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Meet Robert Reynolds, the senator who wanted to “build a wall” 70 years before Trump

Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds was a showman and an isolationist. He is also a reminder that nativism isn't new to American politics.

Senator Robert R. Reynolds
Myron Davis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”

But for the slightly antiquated phrasing, those words could have come straight from Donald Trump.

This wall, though, isn’t the one Trump boasted about on the 2016 campaign trail and is now asking Congress for money to build. Instead, it was a rhetorical flourish from a different, albeit no less flamboyant, politician: a two-term Democratic senator from North Carolina named Robert Rice Reynolds. And the comments aren't recent: Reynolds made them on the floor of the Senate on June 5, 1941.

Reynolds never really expected a wall to be built, however much he might have dreamed of such a barrier. And his ideas about refugees never took hold with the broader American public. Today he is all but forgotten, even in his home state of North Carolina.

Still, his story is worth retelling. It serves as a reminder of the heights American hypernationalism, anti-interventionism, and nativism reached in the not-too-distant past.

It shows, too, that these are strains of American political thinking that are recycled again and again, and are often ushered in by politicians who capture America’s attention with flash over substance. Trump isn’t the first showman known nearly as much for his marital lives as for his tendency toward oratorical extremes about refugees and “criminal” immigrants. The question is whether he will be the last — or whether his legacy will inspire other political progeny.

The ladies’ man of the Senate

Robert Rice Reynolds — or “Our Bob” or “Buncombe Bob” as he was known (so dubbed for Buncombe County, North Carolina) — was a Washington outsider and a five-time married man who loved the limelight. He once swept actress Jean Harlow into a showy embrace on the Capitol steps; it was a lip lock that got their image printed in magazines and newspapers around the country.

Actress Jean Harlow and Sen. Robert Reynolds.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

But while Reynolds rolled into office on his more playful image, his political reputation hardened significantly over time. As a senator, he proposed halting immigration for a decade and registering “aliens,” which he defined as those who entered the country by “illegal” means.

In his second term, he co-sponsored the (failed) 1939 Reynolds-Starnes Bill, which proposed halting all immigration for 10 years unless there was a significant drop in (native-born or naturalized) American unemployment. He also called for fingerprinting and registering all aliens and deporting aliens who needed welfare support

That same year, Reynolds founded the Vindicators Association, a “patriotic society,” explains Julian Pleasants in his book Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds, that was “devoted to 100 percent Americanism.” The group promised America “for Americans” with a slogan of “Our Citizens, Our Country First,” and put out a publication called the American Vindicator that went to even darker places. In one issue, reprinted in Buncombe Bob, readers were breathlessly told: “Criminal aliens are filling the jails of this country. Feeble-minded and insane foreigners are cluttering our madhouses and asylums, all at the expense of American tax-payers.” Another implored readers to set up neighborhood “patrols” to pick-up so-called alien criminals.

To the public at large, though, Reynolds was, above all, a showman with a flair for the theatrical, at least at first.

“The Senate has always had its clowns, dandies and playboys, but rarely so exotic a combination as the gentleman from North Carolina, Robert Rice Reynolds,” opined Life magazine in June 1937. “He is the ladies’ man of the Senate,” the story continued, breathlessly. “Four times married, once to a Follies’ girl, he has been twice divorced, twice left a widower.”

In an earlier issue, Life had spoken of his “gallant ways” and gave him the ribbon of most “sex appeal” of any US senator. He had four children, from three of his wives. The same magazine noted he won popularity contests in the Senate and was beloved by many, if not all.

Sen. Robert Reynolds.
Thomas D. Mcavoy/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

By 1939, though, his antics were less amusing to Life, which then listed Buncombe Bob as “removed from blatant anti-Semitism” but nevertheless a “man to watch” in “a kind of homespun U.S. proto-fascism manifested by the late Huey Long.”

By the end of his Senate career, Reynolds had married his fifth wife, Evalyn Washington McLean, a young heiress and owner of the legendary Hope Diamond. He was 57; she was a mere 20. But theirs would be another in a list of marital tragedies for Reynolds: She did not survive to her 25th birthday.

Evalyn McLean (left) and her mother, Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean, 1938.

Reynolds’s aggressive stance on immigration and deportation — and, later, his reluctance to criticize the rise of fascist dictators overseas and fascist sympathizers at home — sank his political career and erased any legacy he might have left behind.

But that’s because there were massive, external geopolitical forces — Hitler and Mussolini’s rise to power, the Holocaust, and World War II — that highlighted the possible dangers of his beliefs. There are no such pressures today.

Living in isolation

Born in 1884 in the then-tiny mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, unlike many of his generation, Reynolds never toured Europe as a soldier, but postwar he much enjoyed the continent. (He apparently registered but was never called up.)

“He was well-traveled, and conventional wisdom has it that traveling makes you broader, but it did the opposite for him: The more well-traveled he was, the more isolationist he became,” Rob Christensen, a political columnist for the News & Observer of Raleigh, NC and author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, explained to me. (In 2015, Christensen also wrote on parallels between the former senator from North Carolina and then-candidate Donald Trump.)

Reynolds began running for office in the 1910s, but success only came in his 1932 bid for the Senate, when he recast himself as a “populist representative for the downtrodden of the Depression,” according to Pleasants, the biographer.

Reynolds channeled the wellspring of popular anger at wealthy bankers and elites. “While a gifted campaigner,” Pleasants said, Reynolds “was not much of a politician at all; he didn’t know much about any issue — but he was a bon vivant.”

The incumbent opponent in the North Carolina Democratic primary that year was Sen. Cameron Morrison. Morrison had the advantage of being a former governor of the state and the disadvantage — in a moment of national impoverishment — of riches acquired through marriage. Morrison lived in Washington, DC’s luxurious Mayflower Hotel.

At campaign stops, Reynolds would theatrically unfurl a red carpet, imitating the life of his rival, and described how each breakfast for the hotel resident consisted of $2 “Red Russian” caviar eggs, rather than good-old North Carolina hen eggs, for “26 cents” a dozen. He would read to his crowds the entire menu — and prices — of the Mayflower. It was always good for laughs. Reynolds would roll into campaign stops in a battered old Ford, a “tin Lizzie,” which, said Pleasants, would conveniently run out of gas — just like the cars of regular folks.

“People were in really bad shape” because of the Depression, Pleasants explained. “Reynolds would say big bankers and big government destroyed the country.” It helped, too, that Reynolds was “charismatic, and humorous.”

A North Carolina tenant farmer’s wife doing laundry, 1935.
American Stock Archive/1935

Reynolds also, smartly, read the political winds on another issue: alcohol. He ran as a “wet,” as it was called, and spoke out aggressively against Prohibition. He also started on his path toward opining on limiting immigration. He won the primary handily — and then won by a significant margin in the general election.

Once in DC, Reynolds joined the Washington cocktail party crowd, and his folksy routine was mostly shelved (except for that old Ford — he kept that). But, as Pleasants wrote in his book, there was also, at first, “no indication of the isolationism, ethnocentrism and liaisons with American fascists that would ultimately destroy his career.” Instead, he was well-liked and friendly to all.

Reynolds spent much of his early years in Washington socializing, and less on legislation, but he spent a significant amount of the time he did govern trying to win jobs for out-of-work North Carolinians, supporting New Deal legislation, and winning support for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) creation of the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which he believed would be a tourism boost to the western half of the state (he was right). “Reynolds genuinely cared for the average citizen,” said Pleasants.

Daughters of a Farm Security Administration rehabilitation client walking among a group of chickens outdoors on their farm in North Carolina, 1938.
From the New York Public Library. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

But as Hitler and Mussolini rose to power and Jews desperately began attempting to leave Europe, Reynolds, said Pleasants, “began to worry that hordes of aliens [were] coming into the United States and that … they would be taking jobs.”

The senator advocated for the deportation of so-called immigrant “alien” criminals and for cutting back immigration entirely as a means of ending unemployment. He also was quite vocal in his belief that Britain, and Europe in general, needed to care for itself, and that the US should not step in with aid for European allies, and certainly not risk sons for the cause of yet another European conflict.

And while he hadn’t previously been known for racist campaigning, in the runup to his reelection to the Senate, Reynolds helped his Southern colleagues filibuster an anti-lynching bill championed by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Reynolds worried his opponents would hold up New Deal proposals he desperately wanted for his constituents in an election year if he didn’t fall in line with the conservative Southern legislators.

The idea of an “alien registry” goes back to Reynolds’s era

In January 1939, after winning reelection, Reynolds launched the Vindicators Association — an organization devoted to keeping America out of the war, registering and fingerprinting all immigrant “aliens,” curtailing immigration for a decade, and deporting “criminal” aliens. Their motto was “Our Citizens, Our Country First.”

A column in the March 28, 1939, edition of Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel detailed his group:

There is an organization moving into unified action in America which would be funny if were it not so dangerous. Its members call themselves VINDICATORS — a name with all of the vague emotional implications of chauvinist tradition. And they have dedicated themselves — in bold faced print and gushy slogans — to the returning of America to “Americans.” They are being led by our own apostle of freedom, Robert Reynolds, who seems to have crystallized his ideas of government since a recent tour of Nazi Germany.

Calling the Vindicators newsletter “emotional rabble rousing,” the Daily Tar Heel continued:

They have centered out a fairly defenseless and inarticulate part of the population and allowed them to represent a multitude of sins. The victims are our aliens — lumped into one despised sum. And the VINDICATORS are describing our alien population as the cause of both domestic decay and foreign complications, lack of idealistic progressiveness and radicalism, economic clogs and avaricious job stealers, communists and fascists...

The VINDICATORS attack aliens and isms and tempt a nation with empty slogans hinting of hate. Like fire, hate can get out of hand and spread to scar a nation.

Reynolds also actively spoke out against the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have admitted 20,000 refugee children into the US, in a May 1939 speech before the American Defense Society at the beaux-arts Hotel Astor in New York City.

Jewish children refugees arriving from Germany in London, February 1939.
Keystone-France / Collection: Gamma-Keystone

Those refugee kids were Jewish children, and, it should be noted, the speech came just six months after Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” a two-day pogrom that inflamed Germany, Austria, and German-occupied Czech Sudetenland, during which some 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps and 267 synagogues burned to the ground across the Reich.

The American failure to receive refugee children stands in stark contrast to the United Kingdom, which, through the kindertransport program, took in between 9,000 and 10,000 refugee children (7,500 of whom were Jews) from Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1940.

German-Jewish refugees at the porthole of the liner St. Louis finally arrive at Antwerp, after being refused entry to Cuba and Miami, 1939.
Gerry Cranham /  Hulton Archive

The New York Times covered Reynolds’s speech on the matter of refugee children. In it, Reynolds called on Americans to wake up to the “danger within”; in other words, to pay attention to our own shores, our own needs, and not worry so much about Europe. In the same speech, he called for fingerprinting all immigrants. He then “expressed sympathy for the ‘orphans of the world’” but, in the same breath, worried children would eventually want to bring over families.

Fritz Kuhn, the head of the German American Bund, the American pro-Nazi group, sat in the audience of Reynolds’s speech. He was spotted there by a New York Times journalist, who asked what Kuhn thought of the speech. “I liked it very well, I would underline everything,” Kuhn said, as reported by the Times writer.

It was that kind of association that came back to haunt the senator. As his New York Times obituary would later point out, Fritz Kuhn was known then for parading around in a “storm trooper’s uniform” and “thunder[ing] praise” for Hitler at massive rallies in New York City. Americans, whatever their position on intervention, were starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable with such displays.

American Nazi Party members (a.k.a. German American Bund), 1937.
Rex Hardy Jr. / The LIFE Picture Collection

“One could hardly imagine a more damaging endorsement,” Pleasants wrote. Pleasants writes that Reynolds was also praised by Social Justice, the newspaper organized by Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest. (Life magazine, in 1941, also noted that Reynolds had had “friendly relations” with “Jew-baiters” in the past.)

Reynolds himself was publicly more careful with language than those he associated with. In an April 1939 New York Times story detailing his disquiet with the British for wanting America to get involved in the growing concern over Nazi expansion, Reynolds expansively noted, “Like any Christian, I abhor and condemn practices of Italy and Germany for their mistreatment of minorities.” But, he quickly added, he was “pro-American enough to be sore” about the British trying to “drag” America into a foreign entanglement.

And yet two years later, on the Senate floor, in the same 1941 speech in which he mentioned his mythical wall, Reynolds said he wanted not just to stop new refugees from coming into the US but also to get rid of those already here:

I believe we must rid our country of the alien enemies who are now here, and put up the bars so that from now on no alien of any nationality upon the face of the earth will be permitted to enter the United States...

I say we should stop — and stop now — the refugees who are seeping into this country by the thousands every single month to take the jobs which rightly belong to the native-born and naturalized citizens of the United States.

Indeed, it wasn’t just jobs but fears of spies and fifth columnists that often overcame reason and sympathy at every level of government that same year. 1941 saw a significant tightening of American visa restrictions at embassies and consulates around the world, rather than permissiveness in letting in refugees. Caught in the newly stringent rules were thousands of Jews across occupied Europe. Shipping companies were told refugees who had already booked passage to America might find their visas now voided. Jews of the Reich were desperate.

New rules implemented by the US State Department that June required that all family members leave Europe together: A single remaining relative could sink an entire family’s chances, as — the theory went — they were at risk of coercion into espionage. “US Ruling Cuts Off Means of Escape for Many in the Reich,” declared the New York Times headline.

In that same June 5 speech, Reynolds told the Senate he had information that “with every boatload of refugees that comes to this country there are Nazi and communist agents.”

That kind of spy-risk fear reached a fever pitch that summer, even though there were some in office who were actively, behind the scenes, fighting to tamp it down.

May 1937: Sen. Robert Reynolds aiming a slingshot he calls an Alien Eradicator in his office.
Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Most of the rest of the country was with Reynolds — at least at first

Of course, had Reynolds’s position been merely anti-immigrant, it would have been unremarkable. Even after Kristallnacht, a Gallup poll found 67 percent of Americans were opposed to receiving refugees.

But Reynolds seemed to also be questioning the country’s growing concern about fascism overseas. After returning from a European tour in 1938, he urged Americans to end the “hate wave” against European dictators, as quoted in Pleasants’s biography, and urged America not to interfere. He appeared to find the fascist ability to have trains running on time to be a good thing. After that, the American press began to turn downright chilly.

Reynolds’s anti-refugee positions, combined with his firm belief that the United States should stay on our side of the Atlantic, his devotion to neutrality, his opposition to helping the British with the Lend-Lease Act (a popular program that allowed London to receive US military equipment without having to immediately pay for it), and his endorsements by groups like the Bund — even if unsolicited — came to be seen as unpatriotic, or worse. The press began to link his extreme isolationism with sympathies for the fascist regimes overseas.

“Reynolds Denies Pro-Nazi Charges,” blared the New York Times on May 12, 1939. “Four Hour Speech In Senate Denounces All Critics of His Stand on Neutrality — Upholds Isolation Views.” Reynolds, the piece explained, was angry that he’d been — erroneously — tarred as pro-fascist because of his strict position on keeping America clear of European entanglements.

Reynolds, the Times wrote, accused journalists of having purposely twisted his words and image to undermine his political career. Reynolds, belatedly, would go on to condemn the Bund, even going so far as to introduce a bill that would outlaw it along with the Communist Party.

But he remained a stalwart isolationist as long as possible.

By the time he took over the chairmanship of the Military Affairs Committee in 1941, there was much undisguised dismay. “Seniority at Its Worst,” read an editorial in the New York Times on April 23, 1941, which called his hopes to stay clear of foreign wars “completely out of sympathy” with his party, the winds of national desire, and the administration.

Meanwhile, the Vindicators Association was still publishing its noxious newsletter. An extensive Life magazine profile of Reynolds in September 1941 noted he was “indignant” that the organization and its newsletter had been tarred as anti-Semitic. “We’re just anti-alien,” he told the magazine. “I want all our own fine boys and lovely girls to have all the jobs in this wonderful country.”

On December 7 of that year, the attack at Pearl Harbor forced Reynolds to recognize that war was at hand and that his constituents wouldn’t stand for isolationism any longer. He finally began to support the war effort. In 1942, he even dissolved the Vindicators Association.

But by 1944, as the war wound down, Reynolds reverted back toward isolationism, voting, in the first round, with a tiny group of senators against American involvement in the United Nations. He aggressively campaigned to dramatically lower America’s financial contribution to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), arguing our monetary contribution was far too high.

Reynolds’s popularity was now at a low; he didn’t seek reelection. The following year, he tried briefly to gain support for a third-party candidacy, which fell apart. In 1950, he ran again for Senate — he lost, badly.

Reynolds left Washington and moved back to Asheville, North Carolina. The house he moved into, a modest pre–Civil War brick mansion, still stands. Built in 1847, it remained in the family from the mid-19th century until the mid-1960s. It’s now a bed-and-breakfast. The owners have worked hard to preserve Reynolds’s whole history for their guests — the good, the isolationist, and the wild.

courtesy of the Reynolds Mansion

Reynolds fully left public life after 1950. He traveled extensively in his remaining years — taking his youngest child around the world, and across the country. He died in 1963 at age 78. Many of his obituaries blurred his darker political proclivities in a haze of friendly nostalgia. The Asheville Citizen wrote that he was a “cowboy, roustabout, adventurer, clown, bon vivant, U.S. Senator,” but also noted that his isolationism had ruined his political career.

Pleasants, his biographer, sees him as part of an American story that recurs again and again, one where politicians use emotion in their rhetoric to heighten fears. Reynolds had hoped for time on the national stage. He got it, but far more briefly than he would have hoped. “When Reynolds left office in 1945,” says Pleasants, “America and its allies had won the war, the economy was booming, and America was the most powerful nation in the world. Pax Americana. The mood could not have been more optimistic.”

The horrifying real-life impact of overseas fascism had pulled the brake on Reynolds’s brand of anti-interventionism. The war exposed his ideas as extreme and turned his constituents against him.

For years his ideas have rested in relative obscurity, buried beneath an assumption that the country had learned a lesson about engagement, and about humanitarian support for refugees after the Holocaust.

But the 2016 campaign dusted off Reynolds’s old tropes. Ideas about “criminal” immigrants, fears of infiltrators, and rejection of refugees are clanging those same nativist bells Reynolds sounded. Ironically, Reynolds distanced himself from Charles Lindbergh’s America First group, finding their reputation too controversial for his constituents. These days their name is so rehabilitated, our White House has adopted the slogan.

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