Building the American Chemical Empire: Woodrow Wilson and the Strange Case of A. Mitchell Palmer and Francis P. Garvan

Pennsylvanian Democrat lawyer and politician Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936) is usually remembered as the U. S. Attorney General who launched thousands of unwarranted police raids – the infamous Palmer raids – against suspected radicals during the first Red Scare of 1919-20. But a previous chapter of Palmer‘s life might turn to be even more controversial (documented in the Bob and Jann Perez collection of A. Mitchell Palmer materials).


Alexander Mitchell Palmer in the years in which he was serving as Alien Property Custodian

The year was 1917. Right after entering into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson created the Office of Alien Property Custodian to confiscate, administer, and sell any enemy property that might constitute a danger for the United States. Palmer was the one chosen for the job. During his time in office, he was allowed to seize all the belongings of interned immigrants, regardless of their actual involvement in political crimes. In a short time, the Office became a powerful organ of the Wilson administration. At the end of 1918, Palmer estimated the worth of the almost 30.000 trusts he administered to be around half a million dollars. Along these enterprises, the Office took possession of 4.500 German patents, processes, copyrights, and trademarks, especially chemical ones.




Aims and Purposes

Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation (1919)

In 1919, Wilson created a specific organization, the Chemical Foundation, whose main purpose was to buy and resell the chemical patents accumulated by the Alien Property Custodian to “any competent, equipped, and patriotic American firm, or corporation”. The president of the Foundation was Francis Patrick Garvan, a colleague of Palmer who was serving as director of the Bureau of Investigation of the Office of Alien Property Custodian. When Palmer was appointed Attorney General in 1919, Garvan took his place as Alien Property Custodian, and the circle was fully closed. Garvan could now uncover enemy patents in the U.S., sell them to the Chemical Foundation, and finally—as the head of the Foundation — resell them to American companies for the benefit of the national technological progress. In a booklet on the Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation, published in 1919, Attorney General Palmer justified this process on the ground of patriotism and, frankly enough, mere financial profit:


Francis P. Garvan (1875-1937)

 “The great field of chemical industry… was, or had been until importations ceased, saturated through and through with German influence. In regard of no branch of human endeavor was the myth of German invincibility more firmly fixed in the public mind. The country was flooded with German chemists; and those who were not German by origin, were mostly German, directly or indirectly, by training… The German chemical industry, which had so thoroughly penetrated and permeated our own, was gigantic, perhaps the strongest, and certainly the most remunerative of all Teutonic industries. The task of identifying and taking over its property in the United States was thus a direct attack upon a most formidable opponent, while the information on which the work had to be based, had to be derived, to an exceptional extent, from men hostile by birth or tradition.”





Among the German companies that were most affected by the intervention of the Alien Property Custodian was Bayer, the famous pharmaceutical company, which lost its U.S. patent for Aspirin along with its own name and trademark for the United States.


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