Harry Hopkins: the stirring story of Roosevelt's noble bureaucrat

Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy, by George McJimsey. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press. 474 pp. Illustrated. $25. Long before Andy Warhol made his prescient comment that every American would eventually achieve fame for 15 minutes, Iowa-born Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946) achieved a very real and deserved fame for some 15 years. Hopkins was indeed, as his biographer shows, the poor person's ally and democracy's defender: More than any other single person he put into effect Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and executed the bold presidential policy of lend-lease to the Allies even before the United States had entered World War II.

By an odd coincidence, his two chief contributions involved the disbursement of relief: welfare to the poor and materiel to the British and Soviet war efforts. Money was the currency of his endeavor, but it was the way he distributed money and the causes he championed that make the story of his expenditures such a stirring one.

Not for nothing did Winston Churchill dub him ``Lord Root of the Matter,'' for it was Hopkins's particular genius to put his finger on the central problem at hand, whether it was logistical, financial, or political. Roosevelt proposed, but in a very real sense it was Hopkins who disposed, who made possible the practical accomplishment of the grand design. Roosevelt had many lieutenants who served him magnificently, but it is no accident that in the two spheres that many would deem his greatest contributions - giving succor to the suffering poor in the Great Depression and nourishing the Allied war effort - Hopkins was his closest associate.

A pioneering social worker in the days before he entered government service at the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, Hopkins headed the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, going on to serve as secretary of commerce in Roosevelt's second term. Out of government for a brief period, he returned in time to head the lend-lease program and act as Roosevelt's emissary in London and Moscow. He also accompanied the President to the major wartime conferences. But one sees from this book that his talents were at their peak when he was out on his own, representing his chief but able to act on his own initiative, away from the somewhat overbearing presidential presence. Far less grand in manner than FDR, he was more practical, perhaps even more responsible, concerned as he was with the details of how to get things done.

George McJimsey is professor of history at Iowa State University. But he does not seem to feel any great sense of kinship with his subject. As a responsible scholar, McJimsey knows that a biography must be about the man as well as his works, and he makes great efforts to produce a fully rounded portrait. He clearly admires Hopkins's accomplishments and is good at showing just what they were and how they were achieved.

On Hopkins the man, however, he is less successful. He is conscious of working in the shadow of Robert Sherwood's ``Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History'' (1948), which he calls ``magisterial'' but with which he nonetheless seems somewhat uncomfortable. Certainly, his book lacks the vividness and style of the earlier book, whose author (the well-known playwright) was also a close associate and colleague of Hopkins and very much a New Deal insider. But McJimsey's book does have the great virtue of scrupulous scholarly analysis as well as 40 years' additional perspective. This book is, above all, an honest attempt to evaluate Hopkins and his contributions to American public policy. If he is not, as I suspect, quite the biographer this fascinating and complex figure deserves, he has still added much to the historiography of the New Deal and World War II. His expositions of the various Allied conferences - Casablanca, Tehran, Quebec, Yalta - to which Hopkins accompanied FDR are models of clarity and succinctness, and illuminate, in each case, not only Hopkins's role but the course of the meeting itself.

And finally, one is grateful to be reminded of Harry Hopkins and all he did for his country and for all whose freedom was achieved by the Allied victory in World War II. In an age when there is so much cynicism about the value of government and the activities of those too often dismissed as ``bureaucrats,'' it is good to remember how much may be accomplished by the activities of a well-intentioned and well-run democratic government.

Hopkins took particular pleasure, McJimsey tells us, in an editorial cartoon of a plaque attached to WPA headquarters that read: ``To The Everlasting Honor of HARRY L. HOPKINS An American Boy From Iowa Who Spent 9 Billions Of His Country's Money And Not A Dollar Stuck To His Fingers!'' May we have more Harry Hopkinses in the future to see what good government can do.

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