Sunday, March 24, 2013

Who Was Harry Hopkins?

 From May 1940 to February 1945 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's de facto Secretary of State (you can ignore the actual Secretaries, they didn't do policy) and National Security Advisor (a post that didn't exist at the time) was a man who had no job title, no office and no home and lived in the White House for most of this time, a gambler and carouser, a social worker and progressive New Dealer with no prior foreign policy experience, in terrible health with three-quarters of his stomach removed in 1937 because of cancer leaving him with a mangled digestive tract, surviving on a diet of coffee, cigarettes and blood transfusions, hospitalized several times during the war, including for major surgery in 1944, and dying less than six months after the end of WWII.

He was a man of whom Winston Churchill, wrote (referring to their first meeting):

"Thus I met Harry Hopkins, that extraordinary man, who played, and was to play, a sometimes decisive part in the whole movement of the war.  His was a soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body. He was a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbour.  He had also a gift of sardonic humor.  I always enjoyed his company especially when things went ill. . . Harry Hopkins always went to the root of the matter."

He was a man of whom the acerbic and tough US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King (his name is next to the definition of "hard ass" in the dictionary) wrote:

"Hopkins did a lot to keep the President on the beam  . . . I've seldom seen a man whose head was screwed on so tight".
A man who prompted General George C Marshall (Army Chief of Staff), who rarely expressed his feelings, to write to Hopkins' future wife expressing his concern that: "To be very frank I am intensely interested in Harry's health and happiness and therefore in your impending marriage" as he "is of great importance to our National Interests  . . . and he is one of the most imprudent people regarding his health that I have ever known  . . . I express the hope that you will find it possible to curb his indiscretions and see that he takes the necessary rest."

A man who had the confidence of FDR's successor Harry Truman, who gave him great latitude on his final mission traveling to Moscow to meet with Josef Stalin in June 1945 over Soviet repression in Poland, telling him he:

"was free to use diplomatic language or a baseball bat if he thought that was the right approach"

Perhaps the best summing of the man comes from Alan Brooke, the British Army Chief of Staff who was notoriously critical of his American allies and told of Hopkins pulling him aside to ask to meet with him in the midst of a bitter squabble at the White House between the British and American military staff:

"I went with him expecting to be taken to his office.  Instead we went to his bedroom where we sat on the edge of his bed looking at his shaving brush and tooth brush, whilst he let me into some of the President's inner thoughts!  I mention this meeting as it was so typical of this strange man with no official position, not even an office in the White House, and yet one of the most influential men with the President.  A man who played a great and nebulous part in the war as the President's right hand man.  A great part that did him all the more credit when his miserable health is taken into account."
These quotes are from a fine new book, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins And The Forging Of The Alliance To Defeat Hitler by David Roll.  I've read a lot about WWII over the years and was certainly aware of Hopkins.  He's like Zelig showing up everywhere but I never quite understood his role.  Roll's book, by focusing on Hopkins, makes things much clearer.  While The Hopkins Touch covers his entire life, Roll devotes only about 10% of the book to his first 50 years with the remainder on his last five years.

Harry Hopkins became FDR's confidante during these years.  That is, as much as anyone could ever be the confidante of such an elusive and aloof man.  FDR was notorious for being an enigmatic and frustrating riddle to his staff and associates and he was quick to discard them when either their usefulness to him had ended or he felt they were giving him less than their total and devoted attention.  Even his family relationships were strained.  He only had a professional relationship with his wife, Eleanor, since her discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer more twenty years before (Hopkins remarked that you needed to carefully watch what FDR and Eleanor said in public because that was how they communicated with each other) and was emotionally distant from his adult children. It's no surprise that for three years, FDR and Hopkins often dined alone at the White House.

Before 1940, Hopkins had been a controversial figure in the Administration serving as head of the Works Progress Administration and as Secretary of Commerce.  Prior to that he had gained administrative and organizational experience as leader of the Southern Division of the Red Cross and then as executive director of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association which handled a broad range of disease prevention and sanitation programs which by 1930 served three million people in the New York City area, experience that helped him as he ran the Lend-Lease Program during the war from his bedroom in the White House (things worked a little differently then).

According to Roll, Hopkins moved into his new role because he filled a void in Roosevelt's life.  FDR felt that Hopkins knew better than anyone else what he had in mind even if not expressed directly.  He enjoyed Harry's stories and sense of humor and they also bonded because of their physical disabilities.  As Roll puts it "each feared dependency even though the moment forced them into codependency" and Robert Sherwood (who served in the Administration and wrote a book on the relationship of FDR and Hopkins) wrote "a special bond had developed between Roosevelt and Hopkins, due to the fact that both men had fought with death at close range, both were living on borrowed time".

The book takes us through the critical maneuvering in 1940 and 1941 as FDR decides to aid Britain while avoiding entering the war (as Hopkins becomes more convinced that the U.S. must become a combatant) and then the establishment of the Grand Alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union in 1942 and 1943.

Hopkins was intimately involved in decision making from 1940 (in May of that year Vannevar Bush met with Hopkins to get his support in a project to enlist American scientists in development of the weapons based on the latest discoveries about the atom which the President agreed to based on Harry's recommendation) but the heart of the book are the ten trips and conferences that Hopkins played a key role in during 1941, 1942 and 1943.  The first may have been the most important, when FDR sent Hopkins to London in January 1941 to assess Churchill and the willingness of the British to fight on and not negotiate a peace with Hitler (for a list of the other trips see bottom of this post).  At this point, Britain stood alone against Germany which dominated the continent and had the Soviet Union as its main supplier of war materials and the English were losing everywhere (see Churchill Ascends and London Calling for more on this period).  Hopkins' opinion was critical in deciding whether to provide the tidal wave of war supplies being requested by the British.  The U.S. military was reluctant to do so, because every ship, plane and munition sent to England was one less for the U.S. which was rapidly building up its military forces and if Britain surrendered all that material would be lost and perhaps even used against America.

Harry Hopkins, the progressive social worker and reformer, was not favorably inclined towards the aristocratic conservative Winston Churchill before his visit, but they immediately hit it off in their first meeting, a three-hour one on one lunch.  Hopkins remarked to a member of the British Cabinet afterwards, "Jesus Christ! What a man!"  During his three week visit, Hopkins spent of his time alone with Churchill, including weekends at his family home, Chartwell, forging a close relationship that continued throughout the war.  As one Churchill biographer noted "Hopkins quickly acquired a personal position in the Churchill court".

Hopkins became convinced that the British would continue fighting and wrote FDR "This island needs our help now Mr. President with everything we can get them".  For the British, the best-remembered moment of the trip was at a dinner in Glasgow with much of the Cabinet when Churchill asked Hopkins to say a few words.

"I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt upon my return.  Well, I am going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books in the truth of which Mr Johnston's mother [Secretary of State for Scotland Johnston hosted the dinner] and my own Scottish mother were brought up 'Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God' [he paused and added very quietly] even to the end."

Roll points out that this statement of explicit support exceeded FDR's instructions and would have caused an uproar at the time if it had become public in the U.S. but the effect was electric at the dinner.  Lord Moran (Churchill's physician) wrote that the Prime Minister was reduced to tears;  "He knew what it meant.  Even to us the words seemed like a rope thrown to a drowning man".

On that visit, Hopkins developed a close relationship with the entire Churchill family and he was very comfortable teasing the Prime Minister.  Winston's wife Clementine, who was often very critical of her husband's political associates was, her daughter wrote, "captivated by him".  Churchill's daughter-in-law wrote of Hopkins that "he would have a Scotch" but "never seemed to eat anything" and that he looked:
  "small, shrunken, sick  . . . This large overcoat over this small man and always kind of a dead cigarette out of the side of his mouth, looking sort of like a very sad dog . .  then his face would light up and would start talking about the war, and his purposes for being there and FDR and the whole man would change  . .  If you heard him talk, you would listen with great respect"
Over the next three years Hopkins was at the heart of the major strategic issues over how the war was to be fought.  The issue that dominated the discussions between FDR and Churchill and between the American and British military was when the opening of the Second Front via a landing in France, would take place, discussions in which Stalin egged on his allies by demanding the front as soon as possible.

Mindful of the bloodletting on the Western Front and at Gallipoli in WWI, the British were reluctant to undertake a frontal assault in France.  FDR was worried that if American troops did not get into action against Germany quickly, the public would demand they be used against the Japanese despite, as discussed in The Day After Pearl Harbor, the decision by American and British leaders to make the war against the Nazis the top priority.  General Marshall wanted an initial landing in France to be made in September 1942 and resisted British attempts to promote actions in the Mediterranean and once the decision was made for the North African landings in November 1942 he unsuccessfully resisted the Sicily and Italy landings in 1943, all of which resulted in the postponement of the French landings until June 1944.  FDR and Hopkins ended up, after many twists and turns, siding with the British but at Tehran in November 1943 when Churchill was still trying to slide away from a 1944 invasion commitment they finally pinned him down.  Today, most military historians agree that postponing the invasion until 1944 was the right move as the American and British forces did not have the overwhelming strength in resources and lacked fighting experience in 1942 and 1943 which made chances of success much more questionable.

Hopkins played an essential role in all of these often heated discussions.  Reading The Hopkins Touch, I was left with the impression that while Hopkins was carrying out FDR's wishes there were times when he seems to almost take on the role of neutral mediator between the Americans and the British.  His ability to know when to push an issue and when not to and how to talk with people is uncanny and he would stand up to FDR.  At one meeting with the President in which Marshall protested an agreement FDR made with Churchill and threatened to resign, Hopkins took Marshall's side and persuaded FDR to go back to the Prime Minister and tell him he had changed his mind.  In fact, a common theme of the book is the constant worry of FDR's subordinates about his susceptibility to Churchill's powers of persuasion and their reliance on Hopkins to prevent the worst from happening.  Hopkins role in this respect was not limited to the Americans.  In one instance, Hopkins interceded with Churchill to get him to back down from disrupting a delicate agreement reached between the two nations' military chiefs for which Brooke thanked him.

Roll does a terrific job capturing the personalities, strategic issues and disputes in an understandable way.  He also tackles FDR's misconceptions about the Soviets and specifically, Stalin (which were shared by Hopkins; both felt the American and Soviet systems would, in some mysterious way, converge over time).  Chip Bohlen, a Soviet State Department specialist, said of Hopkins that "Harry was inclined to dismiss ideology" and the same can be said of FDR.  The President was convinced that his personal charm would allow him to develop a relationship with Stalin that would last into the post-war world.  This was an enormous miscalculation about a man who was ideologically driven and as cold, brutal, cunning and cynical as Hitler (see, for instance The Court Of The Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore).   It is very clear from Roll and everything else I've read that U.S. policy towards Stalin was driven by the President and not his advisers or the State Department.  On occasion, Hopkins indicated more of a sense of realism about the Soviets and, according to Bohlen, on the return flight from Moscow after his mission to Stalin in June 1945, Hopkins expressed "serious doubts as to the possibility of genuine collaboration with the Soviet Union", predicting that the "American belief in freedom might lead to serious differences".

However, as a practical matter, FDR's failure to realistically assess Stalin had relatively little impact on the course of the war which was driven more by the facts on the ground.  Poland and Eastern Europe were going to end up under Soviet domination regardless of whether FDR miscalculated or not because the Soviet Army got there first.

One of the things that the book conveys were the difficulties of communication and travel.  Compared to today's world with the Internet, Skype and jet planes, the 1940s seem like an ancient land.  Flights were slow and roundabout and every sea voyage was a serious undertaking (and, of course, the Nazis might attack you in the process).  This was particularly trying on Hopkins whose health was always precarious.  The worst was his trip from England to Moscow in July 1941 for his first meeting with Stalin.

The flight to Russia was 21 hours nonstop in the cold, unheated cabin of a small Catalina airboat with Hopkins jammed into the Plexiglass tail blister, which was equipped with a machine gun.  Because of headwinds the return trip took more than 24 hours.  Both coming and going there were several aborted takeoffs and landings on choppy seas.  On his return to England, a critically ill Hopkins was given blood transfusions and sedated, sleeping eighteen hours.

The Hopkins Touch reinforces what I've read in other accounts about how the day after day pressures, pace of work and scale of decision making, which continued for years, took a toll on the leaders of the Allied efforts.  While FDR and Hopkins faced disabilities prior to the war, there is no doubt that these pressures contributed to their early deaths.  1944 was a turning point for both of them.  In early 1944, before he decided to seek reelection, FDR was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and many who had not seen him for awhile remarked on how shocked they were at his evident physical and mental deterioration during his last year.  For Hopkins, it was the surgery at the Mayo Clinic he underwent in a vain attempt to improve his digestive system's ability to absorb nutrients - surgery that he never really recovered from.  They weren't alone - Churchill's physician wrote of his physical decline during the last years of the war and the memoirs and biographies of the military leaders are replete with references to physical collapses and hospitalizations.

And it wasn't only the leaders and the soldiers on the front lines who suffered from these pressures.  In a new book about America's remarkable wartime industrial mobilization, Freedom's Forge, Arthur Herman writes that the death and injury rate for war-related industrial production workers in 1942 and 1943 was twenty times the combat casualty rate for American servicemen during the same period.

Another example of these pressures is that the need to quickly build up a huge Air Force and train crews led to about 10,000 servicemen dying in training and transport accidents within the territorial United States, including, most famously, a B-25 bomber lost in the fog crashing into the upper floors of the Empire State Building.

On a lighter note, The Hopkins Touch has the added attraction of reminding us of Winston Churchill's ornate rhetoric (see, also A Lesson In Rhetoric) and unique lifestyle. From a note he sent to FDR in November 1940:

"Things are afoot which will be remembered for as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe."

And his instructions to the White House butler during his December 1941 visit:

"Now Fields we want to leave as friends, right? . . . One, I don't like talking outside my quarter; two, I hate whistling in the corridors; and three, I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch and French champagne and 90 year old brandy before I go to sleep at night."
Although this has been a very long post, it covers only a fraction of the many fascinating aspects of Hopkins' work described in The Hopkins Touch.  Harry Hopkins was a man who gave all he had to give for his country, including one of his sons, a Marine killed by the Japanese on Kwajalein Atoll in February 1944.


July 13-August 4, 1941:  Visit to London for meetings with Churchill and British military.  In the middle a trip to Moscow to meet with Stalin less than a month after the German invasion began.

August 4-12, 1941: The Newfoundland "Atlantic Charter" meeting, the first time Roosevelt and Churchill met since WWI and starting with a small dinner party consisting of FDR, the Prime Minister and Hopkins.

December 22, 1941-January 14, 1942: Churchill comes to Washington DC with his military staff in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor to decide on common military strategy.

April 4-19, 1942:  Hopkins and Gen Marshall go to London to discuss the Second Front.

July 18-26, 1942:  Hopkins, Marshall and Admiral King go to London to discuss the Second Front and invasion of North Africa.

January 11-24, 1943: Casablanca Conference between Churchill and FDR

May 5-20, 1943: Churchill in the U.S. for strategy discussions.

August 17-30, 1943:  Quebec Conference.  FDR and Churchill.

November 13- December 16, 1943:  First and second Cairo conferences between Churchill and FDR and Tehran Conference with Stalin.  


  1. An enjoyable post.

  2. Thank you. I am doing a huge history project on Harry Hopkins, and this was pretty helpful.

    1. Glad to hear. Is your project focused on a specific aspect of Hopkins' work or life?

  3. I think Steve Buscemi could play Harry Hopkins in a film role.

  4. Anyone who can provide me some books about Harry Hopkins in electronic format, i need them for my University Work?

  5. Well wriiten, detailed and interesting. But the title of your blog led me to believe you were going to correct the historical record, as it seriously needs to be corrected. Please read American Betrayal by Diana West. There is a great deal of well sourced and shocking information about Hopkins, and if you're open minded to a new understanding, it will definitely and radically change your view of Harry Hopkins.