THE most powerful White House aide of this century was undertaking a secret 24-hour flight to Moscow during World War II. ``FDR needed [Harry] Hopkins to talk with Stalin,'' explains TV producer Verne Newton, who has spent three years researching Hopkins for a film. ``The Germans had invaded Russia. The meeting was vital and the journey dangerous. They were shelled by the enemy, at times flew 300 feet above the water, had no heat from the Artic air, and no seats. Hopkins sat on a gear needed for the flight.''
The story of that harrowing journey was what got Mr. Newton interested in Hopkins, the New Dealer who headed the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, functioned as President Franklin Roosevelt's eyes, ears, and legs in the White House for 13 years, and accompanied the President to Casablanca, Teheran, and Yalta.
Newton was at the National Archives doing research for a book when he came across papers containing RAF pilot David McKinley's account of Hopkins' July 1941 mission to Moscow.
The result of that discovery is a 90-minute documentary, ``Harry Hopkins: At FDR's Side,'' airing tonight (9-10:30 p.m., check local listings), co-produced by Newton and narrated by Walter Cronkite. Newton found Hopkins's story so compelling that he shelved the book he had been researching and set out to learn all he could about the man and his enormous impact on America during the Great Depression and World War II.
``I simply couldn't stop thinking about this man who believed every American should have an opportunity for work, not welfare,'' Newton continues. ``...FDR appointed him administrator of the WPA. He put 18 million people to work during the Depression, started programs for housing, education, health, and never had a hint of political scandal. He was Roosevelt's personal envoy not only to Stalin, but to Winston Churchill. He was one of the engineers behind Lend Lease, FDR's unprecedented third term, and ... the Grand Alliance, which defeated the Nazis in World War II.''
After deciding to make a film about Hopkins, Newton became worried that not enough film material would exist. ``After all, he was a low-profile man,'' explains Newton. Some of the footage came from an unexpected source.
``I had contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington to see if any film [of the Moscow visit] existed. Then, I discovered a Russian camera crew was in Washington doing a documentary on FDR. They were just leaving the city when their duffle bag, containing three weeks of film, was stolen at the airport. They contacted me and asked if I had any data that could help. I gave them all the interviews I had. ... Since FDR and Hopkins were so closely tied ... there was much I had assembled that would be helpful to them. ... When it came my turn to ask the Soviets if I could have any film of that secret trip to Moscow, plus other Hopkins footage, they generously supplied it.''
At one point in the three-year project, Newton ran up against budget limitations that prevented him from filming interviews overseas. Fortunately Pamela Harriman, widow of US statesman Averell Harriman and daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill, and Harriman's daughter, Kathleen, agreed their foundations would provide a grant for the project.
`WE did our last interviews - historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Lady Mary Soames (Winston Churchill's surviving daughter) and finished the final cut in February 1989. ... We had another problem: Would we go for a dramatic actor, like a Jason Robards, to do the narration, or for a journalistic approach? My good friend producer Richard Cohen suggested Walter Cronkite.'' The former CBS anchor liked the script and agreed to do the project.
Another important ingredient was the cooperation of Hopkins's son, Robert. The younger Hopkins was an Army combat photographer and was with his father during the summits between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. Interviewed about the program, the Robert Hopkins recalls, `It was quite a jolt watching the film and hearing my father's voice after 40 years. I remember as a teen-ager, my younger brother, Stephen, and I bicycled 50 miles to spend a weekend with our Dad, only to discover he had been called to Washington by the President.
``He sacrificed everything for his country - his health, his family life - and died in debt Jan. 26, 1946. I feel he was a great American, for he put his entire effort into what he did for his country and never asked for favors or fortune.''
Now that the Hopkins project is complete, producer Newton says, ``I still can't get Harry Hopkins out of my mind.'' As a result, he has also taken on the presidency of the Harry Hopkins Public Service Institute in Washington, whose goal is ``to get young people involved in government service.''