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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Park Bench Salesman

By Tom Morrow

He was a close economic advisor to two wartime Presidents; he was an influential financier, stock investor, philanthropist, statesman, and political consultant. Bernard Mannes Baruch was a name nearly every American heard of during his lifetime, but few knew who he was or what he did.

Baruch was born Aug. 19, 1870, to a Jewish family in Camden, S.C., he was the second of four sons. In 1881 the family moved to New York City, where Bernard graduated from the City College of New York.

Baruch became a broker and then a partner in A.A. Housman & Company. With his earnings and commissions, he bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange where he amassed a fortune before the age of 30. By 1903 Baruch had his own brokerage firm and gained the reputation of “The Lone Wolf of Wall Street” because of his refusal to join any financial house. By 1910, he had become one of Wall Street’s best-known financiers.

In 1916, Baruch left Wall Street to advise President Woodrow Wilson on national defense and terms for peace and, in 1918, became the chairman of the new U.S. War Industries Board. With his leadership, this body successfully managed America’s economic mobilization during World War I.

In 1919, Wilson asked Baruch to serve as a staff member at the Paris Peace Conference. Baruch did not approve of the reparations France and Britain demanded of Germany, and supported Wilson’s view that there needed to be new forms of cooperation, and supporting the creation of the League of Nations.

In the 1920s and 30s, Baruch expressed his concern the United States needed to be prepared for the possibility of another world war. He wanted a more powerful version of the War Industries Board, which he saw as the only way to ensure maximum coordination between civilian business and military needs. Baruch remained a prominent government adviser during this time, and supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives after his election.

During President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program, Baruch was a member of the “Brain Trust” and helped form the National Recovery Administration (NRA). He was also a major contributor to Eleanor Roosevelt’s controversial initiative to build a resettlement community for unemployed mining families in Arthurdale, W.Va.

When the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt appointed Baruch a special adviser to the director of the Office of War Mobilization. Baruch supported what was known as a “work or fight” bill. He advocated the creation of a permanent “super agency” similar to his old Industries Board. His theory enhanced the role of civilian businessmen and industrialists in determining what was needed and who would produce it. Baruch’s ideas were largely adopted, with James Byrnes who was appointed to carry them out. During World War II Baruch remained a trusted adviser and confidant of President Roosevelt, who in 1944 spent a month as a guest at Baruch’s South Carolina winter estate.

In 1946 President Harry S. Truman appointed Baruch as the United States representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC). On June 14, 1946, Baruch presented his Baruch Plan, which proposed international control of then-new atomic energy. The Soviet Union rejected Baruch’s proposal as unfair given the fact the U.S. already had nuclear weapons; it proposed the U.S. eliminate its nuclear weapons before a system of controls and inspections was implemented. A stalemate ensued.

Baruch resigned from the commission in 1947. His influence began to diminish, as he grew further out of step with the views of the Truman administration.[12]

Baruch was well-known and often walked or sat in Washington’s Lafayette Park and in New York City’s Central Park. He was noted for discussing persuading government affairs while sitting on a park bench. This became his most famous characteristic. Baruch became known as “The Park Bench Salesman.”

In 1960, on his 90th birthday, a commemorative park bench in Lafayette Park across from the White House was dedicated to him by the Boy Scouts of America.

He continued to advise on international affairs until his death on June 20, 1965, in New York City, at the age of 94. His funeral was attended by 700 people. He was buried in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

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