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Roosevelt’s Bracken: Harry Hopkins “Lord Root of the Matter”

FINEST HOUR 146, SPRING 2010

BY RON CYNEWULF ROBBINS

Mr. Robbins, a journalist who had covered Churchill in Westminster after World War II, was Finest Hour’s editor emeritus until his death last year (FH 144: 8-9). This is the first of his two articles on the two “treasured confidants” of Roosevelt and Churchill, the other being WSC’s Brendan Bracken, to be published in our next issue. Mr. Robbins asked that we acknowledge Sir Martin Gilbert’s 2006 visit to Canada, and his compelling hour-long interview on CBC, which inspired this article.

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Curiosity about defenders of liberty is insatiable. The selfless dedication of gifted historians, even the indelible tidemarks of posterity, yield us no quietus. Our inquisitiveness extends to anyone who served faithfully alongside our heroes and made crucial contributions to their achievement. The physically frail Harry Hopkins fits this category: a magnificent gobetween with whom Churchill and Roosevelt felt comfortable and at ease. Lifelong opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal could not resist including Hopkins in their denunciation. When he died, a Los Angeles Times editorial suggested that it didn’t matter whether Hopkins was “great or little or good or bad”; what mattered was seeing that “the phenomenon of a Harry Hopkins in the White House does not recur.”

Robert Sherwood, another member of FDR’s inner sanctum, has described the invective heaped on Hopkins, who lived for over three years in the Roosevelt White House. He was quartered in Abraham Lincoln’s former study. Hopkins was regarded, Sherwood wrote, “as a sinister figure, a backstairs intriguer, an Iowan combination of Machiavelli, Svengali and Rasputin.” (Similar sobriquets were attached during the second Bush’s administration to Karl Rove, much to the latter’s amusement.) But Robert Sherwood added a counterpoint by General and later Secretary of State George C. Marshall: Hopkins, Marshall said, had “rendered a service to this country which will never even vaguely be appreciated.” Churchill’s entourage had no counterpart of Harry Hopkins, though Brendan Bracken invites comparison because of his role as WSC’s intimate confidant. Like Hopkins, Bracken surmounted humble beginnings, and encountered disdain and envy.

It would be difficult to brush aside the conclusion that by lineage and rank Churchill and Roosevelt were political aristocrats, shaped by blood and history. Roosevelt had long admired the career of his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt; he imitated him by using the governorship of New York as a springboard to the Presidency. Churchill had haunting memories of his father Lord Randolph; he rose to occupy his father’s office as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and later secured the premiership his father had once anticipated.

Fault-finders complained bitterly about what they believed was the dangerous incongruity of Hopkins and Bracken being warm pals of their leaders. Foreign Minister Lord Halifax, “the Holy Fox,” to whom Chamberlain had tried to hand the premiership in 1940, referred to Bracken as a gangster. Churchill, once in Downing Street, despatched Halifax as Ambassador to the United States, replacing him with anti-appeaser Anthony Eden. It is fair to note that Halifax did well in Washington.

Neither Hopkins nor Bracken came naturally into the retinue of their mentors; both had to prove their worth. Scenes of misery and want awakened in Hopkins a Dickensian-like revulsion. Born in Sioux City in 1890, he became a conscientious social worker after attending Grinnell College. He was Federal Emergency Relief Administrator in 1933, moved on to head the Works Progress Administration, and is heavily credited for fashioning Roosevelt’s Social Security bill.

Hopkins had risen to serve as Secretary of Commerce in 1938-40, but further political ambition was abandoned as he fought an extremely debilitating illness. Perhaps one secret of his relationship with FDR was that they were both survivors of agonizing disease.

At a one-on-one session in the White House, Wendell Willkie, FDR’s opponent in the 1940 election, brusquely demanded to know why Hopkins was there. “I can understand that you wonder why I need that half-man around me,” said Roosevelt, referring to Hopkins’ gaunt appearance. “Some day you may well be sitting here…knowing that practically everybody who walks through [the door] wants something out of you. You’ll learn what a lonely job this is and you’ll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you.” (Willkie deserves a bow for recording that observation.)

Nor did Hopkins seem to be the socialist ideologue his enemies often portrayed. Robert Sherwood recalls:

One day I saw him pick up a book put out by the W.P.A. It was an expensive printing job, with many plates and a very substantial-looking binding. He flourished the book and said to me, “This is pure boondoggling. The people who attacked us for things like this were perfectly right. Of course, I would have been a God-damned fool to have agreed with them.”*

For their parts, Roosevelt and Churchill were blithely unconcerned by criticism of their valued henchmen. WSC ignored the early dislike of his wife and his son toward Bracken, whom both came later to respect. (In this case Winston was right: Bracken became an astute Member of Parliament and handled the Ministry of Information with far greater élan than any of his predecessors.)

Likewise, Hopkins was Roosevelt’s reliable emissary to Europe. Churchill met him for the first time when he arrived at Downing Street to discuss the Lend-Lease programme, which Hopkins was supervising. The President had asked for a trenchant private assessment of how Churchill and the British would stand up to Hitler. Hopkins gave both top marks. Churchill nicknamed Hopkins “Lord Root of the Matter,” and the warm rapport between them never wavered.

Martin Gilbert’s volume VI of the Official Biography records Hopkins’ 1941 visit to Britain in great detail. Hopkins left for Moscow, then returned to meet Churchill in Glasgow in freezing mid-January. After touring the city’s defence establishments, Churchill spoke of how Hopkins had come “in order to put himself in closest relation with things here. He will soon return to report to his famous chief the impressions he has gathered in our islands.”

That night, Martin Gilbert tells us, Churchill and Hopkins were given dinner in Glasgow by the Regional Commissioner for Scotland, Tom Johnston, at the Station Hotel. After dinner, Hopkins replied:

“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 in the truth of which Mr. Johnston’s mother and my own Scottish mother were brought up: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.'”Then he added very quietly: “‘Even to the end.'”

Observers present saw the Prime Mnister in tears. He knew what it meant.

Many historians say the Anglo-American “special relationship” was far more special to the British than the Americans. Hopkins would deny it. In a series of informal memoirs written for Sherwood, he penned words Churchill himself might have written:

I know no person in his right mind but that he believes if this nation ever had to engage in another war Great Britain would be fighting on our side, and yet, to hear some people talk about the British, you would think the British were our potential enemies. I believe that the British have saved our skins twice—once in 1914 and again in 1940. They, with the French, took the brunt of the attack in the First World War,and the Germans came within a hair’s breadth of licking them both before we got into it. This time it was Britain alone that held the fort and they held that fort for us just as much as for themselves, because we would not have had a chance to have licked Hitler had Britain fallen.

Many Britishers do not make it particularly easy for those of us who want to see a close-working relationship with Great Britain. When the Prime Minister said that he was not selected to be the King’s Minister to liquidate the Empire, every isolationist in America cheered him. Before that, he had never been very popular with our isolationists in America. There is constant friction between our business interests and we think—and have no doubt with some good reason—that Great Britain would take an unfair advantage of us in trade around the world…

The American people must realize the plain and simple truth that the British live by trade. We are probably powerful enough, if we want to use that power, seriously to injure that trade, but I do not believe it is to our self-interest to do it. Why should we deliberately set about to make a weak Great Britain in the next hundred years unless we go on the assumption that war will be waged no more?….

If I were to lay down the most cardinal principle of our foreign policy, it would be that we make absolutely sure that now and forever the United States and Great Britain are going to see eye to eye on major matters of world policy. It is easy to say that. It is hard to do, but it can be done and the effort is worth it.*

Exhausted, ill and worn out, Hopkins was destined to die at fifty-six. Just before his death, on 22 January 1946, he wrote the last letter of his life. It was addressed to Winston Churchill.

HARRY HOPKINS’ LAST LETTER

New York
January 22, 1946

Dear Winston,

Only being laid up in the hospital prevented me from meeting you at the boat the other day and I do hope you will find it possible to get to New York, because it appears altogether unlikely that I could possibly be in Florida during the next month.

All I can say about myself at the moment is that I am getting excellent care, while the doctors are struggling over a very bad case of cirrhosis of the liver—not due, I regret to say, from taking too much alcohol. But I must say that I dislike having the effect of a long life of congenial and useful drinking and neither deserve the reputation nor enjoy its pleasures.

The newspapers indicate you and Clemmie are having a quiet and delightful time and I hope you won’t let any Congressional Committee of ours bore you.

Do give my love to Clemmie and Sarah, all of whom I shall hope to see before you go back, but I want to have a good talk with you over the state of world affairs, to say nothing of our private lives.*

FURTHER READING

Robert E. Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins (New York; Harper, 1946); The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins, 2 vols. (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948) is a fundamental source, one of the greatest political memoirs ever published. It earned Sherwood, who with Hopkins had helped write Roosevelt’s speeches, his fourth Pulitzer Prize. (Unlike Churchill, FDR did not write all his speeches himself, but like WSC, he was an indefatigable reviser.)

• Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life (London: Heinemann, New York: Henry Holt, 1991; Toronto: Minerva, 1992, still in print in paperback) is a readable distillation of Gilbert’s eight-volume official biography (but not an abridgement; it contains much new information). On 20 September 2006, Sir Martin was interviewed by the CBC in Toronto, which produced a video and sound clips of some of Churchill’s famous wartime speeches. Sir Martin gave viewers a keen insight into the steadfast work Churchill did when preparing his orations. At first WSC wrote his speech drafts by hand; later he began dictating to a secretary. Although he usually held to his final script, a copy of which he always carried, he had often memorized important passages in advance.

*Hopkins quotes and his letter to Churchill are from Robert Sherwood, The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins, 2 vols. (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948), II: 910-11 and 920. 

 

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