President Warren G. Harding served for just over two years as president before dying in office. Before that, his administration was known more for back-door cronyism than sound public policy.
But Harding had a secret that wouldn’t come out until well after his death. He had a long-time mistress who was a deep and vocal supporter of Germany during the buildup to World War I, and she lobbied hard for her lover to gain similar sympathies.
Carrie Fulton Phillips was the wife of a store owner in Ohio. Phillips and Harding began their affair in 1905 when Harding was the lieutenant governor of Ohio. Harding spent the next 15 years sleeping with Phillips when possible and campaigning for various Republican offices when she wasn’t.
This included Harding’s time as a senator and his run-up to the presidency. During this period, Phillips wrote at length to Harding about the glories of Imperial Germany and her sympathies with the German people. Harding famously replied on official Senate stationery with descriptions of his penis.
Ironically, his nickname for his penis was “Jerry,” the nickname American troops gave to German soldiers.
Phillips’ support of Germany only became more open when Harding took office as a senator. Eventually, this led to surveillance by the Bureau of Investigation, now the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and rumors that she was a spy.
While the idea of Phillips convincing a rising senator and future president to support Germany in World War I makes for an interesting alternate history where Germany wins World War I or the two countries get the team back together for World War II, the reality was that Harding was never very pro-German.
A post on the National Archives and Records Administration blog says “Harding praised Phillips’s ‘perfect thighs’ and ‘beautiful form’ but found her pro-German sympathies less attractive.”
Phillips interrupted a session of lovemaking in April 1917, the same month America entered the war against Germany, to lobby on behalf of Germany and threaten Harding with exposure. The senator was angered by her arguments and later wrote of his shock at her actions.
All of her lobbying largely failed. While America could have gone either way or stayed neutral early in World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German sub had tipped the U.S. strongly against the Central Powers.
Harding voted in support of the America’s entrance into World War I in 1917 and most laws that paid for it. When he opposed a bill in 1918 that would have expanded the president’s powers, he had to deal with rumors that Phillips was changing his vote.
For what it’s worth, Phillips probably wasn’t a spy for Germany, just a fan of the country. Historians who looked into German records could find no evidence of a spy sleeping with a senator, something German spymasters in America would have reported as a major achievement.
And Phillips’ and Harding’s relationship ran cold before he took presidential office. While Harding was campaigning for the presidency, Phillips threatened him with exposure if he didn’t send her a large sum of money. Harding eventually agreed to $5,000 per month for as long as he was in public office. This amounts to $62,572.75 per month when adjusted for inflation.
Harding died of a heart attack in Aug. 1923, just over two years after taking office.