Fiji has not reached its conclusion.