Donald Randall Richberg was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on 10th July 1881. His grandfather, a German immigrant, had established a successful meatpacking business in Chicago. His father, John Carl Richberg was a corporate lawyer.
Richberg graduated from the University of Chicago in 1901 and Harvard University in 1904. Richberg became interested in politics and was a close associate of fellow progressives, Jane Addams, Harold L. Ickes and Charles Edward Merriam. A supporter of women's suffrage Richberg campaigned for Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne, who attempted to become mayor of the city. Richberg was a member of the Progressive Party and along with Ickes helped form the Progressive-Republican League of Illinois.
Richberg and his father established a law firm, Richberg & Richberg, in Chicago. In 1915 Ickes joined the firm and when John Richberg retired it was called Richberg, Ickes, Davies & Lord. Richberg was named a special state's attorney from 1913 to 1915 and was a special master for a Chicago city court of chancery.
Richberg continued to be active in progressive politics and in 1922 he represented the railway unions in the Great Railroad Strike in 1922. His experiences during the strike resulted in him drafting legislation which in 1926 was enacted as the Railway Labor Act. He also helped George Norris and Fiorello La Guardia to draft the Norris–La Guardia Act.
In September 1932, Richberg, Harold L. Ickes, Felix Frankfurter and Henry A. Wallace established the National Progressive League in order to support Franklin D. Roosevelt in his attempt to become President of the United States. Roosevelt selected John Nance Garner as his running mate. Although Roosevelt was vague about what he would do about the economic depression, he easily beat his unpopular Republican rival, Herbert Hoover. William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), has argued: "Franklin Roosevelt swept to victory with 22,800,000 votes to Hoover's 15,750,000. With a 472-59 margin in the Electoral College, he captured every state south and west of Pennsylvania. Roosevelt carried more counties than a presidential candidate had ever won before, including 282 that had never gone Democratic. Of the forty states in Hoover's victory coalition four years before, the President held but six."
Other members of Roosevelt's team included Hugh S. Johnson, Bernard Baruch and Alexander Sachs, an economist with Lehman Corporation, to draw up a proposal to help stimulate the economy. The central feature was the the provision for the legalization of business agreements (codes) on competitive and labour practices. Johnson believed that the nation's traditional commitment to laissez-faire was outdated. He argued that scientific and technological improvements had led to over-production and chronically unstable markets. This, in turn, led to more extreme methods of competition, such as sweatshops, child labour, falling prices and low wages.
Johnson became convinced that his plan should play a central role in encouraging industrial recovery. However, its original draft was rejected by Raymond Moley. He argued that the proposed bill would give the president dictatorial powers that Roosevelt did not want. Moley suggested her worked with Richberg on a new proposal. Together they produced a new draft bill. Richberg argued that business codes would increase prices. If purchasing power did not rise correspondingly, the nation would remain mired in the the Great Depression. He therefore suggested that the industrial recovery legislation would need to include public works spending. Johnson became convinced of this argument and added that the promise of public spending could be used to persuade industries to agree to these codes.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested that Johnson and Richberg should work with Senator Robert F. Wagner, who also had strong ideas on industrial recovery policy and other key figures in his administration, Frances Perkins, Guy Tugwell and John Dickinson. He told them to "shut themselves up in a room" until they could come up with a common proposal. According to Perkins it was Johnson's voice that dominated these meetings. When it was suggested that the Supreme Court might well rule the legislation as unconstitutional, Johnson argued: "Well, what difference does it make anyhow, because before they can get these cases to the Supreme Court we will have won the victory. The unemployment will be over and over so fast that nobody will care."
Dickinson complained about what he considered to be a flippant remark about a serious matter. Johnson responded angrily to Dickinson: "You don't seem to realise that people in the country are starving. You don't seem to realize that industry has gone to pot. You don't seem to realize that there isn't any industry in this country unless we stimulate it, unless we start it. You don't seem to realize that these things are important and that this law stuff doesn't matter. You're just talking about things that are of no account."
The draft legislation was finished on 14th May. It went before Congress and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed by the Senate on 13th June by a vote of 46 to 37. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was set up to enforce the NIRA. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Hugh Johnson to head it. This involved organizing thousands of businesses under fair trade codes drawn up by trade associations and industries.
The National Recovery Act allowed industry to write its own codes of fair competition but at the same time provided special safeguards for labor. Section 7a of NIRA stipulated that workers should have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and that no one should be banned from joining an independent union. The NIRA also stated that employers must comply with maximum hours, minimum pay and other conditions approved by the government. Hugh S. Johnson asked Roosevelt if Richberg could be general counsel of the NRA. Roosevelt agreed and on 20th June, 1933, Roosevelt appointed him to the post. Richberg's main task was to implement and defend Section 7(a).
Employers ratified these codes with the slogan "We Do Our Part", displayed under a Blue Eagle at huge publicity parades across the country, Franklin D. Roosevelt used this propaganda cleverly to sell the New Deal to the public. At a Blue Eagle parade in New York City a quarter of a million people marched down Fifth Avenue. Hugh S. Johnson argued that the NIRA would "eliminate eye-gouging and knee-groining and ear-chewing in business." He added that "above the belt any man can be just as rugged and just as individual as he pleases."
The National Recovery Administration first success was with the textile industry. This included bringing an end to child labour. As William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), has pointed out: "At the dramatic cotton-code hearing, the room burst into cheers when textile magnates announced their intention to abolish child labor in the mills. In addition, the cotton textile code stipulated maximum hours, minimum wages, and collective bargaining." As Johnson pointed out: "The Textile Code had done in a few minutes what neither law nor constitutional amendment had been able to do in forty years."
By the end of July 1933 NRA had half the main ten industries, textiles, shipbuilding, woolens, electricals and the garment industry, signed up. This was followed by the oil industry but he was forced to make a raft of concessions on price policy to persuade the steel industry to join. According to one commentator, during this period "Johnson became the most discussed and best known figure in the administration after Roosevelt".
Frances Robinson, Johnson's young secretary, became increasingly important to him. In her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946), Frances Perkins claimed: "People began to realize that if you wanted to get something done, you got to know Miss Robinson, you got on the good side of Miss Robinson." Some of Johnson's senior officials began to resent her influence. Richberg constantly complained about her presence at private meetings. On one occasion they two had a stand-up row and afterwards Richberg told Henry Morgenthau, that it was one of the worst experiences of his life.
Some leading figures in the Roosevelt administration, including Richberg, Harold L. Ickes, Rex Tugwell, Frances Perkins and Henry A. Wallace, became highly suspicious of Johnson's policies. They believed that Johnson was permitting the larger industries "to get a stranglehold on the economy" and suspected that "these industries would use their power to raise prices, restrict production, and allocate capital and materials among themselves". They decided to closely monitor his actions.
On 7th March, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a National Recovery Review Board to study monopolistic tendencies in the codes. This was in response to criticism of the NRA by influential figures such as Gerald Nye, William Borah and Robert LaFollette. Johnson, in what he later said was "a moment of total aberration," agreed with Richberg that Clarence Darrow should head the investigation. Johnson was furious when Darrow reported back that he "found that giant corporations dominated the NIRA code authorities and this was having a detrimental impact on small business". Darrow also signed a supplementary report which argued that recovery could only be achieved through the fullest use of productive capacity, which lay "in the planned use of America's resources following socialization".
Johnson was furious with the report and wrote to President Roosevelt that it was the most "superficial, intemperate and inaccurate document" he had ever seen. He added that Darrow had given the United States a choice between "Fascism and Communism, neither of which can be espoused by anyone who believes in our democratic institutions of self-government." Johnson advised Roosevelt that the National Recovery Review Board should be abolished immediately.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins took this opportunity to try and get rid of Hugh S. Johnson and asked Bernard Baruch "to say to Hugh that you need him badly and want him back.... tell him you need him and have a good post for him". Baruch said this was impossible: "Hugh's got so swell headed now that he sometimes won't even talk to me on the telephone. I've called him up and tried to save him from two or three disasters that I've heard about. People have come to me because they knew that I knew him well, but sometimes he won't even talk to me. When he does talk to me, he doesn't say anything, or he isn't coherent... He's just pushing off. I never could manage him again. Hugh has got too big for his boots. He's got too big for me. I could never manage him again. My organization could never absorb him. He's learned publicity too, which he never knew before. He's tasted the tempting, but poisonous cup of publicity. It makes a difference. He never again can be just a plain fellow working in Baruch's organization. He's now the great General Hugh Johnson of the blue eagle. I can never put him in a place where I can use him again, so he's just utterly useless."
On 9th May 1934, the International Longshoremen's Association went on strike in order to obtain a thirty-hour week, union recognition and a wage increase. A federal mediating team, led by Edward McGrady, worked out a compromise. Joseph P. Ryan, president of the union, accepted it, but the rank and file, influenced by Harry Bridges, rejected it. In San Francisco the vehemently anti-union Industrial Association, an organization representing the city's leading industrial, banking, shipping, railroad and utility interests, decided to open the port by force. This resulted in considerable violence and on 13th July the San Francisco Central Labor Council voted for a general strike.
Hugh S. Johnson visited the city where he spoke to John Francis Neylan, chief counsel for the Hearst Corporation, and the most significant figure in the Industrial Association. Neylan convinced Johnson that the general strike was under the control of the American Communist Party and was a revolutionary attack against law and order. Johnson later wrote: "I did not know what a general strike looked like and I hope that you may never know. I soon learned and it gave me cold shivers."
On 17th July 1934 Johnson gave a speech to a crowd of 5,000 assembled at the University of California, where he called for the end of the strike: "You are living here under the stress of a general strike... and it is a threat to the community. It is a menace to government. It is civil war... When the means of food supply - milk to children, necessities of life to the whole people - are threatened, that is bloody insurrection... I am for organized labor and collective bargaining with all my heart and soul and I will support it with all the power at my command, but this ugly thing is a blow to the flag of our common country and it has to stop.... Insurrection against the common interest of the community is not a proper weapon and will not for one moment be tolerated by the American people who are one - whether they live in California, Oregon or the sunny South."
The New Republic urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to "crack down on Johnson" before he destroys the New Deal. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was also furious with Johnson. In her opinion he had no right to become involved in the dispute and made it look like the government, in the form of the National Recovery Administration, was on the side of the employers. Demonstrations took place at NRA headquarters with protestors carrying placards claiming that it was biased against the trade union movement.
On 21st August 1934, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Johnson and rebuked him for "unjustified interference" in union activity. Henry Morgenthau informed Roosevelt that in his opinion Johnson should be removed from the NRA. Rex Tugwell and Henry Wallace also told Roosevelt that Johnson should be sacked. Harry Hopkins, the head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civil Works Administration, advised Roosevelt that 145 out of 150 of the highest officials in the government believed that Johnson's usefulness was at an end and that he should be retired. It was suggested that Richberg should replace Johnson as head of the National Recovery Administration.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked to see Johnson. He wrote in his autobiography that he knew he was going to be sacked when he saw his two main enemies in Roosevelt's office "when Mr. Richberg and Madam Secretary did not look up" I realised they had "been skinning a cow". Roosevelt asked him to go on a tour and make a report on European recovery. Sensing that this was "the sugary lipstick smeared over the kiss of death" he replied: "Mr. President, of course there is nothing for me to do but resign immediately." Roosevelt now backed down and said he did not want him to go.
Johnson believed that Richberg was the main person behind the plot to get him removed. He wrote to Roosevelt on 24th August: "I was completely fooled by him (Richberg) until recently but may I suggest to you that if he would double-cross me, he would double-cross you.... I am leaving merely because I have a pride and a manhood to maintain which I can no longer sustain after the conference of this afternoon and I cannot regard the proposal you made to me as anything more than a banishment with futile flowers and nothing more insulting has ever been done to me than Miss Perkins' suggestion that, as a valedictory, I ought to get credit for the work I have done with NRA. Nobody can do that for me."
Johnson continued to make controversial attacks on those on the left. He accused Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, of inspiring the United Textile Workers to carry out an illegal strike. The charge against Thomas was without foundation. It was also not an illegal strike and he was later forced to apologize for these inaccurate statements. Johnson also made a speech on the future of the NRA. He said it needed to be scaled back. Johnson added that Louis Brandeis, a member of the Supreme Court, agreed with him: "During the whole intense experience I have been in constant touch with that old counselor, Judge Louis Brandeis. As you know, he thinks that anything that is too big is bound to be wrong. He thinks NRA is too big, and I agree with him." Brandeis quickly told Roosevelt that this was not true. It also implied that Brandeis had prejudged NRA even before the Supreme Court had ruled on the NRA's constitutionality.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that Johnson must now resign. He was unable to do it himself and asked Bernard Baruch to do it for him. Baruch contacted Johnson and bluntly told him he must go. He later recalled that "Johnson kicked up a bit" but he made it clear that he had no choice. "When the Captain wants your resignation you better resign." On 24th September, 1934, Johnson submitted his resignation.
Three days later, Roosevelt appointed Richberg as Executive Director of the National Industrial Recovery Board, that had replaced the National Recovery Administration. Richberg had difficulty running this new organization. Arthur M. Schlesinger, the author of The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (2003) has argued that "Richberg engaged in double-dealing, lying to the President about the views of his subordinates and agreeing to his staff's requests that he raise issues with the President and later refusing to do so."
On 27th May 1935 the Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery Board as unconstitutional. The reasons given were that many codes were an illegal delegation of legislative authority and the federal government had invaded fields reserved to the individual states. Richberg resigned on 16th June, 1935.
Richberg had held liberal views when he entered government but by the time he left his politics had changed dramatically. In 1936 he attempted in 1936 to establish his own law firm in Washington, D.C., but this failed. He now became a member of the law firm, Davies, Richberg, Beebe, Busick & Richardson. He was also a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law.
In 1947 Richberg helped draft the Taft-Hartley Act. When it was passed by Congress Harry S. Truman denounced it as a "slave-labor bill". The act declared the closed shop illegal and permitted the union shop only after a vote of a majority of the employees. It also forbade jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts. Other aspects of the legislation included the right of employers to be exempted from bargaining with unions unless they wished to. The act also gave the United States Attorney General the power to obtain an 80 day injunction when a threatened or actual strike that he/she believed "imperiled the national health or safety".
On August 14 Richberg visited Roosevelt and explained his concerns about the organizational chaos in NRA. Over the next several days he told McIntyre that the Johnson situation was "much more acute than I realized" and emphasized the need for quick action on several grounds: (1) "Major matters of policy are pressing so for decision that the alternative is confusion and disintegration for lack of decision, or a grave risk of decisions which will cause increased difficulty"; (2) "Distrust and dissatisfaction throughout the country are increasing daily the resistance to the program"; (3) "The quality of N.R.A. personnel is steadily declining. Important officials are leaving"; and (4) "The General himself is, in the opinion of many, in the worst physical and mental condition and needs an immediate relief from responsibility." Hinting that he would leave the administration unless something was done soon, Richberg made it clear that he thought everything would work out once Johnson was gone.
Impelled by Richberg's scheming and the recommendations of others in his administration, Roosevelt made his move to case Johnson out. It had to be done gently. Tugwell and others were cautioning him that Johnson could not be fired abruptly because of his "cantankerousness and volubility."' Tugwell, like many, expected Johnson would rant and rave and bring down NRA with him.
With this thought in mind, Roosevelt met with Johnson on August 18. This Saturday meeting was their first in nearly seven weeks, and when Johnson entered the White House, newspapermen on the presidential beat speculated that Roosevelt intended either to fire him or give him a different job. The meeting lasted for more than an hour. After praising Johnson for his work, Roosevelt tried to explain to him, without actually saying so, that he had become a definite liability at NRA and that he should take a rest as a prelude to accepting a new and more important assignment. He told Johnson that he was thinking of a mission in which Johnson would study the progress of economic recovery in Europe. Johnson lost patience. "If you want to fire me, say so. Don't beat around the bush," he yelled.' Johnson's outburst surprised and dismayed Roosevelt. The last thing he wanted was for Johnson to stomp out of his office in a huff and tell the waiting reporters that he had been fired. Turning soft, he decided it was better to calm Johnson down and bring up the matter of his status at NRA at a later time. According to Johnson, Roosevelt then said that he did not want him to leave NRA and, in fact, insisted that he stay until the reorganization of the agency was completed. "I need you," he said very flatteringly, "and the country needs you." Elated by the president's remarks, Johnson marched out of the White House with his red face glowing and his head held high. The newspapermen immediately swarmed around him and asked, "Are you going out?" Shutting them off with a wave of his hand, Johnson answered that Roosevelt wanted him to stay: "The President told me that I could not get away from the NRA or the administration. He wants me right here with my feet nailed right down on the floor. And of course I'm staying."
I was completely fooled by him (Richberg) until recently but may I suggest to you that if he would double-cross me, he would double-cross you.... I am leaving merely because I have a pride and a manhood to maintain which I can no longer sustain after the conference of this afternoon and I cannot regard the proposal you made to me as anything more than a banishment with futile flowers and nothing more insulting has ever been done to me than Miss Perkins' suggestion that, as a valedictory, I ought to get credit for the work I have done with N.R.A. Nobody can do that for me.