Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Review: "Mr. Baruch"

Among the 2,100 or so books (give or take 100) that were in Dad's house when he died was Mr. Baruch by Margaret L. Coit [1957, LOC no. 56-10289]. The book was republished in 2000, and maybe in 2005 No doubt that was updated. Baruch died in 1965; hence the book I read was written during his lifetime. I think it could be considered an authorized biography, as Coit appears to have had access to all of Baruch's papers.

In the Preface, Coit compares her work of writing Baruch's biography with the earlier one she wrote about John C. Calhoun. Both were South Carolinians. The two lives together spanned almost the entire American period from the American Revolution to the Cold War. Both men had an impact on America, in Calhoun's case as an elected official and in Baruch's case as a capitalist, advisor to presidents, and elder statesman.

I had vaguely heard about Baruch, in my adult life, as he was mentioned in a novel I read, but I could not, before reading this book, have told you anything about him. His parents were Jewish, his father a doctor who began practice during the slavery days in South Carolina, but who moved the family to New York City shortly after Reconstruction. Bernard, upon graduating from college, became a Wall Street speculator, though primarily in commodities rather than stocks. In sugar, copper, mining in several areas, and knowledge of industrial processes, Baruch made millions several times over between 1895 and 1915.

When America joined the belligerents in World War 1, Baruch was tapped by President Wilson to run the War Industries Board. Tasked with making sure American industries put out enough war materiel to supply our troops and aid the French and British in beating the Germans and Austrians, Baruch successfully tackled the problem. By the end of the war, his was a household name, the rich Wall Street man who had organized the war production effort, supplied the troops, and made the world a safe place again. He was part of the US delegation at the peace talks in Paris.

Given his close association with Wilson, it was understandable he was not tapped by later presidents. A lifelong Democrat, the three Republicans who followed Wilson had little need for him. He and Roosevelt didn't see eye to eye over the public debt, so Roosevelt used him sparingly during the New Deal days and then in World War 2. Baruch chaired study committees and drafted recommendations, but took no administrative positions. Truman used him early on as an advisor, and then as the chief US delegate to initial talks on controlling atomic energy.

Despite his relatively thin government service in later years, those who remembered him from WW1 seemed to have latched on to every little piece of news about him. His legend and reputation grew. By 1948 he was as popular as Truman. He was considered America's leading citizen, called her "elder statesman", and had the good opinion of the entire nation.

Coit does well to show all this in accessible language that is, at the same time, scholarly. Her many footnotes, all of which deal with sources and not extra explanations, are impressive. My only gripe is that she sometimes went off on tangents. Who cared how the office of a senator with whom Baruch worked was decorated? She did that quite a bit, which slowed down the work. On the other hand, she did a good job of showing important and essential information about with whom Baruch dealt. If she had just avoided the tangents, I think my praise of the book would be unqualified.

This book cost me nothing, except travel expenses round trip from Arkansas to Rhode Island (which, spread among 2,100 books, isn't much) and the 10 square inches of shelf space it's occupied these thirteen years. This is a keeper. I'm going to use it to write some articles on Baruch, then it will go on my shelf. Perhaps one of my descendants will, some day, discover this volume among my possession, and learn about this great man from it.

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