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Profile - "Cool Cal" Coolidge

The only President born on “The Glorious Fourth,” Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) is generally regarded as perhaps the most boring of the nation’s chief executives, hardly ever saying anything, which earned him the nickname “Silent Cal.”

Genealogists have traced the Coolidge family back to twelfth century England. The complexities of genetic connection are such that Coolidge appears to have ties to Washington, the Adamses, Grant, Harding, the Bushes, Obama, and several other presidents. His ancestors were early settlers in Massachusetts, arriving about 1630, and for most of their history they were farmers. Presidential great-great-grandfather John Coolidge served in the Revolutionary War, for which he received a veteran’s land grant. Family tradition has it that at 19 he was private at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and that, by the end of the war in 1783, he had risen to captain; details that cannot be confirmed by any documentation. John’s land grant gave him a farm in Vermont, which became the family homestead. Oddly, there seems to be no record of any military or militia service by any later members of the family: the president’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father did not serve, though John Calvin Coolidge, Sr., held the honorary rank of colonel granted by a governor of Vermont. The “Colonel” was the successful owner of a general store and at times postmaster, notary public, and justice of the peace. As a young man, the president, originally named John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., attended local schools and then Amherst College. He also had no military service.

Coolidge studied law and began practicing in Northampton, Massachusetts. Entering politics, he was elected to a number of local offices, then to the state legislature, becoming in turn lieutenant governor and later governor of Massachusetts. He gained widespread national attention for publicly opposing a strike by the Boston police in 1920. Because of this, he was chosen as Warren G. Harding’s running mate, and inaugurated as vice-president in 1921. When Harding died, on August 2, 1923, Coolidge was visiting his family in Vermont. Receiving the news very early on the 3rd, the new president was sworn in by his father on the family Bible by the light of a kerosene lamp; making Coolidge the only president to have been inaugurated by his own father. With the nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, Coolidge was easily re-elected in 1924. Although he angled for a third term, in 1928 he was passed over by his party in favor of Herbert Hoover.

During Coolidge’s 67 months in office, post-World War military retrenchment continued, in part to reduce taxes and government expenses, the better to fuel the ongoing economic boom (reflected in Irving Berlin’s popular hit, “Blue skies, nothing but blue skies, from now on”). There was an odd plus to the cuts. While existing stockpiles of arms and equipment were mostly World War I stuff, and thus increasingly outdated, no one else was re-equipping their armed forces with anything better in the period. Had block procurement of new equipment taken place, by the early 1930s it would all have been rendered obsolete by advances in technology, saddling the nation with the need to reequip the armed forces yet again.

Despite the general desire to cut defense spending, in 1927 Coolidge, noting the need to maintain the fleet at that the levels prescribed by the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922, proposed building 71 new warships over the next nine years, including five aircraft carriers and 25 cruisers. A penny-pinching Congress promptly cut the plan down to one carrier and 15 cruisers, but provided funds only for eight heavy cruisers, which joined the fleet in 1929-1931. Meanwhile, a modernization program was initiated for battleships, and during Coolidge’s administration twelve were taken out of service for periods of from 18 to 36 months. Although naturally some expenditure was incurred for labor and materials, this was less than the expense of keeping the battlewagons in commission, given the cost of personnel, supplies, food, fuel, spares, and ammunition, while leaving the fleet with much improved ships.

The most important military developments during the Coolidge Administration were in aviation. In part, these were a consequence of the highly insubordinate and probably illegal behavior of Col. William "Billy" Mitchell, the nation’s most outspoken advocate of aviation. Mitchell had acquired an impressive record in command of American and Allied aviation units during World War I. He had come to believe that aviation had rendered all other forms of warfare obsolete, but his enthusiasm for air power blinded him to the limits of technology. By the mid-1920s he had repeatedly cheated during bombing or tactical exercises, frequently lied during testimony, and was prone to make wild charges against senior military and naval officers. Even so air-minded an officer as Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, who didn’t agree with Mitchell on such matters as the formation of an independent Air Force controlling all forms of aviation, came in for scathing criticism. In September of 1925, following a series of accidents involving naval aviation (notably the loss of three seaplanes on a mass flight from California to Hawaii and the destruction of the airship Shenandoah in a storm), Mitchell publicly accused senior Navy and Army leaders of incompetence and an "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." This led to a court martial and disgrace for Mitchell. The affair prompted Coolidge to convene a “blue ribbon” panel to investigate American military and naval aviation. The panel concluded that an independent Air Force was not desirable, and recommended that the respective air services be strengthened bureaucratically. As a result, legislation in 1926 established the posts of Assistant Secretary of War for Aviation and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aviation. In addition, the Army Air Service became a distinct branch as the Army Air Corps, and naval aviators were given a clear career path to flag rank. Meanwhile, both air services benefited from an increased share of the admittedly limited defense budget, so that despite overall retrenchment they experienced continuous growth. For example, although naval manpower declined during the Coolidge years, naval aviation personnel increased by about 50 percent, and the service commissioned the carriers Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3), manned largely by non-aviation rated personnel; two developments which greatly expanded the capabilities of naval aviation.

Less noticeable were some important developments in submarine safety during the Coolidge years. In 1925 the submarine USS S-51 (SS 162) was struck by an ocean liner and sank, with the loss of 33 of her crew of 36. Two years later the USS S-4 (SS-109) was rammed by a Coast Guard Cutter. Although many of her crew of 40 survived in air pockets, most succumbed to rising water or asphyxiation by chemical fumes or suffocation within hours. Six men survived for several days in an air pocket in the forward torpedo room. Nevertheless, despite heroic efforts to rescue them, bad weather and a lack of appropriate technology doomed the men to death by suffocation. The incident led Coolidge to propose the convening of a submarine safety board which made several proposals to improve survivability and salvage. In addition, then Lt. Charles B. Momsen (1896-1967), later a vice admiral, did pioneering work in developing the “Momsen Lung,” an underwater breathing apparatus that facilitated escapes from as deep as 300 feet, and what was latter called the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, a diving bell that could be affixed to a hatch on a sunken submarine to allow the crew to escape; in 1939 Momsen, by then a lieutenant commander, would use the chamber to rescue 33 of the 59 men aboard the USS Squalus (SS-192) which sank in nearly 250 feet of water after a mechanical failure.

Although generally regarded as a peaceful period, the 1920s, and particularly the Coolidge years, saw the U.S. engaged in a number of small wars. American personnel, usually U.S. Marines, were engaged at various times, often for years on end, in several countries in Central America and the Caribbean or in China. Of the eight marine regiments active in 1927, four were in China (assisted by the Army’s 15th Infantry and a contingent of the Navy’s river gunboats), one in Haiti, and two in Nicaragua. These small wars, which hardly ever attracted public notice, were instrumental in helping to train many of the men who would lead marine battalions, regiments, and divisions in the Pacific War. While (aside from its river gunboats) the Navy saw no action during the Coolidge years, it conducted seven massive fleet problems, several joint maneuvers with the Army, and even undertook an unprecedented voyage to Australia and New Zealand in 1925, helping to work out the details of the famous “War Plan Orange.”

Upon leaving the presidency in March of 1929, Coolidge lived quietly in Vermont until his death.

President Coolidge had two sons. The elder, John (1906-2000), attended a military summer training camp in 1923. While waiting in line for breakfast on the morning of August 3rd, John recalled that his company commander told him, ''Your father is president of the United States.'' ''I was surprised, but nothing changed.'' John saw no other military service, but had a long career in business. The president’s younger son, Calvin, Jr. (1908-1924) died of blood poisoning when he was 16.

BookNotes: There are several recent biographies of the 30th president, including Robert Sobel’s Coolidge, An American Enigma (2000), David Greenberg’s Calvin Coolidge (2006), and Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge (2013). And then there’s David Pietrusza’s amusing look at what might be called Coolidge’s “lighter side”: Silent Cal's Almanack: The Homespun Wit and Wisdom of Vermont's Calvin Coolidge (2008).


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