- Historic Sites
The Wartime Cabinet
Cordell Hull’s feud with a brilliant subordinate; a trick cigar for General de Gaulle; how a Supreme Court justice is chosen; the silencing of Father Coughlin; the rage of Harold Ickes—in his autobiography, the former Attorney General describes calm and crisis among F.D. R.’s lieutenants
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
There hangs in my study a photograph of the Second World War Cabinet, signed by each of the eleven members, plus the President.
There hangs in my study a photograph of the Second World War Cabinet, signed by each of the eleven members, plus the President. Next to it is an engraving by Currier & Ives published in 1876, slightly larger than the photograph, portraying President Washington’s Cabinet of four, in which Jefferson and Hamilton had been so hostile, and Edmund Randolph so discouraged because his associates were not able, as Washington had fondly hoped, to form a privy council of advisers, patterned on the British model, who would be au dessus de la mêlée . President Washington sits next to his Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, who looks not unlike his namesake at our table. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton is standing, a hand on Knox’s chair, the other tucked in his waistcoat below his ruffled shirt, concentrated and determined, his look suggesting irritation below the slight frown. At Hamilton’s left sits Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, holding a piece of paper, his stock very simple and without frills, as became a Republican, his unpowdered hair curly, a line of worry between the eyes. At the other end of the little table is Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General, my mother’s great-grandfather, his right hand separating the pages of a book, his hair brushed away from his forehead and caught in a “horse’s tail” back of his neck; a serious young man.
In the photograph of the War Cabinet, Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, is at the corner of the long table next to me—short, stocky, straightforward, more prepared to be friendly than hostile. He had been a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War, and followed his colonel, Theodore Roosevelt, into the Bull Moose Party in 1912. Nineteen years later as owner of the Chicago Daily News , he became one of the leading critics of the New Deal, and was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1936, when Alfred Landon was so disastrously beaten for the Presidency. Knox and Landon were much alike—amiable, middle-class, friendly, with a sort of sturdy averageness about them. When his appointment to the Cabinet was announced, Frank repeated a cliché that every one could understand: “I am an American first, and a Republican afterward!” He was the kind of person on whom you could count for that sort of sound, safe platitude. He died before the war was over, on April 28, 1944. I liked Frank Knox. He was not subtle, but he was healthy and decent to the core.
I sat on Knox’s right; and Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, was on my other side- we took our places in the order in which our Cabinet positions had been created. Henry had been a gentleman-farmer neighbor of Roosevelt’s in Dutchess County, and had served under him in various state and federal positions. I never could feel close to Morgenthau, although I respected his courage, singleness of purpose, and devotion to the President—a bit dog-like at times. The President was fond of Henry, patted him when he looked hurt, teased him in public without striking a spark of humor—humor there was none -and protected him as far as possible against the annoyance which his missionary zeal in fields not the Treasury’s occasionally caused the rest of us. He had a tendency to send memoranda to F.D.R. about the work of others—which doubtless touched his own, for almost everything was related by the war effort-instead of first discussing it with them.
I hasten to add that his sights were high, his probity impeccable, and the efficiency of his department well above the average, for on the whole he chose good men to serve under him and leaned over backward, sometimes unnecessarily far, it seemed to me, to keep away from politicians. We shared the same aims, even if the means chosen to accomplish them, or, more precisely, the method of going about the choice, did not on all occasions lead to a warm sense of team play. One could trust him, except where consideration for the feelings of others entered the picture. How could one be at ease with a man who, suspicious of the present and concerned with the future, recorded your telephone talk with him—“Wait a minute, Francis, I would like to put on my secretary to make a record of what you are saying—”to be collected for eternity in those endless volumes of the diary that chronicled the minutiae of his daily career?
To Henry Morgenthau’s right, at the center of the table, sat the President; then came Secretary of State Hull and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Beyond Stimson was Frank Walker, the Postmaster General, and next to him Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, looking belligerently at the photographer.