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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
At this dinner for the French general the American Secretary had little opportunity to judge, for he spoke no word of French and his guest was totally deficient in English. No interpreter was present—I suspect that the Chief of Protocol, George Thomas Summerlin, affectionately known as “little Summy,” thought that an interpreter would have introduced an undesirable note of formality. So the Secretary and the General sat stiffly in informal silence, the American drooping a little, the Frenchman solemnly and forbiddingly erect, all six feet six of him, balancing a chip like an epaulet on each martial shoulder—he had not had his twenty-one guns on arrival.
After dinner Bill Bullitt, the ex-Ambassador to France, who spoke the language fluently and had known the General there, brought up several of us to be introduced to him as he sat in isolated dignity, unsmiling and showing no interest in our tentative remarks. Sol Bloom, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was among the first. Bill must have murmured in his ear a word or two about the desirability of breaking the ice, an exercise for which Mr. Bloom was eminently qualified, having, in his career as professional entertainer, introduced the lovely Fatima as a belly dancer to the American public.
Bill stated the Congressman’s name very clearly to the guest of honor and indicated his importance. Mr. Bloom, bent at all costs on a rapprochement , produced a trick cigar from some inner recess, and offered it to the General, who for a moment hesitated. “Take it, take it,” the New Yorker insisted. But when General de Gaulle put out his hand the cigar disappeared up Sol’s sleeve, withdrawn by some invisible elastic mechanism. Puzzled, suspecting that he was being laughed at, the General turned to his aide: “What does the American statesman wish?” he inquired. The other did not seem to know, and no one dared to laugh. It was not a successful evening.
It was inevitable that Hull and Welles should drift apart. When the Secretary was resting at Hot Springs in Virginia, the President would send for the Undersecretary, who admirably supplemented Mr. Roosevelt’s imaginative and creative impulses. The President rarely remembered that he was not his own Secretary of State. As a foreign diplomat put it, together they would mix an international salad, F.D.R. adding the garlic as he rubbed his hands and tasted the dressing.
Hull came to distrust Welles and finally to hate him. The President knew this long before the Secretary came to him with the final ultimatum—one of them must go. Yet before that, the President did little to better their relationship, often bypassing Hull by taking up a matter directly with Welles, and even communicating with him by code outside the regular State Department channels when Welles went to Africa as the President’s special representative.
The President cared little for administrative niceties. If someone had remonstrated with him—and I suspect that Mr. Hull frequently did—he would look a little sheepish, apologize, murmur that he had not wanted to “trouble” you with it, and repeat his conduct after a decent interval.
The President had a way of building you up after knocking you down, particularly in the case of Mr. Hull, who under the circumstances that I have related was “touchy,” as the President well knew. The building up took the form of an emphatic compliment at a Cabinet meeting for the way Mr. Hull had handled something, a day or two after the Secretary of State had lost in one of those incessant jurisdictional disputes that infringed so on the President’s time.
I think President Roosevelt hated to make the choice between the two men, but it was clear that Welles would have to go. Welles resigned on September 30, 1943; and Mr. Hull, under pressure of ill health, was forced hardly more than a year later to give up the work to which he was completely dedicated. Welles was succeeded by Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., who then took Mr. Hull’s place in 1944.
Stettinius was young—forty-four—for such an important position. Yet he seemed much younger: he seemed like a rosy and friendly sophomore, he wanted to be liked, and one could not help liking him. That he had had an enviable career in private business was accounted for by the fact that his father was a partner in J. P. Morgan and Company when Ed was growing up. At twenty-six the son was made assistant to the vice president of General Motors; at thirty-one, vice president in charge of industrial and public relations; and at thirty-five, chairman of the board of U.S. Steel. But one can be a board chairman and remain innocent.
He joined the government in 1939. The job he did best was lend-lease, probably because his contribution to it—an important one—was the establishing of smooth public relations. Ed Stettinius was essentially a public relations man.