March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 50

By Christopher H. Sterling

The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, by David L. Roll. Oxford University Press, hardbound, illus., 510 pp., $34.95, member price $27.95.

Harry Hopkins has faded from the public memory over the years, but during World War II he was never far from Roosevelt’s side in Washington or abroad, unless he was on a long and arduous trip, carrying messages on the president’s behalf, often to Winston Churchill, who dubbed him “Lord Root of the Matter” for his direct style of discussion. Hopkins was always in the news and attracted plenty of negative political and press comment from those seeking to attack the president or his policy positions.

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Self-effacing to a fault, Hopkins (1890-1946) was probably FDR’s closest confidant from 1940 to early 1945. Before that he’d served briefly as Secretary of Commerce, and more importantly as head of the massive Works Progress Administration (WPA), the signature recovery agency of Roosevelt’s New Deal. But this book’s focus is on the war which occupied the final years of both men’s lives: they died within months of one another.

Washington attorney David Roll’s book is the first serious study of the relationship between the president and his key adviser since Robert Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Roll relies heavily on the earlier book, but adds many new details from dozens of sources which have become available since.

Unable to travel freely because of his handicap, Roosevelt relied on others to be his eyes and ears in places he could not go. Hopkins was central to this process, developing the initial communication link with Churchill, and later Stalin. He made numerous long flying trips (when they were unusual, and far more dangerous than now) to build ties among the Big Three and lesser players such as Charles de Gaulle. One of the first of Hopkins’ trips was in early 1941 when Roosevelt sent him to size up the Churchill government’s chance of survival against Germany. He stayed for several weeks, meeting all the key people in the British government, and spending hours with the Prime Minister, whom Roosevelt had not met save for a brief encounter in London in 1919. Hopkins and Churchill developed an excellent working relationship.

Hopkins continued to travel on behalf of the president or to attend the allied summit conferences. Sometimes he did both simultaneously, as when he flew to London in mid-1941 for more talks with Churchill, then on to Moscow to meet Stalin before traveling by sea to join Churchill and Roosevelt in Newfoundland for the Atlantic Charter meeting.

Those long trips were exhausting for a man in weak health, who pushed himself to the exclusion of medical concerns. Time and again in this well-written account, Hopkins ends up recovering for days in bed or in hospital. And from May 1940 until late 1943, he literally lived in the White House, readily available at any hour of the day or night. Only after his third marriage did he find a home in Georgetown, a shift that, with his deteriorating health, began to change the once-easy working relationship with Roosevelt. Hopkins again joined the president before and during the Yalta conference. Missing Potsdam, he made a final trip to Moscow in mid-1945 on behalf of President Truman.

Drawing on the books and archives of many who were there (though with perhaps a bit too much reliance on Lord Moran’s disputed “diaries,” which suggest the doctor was more centrally involved with people and events than was the case), Roll provides a fine sense of the people, places, and issues, forthrightly criticizing Hopkins’ actions (his personal life was sometimes a shambles). While the president relied heavily on him during the crucial war years, FDR didn’t get too close to anyone. Yet Hopkins’ role was often central—particularly because, at Roosevelt’s insistence, the State Department was rarely represented at the many meetings with allies.

This is a well-written and balanced account of a central player during a fascinating time. Hopkins became close to Churchill, yet understood his faults and often had to reason with him at FDR’s behest (as on firming up the dates for the invasion of France). Churchill in turn admired Hopkins’ style, his role as the president’s righthand man, and his courage in the face of his weak constitution. Roll has given us a stellar modern portrait of the right man in the right place at the right time.

Dr. Sterling is associate dean at Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, George Washington University.

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