by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For about twenty years, from the late 1910s until his death, Henry M. Robinson (1868-1937) was among the most elite Angelenos, a lawyer, banker, businessman and, more impressively, a trusted adviser to two presidents, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and Republican Herbert Hoover. While contemporary figures like Edward Doheny, William Mulholland and even Isidor Dockweiler have places and streets named for them, so that there is at least some name recognition even if modern residents of Los Angeles don’t know anything about them, Robinson is all but completely forgotten.
Tonight’s historic object from the Homestead’s collection is a press photo from International Newsreel and dated 25 February 1924 of Robinson, president of the First National Bank of Los Angeles, posed with Reginald McKenna (1863-1943), head of the Midland Bank of London, who was quite prominent in England, being a former Home Secretary as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Admiralty before becoming the bank’s president, but who also was on the cover of TIME magazine in its 3 March 1924 edition.
The reason for that recognition and for the photo of the two powerful financial figures is because of their prominent role at a conference in Berlin concerning the repercussions of reparations owed by Germany to other European countries because of its prosecution of the First World War. Before getting into some of the specifics of the conference and its result, let’s learn a little about Robinson.
He was born in Ravenna, a town northeast of Akron, Ohio to Mary Gillis and George Robinson, an attorney and judge. Robinson studied law at Cornell University in upstate New York and then practiced law at Youngstown, not far from his hometown. In 1900, he moved to New York City and soon became renowned for his legal work in the merger of U.S. Steel and the steel interests of J. Pierpont Morgan. Robinson also was a banker and publisher of newspapers in Boston and Kansas City.
Already very well off by his late thirties, Robinson migrated, as so many monied Easterners did, to our region in 1905 and settled in Pasadena, where he resided for over thirty years until his death. While he continued to practice law, he also delved into a wide array of business opportunities, including in copper mining, electricity, lumber, oil, telephone service and banking. He was on the boards of Southern California Edison, Union Oil, Mortgage Guarantee, Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank and Merchants’ National Bank and was treasurer of the Pacific Lumber Company. As successful he was in business, it was his service at the national and international level that made his name.
With the conclusion of World War I, Woodrow Wilson, who personally led the American delegation at the Paris peace conference, asked Robinson to serve on an economic council and this was after the banker already was part of a National Council of Defense and director of exports for the National Shipping Board, which had a major role in reestablishing shipments of goods after the conflict.
Robinson followed by also serving as a delegate to the inaugural International Labor Conference, which led to the establishment of the Labor Bureau of the League of Nations. Despite G.O.P. opposition to that precursor to the United Nations which led to the United States declining to join the organization intended to arbitrate international disputes, Robinson, a moderate Republican, was long in favor of the League, which he felt would check the spread of Communism and Socialism.
After service on a board that launched an investigation into pay and working conditions for coal miners, who were involved in some of the most dangerous and unhealthful work in the United States, Robinson returned to Los Angeles and almost immediately became the president of the First National Bank, which became one of the ten largest financial institutions in America. While he was integral to the bank’s success, he could not long avoid returning to government service. mainly his role in the reparations conference.
The desire, especially by France, which was devastated by German invasions during the war, to exact a heavy financial price on the defeated Reich, led to a reparations treaty that demanded over $30 billion, but a ruined Germany could not hope to come close to meeting its obligations and defaulted on payments at the start of 1923. This led Belgium and France to occupy the industrial Ruhr region of western Germany, but the government of latter slammed by hyperinflation and the collapse of the German mark led to a serious problem.
Toward the end of that year, the reparations commission was created, led by Chicago banker Charles G. Dawes, who was also a former director of the federal budget bureau and who went on to be vice-president under Calvin Coolidge from 1925 to 1929. Robinson took part and, after substantial effort, what was widely called the Dawes Plan was developed and which reduced Germany’s payments, with increases tied to an improved economy, while the total reparation amount was not established.
Moreover, German economic policies would be overseen by foreign governments and the new Reichsmark adopted as the currency. Belgium and France withdrew from the Ruhr and banks loaned Germany $200 million to help stabilize the nation’s economy. Morgan offered the loan for subscription in the United States and, for four years, American banks provided so much money to Germany that reparation payments were kept up to Britain, France and others, while these nations used the funds for debt service for loans made to them by the U.S. during the war. For his role, Dawes shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 with England’s Foreign Secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain, who helped broker the Treaty of Locarno to relieve tensions between France and Germany.
In some of the local coverage, the Whittier News of 7 February editorialized that,
Charles G. Dawes, Owen D. Young [chair of General Electric and whose 1929 Young Plan reduced German reparations to $29 billion due over 58 years and provided for another $300 million in loans and the end of foreign control of finances in the country as well as the removal of all foreign troops] and Henry M. Robinson, the American members of the committee appointed by the allied reparations commission to investigate German finances, with a view to arriving at a settlement of the reparations tangle, are undoubtedly tackling the biggest job in the world today.
The paper added that the trio “are characters who can only develop in a free country, unhampered by the rule of thumb laid down by too much aristocracy and official red tape.” Rising to a patriotic fervor, the editorial rhapsodized that “they are men who have come up from the ranks. They are men who have worked their own way.” Moreover, the capitalists might tip their hats to the royalty of Europe but being in awe or overly impressed was not at issue and a French representative reportedly said of the future vice-president, “he is one whom you cannot do.”
The Pomona Bulletin of the 15th weighed in with its editorial on “The Eleventh Hour Rescue” in which it noted that economic troubles in Germany had a world-wide effect and that, with a third of that nation’s 60 million people starving, something had to be done “to save a great industrial nation from complete bankruptcy, with resulting disaster to the whole of Europe.” The work of Dawes, Young and Robinson was lionized for this vital effort.
About two weeks later, the Los Angeles Express offered its own editorial titled “The Good Men Do” in which it averred that the search for right and justice through unselfish service and good will constituted “the true measure of the time in which we live.” As the world waited expectantly for action with the reparation question, “the need was for men of great sympathy and broad vision and acute intellect. America was asked to help.”
As President Coolidge, who took office the preceding summer after the death of President Warren G. Harding, addressed the matter he looked for men who “must be hard-headed businessmen, yet sympathetic, imaginative and idealistic.” They needed to be in the full bloom of life and energy and unselfish “to help straighten out the affairs of the war-wrecked countries of Europe, so life might be made a little more hopeful, a little easier, for the masses of the people.”
Of course, one of those selected was Robinson and the paper concluded by observing,
Lately we have heard very much about evil done by a few men. It is the subject of conversation everywhere. Little is said about the service of Mr. Robinson and his associates, and similar representatives of other countries, who devotedly give their time and talents, sacrifice their own affairs in the unselfish service of others. Because what they do is what we expect of man to man. It is the ripe fruit of Christian civilization.
At the end of February, Robinson was chair of a committee on awards under the World Federation of Educational Associations for a $25,000 peace plan competition, which solicited the “best educational plan to provide world peace and international justice.” The money was provided by an anonymous donor who was “an interested patron of world peace” with entries solicited throughout the world and reviewed by fifteen judges. Among the other members of the committee was Dr. Robert A. Millikan of the California Institute of Technology (of which Robinson was a trustee) and a 1922 Nobel Prize recipient in physics for his work on electric charges and the photoelectric effect.
In May 1927, Robinson was back in Europe, this time in Geneva to head the American delegation to a League of Nations conference on international economics and among his particular contributions were warnings to the delegates from other countries of the dangers of trusts because there was talk of creating international versions in each major industry.
In one address, he was giving a written address on the American economy, but then diverged to respond to a British delegate’s assertion that his country’s restrictions on rubber output was to stabilize supply of that valuable industrial material. Robinson, however, criticized that claim, declaring, “I cannot clearly see how restrictions on output could assure continuity of supply at a high level and prove of ultimate benefit to the world.” As for England’s claim that limits were not discriminatory, the Los Angeles banker observed that three-quarters of all rubber was used by the United States, while Britain only consumed a tenth or so, but controlled supply.
Robinson was paraphrased as saying “that the American people were profoundly interested in the peace and prosperity of Europe and the rest of the world” and added that “no nation could enjoy full economic activity unless other nations are prosperous.” Generally, the conference included discussion that European countries were looking to draw from America’s industrial system and standard of living, so “the American contribution to the discussion created the liveliest interest.”
President Wilson apparently offered Robinson the job of Secretary of the Interior, while it was also reported that Herbert Hoover, after winning the 1928 presidential election, seriously considered his friend (they worked together closely in First World War efforts) for his old job of Secretary of Commerce—Robinson was said to have declined all offers, however. Then, when the stock market crashed in late October 1929, he joined an executive committee of some twenty business leaders throughout the nation for Hoover’s “business survey” or “economic stabilization” conference.
With the worsening of the Great Depression, a good many of the grand projects Robinson worked on diminished in importance, such as Germany’s reparations plan, with the dire economy and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis (who lambasted the embarrassment of reparations) among crucial factors, as well as the European emulation of American economic ideals. Still, Robinson worked on a reconstruction plan in the waning days of the Hoover administration.
He also continued his presidency of First National, a subsidiary of the Pacific-Southwest Trust and Savings Bank, which also was trustee of the massive estate of rail and real estate tycoon and book and art collector Henry E. Huntington with Robinson as an executor and chair of the board of the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens. After suffering a major spinal injury in a fall at his Pasadena house, Robinson declined rapidly and died of a heart lesion in early November 1937.
Though so long associated with the upper echelons of regional society, Robinson, who was married to Laura Belle Arms, though there no children born to the couple, was buried in Youngstown, Ohio. Well-known as he was for much of the early 20th century, the banker, confidant of presidents, and international advisor is no longer remembered, though he should be.