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George, Walter F.


Walter F. George served Georgia as a Democratic United States Senator from 1922-1957. He became one of the most influential senators of his time, even gracing the cover of Time magazine. While he opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nomination for President in 1932, he supported several of his early New Deal programs. But he broke with Roosevelt in his second presidential term, particularly over the attempts to pack the Supreme Court with justices favorable to the New Deal. This led to Roosevelt openly supporting George’s opponent in the 1938 election, but George easily won re-nomination and election. He again became a supporter of Roosevelt in 1941, urging Congress to pass legislation allowing the military to prepare for conflict in case the United States was drawn into World War II. He also supported Roosevelt’s dream - the United Nations Charter of 1945.

George was born in rural Webster County, Georgia, near Preston, on January 29, 1878. He lived on a farm - his father being a sharecropper. Early on, George showed an aptitude for oratory. He attended Mercer University in Macon, where he won an award for a speech on the Constitution. He graduated from Mercer in 1900, then from the same University’s law department in 1901. He passed the bar that same year, and set up practice in Vienna, Georgia. He served as solicitor general of the Cordele judicial circuit from 1907-1912, then judge of the Superior Court of the same circuit from 1912-1917. For the first ten months of 1917 George was a judge on the State Court of Appeals, then served as an associate justice on the Georgia Supreme Court until 1922. That year, he resigned from the court to run for the United States Senate seat vacated by the death of Tom Watson. On November 7, 1922, Walter F. George won the special election to finish Watson’s term. But before he officially took office, Rebecca Latimer Felton - who had been appointed to complete Watson’s unexpired term - sat in the Senate for one day, becoming the first woman to hold a United States Senate seat. Then Walter George assumed the office - one he would hold for the next thirty-five years.

During the decade of the 1920s, George tended to vote much like his fellow Senators from the south - conservatively. He supported prohibition and voted to strenghten it. He opposed any legislation aiming toward civil rights for blacks, and even voted against antilynching measures. He did not support the United States becoming a part of the League of Nations. He was a strong supporter of large corporations, particularly those based in Georgia like the Coca-Cola Company and Georgia Power Company. In 1928, Georgia’s congressional delegation selected George as their favorite son candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination (Al Smith from New York was nominated, but was soundly defeated by Republican candidate Herbert Hoover). Even though George was never a serious candidate for the nomination, it was clear that he was very popular amongst his fellow Georgians.

The stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and with it a new era in American politics. George changed little, however. Being an inherent conservative, he opposed the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1932. George believed some of the programs being proposed by Roosevelt were too extreme. But with Roosevelt’s overwhelming victory in the presidential election of 1932, he came into office determined to implement his programs to fight the Great Depression. And George actually decided to support some of the early programs that he saw as beneficial to Georgia - primarily the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. He was not as strong a New Deal supporter as his fellow Senator from Georgia - Richard B. Russell, Jr. - but for Roosevelt’s first term he did feel as though he had an ally in Walter George.

Things began to change in Roosevelt’s second term however. Roosevelt proposed more rigourous regulation of utility companies and increased taxation for wealthy people - proposals George could not support. But the main break between Roosevelt and George came over Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court with extra justices favorable to his New Deal policies. George, a long time expert on and staunch supporter of the Constitution, believed this to be un-constitutional, and made it abundantly clear he would not support the idea. So Roosevelt - who considered Georgia his “second home” after establishing the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and building a cottage there called the “Little White House” - undertook to actively try and unseat George. In a famous speech delivered in Barnesville, Georgia on August 11, 1938, Roosevelt praised George for his service, acknowledged his intelligence and honor, but urged voters to choose George’s opponent in the upcoming election. George shook the president’s hand and accepted the challenge.

George was astute enough not to openly attack President Roosevelt himself; Roosevelt was extremely popular in Georgia. Instead George accused the President’s advisors of promoting his interference in Georgia politics, painting a dire picture of another round of Reconstruction to be visited upon Georgia if the northern advisors had their way. He would close his campaign stops with the song Dixie - playing on Georgians’ state pride and fear of such northern interference. George easily won re-nomination for his Senate seat, and with the Democratic party firmly in control of Georgia - easily won re-election also.

Circumstances changed again - for both the country and the Roosevelt/George relationship - in the decade of the 1940s. George served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1941, and was well aware of the danger to the United States - and the world - of German and Japanese militarism. He supported Roosevelt with legislation designed to prepare the United States military for action in the event of the country becoming involved in World War II. This happened on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. George supported Roosevelt’s prosecuting of the war, and even reversed his previous opposition to an international agency designed to keep peace (League of Nations earlier) by supporting ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945. Roosevelt did not live to see the U.N. become reality; he died at Warm Springs April 12, 1945, shortly before the end of World War II.

During the decade of the 1950s, George continued to be a supporter of America’s foreign policy, especially under President Eisenhower. George was close friends with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Trying to find some way to thaw the increasing tensions of the Cold War, George proposed, in 1955, for a summit of the United States and her allies with the Soviet Union - such a summit had not been held since the end of World War II. A long standing, well respected Democratic Senator supporting such a measure under a Republican administration brought George bipartisan acclaim.

But matters were different on the domestic front. Amid growing calls for civil rights for blacks, George and his fellow southern congressmen staunchly opposed any such measures. His office became a meeting place for southern Senators to gather to plot opposition strategy to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka’s decision in 1954 - declaring segregation of schools unconstitutional. Even though he did strongly oppose integration, he was not as vocal about it as his fellow Senator Richard B. Russell, or as his brash young opponent in the 1956 election - Herman Talmadge. Talmadge had the state political machinery built by his father Eugene firmly behind him - and George realized he was not likely to win re-nomination. So he declined to run for re-election in 1956, ending his long years in the Senate in early 1957. He served as President pro tempore of the Senate during his last two sessions - in 1955 and 1956.

His service to the country was not completely done; he served President Eisenhower as a special foreign policy advisor and Eisenhower appointed him as United States ambassador to NATO - a position he held only briefly before returning home to Vienna, Georgia. There he died of heart problems on August 4, 1957. He is interred in the Vienna, Georgia cemetery. Lake Walter F. George, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake in western Georgia near Fort Gaines, is named in his honor. His alma mater - Mercer University - named their law school the Walter F. George School of Law to honor their noted alumnus.