Although he never held elective office, Harry Hopkins was arguably the most important figure in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. As a federal relief administrator, he dispensed billions of dollars to the relief programs that were a hallmark of the New Deal. Then, even though he had absolutely no foreign policy experience, he became the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in forging a joint war policy. As David Roll writes in a truly magisterial biography, Hopkins ranked as “the president’s most valuable adviser and closest companion arguably the most powerful presidential aide in the history of the American public.”
Son of a struggling harness maker in Iowa and a mother with a strong social conscience, Hopkins went to New York after graduation from Grinnell College and joined a settlement house for poor boys from the lower East Side. Later, he oversaw the first work-relief program in New York City, under which 230 unemployed men were paid a living wage to work on improvements for the Bronx Zoo. The plan proved to be the template for a far more vast program under Gov. Franklin Roosevelt in the first years of the Great Depression.
When FDR won the White House, he reached out to Hopkins with the mandate “to get adequate relief into the hands of the unemployed immediately.” Hopkins found a shabby office on New York Avenue next to the Corcoran Gallery, wired all 48 governors to form state relief programs, and dispensed $5 million his first day on the job.
Thereafter, Hopkins was the public face of the New Deal, especially through the Works Progress Administration, which spent billions of dollars on schools, airports, sewers, hot lunches and day care. Hopkins did not flinch from the sound of breaking crockery in speeding programs along. Frequent administration rival Louis Johnson said he “had a tongue like a skinning knife.”
Hopkins‘ high visibility led Republicans to accuse him (“with some justification,” Mr. Roll writes) of running a patronage scam for Democrats and big-city bosses. One oft-repeated claim — one he flatly denied — was that he quipped to a friend in 1938, “We will tax and tax and spend and spend and elect and elect.” (Hopkins briefly — and quietly — considered running for president himself in 1940 when there was still uncertainty as to whether FDR would seek an unprecedented third term.)
FDR reached out to Hopkins in May 1940, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht seemed on the verge of seizing all of Europe, and the British turned to veteran politician Winston Churchill to serve as prime minister. FDR thought little of Churchill at the time. Their paths had crossed in London during World War I. “He acted like a stinker at a dinner I attended, lording it over all of us,” Roosevelt complained. He accepted Ambassador Joseph Kennedy’s claim that Churchill was “always sucking on a whiskey bottle.” Still, FDR remarked that Churchill was “perhaps the best man that England had, even if he was drunk half of the time.”
So Roosevelt gave Hopkins the delicate task of keeping relations with Churchill on an even keel. Strong domestic isolationism in an election year meant that any aid the United States gave beleaguered Britain must be sub rosa for the time being. To keep the divorced Hopkins close at hand, the president had him and his 7-year-old daughter Dianna move into the White House. (The daughter now lives in suburban Virginia. What she told Mr. Roll in interviews adds much to flavor of those years.)
Another reason for taking Hopkins into the presidential residence was his precarious health. Surgeons removed two-thirds of Hopkins‘ stomach in 1937, fearing cancer; thereafter he suffered from acute malnutrition and anemia. Photos show a spectral Hopkins.
To Roosevelt’s delight, Hopkins became close friends with Churchill immediately — as FDR did himself when he met the eminent Brit. (Indeed, there are indications that Roosevelt felt Hopkins sided with the British all too often.)
Mr. Roll gives us keen insight into “what made Harry tick.” He writes, “The president respected Hopkins‘ judgment and admired his understanding of human nature.” Further, as old friends died off or left government, Hopkins became “Roosevelt’s remaining close pal. He was a window into the world that Roosevelt, bound to his wheelchair and his office, could not inhabit: night clubs, race tracks, the theater, beautiful women.” They shared a zest for bawdy stories. Yet Hopkins was not a yes-man. One witness described Hopkins as “one who fought with the president and fought without gloves.” For his part, Churchill admired Hopkins‘ ability to study a complex issue and “get to the root of the matter.”
Mr. Roll demolishes recurring claims that Hopkins was one of the Soviet agents seeded throughout the New Deal (a la Alger Hiss). The main charge came from a crackpot Air Corps major who claimed to have seen documents signed by Hopkins giving the Soviets nuclear secrets. He charged that Hopkins called him from Washington in 1944 to expedite the shipments — on a date that Hopkins was in the Mayo Clinic.
Previously, the major work on the partnership between Hopkins and the president was “Roosevelt and Hopkins” by Robert Sherwood, published in 1947. Mr. Roll’s use of previously unavailable materials enables him to present a far more comprehensive story. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the period.
Joseph C. Goulden’s latest book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover Publications, 2012).