Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXII

July 7, 1915


---- “The New Senate Office Building”, Washington, DC


At six years of age, the New Senate Office Building (NOTE 1) was an infant compared with most of the other granite and marble edifices in the District of Columbia.  Like many a late-in-life child born to parents significantly more solvent than in their youth, the building had been designed and decorated more lavishly than had its older “siblings”.  Its design embodied the grand Beaux Arts style and its decorative hardware favored bronze.  One prominent newspaper likened it to a “lady’s boudoir”.  (NOTE 2)


The man waiting in the antechamber to the hearing room was no stranger to such amenities.  He possessed great personal wealth, hard-won by his own vision and his ability to harness the labors of men great and small, to motivate them, to wring from them ideas and innovations that they themselves had not known they possessed.  There were others with him in the room as he bided the time until he was called, but in reality he stood alone and all present knew it.


The stocky, well-dressed magnate was a gambler born.  Indeed, even his decision to create and head up the company he had dominated now for over a decade had been a gamble little different from his frequent trips to Monte Carlo.  Gamblers operate knowing that there are always risks and chances for failure.  This one, however, had come as a surprise in the form of a subpoena from the United States Senate.  Ignoring or stonewalling advocates or complainants was a not uncommon tactic, but his lawyers had made it most clear that inviting citation for Contempt of Congress by the Senate Committee that exercised oversight of the steel industry was not something to be trifled with.  (NOTE 3)


“Mr. Charles Schwab,” came the bailiff’s formal call.  (NOTE 4)


He nodded to the man who sprang to hold open the door and he went in, trailed by several others whose fortunes and employment depended upon him.  Upon his decisions, his gambles.  The room was hot this July afternoon, but it was not the heat alone that had glistened his countenance and dampened the underarms of his fine linen shirt.  Before he was seated at his assigned table - and having a place “assigned to him” was galling in its own right - there    was an intimidating formality to be observed.


“Do you solemnly swear ...?”


Schwab’s voice remained even as he took oath, though a careful study would have noted a thread of sweat trickling down into his sleeve from his upraised hand.  At last, he sat.


“Mr. Schwab, you are the current president of Bethlehem Steel, is that correct?”


“Yes, Senator.”  As its founder, Schwab was the only president Bethlehem Steel had EVER had, but he wisely held in his irritation at what he regarded as a rude jab.  The questioner, Senator Robert Marion LaFollette was not to be trifled with deep in his demesne and here, in the nation’s Capitol, in the New Senate Office Building, the US Senator was most assuredly there.  This was a dominance gesture; Schwab recognized it well, having done much the same as a matter of routine in Bethlehem and in things steel.  There, too, the weaker party had to play the meek and simply wait to see what he would inherit.


“Mr. Schwab, we’ve just heard from ....”


Schwab sat impassively as LaFollette appeared to read from his notes, relating the testimony just given by federal investigators who had reconstructed the steps by which the guns for Salamis had made their way by rail across into Canada and then on to Great Britain and into several of her warships there.  LaFollette’s diction and his eye contact with the gallery made it clear enough to the steel executive that the Senator was doing nothing of the sort.  No, he’d had this all prepared or worked out ahead of time.


“Now, Mr. Schwab, is all that correct?”


“Senator, I cannot vouch for every particular ....”  It might be quibbling, but it was always sound tactics to avoid sweeping affirmatives.


“Yes, yes, I quite understand.”  LaFollette was obviously no stranger to this either and was not about to give Schwab any space whilst he had the edge to his throat.  “Is it correct in the general sense?  Or, answer me this, is there any particular thing that I just recounted that you are willing to testify here and now to be a falsehood?”


Damn this man!


“No, sir.”  The sweat trickles continued.


“Very well, then,” LaFollete continued in a satisfied tone, after letting Schwab’s admission linger in the room for a long moment or two.  “You should know, sir, that we’ve also just heard from His Excellency, the ambassador from the Kingdom of Greece, a long-time and greatly-valued friend of our nation, a fellow Neutral in these dark, dark days of war, and one who needs her navy strong to ward her shores and guard her peace, just as our own nation does, as has been so amply demonstrated these last few weeks.”


Schwab’s breath came a little faster, his pulse a little quicker, as LaFollette described the outrage of the Greeks when they discovered that they had dragged their gunless dreadnought all the way across the Atlantic only to discover that he, Schwab, had already sold their cannons out from under them to the British Royal Navy.  With Greece a Neutral Power, as was the United States, and Britain a Belligerent, there was even some chance that the Greeks might find themselves threatened by their very own guns!  This was hardly anything new, of course, as the papers had been full of this for weeks now.  Numerous reporters were nonetheless writing it all down as fast as they could, so Schwab knew he had hardly heard the last of it.  LaFollette even read the details of his fine profit on the transaction into the record.


“Now, Mr. Schwab, I realize I’ve held forth here for quite a spell and, well, I’ve a fair bit more to say, but it only seems right to offer you an opportunity here first.”


“Senator, I deeply regret the situation, and the inconvenience ...”


LaFollete snorted loudly at that word and, distressingly, Schwab spotted similar reactions by others on the Committee.  Not a good sign.  Not at all.  The stakes were higher than even he had feared.


“... and I’m sure we can work something out,” he continued, adjusting up somewhat what he had planned to concede.  “To make them whole, so to speak.  However, Senator, it’s not clear to me that any laws have been broken or anything by my company.”  This last might gain him nothing, but he had to play this hand out like any other.


“Ah, ‘make them whole”, I do like the sound of that, Mr. Schwab, I really do.  Your Excellency,” LaFollette had turned to address the ambassador, “you heard that?  Good, you see what Mr. Schwab and Bethlehem Steel can do for you and come back to us.  Mr. Schwab made a lot of money selling those guns of yours the first time.  A whole lot.  Exporting them, in fact, which brings me to the next point.”


Schwab tried to mask his discomfort, mainly by the careful drawing in of an especially deep breath.  He recognized where this was about to go.


“You mentioned laws, Mr. Schwab.  So let’s talk about laws, shall we?  Let’s talk about attack submersibles, warships, ones made by your company and shipped in secret across the border to Canada.  Hidden on rail cars.  Probably in the dead of night, for that matter.”


Schwab swallowed.  He’d made a lot of money on those submarines.  It’d been a gamble of sorts but he’d thought the odds to be vastly in his favor.  Hell!  They HAD been vastly in his favor!  Then those damn Germans had shown up, with - to his slack-jawed consternation - Salamis herself.  After that, he’d known it to be only a matter of time before the business with submarines came out.  He’d hoped for months, but it had taken only days.


“Mr. Schwab, are you going to sit there and swear to us that what you did was within the law?  Selling warships to a Belligerent Nation while President Wilson himself is swearing that our country is complying with the Neutral Power duties and obligations under the treaty of The Hague 1907, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt himself and ratified by this very Body?” (NOTE 5)


Schwab had no good answer but tried his best.  LaFollette let him go on for few minutes.


“Mr. Schwab, Mr. Schwab, please.  That just will not do.  I’m probably a bit over my allotted time, but I daresay I expect to have a few more questions for you after my illustrious colleagues take their turns.  But I do want to say this.  You make a lot of money, Bethlehem Steel does, by what you export.  Do you think that’s some sort of right of yours?  Do you think that God Almighty Himself seated on His Throne on High gave you the right to sell whatever you please to whomever you please without respect for anything we mortals call ‘law’?  Right now, Mr. Schwab, I’m not convinced Bethlehem Steel - and you personally - can be trusted not to do more of this sort of mischief again.  For that matter, you might be doing more of it right this instant!  There are a powerful lot of rail cars in this wide land and right now - outside of you and your fellow lawbreakers - only God Himself knows what you might be sneaking across our northern border.  Mr. Schwab, I say again, this just will not do.”


The Senate Committee of Manufactures had oversight jurisdiction of steel and other manufacturing industries.  His export licenses were at stake here.  This was very serious indeed.


“Also, Mr. Schwab, I’m told that the United States government buys a lot of steel.  You and your company have singlehandedly dragged President Wilson’s name and reputation through the mud with your clandestine dealings in pursuit of undue profits, and the reputation of this Body and our entire nation, as well.  I sure don’t understand right now why our government ought to be buying so much as a single nail from you.  Or even why any contracts you might already have shouldn’t be torn right into little pieces.”


LaFollette held up several sheets and then loudly and quite theatrically tore them right across, and then again.


“In fact, Mr. Schwab, I don’t really know if you and your Bethlehem Steel ought to be allowed to remain incorporated at all.  Closing you down would be a real fine bit of evidence that our nation takes our duties as a Neutral Power quite seriously, I’m thinking.”


They wouldn’t really do that, Schwab thought frantically.  Would they?  It’d ruin him, sure enough, put it’d put tens of thousands out of work right when steel was needed the most.  Sure as hell, the Greeks wouldn’t get their guns that way.  On the other hand, US Steel, his chief competitor just might step in.  Monte Carlo was a cakewalk compared to this!


“Your witness, Senator,” LaFollette announced, nodding to the grim faced Senator to his right.


“Thank you, Senator LaFollette,” the next Senator began.  “Now, Mr. Schwab, are you aware that the British have taken to calling your clandestine railcar warships, “Ford Submersibles’?  (NOTE 6)  Well, sir, I want you to know that Mr. Ford is one of my constituents and HE is quite upset!”


Schwab took another deep breath.  It was going to be a long day.


Author’s NOTEs:

1) The Senate office and hearing room building went for years only by the general name of the “New Senate Office Building” and would (much, much) later be formally designated as the Richard Brevard Russell Senate Office Building. The building cornerstone had been laid in 1906 and entered use in 1909. Its appointments were considered overly lavish for the times and no one appeared to have wanted to link its notoriety to any particular name. The man for whom it would be named was, in 1915, still a teenager and attending Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia.




For an entertaining look at the history of the US Senate and the Russell Building, readers can look here


The cover picture is the laying of the cornerstone of the building in 1906. Note the complete absence of bands, pomp, and pageantry. The following date entries are relevant:

- April 28, 1904
- April 19, 1906
- July 31, 1906
- July 2, 1915

The last entry concerns two events that I had not yet addressed, at least not directly.

Robert Marion LaFollette has been mentioned before, of course, see here for some biographical information:


To read the speech that LaFollette gave opposing the entry of the US into the war, go to the url provided below. Keep in mind that two periods of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare had tilted the national popular opinion against Germany.




LaFollette, and his son who would succeed him upon his death, were both members of and chaired the Senate Committee on Manufactures. By the way, this Committee ceased to exist as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, with its jurisdiction taken over by the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.

2) Historical, the New York Times.

3) The power of Congress to cite for contempt was conclusively resolved in 1821 and enacted in statute in 1857. For that history and the current citation:








4) Schwab was more thoroughly discussed previously. Below is a quick refresher url and then a pointer to the earlier chapters which have more extensive discussion and references:




Here is another source for an overall overview of what might change in the years to come:


5) The ratification of The Hague 1907 - since it was a formal treaty - required the US Senate to enact a statute. That statute has been revised many times, to include the Geneva Conventions, etc. However, it is interesting to note that the current statute (16 USC 2441) STILL references The Hague 1907 and it is still an active set of obligations:



6) Historical. See: