Foreign-Born US Presidential Candidates, Part 3

The next pair of foreign-born politicians who could have been presidential contenders are both Germans who migrated to the Northeastern United States, and each became part of the political establishment in the region. The first is Robert F. Wagner. Wagner was born in Nastatten in the Rhineland in 1877, and came to the United States with his parents in 1885. Wagner spent his adolescent and early adult years in New York City, attending high school, college, and law school in the city. In 1900 after graduating from New York Law School, Wagner was admitted to the bar.

In 1905, Robert Wagner entered politics as a member of the New York State Assembly. He served on the Assembly for 4 years before moving up to the State Senate in 1909. During Wagner’s tenure in the State Senate, he began to gain prominence as a politician and labor advocate. Wagner was President Pro Tempore of the State Senate from 1911 to 1914, and served as acting lieutenant governor of New York for over a year in 1913 and 1914 after the impeachment of the incumbent governor left the post vacant. More importantly, Robert Wagner was the chairman of the State Factory Investigating Committee during the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. During this investigation, Wagner along with his vice chairman and soon friend Al Smith used their findings to pass dozens of new labor laws in New York. Their findings helped Wagner’s pro-labor views, brought him closer to the Tammany establishment and Smith, and helped propel Wagner to the United States Senate and Al Smith to the governorship.

Robert Wagner was elected to the United States Senate in 1926, defeating incumbent senator James W. Wadsworth Jr. for the seat. Wagner served in the Senate for nearly four terms before resigning in 1949 due to ill health. Wagner had known Franklin Delano Roosevelt since his time on the State Legislature, and due to their acquaintance and Wagner’s position on the Senate, he became one of FDR’s selection of advisers known as the Brain Trust during his early presidency. Wagner was very active in industrial and labor causes during the Depression. As one of the New Deal supporters in the Senate, Wagner was a key figure in the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. In particular, Wagner defended the section of the NIRA protecting collective bargaining for labor organizations, and somewhat paradoxically, the temporary suspension of the Sherman Antitrust Act. On this, Wagner argued that the NIRA’s stipulation of fair and progressive labor standards would make antitrust law unnecessary for the duration of the Depression, and that it was needed in order to promote economic recovery.

After the Supreme Court struck down the NIRA as unconstitutional, Wagner continued to be influential in passing pro-labor legislation. Robert Wagner was a principal author of the National Labor Relations Act which created the National Labor Relations Board in 1935, and introduced the Social Security Act into the Senate. During the Depression, Wagner also sponsored several unpassed bills. In 1934, the Wagner-Hartfield Amendment to the Communications Act aimed to convert one quarter of national radio channels to non-profit broadcasters. In February of 1939, the Wagner-Rogers Bill which Wagner cosponsored with Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Rogers would have admitted 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany to the United States, but it was rejected by Congress.

Robert Wagner resigned from the Senate in 1949 due to ill health, and died four years later. He left a long political legacy through his family. His only son, Robert Wagner II, served as mayor of New York City from 1954 to 1965. As a long-serving Senator and one of the champions of the New Deal, Robert Wagner Sr. would have been a contender for a presidential nomination during much of the 1940s had he been eligible. However, he would have to wait for FDR to retire, as a party cannot nominate a President and Vice President from the same state. Had FDR not run for reelection in 1940 or 1944, Wagner could have been a top contender at the convention due to his connections with labor organizations, Tammany Hall, and the President. His German birth would surely become an issue during World War II, but it is uncertain whether this would be a hindrance to his campaign or not.

The next and last German immigrant who could have been a presidential contender was Henry Kissinger, one of the United States’ great modern diplomats. Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria in 1923 during the shaky interwar period of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Growing up in a Jewish family, Kissinger fled persecution with his parents to New York via London. Kissinger attended the City College of New York pursuing accounting until 1943, when he was drafted into the US Army.

Kissinger showed great intellect during basic training, and his fluency in German put him in the military intelligence program. While in the army, Kissinger was naturalized as a United States citizen. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge and the occupation of northwestern Germany by the Allies before returning to the United States. Once back in the country, Kissinger attended Harvard for his entire post-secondary education. He earned a Bachelors degree in political science in 1950, a Masters in 1952, and a PhD in 1954. Afterward, Kissinger joined the faculty at Harvard, while pursuing a greater role in foreign policy through consulting for government agencies.

Through this, Kissinger began advising New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. He also participated in Rockefeller’s presidential campaigns in 1960, 1964, and 1958. In 1968, after Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination and the presidency, Nixon appointed Kissinger his National Security Advisor. For nearly the next decade, Kissinger would be an influential force in American foreign policy as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and as Secretary of State under Gerald Ford.

Kissinger was instrumental in forming and achieving many aspects of the Nixon administration’s foreign policy. Kissinger played a key role in continuing the process of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union. During Nixon’s presidency, Kissinger helped negotiate the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty or SALT talks and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Kissinger also instigated the normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Kissinger made two visits to China in July and October of 1971, the first in secret, to meet with Zhou Enlai. Kissinger’s trips to China precipitated Nixon’s visit in 1972. It was the first time any US president visited the PRC and began the end of the 25 year diplomatic isolation between the two countries.

Kissinger as Nixon’s advisor also helped shape American policy in Latin America. He supported the CIA’s participation in the plot to overthrow leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende. The coup was carried out on September 11, 1973, and the Chilean military established a US-friendly dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet that would last until 1990.

Kissinger’s connection with the Nixon administration and Ford’s presidency would make him an unlikely choice for the Republican nomination in 1976 in the wake of Watergate. However, in the years after, Kissinger played more the role of elder statesman during the 1980s and 1990s in the close of the Cold War. With the shadow of Watergate diminished during the 1980s, Kissinger could have been a potential Republican presidential or vice presidential candidate in 1980 or, assuming Ronald Reagan serves two terms as in actual history, 1988. His extensive foreign policy experience would have made him an asset to the party. However, Kissinger has tended away from the media spotlight giving few interviews after his term as Secretary of State, so it is questionable whether he would even want to run for office.

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