Was Harding’s mistress a spy? The National Archives knows and tells.

Today’s post comes from Miriam Kleiman of the National Archives Public Affairs Staff.

I’ve worked at the National Archives for many years and have always been content with our 13 Presidential libraries (Hoover through Bush 43). Sure, I’ve thought wistfully about a Washington, Adams, or Lincoln Library. But only recently did I long for a Warren G. Harding Library to be part of NARA!

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Our neighbors down the road at the Library of Congress recently shared online more than 1,000 pages of love letters from Warren Gamaliel Harding to his longtime paramour, Mrs. Carrie Fulton Phillips.

I’ve read letters between John and Abigail Adams, and between Harry and Bess Truman. And while interesting, those seem G-rated in comparison to the wild, impassioned, heated, salacious letters (the early 20th-century version of sexting) from Warren to Carrie.

Is this news?

Historic Presidential affairs are not news; we’ve long heard of Harding’s carnal appetite. He boasted to a group of reporters: “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” Even during his Presidency, there were reports of mistresses, dalliances with young aides, and even illegitimate children.

But many of the affairs of other past Presidents didn’t leave a paper trail.

What is unique about this affair is the newly available extensive documentation. And the mix of personal and political: Harding vacillates between pillow talk and debate, and his letters reflect passion as well as growing uncertainty and fear of exposure to both the American public and to the German government.

Was the mistress a spy?

The question is not “Did she or didn’t she?” The Library of Congress has that covered. It’s clear that Mrs. Phillips and Mr. Harding had a long and torrid affair. The question is not “Was she pro-German?” It’s clear she supported Germany and opposed U.S. entry into World War I. The question to pursue in National Archives records is “Was she, or wasn’t she, a German spy?”

Harding praised Phillips’s “perfect thighs” and “beautiful form” but found her pro-German sympathies less attractive. National Archives records show that a few U.S. Government agencies found such sympathies of even greater concern, and monitored Phillips at home in Marion, OH, and during her visits to Harding in Washington.

In March 1915, a few months after the start of World War I, Harding wrote “I have never approved of your war attitude, but I have loved you no less.”

In February 1917, Harding recognized her “intense partnership and sympathy for and devotion to Germany” but stated, “I can and will do my duty accordingly to my best conscience and understanding and then take the consequences” if asked to support the war.

Department of Justice memorandum concerning Mrs. Phillips's pro-German sentiments. (Records of the ..., Record Group ..)

Department of Justice memorandum concerning Mrs. Phillips’s pro-German sentiments. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

In April 1917, the month the United States entered World War I, Harding criticized Phillips for switching from lovemaking to politics during their last liaison, expressing the “shock” “when out of the very halo of blissful existence . . . you suddenly threatened me with exposure to the Germans.”

This is where the Archives trail gets hot. The War Department’s Military Intelligence Chief wrote then-Senator Harding (referencing Phillips and her daughter), asking “whether you do know them and anything you may know concerning them which would throw light on their loyalty to this country.”

Letter from the Chief of the War Department's Military Intelligence Section to Senator Harding, November 12, 1917. (Records of the ..., Record Group ...)

Letter from the Chief of the War Department’s Military Intelligence Section to Senator Harding, November 12, 1917. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

Excerpt from Senator Harding's reply to the Chief of the Military Section, November 23, 1917. (Records of the ... , Record Group ...)

Excerpt from Senator Harding’s reply to the Chief of the Military Intelligence Section, November 23, 1917. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

In February 1918, Harding begs Phillips to “be prudent in talking to others” about her pro-German sympathies. In June, he says people are discussing her pro-German sympathies “at home and echoed in 40 directions” and that she has been “reported to the departments here.” Furthermore, the senator writes: “People said you influenced my votes.” He urges her to be cautious.

An intelligence report that month cites accusations that Mrs. Phillips “has made many unpatriotic statements,” “is a traitor to her country,” and is “receiving money from German Government.” Department of Justice records show that officials there were tracking her visits to Senator Harding.

Extract from a Justice Department intelligence report, February 16-18, 1918. (Records of the ..., Record Group ...)

Extract from a Justice Department intelligence report, February 16-18, 1918. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

Stay tuned as we explore the National Archives’ paper trial. While not as salacious as the Library of Congress’s trove, these records may yield definitive information about whether Philips’s pro-German activity veered beyond sympathy into active support.

And a shout-out to Florence, Harding’s long-suffering wife (about whom he wrote “there isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship . . . It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”)

Florence supported his political career and once remarked, “I have only one real hobby—my husband.” Tammy Wynette would be proud.

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3 Responses to Was Harding’s mistress a spy? The National Archives knows and tells.

  1. Lynley Ogilvie says:

    Great piece! You should write the movie script!

    Like

  2. Alan Walker says:

    Fascinating story; obviously there were many layers to Warren G. Thanks, Miriam!

    Like

  3. Marie Maxwell says:

    Makes me wonder what the limits of free speech were at the time.

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