Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading Journal: The Hopkins Touch

David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler. Oxford University Press, 2013. 

The political biographies most popular in the modern era often tell us less about their subjects than about the moment in which the books themselves are published.” Jill Abramson, reviewing Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York Times Book Review November 2, 2012)

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected President and faced the daunting challenge of leading a nation in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The new President responded with a $800 million dollar stimulus package, the American Resource and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), with the goal of creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, and strengthening the social safety net for those affected by the economic downturn. As the result of ARRA, President Obama has been compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his economic stimulus package has been called “the new New Deal.”

Meanwhile, Republicans concerned about the increasing national debt and opposed to government spending began to call for reform of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, leading to accusations that the GOP was attempting to roll back the New Deal. “If it was not clear before,” the New York Times editorialized in April 2011, “it is obvious now that the party is fully engaged in a project to dismantle the foundations of the New Deal and the Great Society.”

With a Democrat in the White House and an increasingly conservative Republican majority in the House after 2010, partisan gridlock took hold of Washington, resulting in a series of fiscal crises in 2012—the debt ceiling crisis in the spring, and the fiscal cliff crisis in the winter. In 2010, when Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) announced his retirement after twelve years in the Senate, among the reasons he cited for his decision were “dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties, and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.”

It’s not surprising that, at such a time, there should be a rash of new books about members of FDR’s circle, both architects of the New Deal and significant contributors to the U.S. involvement in World War II. The past four years have seen biographies of Frances Perkins (Kristin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal, 2010) and Joseph P. Kennedy (David Nasaw, The Patriarch, 2012), and group biographies of FDR’s Supreme Court appointees (Noah Feldman, Scorpions, 2010) and of the Americans who helped forge the alliance between the United States and Great Britain during the War (Lynne Olson, Citizens of London, 2010). And 2013 will see the publication of David Roll’s biography of Harry Hopkins (January 2013) and Susan Dunn’s history of the Presidential election of 1940 (June 2013).

One of the major themes that emerges from these books is the importance of personal relationships and bipartisan cooperation in the face of national crisis. The quiet hero of Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London is Gil Winant, the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, whom FDR first appointed to head the new Social Security Board and then sent to London during the war as the United States ambassador. And Susan Dunn, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, highlights the close wartime cooperation between FDR and Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate Roosevelt defeated in 1940. But undoubtedly the most important relationships forged during the war were between Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, the leaders of the three most powerful Allied nations. And instrumental in forming those relationships was Harry Hopkins.

Harry Hopkins was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1890, graduated from Grinnell College, and became one of the most prominent and energetic social workers in the nation. When FDR took office in 1933, he put Hopkins in charge of Federal relief efforts, first as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and then as head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who shared his passion for social work, and was briefly considered as a possible successor to FDR in the White House. As World War II loomed, Hopkins did, in  fact, end up living in the White House—not as President, but as an unelected “deputy President” who served as Roosevelt’s closest wartime advisor.

Hopkins was one of the chief architects of the Lend Lease program, which sent materiel to America’s struggling allies, Britain and the Soviet Union, and made the United States “the arsenal of democracy.” Hopkins was also Roosevelt’s first personal envoy to both Churchill and Stalin, and played a central role in holding the alliance together, often smoothing over differences between the three leaders with a deft personal touch—“the Hopkins touch,” which provides the title for David Roll’s laudatory new biography.

Roll clearly admires Hopkins, and portrays him as charming, witty, penetrating, and ambitious only to serve.  He painstakingly reconstructs important diplomatic episodes—the meetings at Casablanca and Teheran, for example—highlighting the influence of Hopkins in the often tense negotiations between the three strong-willed Allied leaders. He downplays Hopkins’ reputation as a womanizer, and dismisses allegations that Hopkins was actively spying for the Soviets. For Roll, Hopkins’ close relationship with the Soviets was motivated only by his laser-like focus on defeating Hitler. Hopkins emerges from the biography as the personal pivot upon which the alliance moved, and a man of almost superhuman energy—all the more remarkable considering that his fragile health was failing all through the war years.

When Hopkins died in 1946—less than a year after Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war—Churchill told the New York Times: “We shall not see his like again.”

Roll’s Hopkins-centric retelling of events of World War II is thoroughly researched and well written, if single-minded in its efforts to find Hopkins’ fingerprints on the success of the wartime alliance. In the current age of recurring fiscal crisis and endless partisan gridlock, it’s inspiring to remember a time when someone with just the right touch could bring people together to get things done.  

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