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Great Contemporaries: Harry Hopkins: “Lord Root of the Matter”
Harry Hopkins is justly celebrated as one of the most important diplomats of the 20th century. Yet for the role, he lacked schooling and travel and was hopelessly unpolished. Hopkins’ expertise was not diplomacy but relief programs of America’s post-Depression era. He had never seen the Court of St. James’s; what he knew were the corridors and internecine fights of federal government buildings in Washington, D.C.
But fate cast a friendly eye upon Mr. Hopkins. He was brilliant and productive, so helpful to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he literally was invited to live in the White House. For years he occupied “The Rose Suite.” He married there too, with FDR as his best man. When Winston Churchill made lengthy stays in Washington, all three were often under the same roof. By coincidence, Hopkins’ first night in the White House was 10 May 1940—the very time when Churchill became Prime Minister.
The two statesmen—Churchill and Roosevelt—were the center of the largest war coalition in human history. Hopkins emerged by 1940 as their natural liaison, and remained so for the next three years. He played every possible role: participant at strategy conferences, mail courier between Number 10 and the White House, and nearly everything in between. One cannot read many pages of Warren Kimball’s Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence without finding affectionate references to “Harry.”
The President’s intimate
It was all a long way from Sioux City, Iowa. Harry Hopkins grew up there, religious, genuine and warm, except for rare flashes of temper.1 Graduating from Grinnell College—with its traditional attention to social justice and the Christian religion—he labored within the Red Cross and the New York Board of Child Welfare. Admiring his profile and reputation, Roosevelt brought him to the capital. He found good, healthful work in national forests and parks for tens of thousands of unemployed Americans from cities. From 1935 to 1938 he led the Works Progress Administration.
At fifty years old, not yet strained by the war in Europe, Hopkins already looked fatigued and sickly. He’d suffered a bout of typhoid as a boy, and contracted a serious stomach disorder in 1937. It hardly helped that he chain-smoked. The scrawny profile in loose clothes, the felt hat that had apparently been sat upon, made Hopkins an unlikely figure in elite social circles. Yet he came to know them well in Washington and London. Pamela Churchill could not see past the stubby cigarette hanging loosely from the corner of his mouth. A journalist saw him as “an ill-fed horse at the end of a long day.”
Leave it to the true talents to see the real man. Churchill’s intimate Brendan Bracken, who later would merge the Financial News and Financial Times, guided Hopkins about London in January 1941 and declared him the most important American visitor ever. It was Bracken who stressed Hopkins’ key importance to Winston Churchill.
“A crumbling lighthouse…”
Churchill liked Harry immediately; their first meal together lasted for hours. Their friendship and advisory roles became permanent. Hopkins was to die shortly after the world war, and Britain’s greatest rhetorician flipped the critiques of Hopkins’ appearance upside down in his perfect tribute: “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.”2
In one sense, transatlantic shuttle diplomacy between Roosevelt and Churchill was initiated by Hopkins. Late in 1940, Joseph Kennedy was giving way to John Winant as American Ambassador, and Britain was likewise between ambassadors in Washington. But Roosevelt needed things done in London. Hopkins volunteered and made the trip, as well as many others through 1943.
Churchill adapted swiftly to his link with American power. Like FDR, he had reservations about official diplomats and sometimes made end runs around them. Roosevelt often ignored his long-serving Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. He had trusted Undersecretary Sumner Welles until 1939, when Wells made a “fact-finding trip” to Europe. His report was stained by appeasement and dipped in folly: he dismissed Churchill as a drunk. The personable, more perceptive Hopkins was a far better answer.
“Thy people shall be my people…”
An official observing Hopkins during his stay in Britain and said he was “universally liked” and “full of soul and wit.” He proved that at his departure dinner in Glasgow, when he rose for a toast. “I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return,” he asked rhetorically. Then he quoted from the Book of Ruth: “…where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” He added quietly: “Even to the end.”3 Churchill was moved to tears.
Hopkins was as good as his word. Indeed he had already written Roosevelt:
…people here are amazing from Churchill down, and if courage alone can win—the result will be inevitable. But they need our help desperately, and I am sure you will permit nothing to stand in the way. Some of the ministers and underlings are a bit trying, but no more than some I have seen…. Churchill is the Government in every sense of the word. He controls the grand strategy and often the details. Labour trusts him—the army, navy, air force are behind him to a man. The politicians and upper crust pretend to like him. I cannot emphasize too strongly that he is the one and only person over here with whom you need to have a full meeting of minds.4
The minutiae of a special relationship
Soon Harry Hopkins found himself in a role that reached beyond personalities. Increasingly he dealt with complex issues of war which required every ability: strategic stockpiles, like rubber and tin; Lend-Lease to Britain, a program Hopkins managed; assistance to the Russians; shipping shortages, which greatly occupied the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff. Later Hopkins was involved in “Tube Alloys,” code for atomic bomb research. He also abetted exchange of Intelligence, mindful of the limits imposed by each side.
To handle such a portfolio required rare understanding. Hopkins strove for accord among American experts and bureaucrats, then helped do the same among the British. With their exceptional wartime powers, Churchill and Roosevelt delegated to Hopkins the authority that led to progress. Both governments were replete with rivals and defenders of the status quo. The skillful Hopkins could maneuver between such defined war planners as Alfred Wedemeyer, Admiral Ernest King, and Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
Another Hopkins role was to write for Roosevelt. Over 1750 messages and telegrams passed between president and prime minister.5 Churchill wrote nearly all his; Roosevelt wrote only some. FDR’s “ghosts” included speechwriters Robert Sherwood, Archibald MacLeish and Chief of Staff William Leahy besides Hopkins. Often collaborating with them, Harry might draft a cable, coordinate it with the State Department, then take it to the President. He penned at least one “fireside chat,” and Roosevelt took his advice on wording state documents. An admiring Churchill dubbed him “Lord Root of the Matter.”
Room for maneuver
There were limits to Hopkins’ influence. The very access he enjoyed to Roosevelt engendered jealousies and concerns. Some of the rude things said about him splashed into the gossipy press. Some sneered that Eleanor Roosevelt was, for Hopkins, a “back door” into the White House; he lunched with her regularly and shared her very liberal politics.
U.S. senior military officers, too, must have envied his White House access. George Marshall remarked (without malice) that many weeks might pass between his sit-downs with FDR. The Allied staff officers had other problems with Mr. Hopkins: he was not a veteran, no student of military history, no authority on geography. Nor was he fully prepared to meet with war planners discussing Java or Burma. Yet he often found himself in just such focused, demanding gatherings.6
Such encounters were eased by Hopkins’ capacious brain, his modesty, and an inborn touch for people. No one could have managed FDR’s 1940 Democratic National Convention, as he did, without broad political gifts. Those made him useful as an interlocutor on any topic that involved how Americans felt, voted, worked and produced.
Hopkins on grand strategy
These qualities mattered in the war years. They could affect such vital questions as “When should we start the second front in Europe?” On such a question, it was no disadvantage to have Hopkins’ gift for thoroughly understanding industrial production and manpower.
As early as spring 1942, Hopkins, Marshall, War Secretary Henry Stimson and others pressed Roosevelt to commit firmly to a future invasion of Europe. Hopkins and Marshall together carried the new war plan to London.7 Theirs was a formidable pairing. British Chiefs of Staff wanted Marshall’s personal views on the new military plan. Equally, they would have written down every word about it that Hopkins attributed to Roosevelt.
“Among the Paladins”
Ill health seems the main reason Hopkins faded from the stage.8 By 1944 he was very sick. No longer living in the White House, he was seen rarely. He was at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, but only barely. Perhaps the last time he was photographed with Roosevelt was aboard USS Quincy, days after Yalta. He then left the ship and flew home directly.9 Churchill expressed his anxiety. “I am always your constant friend,” he wrote. To others he said: “I rate him highly among the Paladins.”10
Roosevelt, tough as he was jaunty, rarely spoke about the increased absences of Harry Hopkins.11 Reportedly he once suggested that Hopkins had abandoned him, and not for medical causes. If true, that story is hurtful, given the stupendous efforts of his friend and advisor for over a decade. Few did more for Roosevelt to build the New Deal, and few civilians were more involved in managing the war.12
The Second World War closed with the British Empire receding and American power redoubling. That is true, but for our story there is a paradox: Harry Hopkins’ fading health itself hints at the final months of his amazing chief, who governed on the home front with near hegemony. At Yalta, the President too was visibly exhausted, and not always effective. Returning home on the Quincy, FDR was further deprived when his longtime aide General Edwin “Pa” Watson died abruptly.
Franklin Roosevelt did not write any of his official messages that spring. On April 12th, while the American Third Army accepted the peaceable surrender of the city of Weimar, and the Russians hammered their way towards Berlin, his great spirit passed on. Harry Hopkins survived him by only nine months.
Christopher C. Harmon is Bren Chair of Great Power Competition at Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia, where he began teaching in 1993. His course on Churchill as war leader is based on WSC’s six-volume memoir, The Second World War. Dr. Harmon also serves on the board of academic advisors for the International Churchill Society.
1 See David Stafford’s descriptions of Hopkins in Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets (London: Little, Brown and Co., 1999). Hopkins characteristic temper is noted in James Lacey, The Washington War (New York: Bantam Books, 2019). Lacey’s new book is crowded with details about Hopkins’ activities.
2 Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile (New York: Crown, 2020), 347.
3 Ruth I:17. The Glasgow dinner was recounted by a participant, Churchill’s doctor, the future Lord Moran. It is widely retold, as in Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour: 1939-1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 991.
4 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2011), 988.
5 In his war memoirs Finest Hour, 23, Churchill gives a tally of 1750. Warren Kimball’s Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, vol. 1, Alliance Emerging (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 3, adds nearly 200 to that number.
6 Roosevelt knew this of course. He sometimes mentored senior staff on military affairs and world geography, and Hopkins was among those who enjoyed the teaching. Joseph P. Lash has a marvelous passage on this in Roosevelt and Churchill: 1939-1941; The Partnership that Saved the West (New York: Norton, 1976), 126-27.
* * *
7 Hopkins and Marshall landed in London on 8 April 1942; see Warren Kimball, Alliance Emerging, 436-37.
9 Stafford, Men of Secrets, 284-85. The photo of 15 February 1945 is in Kimball, vol. 3, Alliance Declining, 522.
10 Stafford, Men of Secrets, 228; Stafford notes that Churchill’s personal wartime archives have over 300 messages by, about or to Harry Hopkins.
11 On 15 March 1945, a Roosevelt-to-Churchill message concluded “Harry is getting along well. There is nothing seriously wrong with him…” Kimball, vol. 3, Alliance Declining, 569.
12 Yet more hurtful to Hopkins’ legacy would be postwar discussions of whether he had been a Soviet informant. The supposed basis for this is a boast in a KGB officer’s speech that Moscow had used Hopkins as a regular informer, and that Hopkins was one of the persons in a named small important meeting, 29 May 1943. Intelligence historian David Stafford looked into and rejected the conception as a “red herring.” Stafford notes the emissary’s duty to liaise with Soviet supply officials, accounting for any number of rumors and for Hopkins giving information to Soviets, See Stafford, Men of Secrets, 229-33.