Essays, Papers & Addresses

Grace Coolidge: The Unknown Humanitarian

Cyndy Bittinger
Former Executive Director, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Cyndy Bittinger, the author of the book, Grace Coolidge, Sudden Star.

Grace Anna Goodhue was born in Burlington, Vermont on January 3, 1879, 128 years ago. As her biographer, I have written about her leadership qualities and her influence in the White House. Yet, my research took a new turn when I was contacted by Rafael Medoff, Director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies who suggested that I write a column about Grace Coolidge’s efforts on behalf of Jewish refugees. He felt she was an “unknown humanitarian.”

Looking back over my research, I knew that she started the first orphanage in Northampton in the early years of her marriage, she had taught deaf children before she married Calvin Coolidge, and was always looking for ways to volunteer in Northampton. Upon retirement from the White House in 1929 and after the death of her husband in 1933, Grace Coolidge plunged into community work again, but I never really appreciated the fact that she had taken an unpopular stand, even a controversial one when she and others in Northampton telegrammed the state department in January of 1939 to “explore every possible means” of admitting refugee children from Germany into this country.(Springfield Republican newspaper, January 11, 1939) She was a member of the Northampton refugee committee led by the President of Smith College, William Allan Neilson. The group had secured homes and funds for at least 25 children. Their request was not handled separately, but regarded as part of the Wagner Rogers Bill introduced in both houses of Congress in February of 1939 which would “permit, over a single two year period, entrance outside the quotas of a total of 20,000 German refugee children aged 14 or younger.” (Paper Walls, p. 75) The story of that bill and the controversy it stirred is a sad chapter in American history. Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from the fifth district in Massachusetts, who knew Mrs. Coolidge, was the sponsor of the bill. Those who wanted to arrange this sponsorship felt that victims of persecution must leave Germany to find safety. Unfortunately American immigration barriers were upheld by a majority in Congress and the Roosevelt administration “held firm” and the bill failed. (Paper Walls, vii preface) Only 26% of the public approved of this effort so basically it was unpopular. (p. 210) Why? Americans did not want to bring in more children. There already was massive unemployment so why not concentrate on helping Americans here at home?(p.3)

Grace Coolidge did not stop her efforts to assist Europe in this dark hour. She led a Northampton committee to raise funds for Dutch victims of Nazi invaders in 1940 and joined the women’s organization of the National Fight for Freedom Committee, formed in April of 1941. This committee urged immediate entry of the United States into World War II to defeat Hitler. “Gallup polls during 1940-41 found only about one-tenth of Americans willing to go to war for any other reason than to fend off an invasion of the United States itself.” (Wyman Institute article, “American Jews and Saddam: a Lesson from the 1930’s” by Rafael Medoff) Pearl Harbor and a declaration of war did not happen until December 7th.

On December 12, 1941, Mrs. Coolidge wrote her fraternity sisters “At last we take our place in this world conflict. How incredible it all seems…it will be a long hard conflict which will call for the utmost effort upon the part of every one of us but we cannot doubt that the forces which have truth and right and justice on their side will win. May God give us wisdom and leaders who will know how to establish the new peace upon foundations which will uphold it for long, long years to come.”