Lacking an official title for most of his years in Washington, Harry Hopkins came to be known as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Deputy President.”
JOKING TO THE PRESS that “we are going to Christmas Island to buy Christmas cards, and to Easter Island to buy Easter eggs,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt left the White House in early December 1940 for a two-week cruise in the Caribbean. Aside from the crew, the only passengers aboard the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa were three reporters, select members of Roosevelt’s staff, and his close friend and adviser, Harry L. Hopkins.
It was a largely uneventful trip. After stopping in Cuba to pick up cigars, Roosevelt and his companions spent most of their time fishing and watching movies. On December 9, however, a navy seaplane slid alongside the Tuscaloosa to deliver mail to the president. Among the stacks of newspapers and correspondence was a long letter from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In his remarkable, 4,000-word discourse, Churchill detailed the military situation in Great Britain and across Europe. After a year of war with Germany, he wrote, Britain was running out of money to pay for war goods and needed American help. He could not, however, suggest exactly how the president would provide it.
History turned on that letter. While German bombers unleashed their heaviest attack of the war on London on the night of December 29, Roosevelt delivered a “Fireside Chat” in which he declared that the United States “must be the great arsenal of democracy.” Harry Hopkins, who was also one of Roosevelt’s speechwriters, suggested the key phrase. A week later, Roosevelt dispatched Hopkins on a special mission to London.
Born in 1890 in Sioux City, Iowa, Harry Hopkins grew up imbued with traditional Midwestern values of self-reliance, thrift, and pragmatism. At Grinnell College, he studied American politics and the British Parliamentary system. He began his career working for charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross, New York City’s Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and the New York Tuberculosis Association. From the start, Hopkins’ own well-being took a back seat to his work. Jacob A. Goldberg, secretary of the Tuberculosis Association, later described the chain-smoking Hopkins as “the ulcerous type.” Intense and driven by nervous energy, Goldberg recalled, Hopkins reported to work “looking as though he had spent the previous night sleeping in a hayloft. He would wear the same shirt three or four days at a time. He managed to shave almost every day—usually at the office.”
In 1928, Hopkins supported Democrat Franklin Roosevelt for the governorship of New York, and Roosevelt rewarded him three years later by naming Hopkins the head of the state’s new Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Hopkins subsequently supported Roosevelt’s campaign for the presidency and his promise of a “New Deal” for Americans. In 1933, President Roosevelt tapped the 42-year-old social worker to be his federal emergency relief administrator, and from 1935 to 1938 Hopkins headed the Works Progress Administration.
Rather than giving needy people handouts, Hopkins liberally granted money to the states for work programs. His critics scornfully referred to him as the leader of a bunch of “leaf-rakers.” Robert E. Sherwood, a Roosevelt speech writer and director of the Foreign Information Service, later wrote that “Hopkins came to be regarded as the Chief Apostle of the New Deal and the most cordially hated by its enemies.”
Hopkins also repeatedly clashed with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who ran the Public Works Administration (PWA), over the amount of federal money allocated to their respective programs. Despite agreeing that his organization would handle projects costing $25,000 or less, Hopkins simply divided more expensive projects into smaller parts and funded them separately.
Meanwhile, Hopkins’ personal life suffered terribly. In October 1937, his second wife, Barbara, died of cancer, and in December surgeons removed two-thirds of Hopkins’ stomach in order to stave off the same disease. The gangly Iowan survived, but his health remained fragile for the rest of his life. Encouraged by Roosevelt, who originally hoped to retire at the end of his second term, Hopkins briefly entertained thoughts of the presidency. His hopes were further legitimized when Roosevelt appointed him secretary of commerce in December 1938. Hopkins’ tenure as commerce secretary, however, proved frustrating and brief. Afflicted with hemochromatosis—a result of his chronically inadequate digestive system—he was unable to fully dedicate himself to his job and by the following August was at death’s door. Roosevelt arranged for the best navy doctors to treat his friend. Hopkins rallied, but his ordeal drained him of political ambition. He resigned his cabinet position in August 1940, determined to serve Roosevelt and his country in other ways for as long as possible.
Hopkins’ assignment to meet with Churchill bypassed normal diplomatic channels. He held no official position, and when reporters asked the president if Hopkins was to be the next ambassador to Great Britain, Roosevelt answered, “You know Harry isn’t strong enough for that job.” Recent events, however, had left a serious void in communication between the two nations. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., had resigned, and the British ambassador to the United States, Lord Lothian, had died just days after Roosevelt received Churchill’s pivotal letter. Unable to meet with his British counterpart himself, Roosevelt told the press he was sending Hopkins to London so that he can “talk to Churchill like an Iowa farmer.”
The mission was indicative of the special trust that Roosevelt put in Hopkins. Unassuming and plainspoken, Hopkins enjoyed a unique relationship with the chief executive. Roosevelt had other advisers, but he found Hopkins perfect company and liked to discuss important matters with him informally. Hopkins was unswervingly loyal to the president, who in turn often heeded his friend’s advice on significant policy issues. The president’s decisions, however, were clearly his own. For example, Roosevelt appointed General Dwight D. Eisenhower chief of Operation Overlord (the 1944 Normandy Invasion plan) instead of General George C. Marshall, despite the opposition of Hopkins and many others, including Churchill. Meanwhile, the public regarded Hopkins as something of a “mystery man,” as Time magazine described him in 1944, consumed by a strange illness and privy to the war’s many secrets.
Noticeably ill during a visit with the president in May 1940, Hopkins spent the night in a White House suite. At one time President Abraham Lincoln’s study, the suite was just down the hall from Roosevelt’s room. Hopkins lived there for the next three and a half years. When he married for the third time in July 1942, his wife, Louise, joined him and his daughter Diana in the White House. The family remained there until December 1943, when Harry rented a house in nearby Georgetown. Other members of Roosevelt’s circle, such as Rexford Tugwell and Henry Morgenthau, came to accept Hopkins’ closeness to the president as a fact of Washington life. Not everyone, however, was happy with the arrangement. Harold Ickes resented Hopkins’ insider role, and the two remained at odds for years. “I do not like him,” Ickes once noted in his diary, “and I do not like the influence that he has with the president.” Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1940 presidential campaign, asked Roosevelt why he placed such faith in Hopkins when he knew that others resented it. The president told Willkie that if he ever became president, “You’ll learn what a lonely job this is, and you’ll discover the need for someone like Harry Hopkins who asks for nothing except to serve you.”
Winston Churchill’s initial reaction upon receiving word of Hopkins’ impending visit was, “Who?” When the tall, lean American arrived in London, however, he quickly impressed Churchill with his forthrightness. British officials who were initially taken aback by Hopkins’ rumpled appearance soon accepted him as he was. He seemed to the British to be the stereotypical American: confident, secure, and oblivious to formality. Sherwood wrote that “Hopkins naturally and easily conformed to the essential Benjamin Franklin tradition of American diplomacy, acting on the conviction that when an American representative approaches his opposite numbers in friendly countries with the standard striped-pants frigidity, the strict observance of protocol and amenities, and a studied air of lip-curling, he is not really representing America—not, at any rate, the America of which FDR was President.”
Hopkins’ visit heartened British citizens, who saw his presence as a sign of forthcoming U.S. help. Churchill confidante Brendan Bracken told the prime minister’s secretary, John Colville, that Hopkins “was the most important American visitor to this country we had ever had . . . . He could influence the president more than any living man.”
For his part, Hopkins was struck by the spirit of the British people. At a dinner given by newspaper magnate and Minister of Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook, Hopkins addressed the press. He described the feelings he experienced while visiting Britain’s blitzed cities and spoke of the affection and admiration that Roosevelt had for Britain. Beaverbrook later wrote that Hopkins’ ”speech left us feeling that although America was not yet in the war, she was marching beside us, and that should we stumble she would see that the President and the men about him blazed with faith in the future of Democracy.”
Scheduled for two weeks, Hopkins’ visit ended up lasting nearly six. Staying at the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, Hopkins met with government officials, business leaders, and many others, trying to assess what kind of assistance Britain needed. He toured industrial sites and shipyards, witnessed bomb damage firsthand, and was impressed with Britain’s resolve to fight. Churchill affectionately dubbed him “Lord Root of the Matter” for his ability to quickly get to the heart of problems.
In 1941, Hopkins was not the only person making extra-official efforts on Roosevelt’s behalf. Colonel William J. Donovan met with British representatives in the Balkans and the Mediterranean area, and Wendell Willkie threw his support behind Roosevelt’s war effort during his own trip to England. Only Hopkins, however, as a reporter wrote in 1942, was privileged to sit before the fire at 10 Downing Street and “discuss the grave predicament of Western Civilization” with Winston Churchill.
When Hopkins returned from London, debate was raging over Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease plan to aid Britain. Roosevelt had introduced the plan to the public by simply saying, “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose . . . .” The bill would provide Britain—and eventually several other Allied nations—with desperately needed war matériel without requiring payment up front, thereby skirting the tenets of the 1939 Neutrality Act. Though there was vehement opposition to the Lend-Lease plan, Americans sympathized with Britain, which was waging war against enormous odds.
The House of Representatives passed the Lend-Lease Act on February 8, 1941, and the Senate followed suit a month later. Roosevelt tapped Hopkins to “advise and assist me in carrying out the responsibilities placed upon me” by the passage of the bill. Such a vague job description gave Hopkins nearly free rein for the task of preparing the armed forces and private business for war production. “Under my new responsibilities,” Hopkins wrote to Churchill, “all British purchasing requests are now routed through me.” Hopkins still lacked an official title, but he had become, in the eyes of many journalists, the “Deputy President.”
Under Hopkins the administration of Lend-Lease was diffuse and controversial. It essentially bypassed the State Department, where Secretary Cordell Hull was not happy to be left out of the loop. Hopkins came to be called “Roosevelt’s own personal foreign office.” The situation was quite irregular, Sherwood admitted, “but so was the fundamental situation in which the United States found itself at the time.” Lend-Lease’s quasi-governmental status suited its manager’s unbureaucratic style perfectly, and Hopkins, quite simply, got things done. His trademark tool was the telephone, and he never hesitated to call and berate high-ranking military officers for failing to meet production deadlines. In 1941, for example, when a strike at the Universal Cyclops Steel Corporation stalled the delivery of propellers for navy planes, Hopkins ordered photos of the propeller-less planes to be taken for publication in the newspapers.
Hopkins had brought back from his meeting with Churchill the conviction that the prime minister and Roosevelt must soon meet face to face. He was maneuvering to set up such a meeting when, in June 1941, Germany dramatically altered the world picture by invading the Soviet Union. A key factor in British defense planning—the central issue to be discussed at the impending conference—was ascertaining how long Russia would be able to hold off the Germans.
“The question of assistance to the Soviet Union was a ticklish one,” wrote FDR biographer Nathan Miller. “Public opinion was hostile, and many Americans preferred to let the twin devils of Nazism and Communism fight to the death.” To Roosevelt and Churchill, however, aiding the Soviet Union meant help in defeating Germany, provided the Soviet Union could survive the Nazi onslaught. Hopkins volunteered to fly to Moscow to find out for himself.
Hopkins met alone with Joseph Stalin and in two days dramatically increased Western understanding of the Soviet situation. “I had no conversations in Moscow,” he reported, “just six hours of conversation. After that there was no more to be said. It was all cleaned up at two sittings.” Stalin’s confidence and straightforward manner impressed Hopkins, who came away convinced that the Soviet Union would blunt the German advance. The Soviet dictator was equally impressed with Hopkins, whose diplomatic efforts helped Roosevelt obtain Lend-Lease aid for the Soviet Union.
In August 1941, with Hopkins the principal go-between, Roosevelt and Churchill met at sea off the coast of Newfoundland for the Atlantic Conference, where they drafted and signed the Atlantic Charter. A joint declaration by Roosevelt and Churchill, the document stated that their two nations sought no additional territory and that they hoped to assure that “all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” It called for the disarmament of the Axis powers and also set ground rules for the establishment of peace. Essentially, it united American and British policies and also brought the Soviet Union into the ring.
During the years 1941–1943, Hopkins could usually be found in his room at the White House, working in a bathrobe, with letters, papers, telegrams, and diplomatic dispatches strewn across his bed. It was common knowledge that Hopkins was desperately ill. In addition to the piles of official papers, his room was littered with medicines. He also was required to follow a strict diet that his wide-ranging activities made nearly impossible. Rexford Tugwell wrote that Hopkins seemed to hold himself together in 1943 through “sheer nerve.”
As the war progressed, Hopkins’ health grew progressively worse. His condition prevented his digestive system from absorbing enough fats and proteins, and Hopkins appeared more and more cadaverous despite regular blood transfusions. On New Year’s Day 1944, he fell seriously ill and never really recovered. In February, he received the news that his son Stephen had been killed in action in the Pacific. Able to work only two or three hours a day, Hopkins became less of a factor in Roosevelt’s planning.
Hopkins was, nevertheless, still capable of making quick and insightful decisions. Late in 1944, with the tide of war now in favor of the Allies, Churchill and Stalin were preparing for a meeting to discuss control of southeastern Europe. Busy with his reelection campaign, Roosevelt was unable to attend and decided essentially to let Churchill represent U.S. interests. Hopkins foresaw trouble with that arrangement and ordered the transmission of Roosevelt’s cable to Stalin stopped. After further thought, the president rewrote the cable and thanked Hopkins for preventing him from making a serious mistake.
Though his health was slipping, Hopkins continued to run the Munitions Assignment Board and returned to Europe to lay the groundwork for Roosevelt’s meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, on the Black Sea. For Roosevelt and Hopkins, the February 1945 Yalta Conference was the last hurrah. Sadly, the two parted on a sour note. Exhausted and sick at the conclusion of the meetings, Hopkins decided to rest in Marrakech, Morocco, for a few days before returning to the United States. Roosevelt had expected Hopkins to return with him aboard the cruiser USS Quincy and help him write a speech on the results of the conference. Hopkins, however, insisted on staying behind, and their parting was not amicable. Roosevelt left on February 18, and the long-time friends never saw each other again. When he returned to the States a week later, Hopkins headed for the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He was recuperating there when Roosevelt died in Georgia on April 12.
Too sick to render new President Harry S. Truman the same yeoman service he had given Roosevelt, Hopkins nevertheless agreed to help when able. In May, he again departed for Moscow to meet with Stalin in order to iron out differences between the Allies and to plan a July meeting between Churchill, Stalin, and Truman at Potsdam, Germany. On July 2, Hopkins retired from government service. He accepted a job in New York and planned to begin writing about the war and Roosevelt, but his health began to crumble for the final time. In September, he returned to the capital for the last time to receive the Distinguished Service Medal from Truman. Two months later, Hopkins checked into New York’s Memorial Hospital, where he died on January 29, 1946, with his wife by his side.
Harry Hopkins’ unprecedented position in the Roosevelt administration, best described as that of a chief of staff, troubled many conservatives, who expressed their desire to prevent such an unofficial and powerful position from ever being refilled. They distrusted Hopkins’ liberal politics and blamed him for what they considered Roosevelt’s unwillingness to resist Soviet demands at Yalta. Even Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, while considering Hopkins “an honourable man and a sincere idealist,” believed that he ‘trusted the word and goodwill of Stalin to an imprudent extent, as did Roosevelt and the State Department.’
Hopkins certainly coveted the relationship he had with Roosevelt, and he jealously protected it from the challenge of other presidential advisors. Political considerations aside, however, Hopkins literally gave his life in service of Roosevelt and the nation. Physically weak but robust in will, Hopkins was, Churchill remembered, “a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbour.”
This article was written by Bill McIlvaine and originally published in the April 2000 issue of American History Magazine.
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