The Magazine

Not-So-Silent Cal

The underestimation ends here.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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And, surely, Coolidge understood the folly of loaning Germany funds to pay war reparations to Great Britain—funds which were returned to the United States as payment on Britain’s war debt. Yet he let this shell game continue. Regarding Prohibition, the elephant in the room throughout the Roaring Twenties, Shlaes makes only a handful of brief mentions, with Coolidge weighing in only once (when he asked the governor of South Dakota how enforcement was going). 

Shlaes also leaves it to future biographers to explain why a man of Coolidge’s obvious intelligence invested so much energy in naval reduction agreements and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, through which signatories (including Germany, Italy, and Japan) renounced war “as an instrument of national policy.” She cites economy as Coolidge’s primary motivation: Half of the federal budget in Coolidge’s time went toward funding the War Department, interest payments on the debt, and veterans’ benefits—all byproducts of the “war to end all wars.” Fair enough. Yet one sees why, in his search for a model of preserving the peace through strength, Ronald Reagan sought inspiration elsewhere. 

Still, Amity Shlaes definitively lays to rest the picture of Calvin Coolidge as a do-nothing, out-of-touch placeholder who served in the interlude between the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Her Coolidge is a president who worked tirelessly in pursuit of noble ends, for which he gave unsparingly of himself. And Coolidge, in spite of its length, is a compelling, endlessly rewarding, and persuasive contribution to historical scholarship.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author, most recently, of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.