On June 20, 1965, a brilliant Wall Street financier who helped save America a few times, died at age 94. With origins in the post-Civil War South, Baruch came north. Becoming a Wall Street millionaire by age 30, he went on to advise presidents and help the U.S. government get through two economic crises: mobilizing for World War I and recovering from the Great Depression.
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Bernard Mannes Baruch was born in Camden, South Carolina, on August 19, 1870.
His father, Simon Baruch, had been born near Posen, Prussia, and came to the U.S. at age 15. His mother, the former Isabelle Wolfe, was born in the South into a wealthy, Jewish farming family that fell onto hard times after the Civil War.
Once in the U.S., Simon studied medicine, and served as a surgeon in the Confederate army during the war. In the early years of their marriage, Belle worked as a music teacher and also sold eggs and butter. In 1881, Simon moved the family north to New York, where he became an early proponent of hydrotherapy.
'What use to a man are millions of dollars'
Bernard was the second of the family’s four sons. They all attended public schools in New York, where Bernard was accepted into City College at age 14, where he excelled in sports as well as academics.
After graduation, in 1889, Bernard began working as an office boy in a linen business, before he became involved in trading on Wall Street. By age 25, he was a partner in a brokerage house, A.A. Housman, and five years later, he had assets worth over $1 million.
Years later, Baruch recalled, in his first volume of memoirs, how, “I could not forget my father’s look the day I proudly informed him I was worth a million dollars. The kindly, quizzical expression told me, more clearly than words, that in his opinion, money making was a secondary matter Of what use to a man are millions of dollars unless he does something worth while with them?”
Indeed, Bernard Baruch devoted much of his long life to public service, and to thinking deeply about some of the most intractable problems facing humanity.
In 1916, Baruch left Wall Street to take up a position advising President Woodrow Wilson in preparing the country economically for its eventual entry into World War I.
Once the latter occurred, he became the head of the War Industries Board, which coordinated between the government and business to insure proper allocation of raw materials and streamlining of production and distribution of essential war materiel.
War, and peace, and war
With World War I over, Baruch accompanied Wilson to France for the peace conference, where the two men tried unsuccessfully to dissuade both Britain and France from demanding reparations from a defeated Germany. They also pushed for international cooperation to avoid future global conflicts, and supported creation of the League of Nations.
When they returned to America, of course, the country was experiencing a wave of isolationism, and the Senate would not even approve participation in the League.
Baruch believed in peace, but during the 1930s, urged his country to be prepared for another war. He also became a prominent member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s so-called Brain Trust, which advised the president on ending the Depression, and in his case helped in forming the policy that created the National Recovery Administration in 1933.
In 1944, FDR spent a month at Hobcaw Barony, Baruch’s 16,000-acre former rice plantation in South Carolina. (In the city, Baruch was known for frequenting public parks, where he supposedly did some of his best thinking on park benches.)
After Roosevelt’s death, he advised his successor, Harry S. Truman, too, and represented the U.S. at the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, which attempted to come up with a plan for nuclear disarmament, and cooperation on the peaceful use of atomic power. Agreement could not be reached with the Soviet Union, however, and the “cold war” (a term first coined by Baruch) ensued between the two blocs.
By 1947, Baruch began to feel that he had lost his influence with the administration, and he resigned from the UNAEC.
He died of a heart attack in New York, and had his funeral at Reform Temple Shaaray Tefila there.