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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
Jesse Jones, Secretary of Commerce, sat between Harold Ickes and Henry A. Wallace, Vice President from 1941 to 1945. They were three men as unlike as it is possible to imagine. Jones, publisher and owner of the Houston Chronicle , was Texas in the Giant sense, conscious of his power, proud of his wealth, a pioneer who found the acquisition of material possessions no limit to his spirit; hard, shrewd, ruthless, strong, conservative. He seemed a huge man. One had the impression that his mind never stopped circulating, never relaxed.
Wallace, on the other hand, was a type—mystical, humorless, profoundly earnest, indubitably American —and the President liked types, up to a point.
The Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, in her invariable dark dress and pearls with a three-cornered felt hat planted firmly and low over her forehead, came next at the table; and finally Claude Wickard of Indiana, successor to Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, who reflected in his amiable person all the sunny, smiling, and friendly, if sometimes tasteless, qualities of the great corn and wheat states.
The Cabinet was not a group of outstanding men. But they were competent and offered an experience that reflected the diversity and range of America. Cordell Hull—he was then seventy-one but seemed older—had been in politics for forty years. He had fought in the Spanish War, practiced law, served in the Tennessee legislature, and been a judge, a representative, and a senator before appointment to the Cabinet. As the terrible strain of war built up, he tired easily and had to leave Washington for increasingly longer rests, while Sumner Welles, the Undersecretary, ran things.
Welles was Hull’s opposite in every way. A career man, he had been admirably trained in the old school of diplomacy. He spoke French and Spanish fluently, had some Italian and German, and knew thoroughly the intricacies of Latin American politics and our relations to them. When a foreign diplomat came to Washington, he made a formal call on the Secretary and then spent two hours with the Undersecretary, who was usually at home in the visitor’s tongue. Welles was under fifty, robust, a tireless worker, with correct and formal manners, intelligent rather than imagin alive, instinctively “liberal” in a department where that quality was not often apparent. He never walked from the State Department to the Metropolitan Club without his Malacca cane, and in summer wore an impeccable Panama.
Although as a rule a member of the Cabinet consulted only his opposite number in another department when a problem arose, it was accepted that one did not disturb Mr. Hull, but called Welles, who was quick to understand and to act. The Secretary disliked administration and turned it over to others. This choice left him free for the planning of policy. Yet it involved a weakness inherent in our system: no permanent civil servant, even at the highest level below the head of the particular government unit, can altogether relieve his principal of the ceaseless grind of administrative decision. Mr. Hull suffered from a partial abdication of power.
Secretary Hull stood in high repute throughout the country for his rugged honesty and independence, and was looked upon by members of the Congress with something approaching veneration. He was not very intelligent or original. The President counted on him to be his chief liaison with Congress when the time came to sell the United Nations to the Hill. President Roosevelt was determined not to make the same mistakes that President Wilson’s idealistic and obstinate temperament had invited after the First World War.
I saw very little of Secretary Hull outside Cabinet meetings. We almost never met socially, and then usually for a meaningless exchange of amenities at one of the formal and solemn dinners that the Secretary gave for visiting potentates when the President had completed the first gesture or the visitor did not rank a reception at the top. These dinners took place at the Carlton Hotel—it was before the government had purchased Blair House—and they were not gay. The Secretary was usually tired and worried, but he would not forego what he considered his duty, impelled perhaps by his dislike of his Undersecretary—he did not enjoy Welles’ stepping into his shoes even on the social side.
I particularly remember a dinner given for General de Gaulle. The President had disliked the General since their first meeting at Casablanca, felt that his bosom harbored the ambition to be a Man on Horseback, and was insistent that we should never “recognize,” however indirectly, anyone whom the French people had not themselves freely chosen. We should wait for the time when they could make the choice. Eisenhower was ordered not to sign any agreement with de Gaulle from which a suggestion of “recognition” might be squeezed, nothing formal to which he could later point as conferring authority. De Gaulle, the President said, thought of himself sometimes as Marshal Foch, sometimes as Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid in shining armor. He was a bore. …