Forgotten History: FDR and 1920 and Naval Sex Scandal

From <a href=””>1920: The Year of Six Presidents</a>  (a book I’m having difficulty sticking on the sidebar for some strange reason),  culled from pages 386 – 396:

In July 1917, Rhode Island Governor Livingston Beekman provided Josephus Daniels with a letter from Providence Journal publisher John R Rathom, alleging serious problems.  “The situation inNewport is about as bad as can be,” the rotund, Australian-born Rathom wrote.  “These places have been recognized by the police for years; they have been allowed to operate without any hinderance whatever, and orgies of the most disgraceful character have been carried on for the benefit of sailors, and frequently witnessed by police officers themselves as spectators.”  Not all the prostitutes were women.  And not all the homosexual sex was paid for.  In early 1919, Lieutenant Erastus Mead Hudson of the Medical Corps, a Harvard graduate, was assigned to look into not only homosexual prostitution at Newport but also ordinary consensual homosexual laisons.
Because civilians were involved, local naval authorities thought the Department of Justice should investigate.  Accordingly, on March 22, 1919, FDR wrote to Attorney General Palmer:

The Navy Department has become convinced that such conditions of vice and depravity exist … as to require a most searching and rigid investigation with a view to finally prosecuting and clearing out those responsible for it… “fostering dens where perverted practices were carried on.” … This department, eager for the protection of its young men from such contaminating influences, desires to have the horrible practices stopped.

While Roosevelt, Palmer, and the court of inquiry dithered, Newport’s naval personnel took action — ill-advised, stupid action, true, but action nonetheless.  In February 1919, forty-four year-old Chief Seaman’s Mate Ervin Arnold arrived from San Francisco.  The rough-hewn, poorly educated former Connecticut detective possessed a keen interest, verging on obsession, in investigating homosexuals, boasting that he could “Tell them a mile off.”  At Newport, Arnold would investigate both homosexual prostitution and purely consensual sex.

On March 15, 1919, Arnold, with Lieutenant Hudson’s backing, recruited thirteen newly enlisted sailors to entrap homosexuals.  “You people will be on the field of operation,” Arnold instructed them.  “You will have to use your judgement whether or not a full act is completed.  If that being the fact, it might lead into something greater.  You have got to form that judgement at the time you are on that field with that party.”
In April 191, the Hudson – Arnold operation arrested eighteen offending sailors.  […]

On May 1, Hudson, Arnold, and FDR conferred.  Hudson and Arnold later claimed that they discussed the situation at length; FDR claimed that they spoke for five minutes, without discussing how to proceed.  Whatever transpired, four days later Roosevelt assigned Hudson and Arnold to Naval Intelligence to investigate “moral perversion and drugs” at Newport.  “It is requested,” FDR wrote to Chief of Naval Intelligence Rear Admiral Albert P Niblack, “That this be the only written communication in regard to this affair, as it is thought wise to keep this matter wholly secret.”

To Hudson, FDR also provided a letter addressed to “Whom it may be Concerned” stating that the lieutenant was “engaged on important work in which I am interested and any assistance you can render him will be appreciated.”

Hudson and Arnold recruited forty-one sailors — ten of whom were mere boys between sixteen and nineteen — and ordered them to entrap homosexuals by whatever means necessary.  In July 1919, they netted sixteen Newport civilians, including the forty-six year old Episcopal chaplain of the Naval Hospital, Samuel Neal Kent, arrested as “a lewd and wanton person.”

Reverend Kent boasted excellent education and reputation.  His arrest outraged his fellow Episcopal clergy.  At Kent’s August 23 trial — and acquittal — two sailors testified that they had been authorized to go “to the limit” to obtain arrests.  The notion outraged just about everyone who heard of it.

On September 3, […] complained bitterly over the Navy’s treatement of Kent.  Roosevelt defended Kent’s prosecution and further slammed the judge who had dismissed the charges against Kent as a political hack.  But he also vowed, “If anyone has given orders to commit immoral acts, someone will swing for it.”

On January 10, Bishop Perry and twelve clergy from five different Protestant denominations wrote President Wilson.  “It must be evident to every thoughtful mind,” they protested, “that the use of such vile methods cannot fail to undermine the character and ruin the morals of the unfortunate youths detailed for this duty, render no citizen of the community safe from suspicion and calumny, bring the city into unwarented reproach, and shake the faith of the people in the wisdom and integrity of the naval administration.”  They “solmnly request[ed]” that Wilson “at the earliest moment … eliminate from the navy all officials, however hightly placed, who are responsible for the employment of such execrable methods — contrary alike to the dictates of morality, patriotism, and religion.”

The Journal, responded to what it termed FDR‘s “wild and clumsy attack” professed puzzlement:  Mr Roosevelt’s political loyalty to his  pussy-footing chief has lead him into a bog of falsehood and unfairness, where he does not belong, either by training or inclination.  Why this outburst on the eve of a senatorial investigation?  Would it not have been more politic, and certainly more just, to have waited in an orderly fashion for the evidence, without this preliminary shriek of alarm?  Or is it because Administration officials have come to consider themselves so immune from criticism that they think all they have to do in their own defense is to shout “Liar.”

On January 22, Rathom telegraphed FDR, alluding to FDR‘s personal involvement:

Many boys wearing the uniform of the United States Navy have been forced into the position of moral perverts by specific orders of officers in the Navy Department, and these conditions were known to the Secretary of the Navy and yourself months ago.

On January 22, however, FDR caught a break, when the skittish Ball Subcommittee voted to conduct hearings in secret.  The Dunn Inquiry, meanwhile, opened proceedings in late January.  It was a classic case of military cover-up.

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