Friday, March 1, 2013

Harry Hopkins: A Review

To say Hopkins was controversial is an understatement. But at the same time Hopkins was an enigma. For someone who rose from the streets as a humble social worker, to the permanent house guest of FDR during the War, as a man who at first became a politically astute distributor of billions to being the voice of FDR between Washington and London, and a man whose health was at best fragile and at worst terminal, this book is a welcome addition. Hopkins was praised by some, feared by others and outright hated by many.

Yet Churchill relied upon him heavily to execute the Lend Lease plan that had allowed Britain to survive. Also, it was Hopkins who made certain FDR chose Nimitz to counter the brash egoist of MacArthur, and provide for a successful engagement with the Japanese in the Pacific.

The book by Roll is a superb presentation of Hopkins in his role during the War.This book focuses on the Hopkins as the agent of FDR, as the advisor to FDR and as a communicator with Churchill and Stalin. It also provides a brief summary of the pre War Hopkins of the New Deal period.

Overall the book is quite comprehensive, is exceptionally readable, and provides an excellent summary and insight to Harry Hopkins, especially during this period. There have been many other works relating Hopkins and his involvement and a few books on Hopkins himself. In reading about Hopkins one sees a man who life in regards to FDR had two clear lives; first as a New Deal bureaucrat and second as an in house personal confidante and advisor to FDR. The first was a distributor of money and an ardent New Dealer, namely one who saw Government as the solution and only solution, and then second as an astute political insider getting involved in all the intimate details as regards to the War and its effective prosecution.

Before commencing with the specifics on the book it is worth understanding that not all though Hopkins was God’s gift to the American people. Some saw him as a “Rasputin”, some called him “Harry the Hop”, and others just outright despised the man. For example, the anti-FDR writer, John Flynnn, one of the “America First” principals, the anti-war isolationist group, wrote of Hopkins:

As soon as Roosevelt got hold of this $3,300,000,000, congressmen, senators, mayors, governors, chambers of commerce, charity organizations from every state and city formed in line. Hopkins saw before Roosevelt did that the President had in his hands on a vast scale what political parties had had in the past on a very small scale. The little local bosses with their pitiful little graft and social welfare benefits from the district clubhouse were pikers. Now all the philanthropy in the country through local politicians flowed from one great boss in Washington. No district leader could satisfy the appetites of his constituents on a scale comparable to the big boss of all the bosses…. 

Hopkins inhabited an area of moral and ethical life which does not correspond in its standards of behavior to the area in which most normal Americans move. He was pictured to the popular audience as one whose life was dedicated to the welfare of the under-privileged masses. He had married as a young man a fellow welfare worker. They had three sons. In 1930 his wife filed suit against him for absolute divorce in New York State, the charge being infidelity. She secured the divorce and, I am informed, an order for the payment of $5000 a year in alimony. Hopkins was making $10,000 a year at the time.

This meant that one-half his salary would be retained for himself and the other half for the support of his wife and three children. It does not seem to have been an excessive provision. All this, of course, is a matter personal to Hopkins' own life, but it is germane here because of several facets of the incident. Shortly after the divorce, he took a second wife.

He became WPA Administrator at a salary of $10,000 a year. Hopkins himself was a man of very expensive tastes. It took a good deal of money to keep him provided with the forms of amusement to which he was addicted and $10,000 was not enough to take care of his two families and his expensive appetites

Let me now make a few specific comments on certain pages:

p. 14. The discussion of Steiner and the social gospel, social justice, etc is a good way to place Hopkins in terms of his world view. The mid-Western Christian world of the early 20th century was perfused with social gospel concepts, in many was integrated with progressive thought. Social workers and many progressive politicians obtained their view of dealing with society in the context of the social gospel. It also was a basis for pulling together the Government as a participant in social justice. It would have been useful for the author to have expanded this point since in many ways it is what made the mind of Hopkins.

p. 25. The author recounts the $10,000 per year salary of Hopkins which is brought up many times and the fact that somehow he always managed to let it slip through his hand plus more.

p. 32. The New Deal is Born. The author seems to infer that Hopkins has a prominent role in the birth of the New Deal. That is not clear and the author should have detailed this a bit more.

p. 51. The author recounts the illness of Hopkins and is treatment. The indication was for massive blood transfusions. Ironically for a man who later was diagnosed with hemochromatosis, the added red cells and the iron would just make things worse. Hopkins had allegedly recovered from metastasized stomach cancer, and that in itself was a miracle. Yet his treatment was proper at the time and exacerbated the deteriorating situation. The author clearly delineates this continuing cyclic health issue.

pp 84-85. It was clear that Hopkins had managed to gain the trust of Churchill and that Churchill had high regard for Hopkins. Possibly this was due to the fact that FDR was somewhat incapacitated and that Churchill need FDR and the United States. Notwithstanding this became an essential communications channel.

pp 362-363: The author recounts the less than friendly relationship between Anna, FDR’s daughter during the Yalta conference. It appears clear that it was deteriorating and that also FDR was being strongly influenced by Anna as well. The irony was that Anna’s third husband, James Halsted, becomes the physician who published the “definitive” medical analysis of the physical deterioration of Hopkins. Hopkins at this time it appears was drinking and the ultimate diagnosis was hemochromatosis, which in 1945 was poorly understood. It is often simply treated today by phlebotomy, removal of blood. Instead for Hopkins it was aggravated by transfusions, increasing his iron load, and consumption of alcohol deteriorating an already depleted liver. On the trip back we again are show the physical depletion of Hopkins combined with that of FDR and their deteriorating relationship. What role Anna may have played could at best be inferred.

pp 366-367. Here one may have room to disagree with the author. He digresses on several points. He brings in G.W. Bush and comments made negatively on Yalta and then he states categorically that the real problem was not Yalta but the plan of Eisenhower in North Africa rather than an early invasion of Europe. There is a great deal of room to argue as regards to Yalta. The author himself had reiterated both the ill health of FDR and more importantly the complaints of Hopkins himself that FDR was ill prepared. Yalta did have consequences and the condition of FDR was a driver of those consequences. Yet the assertion regarding Eisenhower and his mistake is far from correct. The US had a poorly deployed Army and North Africa was a training ground for European entry. The resources were not available and the bombing was just beginning. Germany was strong and any direct assault of an untrained and untested Army on a trained and then still well-equipped German force would have been a disaster. Why the author makes these points other than perhaps justifying FDR and his actions is uncertain and in the opinion of many baseless.

Overall the book is superb and definitely worth reading, both from the perspective of WW II but also for understanding the dynamics of the Presidency. From time to time the author allows personal views to float through but they seem few and far between. One comes away with another understanding of Hopkins, an elusive but critical figure at this time.

It would have been nice if somehow one could get a better understanding of the psychological relationship between FDR and Hopkins. After Hopkins got remarried and yet stayed in the White House, it seemed to work but when he finally left there appeared to be a break. One wonders just what brought these two people together. FDR was not one to have deep personal relationships. Morgenthau, his Treasury Secretary, did get close during Hopkins absence during the period of Bretton Woods but that was short lived and Hopkins returned.

The question is; what was the relationship between the two men, what did one have that the other did not and vice versa. Why, one wonders, did it seem to work so well at times and then split for short periods. Also one wonders how much of FDR decisions were truly influenced by Hopkins. FDR was a master of playing people off against one another to get that interplay to lead to a decision. He reached decisions by process, a process of “using” people, good people. What was Hopkins role in that effort, if any, or was he just another chess piece on FDRs board?

This book does a good job on many of these issues. It is definitely worth the read.