by Nicholas Martin
©2014 All rights reserved.
I wasted no time heading for the Internet. I entered the words mink deep freeze and scandal in my Google and waited very patiently through what seemed a billion nanoseconds. My patience paid off, though, in the form of a 1970 “Oral History Interview with Robert G. Nixon,” on file with the Truman Presidential Museum and Library. Mr. Nixon (Robert, not Richard) had apparently been a correspondent with the International News Service from 1930-58. But would he be able to tell me anything about my token?
During the interview, Mr. Nixon discussed some of the circumstances pertaining to the presidential campaign between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. The information quickly established that my token was a political piece almost certain to date to that 1952 campaign, essentially applauding the honesty and integrity of the Grand Old Party (Republicans), which has been symbolized by the elephant since 1877. But if honesty and integrity are found on one side, what point is being made by the other side of the token? What could possibly be meant by the “MINK, 5% / DEEP FREEZE, TAX SCANDAL” that somehow seemed to relate to a donkey, and why present the donkey from such a “backwards” point of view? Surely the reference must be to the Democratic donkey, a symbol hailing back to a much earlier presidential race – in 1828.
The main gambit the Republicans had used in seeking to destroy the Truman administration was the so-called Communist in Government witch hunts, sparked by Senator McCarthy and by then Congressman Dick Nixon. But this was not all.
The Truman administration had taken actions with poor judgment which resulted in making it highly unpopular. The whole thing was called “the mess in Washington.” Tom Dewey made a point that he was going to clean it up in his 1948 campaign. There were the instances of the so-called “five percenters,” of the mink coat, and of the deep freeze.
The deep freeze scandal was one of the first to come along. Shortly after Truman had become President, one of his staff aides in the White House, apparently had no knowledge of simple ethics of Government: “If you can't eat it, drink it, or smoke it in 24 hours, don't accept it.”
For a considerable time after the end of the Second World War, civilian goods were in very short supply. Things like refrigerators, typewriters, stoves, household goods, or deep freezers, which were relatively new, were impossible to obtain.
Harry Vaughan, Truman's Military Aide, had a friend in a factory out in the Middlewest, who had begun manufacturing these household freezers. He got around to saying, “Do you have a deep freeze in the White House? And does the President have one in his home in Independence?”
Vaughan, of course, said, “Well, no, he doesn't.”
The friend said, “Well, don't you think the President ought to have one and would he like to have one?”
Vaughan, who should have known better but didn't, said, “Oh, that would be fine.”
This manufacturer, as a result, gave one to the President, I believe for his home in Independence, and one for the White House kitchen. I believe there were several others. In any event, there were at least two of them given to the President for use in his home in Independence and at the White House. It was just as innocent as that and just as simple as that. But when the story got out, there was a great scandal. This was really the first time the political opposition had hold of a ball they could run with. The implication was that these gifts had been made to the President and the White House in order to garner favor for whatever machinations the industrialist was supposed to have had in Washington, Government contacts being the main implication.
There was then the big scandal, the mink coat scandal. It goes without saying that the implications of someone accepting a mink coat as a gift are widely known and do not need amplification. There was a young fellow named Merle Young. His wife was employed in the White House. Mrs. Young was, in a sense, an assistant personal stenographer and secretary to the President. She was in a very close circle of intimate contact with all of the secrets of the Presidency. This young woman was, if ever there was one, an innocent victim of circumstance. Her husband, as it came out later, was out to use his position in Government, but especially his relationship with a presidential secretary. Whether he had any actual authority at all, he certainly had an assumed authority, which he used very much to his advantage in lining his own pockets.
Young would come to them representing himself as a presidential emissary and would say to them, “The Boss says this for you to do.” “The Boss wants this done.” As far as I could tell, this young fellow was not a presidential emissary at all (unless it was on a few occasions). He was out to line his own pocket by getting contracts, or influencing contracts, for commercial enterprises, for people on the make.
His influence, incidentally, came through his wife’s position on the White House staff. Young was a White House frequenter. He had complete access because of his wife’s position as an assistant stenographer to the President. He would drive this big car of his (first it was a little cheap, battered car, and then it was one of these five block long, black Cadillac), into the White House grounds in the late afternoon and pick up his wife and take her home. He had a White House admittance card, and complete access. As I say, his influence stemmed from his wife’s connections.
This individual, as a gesture of gratitude for Merle Young’s influence with the White House and other agencies (“The Boss wants this”), made a present of a mink coat to Merle Young's wife. When this came out in a congressional investigation, it became a first class scandal in Government.
Again, the implications were wrong, I’m sure. They were inflated into something far greater than they were. Truman had nothing to do with it. It was guilt by association in the public mind, and the facts were not well-known. Only the sordid part came to public light. This was played upon by the investigating committee in Congress with all stops out.
By 1952, Truman was exceptionally unpopular among the American people and even with the Democratic leadership. With an emaciated 23 percent approval rating (a record low), his chances in the 1952 election seemed minuscule. In addition, the Republicans were beginning to focus their attentions on the extremely popular General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower.…not surprisingly, Truman announced in March 1952, that he had decided to forego a third term.
So now we know about the mink, the 5%, and the deep freeze, but what of the tax scandal? This piece of the puzzle came from an article in the online Mercer Law Review:
The tax scandals of 1951 and 1952….Congressional hearings into allegations of misconduct by the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Tax Division of the Justice Department uncovered widespread tax fixing involving complicity between both agencies. Large numbers of revenue officers were forced to resign, and in 1952 the former Commissioner of Internal Revenue and his assistant were convicted of tax fraud. The assistant attorney general responsible for the Tax Division was fired and later convicted of conspiring to fix a tax case.
An interesting development in the research and preparation of this article occurred a few months later on a trip to Corpus Christi. There, at an antique mall (while rummaging for tokens, of course), I came upon a token celebrating the Texas centennial of 1936 and bearing the head of President Roosevelt (a Democrat) on the obverse. Of significance to this article is the fact that the reverse shows the reverse of an elephant! Thus, the use of a heads/tails device to applaud one party while ridiculing the other clearly did not begin in 1952. One or both parties had been using it before.