The lengthy travels of Harry L. Hopkins, FDR’s trusted lieutenant, did much to foster cooperation among the Allies.
By C. Brian Kelly
Politically, he was not the most popular of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lieutenants. But historically, Harry L. Hopkins played a crucial role for the Allies in World War II. Indeed, he was vital to FDR’s success. He lived at the White House for 3 1/2 wartime years, but he held no military rank or cabinet post, not even an ambassadorship. At age 50, his stomach shrunken by cancer sur-gery, he was an unlikely warrior. Long before America officially entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and long before Hopkins embarked on his exhausting, high-risk wartime missions, FDR told others, “The doctors have given Harry up for dead.” And yet, Hopkins somehow survived the four war years still to come–he even outlived Roosevelt, albeit by less than a year.
Hopkins’ role during World War II and his service to FDR are revealed in incisive book by Colorado attorney Matthew B. Wills, Wartime Missions of Harry L. Hopkins (Pentland Press, Raleigh, N.C., 1996, $17.95). Wills reminds us of this New Deal bureaucrat’s remarkable travels that took him to No. 10 Downing Street and the Kremlin as President Roosevelt’s personal emissary to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
Hopkins first met “Former Naval Person” Churchill when he spent the better part of a month visiting at various British venues with him, as Wills notes in considerable yet fascinating detail. That trip took place in early 1941, when the Roosevelt administration unofficially was doing its best to shore up the sagging British against the Nazi behemoth that was chewing up Western Europe.
Hopkins then traveled east shortly after Germany’s invasion of its own ally, the Soviet Union, in late June 1941. The trip required a two-stage journey. On the first leg Hopkins crossed the Atlantic from Washington, D.C., to England, then he endured a dangerous 2,000-mile, flight from the British Isles to Archangel–20 hours nonstop aboard a lumbering American-made Consolidated PBY Catalina. “The responsibility for getting Hopkins to Russia fell squarely on the shoulders of 28-year-old Flight Lieutenant David McKinley,” writes author Wills. “Although McKinley had experience with long range patrols over the North Atlantic, he had never flown around the North Cape of Norway to Archangel.”
Hopkins’ greatest risk during the flight was from attack by German fighters based in occupied Norway, notes Wills. Determined to include as much fresh detail as possible in his book, Wills got in touch with retired Air Vice Marshal McKinley, now living in the Channel Islands, to obtain a firsthand account of that flight. McKinley recalled: “I was attacked many times by German and Italian fighters in the Mediterranean and each time I dived to sea level where the fighters seemed unable to pull out and so plunged into the water. I would have tried like tactics had I been attacked on the Archangel route.”
Fortunately, they were not attacked on the way to Archangel, but Hopkins, already exhausted, still had to face the four-hour flight from Archangel to Moscow. He had gotten only two hours of sleep–and eaten a sumptuous, vodka-laced dinner aboard a Soviet admiral’s yacht.
This taxing trip brought Hopkins to his first meeting with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (known as “Uncle Joe” during those wartime years). The exhausted traveler extended FDR’s promise of materiel help for the staggering Soviets, and Stalin furnish-ed a monstrous list of Soviet war needs and also made various claims and assurances that later turned out to be not entirely truthful.
That would not be Hopkins’ only encounter with Stalin, as Wills relates, often including more personal detail supplied by the players themselves (or by intimates such as family members). Hopkins and Stalin would meet again at the international Allied conferences at Yalta and then when Hopkins accompanied FDR’s successor, Harry S. Truman, to Potsdam.
As is well known, it was never easy to deal with Stalin. To make matters more difficult, by the time of Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin clearly had his eye on the subjugation of Central Europe in the postwar world. Ever since Yalta, critics have accused FDR and Hopkins of caving in to Stalin’s demands. They claim that Stalin’s motives should have been no surprise, since the Allies knew that the Soviets had joined Nazi Germany in the rape of Poland at the war’s outset.
Wills also turns his detail-focused eye upon another major conference of World War II, one often forgotten today–the crucial meeting in London during the summer of 1942, when the American military chiefs and their British counterparts (with Hopkins again representing FDR) assembled to iron out conflicting grand strategies for defeating Nazi Germany in Africa, Europe and the Soviet Union. The most urgent question was when and where to go on the offensive and assault the formidable Nazi redoubt. That summertime conference resulted in the decisions to invade North Africa that fall and to postpone any cross-Channel assault on occupied France until the Allies were strong enough to land and stay, as they did at Normandy two years later.
Hopkins was presented the Distinguished Service Medal in September 1945, just days after the official surrender of the Japanese aboard USS Missouri. Hopkins’ citation said: “At major conferences of world powers he threw his every effort toward the speedy solution of weighty problems. With deep appreciation of the armed forces’ needs and broad understanding of the commander-in-chief’s overall policy, with exceptional ability to weld our Allies to the common purpose of victory over aggression, Mr. Hopkins made a selfless, courageous and objective contribution to the war effort.”
Wartime Missions–an eminently readable 73-page volume that includes notes, a bibliography, historical photos and an index–features a foreword written by Robert Hopkins, Harry’s son. Robert Hopkins capsulizes this dedicated World War II warrior’s prewar career as a New Deal ally and political lieutenant to the man–the other man–in the White House.