Claude Pepper

Claude Pepper

Claude Denson Pepper, the son of sharecroppers, was born in Chambers County, Alabama, on 8th September, 1900. After leaving school he worked in a steel mill. After building up his savings he enrolled at the University of Alabama. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 he joined the Student Army Training Corps, but with the war ending before he could see active service.

After graduating in 1921 Pepper attended Harvard Law School where he became friendly with Thomas Corcoran. He received his degree in 1924 and briefly taught law at the University of Arkansas. Pepper opened a law practice in Perry, Florida, where he opened a law practice. A member of the Democratic Party he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1929. After his defeat he moved his law practice to Tallahassee.

Claude Pepper was a great supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He lost in the Democratic primary against Duncan Fletcher for the United States Senate in 1934. Fletcher died in June, 1936, and Pepper replaced him in the Senate. Pepper soon made it clear that he intended to promote policies to help the poor. This included support for Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, who had drawn up legislation to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers".

The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938. The act established maximum working hours of 44 a week for the first year, 42 for the second, and 40 thereafter. Minimum wages of 25 cents an hour were established for the first year, 30 cents for the second, and 40 cents over a period of the next six years. It also prohibited child labor in all industries engaged in producing goods in inter-state commerce. The act set the minimum age at 14 for employment outside of school hours in non-manufacturing jobs, at 16 for employment during school hours, and 18 for hazardous occupations.

As a result of Pepper's support of this legislation there were attempts, by J. Mark Wilcox to unseat him in the 1938 Democratic Party primary in Florida. As Jean Edward Smith, the author of FDR (2008) has pointed out: "Claude Pepper faced an uphill primary fight against Congressman J. Mark Wilcox of West Palm Beach, an ultra-conservative member of the Florida business establishment who made opposition to the wages and hours bill the centerpiece of his campaign. Wilcox was a marvel on the stump, and prognosticators gave Pepper little chance. In the colorful rhetoric of the Sunshine State, Wilcox titillated back country audiences with rumors that Pepper had been guilty of celibacy before marriage and addicted to monogamy ever since... Thomas Corcoran, a Harvard Law School classmate of Pepper, funneled funds from private donors into the campaign, and on May 3 Pepper won an upset victory, beating Wilcox by 65,000 votes." During the campaign he was quoted as saying: "If more politicians in this country were thinking about the next generation instead of the next election, it might be better for the United States and the world."

In May 1940 Pepper helped William Allen White establish the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA). White gave an interview to the Chicago Daily News where he argued: "Here is a life and death struggle for every principle we cherish in America: For freedom of speech, of religion, of the ballot and of every freedom that upholds the dignity of the human spirit... Here all the rights that common man has fought for during a thousand years are menaced... The time has come when we must throw into the scales the entire moral and economic weight of the United States on the side of the free peoples of Western Europe who are fighting the battle for a civilized way of life." It was not long before White's organization had 300 chapters nationwide. in May 1940. Other members included Clark M. Eichelberger (National Director), Adlai Stevenson, John J. Pershing and Philip Dunne. Members of the CDAAA argued that by advocating American military materiel support of Britain was the best way to keep the United States out of the war in Europe. The CDAAA disagreed strongly with the America First Committee, the main pressure group supporting complete neutrality and non-intervention in the war.

In 1940 Winston Churchill asked Franklin D. Roosevelt for help to beat Nazi Germany. At the time Britain was in a very difficult situation. In 1940 Germany had a population of 80 million with a workforce of 41 million. Britain had a population of 46 million with less than half Germany's workforce. Germany's total income at market prices was £7,260 million compared to Britain's £5,242 million. More ominously, the Germans had spent five times what Britain had spent on armaments - £1,710 million versus £358 million. Churchill was informed that Britain would soon run out of money to fight the war.

At first Roosevelt said he was unable to help because public opinion in the United States was completely opposed to becoming involved in the war. However, British intelligence had some important agents of the British Security Coordination (BSC) within the White House. This included Ernest Cuneo, Robert Sherwood and David Niles. Cuneo later recalled: "Given the time, the situation, and the mood, it is not surprising however, that BSC also went beyond the legal, the ethical, and the proper. Throughout the neutral Americas, and especially in the U.S., it ran espionage agents, tampered with the mails, tapped telephone, smuggled propaganda into the country, disrupted public gatherings, covertly subsidized newspapers, radios, and organizations, perpetrated forgeries - even palming one off on the President of the United States - violated the aliens registration act, shanghaied sailors numerous times, and possibly murdered one or more persons in this country."

Eventually Franklin D. Roosevelt was persuaded to change his mind. On 17th December, 1940, Roosevelt made a speech to the American public: "In the present world situation of course there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of a very overwhelming number of Americans that the best immediate defence of the United States is the success of Great Britain in defending itself; and that, therefore, quite aside from our historic and current interest in the survival of democracy in the world as a whole, it is equally important, from a selfish point of view of American defence, that we should do everything to help the British Empire to defend itself... In other words, if you lend certain munitions and get the munitions back at the end of the war, if they are intact - haven't been hurt - you are all right; if they have been damaged or have deteriorated or have been lost completely, it seems to me you come out pretty well if you have them replaced by the fellow to whom you have lent them."

Pepper was also a strong opponent of Adolf Hitler and urged United States intervention in the Second World War. At the request of Roosevelt he joined forces with Walter Lippmann, Charles Edward Marsh and Benjamin Cohen to help draft a plan to send military aid to Britain. Isolationists like Burton Wheeler of Montana, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Thomas Connally of Texas argued that this legislation would lead to American involvement in the war. In early February 1941 a poll by the George H. Gallup organisation revealed that only 22 percent were unqualifiedly against the President's proposal. It has been argued by Thomas E. Mahl, the author of Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (1998), has argued that the Gallup organization had been infiltrated by the British Security Coordination (BSC).

On 11th March 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. The legislation gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt the powers to sell, transfer, exchange, lend equipment to any country to help it defend itself against the Axis powers. A sum of $50 billion was appropriated by Congress for Lend-Lease. The money went to 38 different countries with Britain receiving over $31 billion.

Claude Pepper and his left-wing friend, George Norris, were strong supporters of Vice President Henry A. Wallace. However, more conservative elements in the party argued that he should be dropped as vice-president for the 1944 Presidential Election. A public opinion poll showed that Wallace was a popular figure and a survey to discover who Roosevelt's running-mate should be, suggested that he should be selected: The results were as follows: Wallace (46%), Cordell Hull (21%), James Farley (13%), Sam Rayburn (12%), James F. Byrnes (5%) and Harry F. Byrd (3%).

Walter Lippmann argued against Wallace being nominated as he considered him to be emotionally unsuited to be president: "We can't take the risk. This man may go crazy. we know that Roosevelt is not immortal." Robert Hannegan, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was totally opposed to Wallace and suggested that he should select Harry S. Truman instead. Roosevelt told Wallace he had a problem because some people were telling him that they thought he was "a Communist - or worse".

At the Democratic National Convention in 1944 Henry A. Wallace upset most of the party bosses by making a passionate defence of liberalism. "The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion. In a political, educational and economic sense there must be no inferior races. The poll tax must go. Equal educational opportunities must come. The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race. Roosevelt stands for all this. That is why certain people hate him so. That also is one of the outstanding reasons why Roosevelt will be elected for a fourth time."

In McCook, Nebraska, a dying George Norris heard the speech and immediately sent him a letter: "I do not suppose it would be considered a proper speech for that occasion by the politicians. If you had been trying to appease somebody you made a mistake, but you were talking straight into the faces of your enemies who were trying to defeat you, and no matter what they may think or what effect it may have on them, the effect on the country and all those who will read that speech is that it was one of the most courageous exhibitions ever seen at a political convention in this country."

Claude Pepper organized a parade in favour of Wallace. Jennet Conant, the author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008), has argued: "Senator Claude Pepper, who was with the Florida delegation, thought that Wallace parade had pulled it off. From what he could see, standing on his chair and looking down at the forest of state standards raised in the air, it appeared that 'if a vote was taken that evening, Wallace would be nominated'. The Wallace demonstrators looked like they were about to riot. Hannegan, realizing that emotions had become too hot, hastily yelled at the party chairman to adjourn the night session. Pepper tried to reach the platform, to appeal to the floor not to adjourn. With a bang of his gavel, it was over. The crowd groaned in protest, but the police were already ushering them toward the exists."

The speech put President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a difficult position and he now refused to come out openly for Wallace. The vote at the end of the first ballot was 429 to Wallace and 319 for Harry S. Truman. Conservatives in the party now decided to take action. Other candidates, Herbert O'Conor and John Hollis Bankhead, withdrew in favour of Truman. Robert Hannegan now approached others to change their vote. Hannegan later said, he would like his tombstone to be inscribed with the words: "Here lies the man who stopped Henry Wallace from becoming President of the United States." At the next ballot Truman won 1,031 votes against Wallace's 105. It later emerged that Bernard Baruch had offered Roosevelt a million dollars if he ran on a ticket without Wallace.

Pepper disagreed with administration's Cold War foreign policy and along with Henry A. Wallace helped to establish the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA). Other members included Rexford Tugwell, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Hellen Keller, Thomas Mann, Aaron Copland, Eugene O'Neill, Glen H. Taylor, John Abt, Edna Ferber, Thornton Wilder, Carl Van Doren, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.

On 20th October, 1947, the Un-American Activities Committee opened its hearings concerning communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. Pepper joined forces with Harley Kilgore of West Virginia, Elbert D. Thomas of Utah, and Glenn H. Taylor of Idaho to protest about the hearings: "We the undersigned, as American Citizens who believe in constitutional democratic government, are disgusted and outraged by the continuing attempt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to smear the Motion Picture Industry. We hold that these hearings are morally wrong because: (1) Any investigation into the political beliefs of the individual is contrary to the basic principles of our democracy; (2) Any attempt to curb freedom of expression and to set arbitrary standards of Americanism is in itself disloyal to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution."

President Harry S. Truman had never forgiven Pepper for supporting Henry A. Wallace over him to become vice-president. He called George Smathers into a meeting at the White House and reportedly said "I want you to do me a favor. I want you to beat that son-of-a-bitch Claude Pepper." In 1950 Smathers took on Pepper in the primary election in Florida for the Senate. Smathers resorted to the tactics developed by Joseph McCarthy and claimed Pepper was a communist sympathizer because he supported civil rights and universal health care. Smathers called him "Red Pepper" and circulated a 49-page booklet titled The Red Record of Senator Claude Pepper . Pepper responded by calling Smathers a fear monger and bigot. However, Smathers won the election by 60,000 votes.

In 1962 Pepper was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was now a staunch anti-communist and opposed Cuban leader Fidel Castro and supported aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. In 1977, he became chair of the new House Select Committee on Aging and became the nation's foremost spokesman for the elderly.

Claude Pepper died on 30th May, 1989.

Primary Sources

(1) Jean Edward Smith, FDR (2008)

Claude Pepper faced an uphill primary fight against Congressman J. Mark Wilcox of West Palm Beach, an ultra-conservative member of the Florida business establishment who made opposition to the wages and hours bill the centerpiece of his campaign. Wilcox was a marvel on the stump, and prognosticators gave Pepper little chance. In the colorful rhetoric of the Sunshine State, Wilcox titillated back country audiences with rumors that Pepper had been guilty of celibacy before marriage and addicted to monogamy ever since.... Thomas Corcoran, a Harvard Law School classmate of Pepper, funneled funds from private donors into the campaign, and on May 3 Pepper won an upset victory, beating Wilcox by 65,000 votes.

(2) Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008)

Senator Claude Pepper, who was with the Florida delegation, thought that Wallace parade had pulled it off. From what he could see, standing on his chair and looking down at the forest of state standards raised in the air, it appeared that 'if a vote was taken that evening, Wallace would be nominated'. The Wallace demonstrators looked like they were about to riot. Hannegan, realizing that emotions had become too hot, hastily yelled at the party chairman to adjourn the night session. Pepper tried to reach the platform, to appeal to the floor not to adjourn. With a bang of his gavel, it was over. The crowd groaned in protest, but the police were already ushering them toward the exists."

(3) Statement signed by Harley Kilgore of West Virginia, Claude Pepper of Florida, Elbert D. Thomas of Utah, and Glenn H. Taylor of Idaho in 1947.

We the undersigned, as American Citizens who believe in constitutional democratic government, are disgusted and outraged by the continuing attempt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to smear the Motion Picture Industry.

We hold that these hearings are morally wrong because:

Any investigation into the political beliefs of the individual is contrary to the basic principles of our democracy;

Any attempt to curb freedom of expression and to set arbitrary standards of Americanism is in itself disloyal to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution.