Harry L. Hopkins [above] was one of the few FDR acolytes to arrive with Roosevelt in 1933 and remain with him for the duration of his Presidency.
This being Memorial Day weekend, I thought I would dedicate the posts over the next three days to a man who never served a day in the U.S. Armed Services. He never fired a gun, nor commanded a PT boat. He was never a fighter pilot, and never led troops over a hill. Yet he was, perhaps, the most important civilian in World War II. Without him, the U.S. most certainly still would have won the war. It would most likely have taken longer, however, resulting in more lives lost and certainly in more lives ruined.
I speak of Harry L. Hopkins. The man who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's "legs" for the greater part of his three-plus terms in office is worthy of remembrance on this Memorial Day. Without him, I believe, far, far more families would have spent Memorial Days mourning lost loved ones killed in battle.
For his service to Roosevelt before World War II, Hopkins would be worth remembering. His role in the New Deal was perhaps unparalleled. For the work he did for Roosevelt after 1938, however, is why he is someone who should be remembered this weekend.
"You'll learn what a lonely job this is, and you'll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins who asks for nothing except to serve you." So said FDR to his soon-to-bee 1940 opponent Wendell Wilkie. At the time - late 1939, before FDR had decided to run for a third term; and when he assumed [correctly] that Wilkie would be the GOP standard-bearer in 1940 - FDR could not have imagined that Hopkins had not even begun some his greatest service to his country. Hopkins had done so much, already, that it is worth noting that FDR - at the time he made his comment to Wilkie - was just talking about Hopkins' work in the New Deal.
The lengthy relationship between FDR and Hopkins represented an aberration of the Roosevelt years. Few of those who arrived with Roosevelt in 1933 remained in FDR's close circle for the entire 12 years of his Presidency. Hopkins, however, held a place of prominence in the council of the President for most of the duration. To secure, strengthen, and maintain such a position with FDR was an incredibly difficult - if not impossible - task for most. Indeed, not even Eleanor Roosevelt was able to do so.
As James MacGregor Burns notes, Roosevelt was, "committed to no person, no nation, no cause or principle." Some might view that as a criticism - as indeed Burns did - but it also served him - and the country - well. Hopkins' skill at serving Roosevelt, in any capacity FDR desired, with enormous risk to his own depreciating health, provided the primary reason for his longevity in the Roosevelt inner-circle. The degree of warmth in the relationship between the two men largely depended on Hopkins' ability to perform as FDR desired. The aptitude Hopkins displayed in getting results for Roosevelt accounted for his standing in the Administration.
While I want to focus attention on Hopkins' work during the war, some background is necessary to understand who Hopkins was. Hopkins was born October 17, 1890. He hailed from Grinnell, Iowa, where he graduated college in 1912. He moved to New York City and became enmeshed in the Progressive reform movement sweeping the big cities at the turn of the 20th century. This movement imbued Hopkins with a spirit of social work that would define his pre-WWII life. With the exception of a tour of duty for the Red Cross during World War I, Hopkins worked in various social agencies in New York City from 1912-1931.
The Depression, effecting the entire nation at large, hit particularly hard in the industrial states. In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration [TERA]. Jesse Straus, TERA Chairman, appointed Hopkins as his deputy. While at TERA Hopkins had few, if any, direct dealings with FDR personally, and the lanky Iowan remained largely unknown to the Governor for some time.
Hopkins observed that FDR responded favorably to those around him who generated new ideas for his purposes. After Roosevelt's election to the Presidency in 1932, therefore, Hopkins devised a relief program - similar to TERA - on a national scale. In March 1933, Hopkins presented his plan to FDR, and Roosevelt accepted the ideas that became the Federal Emergency Relief Administration [FERA].
Thus began a twelve-year relationship between two men who would work together through a vast array of domestic and international crises. Although only one of literally hundreds of people who came to Roosevelt with ideas for the New Deal, Hopkins began to learn the ways of FDR's mind, honing his skills with the single goal of better serving FDR.
On May 22, 1933, the U.S. Senate confirmed Hopkins' appointment as FERA Chairman. Hopkins designed FERA to provide large sums of federal money to the various states for further disbursement to those who needed the relief. As Federal Relief Administrator, Hopkins became the greatest spender of the federal treasury in the Nation's history, earning the wrath of many conservatives in the process. Hopkins gained Roosevelt's respect and trust, gladly absorbing blows from conservatives meant for FDR.
By the fall of 1933, Hopkins wearily eyed the coming 1933-34 winter and its effects on the jobless and poor. Hopkins, therefore, combined his own concern with the disadvantaged with his desire to serve FDR. He proposed a work-relief plan to employ four million people for the winter. In November 1933, FDR agreed and announced the creation of the Civil Works Administration [CWA]. Hopkins' concern about the winter was prescient: during the winter of 1933-34, temperatures dropped as low as minus-56 degrees in parts of New England. As Time magazine at the time noted, roughly 20 million people received their only food and heat from the "public purse".
One test that many FDR advisers failed - and one that led to many subsequent departures - was a willingness to subjugate their own ideas and beliefs if FDR lost interest in them, or felt they were no longer politically useful. So it was in the spring of 1934 when Roosevelt - concerned about the 1934 mid-term elections, put Hopkins in charge of the dismantling of the CWA, a source of Hopkins' greatest pride. Despite this, Hopkins not only dismantled the CWA, but impressed FDR with his willingness to defend the decision repeatedly in the press and in speeches throughout the northeast.
Shortly thereafter, Hopkins rose to the upper echelon of the FDR coterie of advisers. A New York Times feature on July 8, 1934 noted, that Hopkins, "is placed by those who know, or claim to, in the first rank of the President's advisers." Indeed, an anonymous Senator told Time, "If Roosevelt ever became Jesus Christ, he should have Harry Hopkins as his prophet."
After the elections of 1934, Roosevelt wanted a reexamination of the relief policy of the first two years of the Administration. He wanted greater emphasis on massive public works projects as opposed to direct cash relief. Hopkins devised the idea of a public works program to remove as many people from direct relief as possible. Hopkins traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia, to spend Thanksgiving with FDR. There, Hopkins introduced his idea to FDR, who almost immediately signed off on it. So was born the Works Progress Administration [WPA].
Hopkins, having passed many tests of loyalty, began to render to Roosevelt his services as personal adviser. After two years, Hopkins possessed all the traits that FDR demanded of an adviser: he was inventive, untiring in his determination, unselfish, demanding of others and - above all - he made it his first priority to know what Roosevelt wanted done about any particular issue. By now, too, FDR's political mentor, Louis Howe, was dying. With Howe's death, Hopkins assumed the latter's role as FDR's alter-ego - a fact that many fellow FDR advisers who had been closer to FDR just a few months earlier deeply resented. As Adolf Berle - a trusted member of FDR's 'Brain Trust' - noted, "Harry Hopkins is nice and likeable, but would commit murder for the President."
On May 6, 1935,, FDR's Executive Order created the WPA, with Hopkins as administrator. Hopkins used his new post to wield political clout in the form of lucrative public works projects dangled before big-city politicians eager to get reelected by their constituents. Hopkins, thus, brought the liberal bosses of the big cities into what is now called the Second New Deal. In so doing, Hopkins aided Roosevelt in building the powerful Democratic coalition of the 1930s. As James Byrnes - one of those politicians - noted, Hopkins' use of the WPA changed the face of American politics. Prior to the Depression, municipalities relied on political machines like Tammany Hall. WPA, however, started the trend of cities depending on the federal treasury for assistance. That changed everything: for good, and bad.
Hopkins' greatest utilization of the WPA had little to do with politics, however. He brought many Army engineers into various WPA projects. This was the precursor to rebuilding the armed forces after the post-World War I decline. One WPA executive, Col. Lawrence Westbrook, believed that engineer officers gained experience on WPA projects that, "played a large part in qualifying them for the outstanding parts that so many played in World War II."
Hopkins' work at WPA led to an even greater increase in the criticism conservatives hurled at FDR. Again, Hopkins took the brunt of it. Many harbored jealousy based on the power Hopkins had amassed. Many Congressmen, too, saw WPA as a usurpation of their pork-barreling rights. Hopkins was not entirely faultless. As he amassed more and more power he did begin to start to believe his press clippings, he suffering from the intoxication of power. A once-humble and almost slovenly public servant, by the mid-1930s Hopkins had acquired a taste for fashionable society, frequenting Broadway nightclubs and vacationing on Long Island and Palm Beach.
1935 was also a seminal year in the FDR-Hopkins relationship for other reasons. In July 1935 doctors diagnosed Hopkins with a duodenal ulcer. Although nominally healthy for most of his life, Hopkins began to appear less and less healthy, taking on a skinny and gaunt look. This was the beginning of a great deterioration in his health that further bonded him with FDR. The great illnesses and debilitations that Hopkins would endure for the rest of his life - and his refusal to allow them to stop him form maintaining a harrowing schedule of activity in the service of Roosevelt - made a deep and lasting impression on FDR, who knew a thing or two about the subject.
The remainder of the 1930s were physically difficult for Hopkins. On December 20, 1937, Hopkins underwent a nearly never-before-tried surgery for adenocarcinoma - cancer of the glands. For 97-98% of those suffering from such a condition in 1937, the diagnosis meant death. The surgery required the removal of two-thirds of Hopkins' stomach. Amazingly, the cancer was removed and never recurred. However, the removal of a such a large portion of his stomach left Hopkins susceptible to numerous other illnesses. After this surgery, Hopkins would never again know a healthy day in his life.
It was after his amazing recovery from this near-fatal illness that Hopkins began to take a greater role in the United States defense program. Though war had not actually been declared in Europe, and although Hopkins knew next to nothing about foreign policy, what he did know was that FDR was worried. More and more in his private conversations with Hopkins, the President would confess his concern about the future of the world and Adolf Hitler's Germany.
Thus began Hopkins' role in preparing the U.S. for war. Had he retired at the time of his surgery, his role in U.S. history would have been firmly secured. Indeed, he probably would have become the greatest hero of the New Deal among liberals for the next 50 years. His work after 1938, however, tarnished his image in the minds of many liberals. It is that work that we'll review in tomorrow's post.
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