Special Study #6:
John G. Winant: First Chairman of the Social Security Board
by Larry DeWitt,
When President Roosevelt asked John G. Winant to become the first head of the new Social Security Board (SSB) in 1935, Winant had already distinguished himself in public life as a three-term governor of New Hampshire and first American member of the International Labor Organization. He would go on to serve with distinction as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. In between, Winant served two terms as Chairman of the SSB, the first from August 1935 until September 1936, and the second from November 1936 until February 1937. This was the crucial founding period of the Social Security program and as the first head of the SSB Winant was instrumental in the early work of creating the organization that would carry-out the new Social Security Act.
Winant loved St. Paul's because it was a thoroughly impractical school, whose only function was to prepare students to enter Princeton or Harvard or Yale. It concentrated on learning in an ideal way, without any concerns for training its young charges for a career. This suited Winant fine. He was, above all, an impractical idealist. And St. Paul's was the only place and time in his life in which Winant was ever fully happy.
As a young Master at the unworldly St. Paul's, Winant lived on a meager salary, a thread-bare aristocrat moving in upper class society without any real wherewithal to support such a lifestyle. This would be a pattern which would haunt him throughout his life.
Winant was sober, serious, quiet, unassuming, idealistic and passionate about the causes of social justice. He cared little for the practicalities of money; he was indifferent to food, often forgetting to eat; and his Brooks Brothers suits were often rumpled. His wife could not have been more different. She was from a genuinely wealthy family and her main interests in life were the social circuit, society, the gaming tables and kennel club dog shows. She was indifferent to social causes and cared nothing for politics or government. When Winant resigned as Chairman of the SSB, the top executives there held a going away party for him. Mrs. Winant declined to attend. The snub was not unusual.
Winant's glancing acquaintance with financial management sometimes led to embarrassing difficulties. During his tenure as Board Chairman, Winant rented a large house in a fashionable section of Georgetown. Once during his tenure he found himself unable to make the rent and he had to borrow the savings of his English maid, Orol Mears, to forestall eviction. He had already taken thousands in loans on his extensive life insurance holdings, only to lose them all when he could not keep up the payments.
A life-long tee-totaler, Winant began drinking in the final years of his life as a deepening depression turned his normally brooding personality into something darker and more destructive.
As a young Master at St. Paul's, Winant soon became involved in local and state politics and was elected to the state legislature in 1916 where he became the leader of the progressive wing of the Republican party. This was an era where child labor was still common, the work week was 55 hours and women could not vote. Winant surprised fellow legislators when, as a freshman, he introduced legislation to restrict the workweek for women and children to 48 hours, to support universal suffrage, to regulate wage standards and to abolish capital punishment. Winant failed utterly in his efforts to enact his legislative agenda, but his forceful advocacy of these positions brought him to the attention of the liberal factions in his party and soon moved him into position as the de facto leader of the progressives.
When the Democrats won the governorship in New Hampshire in 1922, for the first time in nearly 70 years, the Republicans realized they needed a candidate who could tap into the growing sentiment for political reform. Winant, as the leader of the progressive wing of his party, was ideally placed for this role and in 1924 was elected Governor on his first try for state-wide office.
In some ways Winant was out-of-sync with highly conservative New Hampshire and with a nation which brought Calvin Coolidge into office in the same election. He was, it is fair to say, ahead of his time. New Hampshire, and the nation, would not be ready for Winant's liberal reforms until the coming of the New Deal. During his first term he advanced public works projects, reformed bank laws to protect depositors, restrained the power of the railroads and expanded the power of the Public Service Commission to regulate utility companies-an agenda which was very much in the tradition of that earlier leader of Republican progressives, Theodore Roosevelt. New Hampshire had a tradition of a single-term for its governors. Winant would break this mold, serving three terms.
As Governor, Winant displayed the traits that would characterize his whole life, especially his prodigious passion for his work. "Easily the State's most indefatigable Chief Executive of the twentieth century, Winant drove himself mercilessly from the day he entered the State House. He made himself available to everyone who came into his office, disrupting his official schedule and private life . . ." And his early work habits foreshadowed the problems which would plague him throughout his life. "Winant had little sense of timing for eating, sleeping or family responsibilities, rarely stopping for a hot meal or a leisurely break during long, exhausting work days. He became totally immersed in administrative decisions and, at times, with the personal problems of troubled visitors. He often left a darkened State House late at night and arrived home in time to encounter guests leaving through the front portico of his rambling, white house. Exhilarated by increasing responsibilities, the Governor frequently overlooked commitments to his wife to host a houseful of dinner guests." (1)
As a loyal Republican, Winant supported Coolidge and then Hoover, but as the Depression took hold in New Hampshire he became increasingly impatient with Hoover's restrained response and increasingly in sympathy with the viewpoints of his neighboring Governor, Franklin Roosevelt of New York. After FDR's election, Winant became an early supporter of the New Deal programs. New Hampshire was the first state to fill its enrollment quota for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first to cooperate with the National Planning Board and was way ahead of most of the nation in securing relief funds for the state.
In his own re-election campaign in 1930, Winant would articulate a political philosophy remarkably similar to that which FDR would come to embrace: "There is want in the land today and men who know the dignity of labor are idle. When we turn into the new year and the sweep of winter winds and hunger and cold crowd in upon many a home, let those of us who plan to take on the duties of office and administer public funds see to it that the stigma of the pauper is never laid upon the consciousness of the willing worker, who asks help for wife and child because the wheels of industry have ceased to turn and there is no work abroad. We must plan to meet these great cycles of depression and manfully provide against them so that the poverty may be no part of modern civilization. That is the great task that confronts the American people today." (2)
Winant's early embrace of the New Deal, and his general philosophical agreement with FDR, positioned him for a role in the Roosevelt Administration. The call would soon come.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) was the only major part of the old League of Nations to survive into the modern era of the United Nations. It was a leading force in a movement in the early decades of the 20th century on behalf of greater economic opportunity and justice for the working classes of the world. The ILO was part the Treaty of Versailles, drafted by a Commission chaired by the American labor leader Samuel Gompers. It featured a unique tripartite structure with representatives of governments, labor organizations and business. Washington was the host city for the ILO's first international meeting in 1919, but because of American antipathy toward the League of Nations, the U.S. declined to participate in the ILO until 1934. (In 1939 Winant would become the first American to head the ILO.)
In October 1934, as Winant was finishing his third term as Governor and was looking to expand his horizons, President Roosevelt recommended him to be the first American representative to the ILO. The ILO Director, Britain's Harold Butler, readily agreed, with the aim of grooming Winant to become his successor. For his part, Winant had a deep sympathy with the aims of the ILO and he admired the ILO's success in raising the living standards of workers throughout the world. But New Hampshire Republicans wanted him to be their senatorial candidate in 1936 and many in the party had begun touting him as a potential presidential candidate. FDR even suggested to Winant that he could have an appointment to the National Labor Relations Board or to the proposed Social Security Board. But Winant was not ready to plunge into national politics. He believed in the cause of international world peace and economic justice and he saw the ILO as an opportunity to be of service in the larger arena he was seeking.
Winant had been indirectly associated with the international labor movement through the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL), of which he was an officer. The AALL was one of the agents behind the push for social insurance in America. In the U.S., social insurance was fed by three great intellectual streams: the social work movement, out of which Frances Perkins emerged; the social insurance theorists, such as I.M. Rubinow and Abe Epstein; and the labor legislation movement, which had its center around the University of Wisconsin and the work of John R. Commons, out of which emerged Ed Witte, Arthur Altmeyer and Wilbur Cohen. The labor legislation movement took organizational form in the AALL. So Winant, a progressive Republican sympathetic to the New Deal, was also associated with the emerging social insurance movement, which would culminate with the passage of the Social Security Act.
In April, 1935 Winant sailed for Geneva, on the same day that Father Charles Coughlin held a massive rally in New York's Madison Square Garden to denounce Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Father Coughlin, who had been an early supporter of FDR, had turned against him by 1935, accusing him of insufficient revolutionary zeal and referring to him as "Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt."
Winant was in Geneva for barely four months when FDR began lobbying him to return to the U.S. to accept the post of Chairman of the Social Security Board. But in those four short months he managed to get the ILO Conference to commit to the 40-hour work week as an international standard-a goal which had eluded him for 10 years in New Hampshire.
But FDR wanted him back home. The Social Security Act had created a three-person Board (the SSB) as the organization which would administer the new law, and it required that the Board be bi-partisan, with no more than two members being from the same political party.(3) FDR immediately thought of Winant, not just as the Republican member, but as Chairman of the Board. Roosevelt and Frances Perkins began lobbying Winant to accept the position even before the bill had cleared the Congress. On the day FDR signed the Act, Winant cabled his acceptance to Frances Perkins. The Senate confirmed his nomination on August 23rd and John G. Winant became the first Chairman of the SSB.
Winant was chosen by FDR because he wanted a sympathetic Republican to lead the Board. Frances Perkins supported his selection because she thought he could provide the philosophical leadership she knew the new program would need to succeed. For his part, Winant accepted because he had a strong sense of duty and could not decline an opportunity to make what he believed to be a significant contribution to social justice.
Joining Winant on the SSB was Vincent Miles, a former Democratic party official from Arkansas and Arthur Altmeyer. Frank Bane was selected as the Executive Director and Henry Seidemann as Coordinator for the SSB. Altmeyer, Winant and Bane, formed a trio of like-minded administrators, with Miles as the odd man out. (Seidemann would also become a fifth-wheel.) In theory, the three voting members of the Board would set policy and Bane, as a kind of chief operating officer, would be responsible for the nuts and bolts of carrying it out.
In practical terms, all of the important work of setting up the new organization took place in that first year-and-a-half when Winant was SSB Chairman. A system of 12 regional offices was created and their Directors appointed. Seventy-seven field offices were opened by January 1937. The record keeping systems were devised and put in place in Baltimore's Candler Building and a massive enumeration effort was designed and successfully carried out, with over 23 million SSNs established. Payroll tax withholding started on schedule on January 1, 1937. State plans for the non-Title II programs were reviewed and approved. The first batch of claims for Title II old age benefits had been received and adjudicated and more than $215 million had been disbursed under the Act's various provisions by the time Winant left the Board. Much of the credit for these nuts-and-bolts accomplishments has to go to Altmeyer and Bane, who were the real administrators at the SSB. But as Chairman, Winant deserves credit for much of the tenor and direction of the early SSB and for the wisdom and sound judgment of supporting Altmeyer and Bane in their efforts.
In February 1937, just days before Winant's final resignation, a story in the New York Times magazine would capture the atmosphere of this exciting period in Social Security history:
"That old Labor Building-yellow brick on the outside, slovenly as to paint, smelling of mingled heat, stale cigars and disinfectant, not quite scrubbed clean-is very busy these days. It has not room enough for the whole central organization, and, while the board members themselves are there, some officers have spilled into other buildings, so that a man invited to 'step in' to see a superior for a moment may find he must walk blocks. . . Hatless men rush in and out, fume at the slowness of elevators, dart down corridors and up the fire stairs. The newly functioning press room is as busy as a bucket of minnows. The responsible heads of bureaus, like the members of the Board, are hard to see because almost any engagement may be broken by a sudden conference . . .The head of all this bedlam is a quiet scholarly and slow-spoken person which conceals extraordinary competence and a burning passion for social justice under an almost painful shyness. John Winant's thick black hair covers his head like a frontiersman's cap. His dark eyes gaze out from deep sockets set under black brows. His speech hesitates, hunts for the word in a poet's way, comes in rushes. As he talks he winds long legs about the rungs of his chair." (4)
In one instance the Board was unable to keep politics out of its decisions. When the Board's 1937 appropriations request was being considered, the hearings before the House Appropriations Committee did not go well. Henry Seidemann was the chief budget witness and he was unable to adequately answer some probing questions from Committee Chairman James Buchanan (D-TX). The problem was that all the Board's budget estimates were just best-guesses since the agency was just starting and all its activities were unprecedented. The Board thought Congress should give them leeway until actual operational experience was gained and more rigorous budget requests could be formulated. But Chairman Buchanan was impatient and he signaled his intention to significantly cut the Board's request. When Winant learned of this, he paid a personal visit to the Chairman with the hope of dissuading him from the cuts. Winant learned to his dismay that Buchanan intended budget cuts of up to 25 percent in some areas. But it soon became clear that the Chairman had a quid pro quo in mind. He offered to go easy on the budget request if the SSB would agree to place one of its 12 regional offices in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Put on the spot, Winant agreed. The problem was that the Board had already selected San Antonio, Texas for the southwest regional site and had appointed a Regional Director, Oscar Powell, whose own hometown was San Antonio. Winant reported to Frank Bane what he had done and pleaded with Bane to somehow repair the damage. Bane went back to the Chairman and eventually worked out a deal whereby the regional office would stay in San Antonio but the Board would agree to place the first field office in Austin. And that is how SSA's first field office came to be opened in Austin, Texas, on October 14, 1936.
Wilbur Cohen, who was Altmeyer's personal assistant in the early years, recounted an anecdote of how Winant and Altmeyer operated in those early days. He told of entering Winant's office and finding Altmeyer and Winant on the floor on their hands and knees surrounded by hundreds of 3x5 index cards on which names of potential office managers were written. They were personally selecting every field office manager hired by the Board in the early months. Years later Winant, when Maurine Mulliner was talking with him about how successful some of the early executives were, would observe, "Yes, well I would expect that of Henry (Aronson) and of all those other people in key positions because, you know, we employed them for their character." (5)
One key decision on which Altmeyer and Winant were in unusual disagreement concerned the system for reporting earnings. Early on Altmeyer became convinced that a stamp book system like those in use in Europe was the best plan. Under the stamp book system workers would have a stamp book, rather like a bank passbook, in which their employees would place stamps indicating covered earnings. The stamp book could then be presented as proof of earnings when filing a claim. The Treasury Department was opposed to the stamp book approach, preferring the standard employer reporting system which was eventually adopted. Several times Altmeyer tried to push the stamp proposal through the Board but a cautious Winant blocked action and eventually Altmeyer gave in.
The biggest challenge the Board faced was the enumeration effort. (6) Tax collections and lump-sum benefit payments were to start on January 1, 1937. Twenty-six million workers and two million employers would have to be issued account numbers before that drop-dead date. The length of time from the passage of the Act in August 1935, to the start of program operations, was almost 16 months--which would seem to be plenty of time for a well-paced enumeration effort. But the Board's delays and indecisions resulted in the enumeration effort being one of SSA's most heroic early achievements, since the actual distribution of SS-5 application forms did not start until November 24, 1936. The problem was the Board could not decide when to do the enumeration, how to do it, or who should do it. Altmeyer wanted to deliberately delay enumeration until after the 1936 elections. There was controversy about enumeration in those days, and he feared the process would become part of an unproductive political debate. Miles thought the practicalities required the work to start as soon as possible. Winant, typically, was undecided. More problematic were the questions of who and how. A whole series of false starts ensued. A consultant hired by the Board estimated it would take 16,000 employees to do the job and recommended that the SSB not try to do it but contract the function out to the U.S. Employment Service (USES) of the Department of Labor, which had a national network of field offices. The Board's European expert recommended the effort be postponed until January 1, 1937 and then accomplished in a single day (it was not clear how).
In March of 1936 the Board appointed a committee to study the problem. The committee started work in March 1936, convening a meeting with other Federal agencies in hopes they would be helpful.(7) The committee decided that two enumerations would be needed, first one of employers and then one of employees. And they urgently recommended that it be done "as rapidly as administratively possible." By late April 1936 the committee had settled on an approach in which the USES would do the enumeration in its district offices and the SSB would open its own district offices in the same space as the USES offices to facilitate the coordination of the work. However, in private discussions between Winant and the head of the USES in early May, it became clear USES was not willing to play this role. For one reason or another the other Federal agencies also declined to cooperate, so the Committee recommended to the Board in May 1936 that the agency carry out its own enumeration effort. Winant then left on an extended European trip to survey social insurance systems abroad and was gone from mid-May to late July.
Winant had his own ideas for approaching this project. He wanted to hire a prominent executive from the private sector and give him the responsibility for designing and carrying out the effort. Throughout the early summer of 1936 he courted Mr. O'Neil of the Equitable Life Insurance Company. O'Neil was coy about taking the job, finally agreeing he would do so only if the President personally asked him to. Winant passed the request to the White House but the President's Secretary, Marvin McIntyre, was the one who placed the phone call. This so offended O'Neil's sense of self-importance that he refused the job. While all this was going on, the Board postponed any decisions.
Finally on June 5, 1936, the Board decided that the SSB would in fact conduct the enumeration. Only three days earlier it had settled on the nine-digit account number scheme. The Board authorized the opening of 89 district offices and 469 branch offices, of which 202 would be designated as enumeration centers. These offices were to be open and operating by mid-October. The proposed enumeration centers would cover only 67% of the country, so the Board began negotiating with the Post Office to assist in the non-covered areas. By September it was clear that the SSB would fail in its efforts to open its 500+ offices (in fact, only 77 offices were opened by January 1937). It formally asked the Post Office to take over the job, but the Post Office refused. Winant personally went to President Roosevelt and persuaded him to order the Post Office's participation, which he did. So on September 15, 1936, the actual plan for the first enumeration was finally agreed to. It called for the Post Office, employers and labor unions to distribute the SS-4 employer and SS-5 employee application forms, for the forms to be returned to the Post Office and the account numbers typed and assigned by Post Office employees in 1,074 postal typing centers around the country. The completed SSN record would then be forwarded to Baltimore for recording in the SSB's master files. And this is how the enumeration was actually carried out. (The Post Office continued to be the Social Security program's enumerator until July 1937 when the SSB finally had enough field offices in place to take over the responsibility.)
Winant did not intend to return to the SSB after his first resignation in September 1936, but FDR personally asked him to do so to break the log-jam in decision making which had settled on the Board in his absence. Altmeyer and Miles were too often at opposite ends of whatever issue was at hand, and Winant had often been the deciding vote, tipping the balance toward Altmeyer's position. Soon after Winant's return, however, Miles absented himself from Board deliberations, claiming illness which left him bedridden. Technically, two members could make binding decisions, but the tradition had been to make sure all three members voted on significant matters and Winant was unwilling to violate this tradition. Matters finally came to such an impasse that Winant dispatched Frank Bane to Miles' sick room where Bane painstakingly went over every outstanding issue and obtained Miles' vote.
One problem Winant had to personally solve after his return was a problem he created in the earliest days of the Board's operations. Unable to agree with his fellow Board members on the selection of an Executive Director, Winant hired two people for essentially the same job: Frank Bane of the American Public Welfare Association and Henry Seidemann from the Brookings Institution (where Winant was on the Board of Directors). Bane, Altmeyer and Miles' candidate, was designated as Executive Director and Seidemann, Winant's preference, as Coordinator for the Board. One of them was destined to be a fifth wheel and that fate befell Seidemann. Bane was a good practical administrator. Seidemann was more of a theoretician who spent his time devising plans and schemes and offering grand designs for building the organization. As the months unfolded, the situation became increasingly strained and when the Acting Director of the Bureau of Old-Age Insurance, Murray Latimer, resigned to return to the Railroad Retirement Board, Seidemann was moved into the Bureau Director job. This was a major misstep, given Seidemann's skills and interests, since the Bureau Director was the primary operational manager for the entire organization. It soon became clear this assignment would not work. On Winant's return in December 1936, one of his first tasks was to engineer Seidemann's graceful exit. He spent an agonizing day drafting version after version of Seidemann's resignation letter and his own acceptance letter, insisting his secretary tear up rejected drafts and flush them down the toilet so no one would learn about them before he had talked with Seidemann.
As an administrator, Winant was pretty much a disaster. He rarely managed to keep an appointment on time. His office hours were erratic and unpredictable. Paperwork piled up around him. His filing system often consisted of papers stuffed in his pockets. During the War, his staff was constantly disconcerted by the spectacle of Winant wandering around London with top secret cables and papers bulging out of his coat pockets.
Winant was known to agonize for hours, sometimes days, over a single decision, and then after having made it, reversing himself the next day and starting the process all over again. Frank Bane told of frequently being awakened in the middle of the night as Winant was calling to talk about some decision he was struggling with, or which he wanted to second-guess.
Despite Winant's shortcomings as an administrator, he was an effective leader. He was an inspirational leader, a visionary, of the type organizations need in their founding era. Frank Bane said of him, ". . . here was a man who greatly impressed you upon first acquaintance. He radiated sincerity, a consuming and almost painful interest in public problems and in people. You sensed immediately that here was a man with enormous capacity for leadership." (8)
His partnership with Altmeyer and Bane proved to be just the right mix of talents the new organization needed. Winant and Altmeyer were visionaries. Altmeyer paired his visionary zeal with sound administrative skills. Winant paired his with a political acumen and with the ability to inspire others. Frank Bane, in the words of the Board's Executive Secretary, Maurine Mulliner, "was a great harmonizer" who could bridge differences and broker amiable compromises. Bane was also a master at public relations and public speaking, areas in which both Altmeyer and Winant were uncomfortable.
The contrast between Altmeyer and Winant was stark, yet complimentary. Altmeyer was cool, cerebral, and impersonal. He once said of himself, "A successful administrator is about as interesting to the public as cold spinach." Winant was passionate, with a smoldering emotional intensity. For him, every public policy issue was personal; it was about people, sometimes specific individuals, and the effect of the policy on them. He personalized virtually every decision he had to make, which is one of the reasons that decisions came so hard. Altmeyer engendered respect and admiration. Winant evoked loyalty and devotion.
Maurine Mulliner could succinctly sum up the contrast:
Winant made strong first impressions on people. Mulliner, who was a Congressional staffer when Winant hired her, vividly recalled her first meeting with him:
Thomas Eliot, who was hired by Winant to be the Board's first General Counsel, recounted a moment during his job interview with Winant which he never forgot, and which reveals a lot about Winant: "He suddenly asked me, in what I called his 'hushified' manner, what single quality was most important for a person in public office to have. Taken aback, I answered rather tentatively, 'Well, integrity I suppose, and intelligence.' He shook his head and uttered one word: 'Kindness.' " (11)
Shortly after Winant's death, Frank Bane would sum him up this way:
One of the greatest ironies about Winant was that, although a life-long politician, he was a dismal public speaker who found the effort of addressing large groups to be a species of torture, for speaker and audience alike. His biographer described Winant's speaking style this way: "Winant insured sheer agony for those who heard his choppy, uneven phrases, interspersed with long pauses as he groped for the next word. And yet, though he sorely tried the patience of his most sympathetic listeners, he rarely lost his audience. Instead, he seemed to mesmerize them with his obvious inner struggle. At meetings, he resolutely stood his ground, straining for the next phrase and refusing to surrender the podium until he completed his remarks with a wringing wet shirt and a fatigued audience." (13)
He hated campaigning for the same reason, and in fact in his third campaign for Governor he didn't campaign-he just waited patiently for the people of New Hampshire to re-elect him. But the irony of this irony is that he was not unpersuasive, especially one-on-one and in small groups. One British historian described Winant's effect this way: "His obvious sincerity was more effective than the most finished eloquence could have been. It was clear that he spoke from the heart and meant what he said." (14)
Even his pained efforts at public speaking were sometimes unexpectedly persuasive. In England, especially, his hesitant, shy manner was much appreciated, in contrast to the usual bombastic style of most American politicians of that era. In June 1942 a series of bitter strikes in the coal mines of England left vital war supplies threatened. Unable to resolve the strikes, the British government turned to Winant for help because of his background with the ILO. He traveled to the site of one of the conflicts and spoke to the labor leaders in a town-hall meeting. He conveyed to them his passionate convictions about the dignity and central role of labor in building a just world and expressed a solidarity with their aspirations. His speech was not eloquent, but his sincerity was palpable, and shortly after his appearance the miners voted to return to work. Winant was hailed as an instant hero throughout the British Isles.
While serving as Chairman of the Social Security Board Winant often became the reluctant spokesman for the new program. He was especially effective on Capitol Hill, where his political skills were put to good use. Touring the country and speaking on behalf of Social Security, Winant was instrumental in the concerted campaign to educate the public about the new program and he came to serve as the symbol of Social Security to the nation. He was most effective in delivering speeches over the radio and broadcasters would sometimes arrange for him to speak from an empty studio so there would be no audience to unnerve him. As he wrote in a letter to one of his sons, "I like working better than I do talking and I have a good deal of talking to do." (15)
Although Social Security was the initiative of a Democratic president, by the time the bill arrived on the floor of Congress a substantial bi-partisan majority had developed in its favor. It would be fair to say that at its inception Social Security was a bipartisan program, and has been so for most of its history. But during the 1936 Presidential campaign the Republican challenger to President Roosevelt, Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, made repeal of the newly enacted Social Security program a major plank in his campaign. Landon opposed Social Security for several reasons. He did not believe that the government would in fact make good on its promises to pay benefits starting in 1942; he thought the idea of a Social Security Trust Fund was inadvisable; and, primarily, because he favored welfare pensions for the aged rather than work-based contributory social insurance.
On September 26th, during a speech in Milwaukee, Landon denounced Social Security as "unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed." This critique of Social Security took many in his own party by surprise, including Winant, who viewed Social Security as a non-partisan issue. In a nationwide radio address on the first anniversary of the Act Winant had expressed his view that "The Social Security Act in my judgment, is the most humane document written into law in this century." (16)
Landon's open attack put Winant in a difficult spot. FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had been encouraging him for weeks to enter the campaign indirectly by making "educational" and "informational" speeches and broadcasts in support of the program. He was reluctant to do even this much since he feared the line between educational and partisan would be too difficult to discern. But with Landon's attack he now faced the problem that as the Board's Republican member his silence might be taken as agreement with Landon. Yet, as an administrator of a non-partisan program, he thought it would be improper for him to enter into a political dispute. He concluded he had to resign his position in order to speak out in defense of Social Security. FDR tried to talk him out of it; his colleagues in the Board tried to dissuade him; his closest advisers told him it would be the end of his political career. He fully understood all of this, but felt duty-bound to proceed. In his resignation letter Winant outlined his reasons and his view of the matter:
" . . . It was clearly the intention of Congress to create a nonpartisan Board, with personnel protected under Civil Service, and to insure non-partisan administration of the Act. It has been so administered. . .
Having seen the tragedy of war, I have been consistently interested in the ways of peace. Having seen some of the cruelties of the depression, I have wanted to help with others in lessening the hardships, the suffering, and the humiliations forced upon American citizens because of our previous failure as a nation to provide effective social machinery for meeting the problems of dependency and unemployment. The Social Security Act is America's answer to this great human need. . . .
I am interested in the social security program not from a partisan viewpoint. I am interested in it as a humanitarian measure. Governor Landon has made the problem of social security a major issue in this campaign and I cannot support him. I do not feel that members of independent Commissions or Boards, such as the Social Security Board, should take an active part in politics and moreover I was appointed and confirmed as the minority member. While I retain this position I am not free to defend the Act. Therefore, I am tendering you my resignation as a member of the Social Security Board."
Two days later, President Roosevelt issued this reply:
"Your letter tendering your resignation as a member of the Social Security Board greatly distresses me. You are, of course, right in regarding the Social Security Act as 'America's Answer' to the 'great human need' of 'effective social machinery for meeting the problems of dependency and unemployment.'
"Equally right are you in recognizing the 'intention of Congress to create a non-partisan board, with personnel protected under civil service, and to insure non-partisan administration of the Act.' Your appointment was intended to insure that it would be so administered. And, as you state, 'it has been so administered'. . .
"For that reason I have hesitated to accept your resignation. I did not wish to lose the benefit of your devoted and disinterested service in the administration of the social security program. . . It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that I yield to your wish and accept your resignation. My regret is tempered by the knowledge that you have resigned only in order the better to defend the great work which you have so well begun." (17)
Winant started immediately criss-crossing the country giving speeches and radio addresses in support of Social Security and on the general theme that it should not be subject to a political campaign. Then a week before the election, the Landon campaign tried a last-ditch tactic which so offended Winant that he chose political sides and publically endorsed Roosevelt for reelection.
On the eve of the vote the Republican National Committee provided sympathetic employers with payroll stuffers attacking Social Security. The stuffers were cleverly designed to look like official government notices, and they "announced" that workers would be suffering a 1% "PAY REDUCTION" starting January 1st, unless, it implied, they did something about it on election day. This tactic infuriated Winant. He went on the radio to denounce it, saying: "Any political message in a worker's pay envelope is coercion. It is a new form of the old threat to shut down the mill if the employer's candidate isn't elected. We're supposed to be beyond that in this country." (18)
The check-stuffing incident even drew the SSB itself into the fray in the closing days of the campaign. Even more troubling than the check-stuffers, however, was a wide-spread disinformation campaign that had been appearing around the country. In the days before the election, the Hearst newspaper chain, for example, had begun publishing stories illustrated by a man stripped to the waist, wearing a dog-tag around his neck and with his eyes obscured by a black box after the manner of a criminal, which alleged that the SSB planned to order every covered worker to wear such a dog-tag. It also produced a sample SS-5 application blank which purported to be the one the government would use and which asked for all sorts of personal information, like divorces, union membership, medical problems, etc. Although there was no truth in these stories, the SSB was worried that such ideas would undermine the forthcoming enumeration project, which was key to a successful launch of the new program.
In preparation for the enumeration process, the SSB's Informational Service had prepared a motion picture trailer explaining the new program, entitled We The People and Social Security. It had also printed eight million copies of a four-page pamphlet, Security in Your Old Age. With the check-stuffing incident and the false media stories, the Board reluctantly concluded that the mis-information being circulated about the program had reached a level which required a response. Ten days before the election, Altmeyer ordered the Informational Service to immediately distribute all available materials. James Douglas of the Informational Service hopped in his car and drove the route from Washington to New York City distributing copies of the motion picture trailer to every theater along the way. He even set up a sound truck in Times Square and broadcasted the trailer repeatedly for days. It is estimated four million people saw the film in those 10 days. The eight million pamphlets were also distributed. In one effort, 125 Board employees, including top executives, spent the night stuffing 33,000 envelopes with 100 copies of the pamphlet which were mailed to AFL union locals around the country for distribution. More than 2,000 newspapers printed the text of the pamphlet. Wilbur Cohen and other Board employees even showed up at Democratic National Committee offices and offered to write background materials and speeches on Social Security for Democratic candidates.
Landon was soundly defeated by FDR in the '36 elections and afterward Landon conceded that his attack on Social Security had been a mistake. Subsequently he went on record against any attempt to dismantle Social Security.
It would be too much to say that Winant's opposition defeated Landon's Social Security proposals single-handedly, but Winant's efforts helped prevent Landon from getting any political traction on the Social Security issue. He made it impossible for Landon to make Social Security a partisan issue, which was an essential starting point for Landon if he hoped to turn the country around on this popular program.
Prior to joining the Roosevelt administration, Winant was considered a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate for the Republican party. He could easily have parlayed his service as Chairman of the Social Security Board, Director of the ILO, and his successful terms as Governor, into a formidable campaign portfolio. There was no doubt he wanted the job, although he would not have run as long as FDR was in office. However, his principled stand in opposition to Landon ended his chances of higher office. The Republican party would never forgive him and the Democrats could never help him realize his ambitions. Winant knew all of this when he made his decision. It was not an empty gesture, it was a life-altering decision which he felt duty-bound to make, which protected Social Security at a potential turning point and which tied Winant's fate to that of President Roosevelt.
Following the election, Winant was once again persuaded by FDR to return as Chairman of the Social Security Board. He had not expected to do so, but the impasse between Altmeyer and Miles had become unmanageable and the President needed Winant to step in and get the Board back on track in the crucial months during the enumeration effort and the start of payroll deductions. So Winant resumed his Chairmanship on November 16th, resigning again finally on February 19, 1937.
FDR had hoped to name Winant to a new cabinet position in a proposed Department of Welfare, but Congress would not authorize the new department. His domestic political career over, Winant returned to Geneva to assume his old position in the ILO. When Chairman Butler resigned in 1938, Winant was the most junior of the three candidates to replace him. The organization was deadlocked over a successor and Winant was ambivalent about his own elevation. FDR had no doubts that Winant was the right choice and he personally lobbied the relevant heads of state, clinching Winant's selection-the first American to head the ILO.
As war clouds formed throughout Europe, Winant became convinced that for the ILO to survive it would have to temporarily relocate. He wanted to take the ILO to the United States, but was blocked by an obdurate State Department. On the day the Germans entered Paris, Winant formally asked Frances Perkins and Secretary of State Cordell Hull for permission to move the ILO to the United States. Perkins persuaded FDR to grant the necessary authority, but when other State Department personnel learned of the decision they lobbied Hull to change his position because of still lingering anti-League of Nations politics. Hull prevailed on Roosevelt to redraw his authorization. Eventually, Winant was able to move the ILO to Canada for the duration. Although Switzerland managed to remain a neutral nation, Winant's foresight probably saved the organization, and likely saved the lives of many ILO personnel whose home countries had been invaded by the Nazis.
In 1941, the U.S. again hosted the ILO Conference. In his address to the Conference President Roosevelt stressed the importance of the ILO:
"Taking part in a conference of the ILO is not a new experience for me. It was exactly at this time of year in 1919, that the ILO had its first conference in Washington . . . Now 22 years have passed. The ILO has been tried and tested. . . .through the long years of depression it sought to bring about a measure of security to all workers by the establishment of unemployment and old-age insurance systems. . . Now for more than two years you have weathered the vicissitudes of a world at war. Though Hitler's juggernaut has crowded your permanent staff out of its home in Geneva, here in the New World, thanks in large part to the efforts of our friend, John Winant, you have been carrying on. And when this world struggle is over, you will be prepared to play your own part in formulating those social policies upon which the permanence of peace will so much depend. . . We plan now for the better world we aim to build. If that world is to be one in which peace is to prevail, there must be a more abundant life for the masses of the people of all countries." (19)
The epitome of Winant's career came in 1941 when FDR asked him to become Ambassador to Great Britain, following the departure of Joseph P. Kennedy. Shortly following his third inaugural, FDR summoned Winant to the White House for a discussion about the War and the conditions in England. Only later did Winant learn that FDR was sounding him out about the Ambassadorship; and he learned he was the new Ambassador by reading it in the newspapers.
In the months leading up to America's entry into the War, Winant became Roosevelt's eyes and ears in Europe and the American Embassy became a vital source of news and military information. Winant briefed Washington on the British experience and tactics in the War and was responsible for helping improve the nation's state of readiness.
In mid-August, 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met aboard a warship off the coast of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. On the sixth anniversary of the Social Security Act, they announced a joint-declaration known as the Atlantic Charter. The 383-word Charter was an expression of "certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world." This brief charter would be the founding document of the United Nations and among its eight principles was a call for social insurance: "Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security." Although Winant did not attend the Conference, the fifth principle was a suggestion he made from London which was instantly accepted by Churchill and FDR.
During his time in England, Winant again became a spokesman for the aspirations of working people everywhere and for a vision of the war effort as being in support of the long-term cause of economic as well as political justice. He would observe: "To widen the meaning of democracy by extending it from political to economic life is the most urgent task of the coming generation."(20) In speeches around Britain, Winant became a favorite of the laboring classes and their political organizations. In some ways, he was more attuned to the British working people than their own Prime Minister. In the speech that helped settle the coal strike, he gave a forceful articulation of his philosophy:
"The unity of purpose of our people in the common war effort will be carried over to help us in the common social effort that must follow this war. You, who suffered so deeply in the long depression years, know that we must move on a great social offensive if we are to win the war completely. . . To crush fascism at its roots, we must crush depression democracy. We must solemnly resolve that in our future order we will not tolerate the economic evils which breed poverty and war. This is not something that we shelve 'for the duration': it is part of the war." (21)
Just as the War called leaders like Churchill to greatness, it called Winant to express the heroic in his character. Winant became, like Churchill, a symbol of strength to the British people. Declining to live in the splendor of the Ambassador's residence, he took modest apartments next door overlooking Grosvenor Square. Throughout the War he lived on the same rations as ordinary Londoners. When air raids were on, he joined them in the public shelters. And in the aftermath of the bombings, Winant could often be found walking the streets, lending comfort where he could, and standing, in the same way that Churchill did, as a symbol of strength and hope in the darkest moments.
Following the War, and his retirement from public life, Winant was called back to London in 1947 to be awarded the Order of Merit by King George. Emerging from a theater one evening, Winant was strolling the London streets when he found himself surrounded by small groups of Londoners who recognized the tall figure they had so often seen walking those same streets in the aftermath of the wartime air raids. They came over to Winant and gently touched his coat, murmuring a respectful "Good evening Mr. Winant."
Following President Roosevelt's unexpected death in April 1945, Winant suddenly lost his political sponsor. His decision in 1936 to campaign against Landon had ended his future in his own party and had tied his fate irrevocably to FDR's. As he said of himself, "The Republicans won't have me. I'm read out of that party. I'm Roosevelt's man. If Roosevelt wants me to do anything I'll do it. That's my political future." (22)
When the war in Europe ended less than a month later, Winant lost his last reason for continuing to serve as Ambassador. It was his dual commitments to FDR and to the war effort which motivated him throughout his service in Grosvenor Square. Winant stayed on through the early months of 1946 before submitting his resignation.
As he was leaving England, Churchill feted him at the Mansion House, saying that Winant: "had been with us always, ready to smooth away difficulties and . . . always giving up that feeling, impossible to resist, how gladly he would give his life to see the good cause triumph. He is a friend of Britain, but he is more than a friend of Britain-he is a friend of justice, freedom, and truth." (23)
A Brief But Important Contribution
Winant's role in the early days of Social Security was not a large or sustained one compared with that of Altmeyer, who would head Social Security for 20 years. Although his role was small, and his tenure brief, Winant's selection as first Chairman of the Social Security Board was important.
First, and perhaps most importantly, he was chosen by FDR as a symbol of the non-partisanship and integrity which Roosevelt believed should characterize the new program. (24) It was very important to have someone of Winant's reputation and stature as head of the new program, and it was especially valuable to have a progressive Republican, to assuage some of the conservative distrust of this new federal program. Even conservative Republicans hailed Winant's selection. Upon learning of Winant's appointment, Justice Felix Frankfurter sent him the following message of congratulation that captured the sentiments of many:
"Even if you had not returned to guide one the great civilizing agencies in the history of the United States I should have felt happier about the country now that you are with us again. The Lord knows I do not minimize the importance of the Geneva efforts and still less the influence that you were radiating there. But the Lord also knows how desperately we need you here. Your very rare (I shall not offend your modesty by saying unique) combination of character and capacity are deeply needed at home. 'We live by symbols', said Mr. Justice Holmes and we greatly need you. The country does, as symbol and as promoter of wise statesmanship." (25)
Winant's selection was also pivotal because he shared Altmeyer and Bane's philosophical commitment to a non-patronage, civil-service approach to program administration. The three of them teamed-up against the considerable pressures for patronage appointments which otherwise could have easily overwhelmed the new organization. In those crucial first few months of the Social Security Board's existence, Winant, Altmeyer and Bane irrevocably set the precedent that would characterize the organization for decades to come.
Winant's principled stand in the 1936 presidential elections, which cost him his own political career, was also important in retaining the ideal of Social Security as a non-political, non-partisan program.
So Winant made at least three key contributions to the founding of the Social Security program and in the shaping of the organization which was created to administer the new program. At a crucial period in Social Security's history, John G. Winant was there, the indispensable right man for the moment.
Deeply saddened by President Roosevelt's death the previous year, Winant retired from public life in 1946. He returned home to Concord, New Hampshire, to rest and to write a planned multi-volume memoir of his years in England.
But he found himself unable to adjust to a life outside the public arena. After more than 20 years in elective and appointive office, and the intense drama and strain of serving as U.S. Ambassador in London during the worst years of the War, Winant found a life of leisure to be depressing. The sudden shift from a life of danger and high pressure to one of pastoral quietude, produced a kind of decompression that left Winant feeling his life had somehow gone flat. Winston Churchill had written of this phenomenon in the life of active officials after leaving office: "The change from the intense executive activities of each day's work . . . left me gasping. Like a sea beast fished up from the depths, or a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst from the fall in pressure." (26)
The death of FDR was more than just the loss of a friend and a leader he admired and respected. He had tied his career to that of Roosevelt, and with the President gone, Winant, who was not close to President Truman, suddenly found himself being nudged away from the center of American political affairs.
The chore of writing turned out to be unexpectedly arduous and oppressive for Winant. His life-long lack of the politician's usual loquaciousness meant that writing, like public speaking, was a struggle. Although he finally managed to complete work on the first volume of his memoirs, the effort left him drained and despairing at the prospect of confronting the second and third volumes, which he had promised his publishers. Then too, there was the inevitable reckoning with a life-long habit of paying too little attention to money. He found himself more than three-quarters of a million dollars in debt.
Ultimately, Winant came to see his lifetime of accomplishment as having come to an end. His biographer, Bernard Bellush, has given us a vivid description of Winant's final day:
"On November 3, 1947, Winant arose at noon, but did not dress. Aimless and distant, he managed to inform his financial secretary that a copy of his book, Letter From Grosvenor Square would be bound that day and rushed to Concord in time to be picked up at the Post Office by 7:45 p.m. He gave instructions for a plane reservation to New York the following day, because he wanted to show the book to his wife and take care of some business errands. Orol Mears brought dinner to his bedroom; the tray she removed soon afterward was untouched. Winant rose from the bed, left his chamber and wandered down the quiet hallway to young John's former room. From its window, lights could be seen twinkling on the rolling hills he loved so much; darkness had engulfed the shadows which earlier hovered about leafless trees. Years before Winant had said, 'To the tiny valley I owe the sense of peace and to the rolling hills a sense of time.'
Into a black Belgian automatic he inserted three bullets. Slowly he knelt on the floor, steadied himself with his left elbow on the chair and held the pistol against his right temple. In the living room below, Orol Mears heard a loud crash. Within a half hour, John Gilbert Winant was dead. Letter From Grosvenor Square was waiting for him at the post office, but he would never see it." (27)
Thus ended, at age 58, the life and brilliant career of one of Social Security's earliest pioneers.
My thanks to Bob Krebs of the Historian's Office, and to Gabriela DeWitt of the Office of Training, for their comments on earlier drafts.
(1) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 72. Winant had three children: two boys, John Jr. and Rivington, and a daughter Constance. Although he was a loving father, it would be fair to observe that he neglected his children in favor of his work in much the same way he neglected his wife.
(2) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 89.
(3) The Social Security Board was both the name of the three-member executive panel and of the entire organization, which consisted of eight headquarters Bureaus; two staff organizations; and the network of 12 regional offices and hundreds of field offices. This organizational structure would be retained until 1946 when the Social Security Board was formally dissolved and the Social Security Administration, with a single Commissioner as its head, was put in place.
(4) Excerpt from New York Times magazine article by Mildred Adams, February 14, 1937. Manuscript copy in SSA History Archives.
(5) Mulliner SSA oral history interview, op. cit., pg. 31.
(6) The process we today call enumeration, the issuing of Social Security numbers, was originally called registration by the SSB. Then the Board became concerned this sounded too much like regimentation, so they starting looking for alternatives. The European expert hired by the Board recommended matriculation, which the Board had the good sense to reject. For a time, they settled on inventory. Finally, in the summer of 1936 the Board formally voted to called the process assignment of account numbers.
(7) The other members of the inter-agency group were: the Post Office Department; the Central Statistical Board; the Census Bureau; the Treasury Department and the U.S. Employment Service.
(8) Bane, op. cit., pg. 1.
(9) Mulliner SSA oral history interview, op. cit., pgs. 13, 21-24.
(10) Mulliner SSA oral history interview, op. cit., pgs. 7-9.
(11) Eliot, op. cit., pg. 157.
(12) Bane, op. cit., pg. 4.
(13) Bellush, op. cit., pg. 29.
(14) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit. pg. 181.
(15) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit. pg. 121.
(16) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 127.
(17) Resignation letter and President Roosevelt's response, op. cit.
(18) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit. pg. 131.
(19) FDR speech to ILO, op. cit. pgs. 474-480.
(20) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 184.
(21) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 185.
(22) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 211.
(23) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 219.
(24) Winant's integrity was such that after returning from one business trip for the Board, he insisted that his salary be docked one-day's pay since he had conducted some personal business during the trip.
(25) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 116.
(26) Quoted in Bellush, op. cit., pg. 226
(27) Bellush, op. cit., pg. 230.
Bane, Frank, "John Gilbert Winant," memorandum prepared for Survey magazine. SSA History Archives.
Bellush, Bernard, He Walked Alone: A Biography of John Gilbert Winant, Mouton, 1968.
Eliot, Thomas, Recollections of the New Deal: When the People Mattered, Northeastern University Press, 1992.
McKinley, Charles & Frase, Robert W., Launching Social Security: A Capture-and-Record Account, 1935-1937. University of Wisconsin Press. 1970.
Mulliner, Maurine, SSA Oral History Interview, January 28, 1965. SSA History Archives.
Roosevelt, Franklin D., Letter from FDR to Winant, dated September 30, 1936. Copy in SSA History Archives.
Roosevelt, Franklin D., "The American People Have Made an Unlimited Commitment That There Shall Be a Free World," address to the delegates of the International Labor Organization, November 6, 1941. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harper Brothers. 1950.
Winant, John G., Letter From Grosvenor Square, Houghton Mifflin, 1947, republished by Greenwood Press, 1969.
Winant, John G., Letter from Winant to FDR, dated September 28, 1936. Copy in SSA History Archives.
Witte, Edwin E., The Development of the Social Security Act, University of Wisconsin Press. 1963.