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Harry Hopkins:
Chief Apostle of the New Deal

Special to the Newsletter
by Michael F. Bishop

All presidential advisors compete jealously for the attention of their boss–­and–for an office as close to his as possible. But Harry Hopkins enjoyed an even greater perk: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who considered him indispensable, invited him to live upstairs in the White House. From 1940 to 1943, Hopkins occupied a suite that included what is now called the Lincoln Bedroom but had in fact been the Civil War president’s office. Roosevelt’s most trusted lieutenant slept in the room in which Lincoln organized the Union war effort, met with his Cabinet, and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a remarkable perch for a man who never ran for elective office but wielded far greater power in Washington than most.

Hopkins was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1890 and attended Grinnell College, after which he moved to New York City and began his career in public service, working at a settlement house and running the Bureau of Child Welfare, and other positions. He had an unquestioning faith in the power of government to ameliorate the misery of the poor.

A natural organizer, his ascent was meteoric, and his skills were in high demand with the onset of the Great Depression. He later caught the eye of the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1932 appointed him president of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, the state agency responsible for public works programs.

Later that year, Roosevelt was nominated for president by the Democratic Party, and in his acceptance speech, offered “a new deal for the American people” and promised to bring to Washington “prophets of a new order of competence and courage.”

Hopkins was to be chief among those prophets; Roosevelt appointed him administrator of the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and its successor agencies: the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Works Progress Administration (WP A). These entities used public funds to put the unemployed back to work building and repairing roads, bridges, schools, and other types of infrastructure. Robert Sherwood, a presidential speechwriter, observed that Hopkins “came to be regarded as the Chief Apostle of the New Deal, and the most cordially hated by its enemies.”

Roosevelt rewarded his loyal service by appointing him Secretary of Commerce in 193 8, but his failing health made the management of a large government department too much of a strain. Seemingly subsisting on a diet of cigarettes, Hopkins was eventually diagnosed with stomach cancer. Surgeons removed most of his stomach, which left him even thinner and more fragile, but he refused to rest. Though he relinquished his office, he remained Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor.

Although important in his own right, Hopkins was fated by history to forge a vital link between two even more consequential men: Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Roosevelt sent him to Britain in January of 1941 to observe the British war effort, and report back about Churchill and his willingness to stay the course. Twenty-seven months elapsed between Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the American entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, an uncomfortable interlude that Churchill was eager to end. Thus, he welcomed Roosevelt’s emaciated emissary and squired him around the country, demonstrating Britain’s determination to keep up the fight against Hitler and making the case for American intervention.

Hopkins’s questions and observations were more direct and unvarnished than those of seasoned diplomats, and his British hosts found him congenial company. Struck by his forthrightness, Churchill christened Hopkins “Lord Root of the Matter,” and later celebrated his “flaming soul.” Hopkins too was charmed, and wrote to Roosevelt, ” … the 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.”

This whirlwind six-week tour ended in Glasgow, where at a farewell dinner Hopkins rose and said to his companions, “I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return. Well, I’m going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books … ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”‘ And then he concluded softly: “Even to the end.” Churchill, always the most lachrymose of leaders, was in tears.

Hopkins would continue his unofficial diplomacy and undertake other onerous journeys, including one to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. By then, he and Roosevelt were gravely ill, and Churchill watched with dismay as Stalin rode roughshod over the American delegation. As his health continued to worsen, Hopkins finally withdrew from Roosevelt’s orbit, and the president died two months later.

Hopkins passed away on January 29, 1946, less than a year after his beloved Chief, his ravaged insides finally succumbing to a multitude of ailments. It was a miracle he survived as long as he did; Doris Keams Goodwin credited “the curative impact of Hopkins’ increasingly crucial role in the war effort” in postponing “the sentence of death the doctors had given him.” He made the most of that postponement, serving his president and his country almost to the end. The ashes of the man who lived in the White House were buried in Iowa, where his remarkable life journey had begun.

Michael F. Bishop is a writer and historian, and the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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