The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler
By David L. Roll
Oxford University Press, 2013
Review by James Srodes
Was Harry Hopkins a Red?
No. But does anyone really care anymore?
Well, yes, there is still a hardy, if dwindling, band of true believers who cling to the myth that Franklin D. Roosevelt was dominated by a cadre of aides who were active agents of Stalin’s spy services—plus others who were sympathetic to the Soviet cause during World War II.
If that is meat to your taste, there is a new book, Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government by M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein, two veterans of the campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. And, yes, recent declassification of both United States– and Soviet–era files does confirm that the Russian spy services ran important American intelligence assets who were privy to official secrets; most notably the U.S. State Department’s Alger Hiss and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Harry Dexter White. But not Harry Hopkins.
However, if you prefer your history to provide new insights into our past as well as raise some of the common themes that challenge us today, then this thoroughly researched and elegantly written biography of Roosevelt’s man for all seasons will be a joy. Author David L. Roll has fashioned a succinct but engrossing study of Hopkins’ multilayered career with the care of a legal brief, which is in keeping with his day job as a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, D.C.
Roll has successfully avoided the trap that too often befalls biographers of other New Dealers—one thinks of Sumner Welles and Harold Ickes (two Hopkins rivals), and Felix Frankfurter—when the main story very quickly becomes subsumed by the sheer force of the FDR persona.
In this telling, Roll refutes the claim that Hopkins was just another of the talented “fixers” who lived in Roosevelt’s long shadow. Rather, his claim on our attention stems from his role as a catalyst—an independent agent that makes other ingredients come together to produce a sum far greater than its parts. Harry Hopkins above all kept the immediate objective in clear focus even as he maneuvered fluid conditions and mercurial personalities to achieve Roosevelt’s objectives.
This was harder to do than one might first think. Franklin Roosevelt was adept at setting conflicting policies in motion, then sitting back and waiting to see which provided him with the best advantages. But invariably, the first maneuver in a Roosevelt effort to convince a skeptical prospective ally would come in the form of an exploratory visit from Harry Hopkins.
Harry came of age when he enrolled in Grinnell College in his Iowa hometown. He became an adherent of the faculty’s Social Gospel theories, which stressed the duty to work for the improvement of society through the application of scientific methods. No coincidence then in his senior year of 1912 he became a devotee of that Progressive beau ideal, Woodrow Wilson.
It also was no coincidence that he soon found his way to that epicenter of Progressive social welfare efforts, the teeming slums of New York City. For the next decade-and-a-half he steadily climbed up the ranks of the largely private work relief and welfare organizations there and gained an expertise on public aid and jobs creation that was unmatched.
Often overlooked by other historians is the remarkable ability Hopkins had not only to sell his ideas, but to sell himself as well. Days after FDR’s 1933 inauguration, Hopkins cold called FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and sold the administration on a $500 million federal-state relief and jobs plan that was funded by Congress in the first two months of the term. Hopkins became the head of that legendary expanded program known as the Works Progress Administration.
In Roosevelt, Hopkins found not only a strong master he could serve but also a needy personality he could influence. Even though he had a life-long taste for cocktails, café society, and attractive women, Hopkins soon moved his young daughter into the cramped and Spartan White House to be permanently on call. Increasingly he became an in-house advisor as well as the disabled president’s outside eyes and ears.
As the title suggests, the focus of this story is the daunting challenges Hopkins undertook for Roosevelt in fashioning the problematic global alliance essential to defeating the dark forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan. So it was in January 1941, nearly a year before the United States would be drawn into the war, Roosevelt moved to shore up the first brick in that alliance.
Winston Churchill presided over a shaky coalition government that was under fire, not only from Nazi bombers and submarines, but from forces in his own country who urged a negotiated peace. In sending Hopkins as a lone emissary, FDR wanted first to get hard data on what Britain needed to keep fighting, and to convince a dubious Churchill that American support could be counted upon despite the strong currents of isolationism of the day. Out of Hopkins’ visit came the close personal friendship between the president and the prime minister that was one of the miracles of modern history.
Just six months later, Hopkins, at enormous risk to his fragile health, was sent on an exhausting trip to Moscow to put the next brick in place. With German troops already barreling through most of western Russia, Hopkins had to win the confidence of a suspicious Joseph Stalin that the Anglo-American relationship would not lead to a separate peace with Germany that sacrificed Russia. As always, Hopkins first sold Stalin on his own deep commitment to the cause, and, by extension, Roosevelt’s own trustworthiness.
Roll has done a masterful job of unearthing new archival material on the famous albeit misunderstood three-power conferences between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at Tehran in late 1943 and at Yalta in February 1945 that are wrongly blamed for giving the Soviet Union domination over Eastern Europe.
The author’s conclusion, likely correct, is that the decision to shift the Anglo-British attack on Hitler’s armies in late 1942 from a landing in France to one in North Africa guaranteed that Russian troops would not only seize but also hold onto those lands by right of conquest. Unless Churchill and Roosevelt were willing to expend more lives to force the Russians backward (and recall the war in the Pacific was far from over), Stalin had the pat hand.
Harry Hopkins is one of those historical characters too often overshadowed by the men he served. This book brings Hopkins out into the light he deserves; his story is all the timelier for what it tells us about today’s leading figures and the quiet personalities who serve them.
Washington, D.C., author James Srodes’s latest book, On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World was published last autumn.