Paul McNutt: The Life of PH’s Last High Commissioner

Last Updated: March 26th, 2019


Paul McNutt: The Life of Philippines' Last High Commissioner

A Portrait of Paul McNutt by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo
McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippines (1937-1939; 1945) and Ambassador of the United States of America (1945-1946)



Having served as the High Commissioner to the Philippines under two US Presidents, and later, as the country’s first US Ambassador, Paul McNutt is also credited for working with several individuals including President Manuel L. Quezon that helped save the lives of thousands of European Jews.



Early Years


Born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana, Paul Mcnutt was the only child of school teachers John and Ruth McNutt.

The family later relocated to Indianapolis where his father worked as a librarian for the Indiana Supreme Court. In 1898, the McNutt family moved again to Martinsville where his father would open a law firm.


Paul studied in a local school before he entered Indiana University in 1909. Having been active in campus politics, he became close friends with Wendell Willkie, the future Republican nominee for President of the United States in 1940–who, like McNutt, was a Democrat at the time.

After obtaining his degree, McNutt went to Harvard Law School while taking a job as a United Press reporter. He completed his law degree in 1916 and returned to Martinsville where he joined the race for Morgan County prosecutor but was narrowly defeated.


US Army, Academe


Paul McNutt enlisted in the United States Army after a brief stint as an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Law. While assigned in Camp Stanley, Texas, he met and married his wife, Kathleen, before being discharged with the rank of major in 1919.

After his service, McNutt returned to his teaching job at Indiana University and became a full professor in 1920, and in 1925, became the youngest dean in the school’s history. Becoming a law school dean laid the foundation for his interest in politics while concurrently serving as the commander of the Indiana department of The American Legion–a US war veterans’ organization headquartered in Indianapolis.


Political Career


In 1933, McNutt was elected as the 34th Governor of Indiana where he led the passage of the Executive Reorganization Act which restricted appointments made by governors. During his tenure, he was involved in including the State of Indiana to the new federal welfare programs, and participate in the Works Progress Administration programs. The latter led to a massive patronage system that made him one of the most powerful governors in the state’s history.


High Commissioner and First US Ambassador to the Philippines


With Indiana’s constitution restricting him from seeking reelection as governor in 1936, McNutt set his sights for the presidency. He was initially considered as a front-runner, but was overwhelmingly defeated after Roosevelt decided to seek reelection. During this time, McNutt attempted to be Roosevelt’s running mate but was stonewalled.

The rejection for the Vice Presidency didn’t deter him from campaigning for Roosevelt’s reelection. Roosevelt then appointed him as the High Commissioner to the Philippines in 1937, a post that was mostly ceremonial and is said to only served to sideline McNutt from attempting to seek the Democratic nomination in 1940.


By 1939, McNutt left the Philippines to head Roosevelts Federal Security Agency–an umbrella office that managed Roosevelt’s New Deal programs–and at one point served as a cover agency for the War Research Service that helped develop chemical and biological weapons.

During the administration of President Harry S. Truman, he was re-appointed as High Commissioner to the Philippines, and, following the country’s independence, served as the country’s first US Ambassador.


Saving Jewish Refugees


In a rare display of humanitarian act at the time, Paul McNutt, Helena Cigar co-owner Herbert Frieder, and then-Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon side-stepped the US Department of State and issued 10,000 Philippine visas to Jews escaping the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany.


An estimated 1,200 European Jews eventually fled to the Philippines from 1937 to 1941 with most of them originating from Austria and Germany. This little known act of compassion for Jewish refugees inspired several documentaries.


Paul McNutt: The Life of Philippines' Last High Commissioner

President Manuel L. Quezon and Paul McNutt (image credit: PBS)




In 1955, McNutt fell ill and later traveled on a cruise to the Philippines to recover in the country’s warm climate. With his condition turning for the worse after his arrival, he headed back to New York where he died in March 24, 1955, aged 63.




Paul McNutt: The Life of Philippines' Last High Commissioner

Paul McNutt (image credit: Social Security Administration)



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