Lover's Letters To President Harding Pushed German Cause

Newly-released love letters from President Warren Harding to his mistress make some wonder whether she was trying to influence foreign policy. NPR's Scott Simon talks to historian Jim Robenalt.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Warren G. Harding philandered. That's such old news that in fact it's history. The 29th President of the United States was elected in a landslide, became embroiled in scandal and died in August 1923 after just two years in the White House. He had a number of known assignations with women who were not Mrs. Harding. This Tuesday, the U.S. Library of Congress will release letters between the president and the woman who was perhaps his longest-standing mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, who was the wife of a friend. The question at hand is was she also a friend to a scheming foreign power? Jim Robenalt is a lawyer and author of "The Harding Affair: Love And Espionage During The Great War." He joins us now. Mr. Robenalt, thanks so much for being with us.

JIM ROBENALT: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: First of all - to notice what I guess everybody has who's gotten any kind of an advanced look - these letters are hot stuff, aren't they?

ROBENALT: Yeah, they went viral over the Internet when the New York Times had them in one of their Sunday magazine sections. And what's hilarious is that younger people are tweeting them like crazy and saying nobody writes letters like this anymore.

SIMON: Boy that's true. But using your best judgment as a historian, was Carrie Fulton Phillips the love of Warren G. Harding's life?

ROBENALT: She really was. They started their affair in 1905, long before the world thought it was ever going to go to war. And it lasted until he became president of the United States. So it was a very long, 15-year relationship. And you cannot come away after reading these letters with any other conclusion than this was the true love of his life.

SIMON: Now, you came upon these letters by accident, I gather?

ROBENALT: Yeah. In 2004, when Dick Cheney and John Edwards debated in the vice presidential debate, they did in Cleveland, Ohio, which is where I'm from. And Case Western Reserve asked me to put on a seminar on Ohio and the presidents. And so I asked a local historical society whether they had anything of interest on Harding. And the guy who was the archivist said I cannot tell you over the phone. You have to come out here. And when I got out there, he pulled out a microfilm and said these are the love letters. Nine-hundred pages of them.

SIMON: Why hasn't anybody been able to read these letters until now?

ROBENALT: Well, the Hardings sued when they came to light. And the family wanted to put them away for 50 years so that anybody involved in them would be long gone. So they put them in the Library of Congress and four microfilms in the Ohio Historical Society. The archivist though, who made the microfilms, sent several microfilms out to various people for protective custody. And that's one of the ones that I got a hold of in 2004. But they've been under seal and under a court-order - under seal until actually next week is when they finally come out.

SIMON: Let me get to the spy-story stuff. Was Carrie Fulton Phillips trying to influence President Harding toward Germany?

ROBENALT: Yeah. Well, he was then Senator Harding with the obligation to vote for war or not. And she thought we should stay out. She was extremely pro-German. She was hanging out with a very pro-German crowd, some of whom were spies for sure in New York City. And she had lived in Berlin for three years in the lead-up to the war. So she definitely was trying to convince him not to vote for war. And he eventually writes to her that though it's going to be a really tough thing for their relationship, he's going to vote for war. But that's not long before we actually get involved in the war.

SIMON: But what about the whole idea that somehow she was some kind of conduit for information to Berlin?

ROBENALT: That's a good question - as to whether she was getting information back about what was going on in the U.S. Senate. It's my opinion, based on all of the evidence, that she and her daughter both were getting information back to the German government about how quickly we were mobilizing to get in the war, which is what the Germans wanted to know.

SIMON: Jim Robenalt is the author of "The Harding Affair: Love And Espionage During The Great War." Thanks very much for being with us.

ROBENALT: Thanks for having me.

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