- 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
But his appointment to head the State Department was a weak one. The President wanted to act as his own Secretary of State, and Ed was there to take orders and not to reason why—the war was nearing an end. His first act after his appointment (in December, 1944) was to send autographed photographs of himself to the newsmen who went to his press conferences, wishing them a most hearty Merry Christmas. They all liked him and laughed at such displays of well-disposed artlessness. Washington newspapermen are highly intelligent and seldom naïve. I never heard Ed express a judgment; occasionally he would echo one he had heard, handing the words along to us as if he were cautiously reciting from a textbook. We all liked him—and disregarded him.
A’though I rarely came in contact with him except at Cabinet meetings, the member of the Cabinet I most admired was Henry Stimson. He was in his seventies, his “tough and tranquil old age.” He was as loyal to the President as Morgenthau, but stood up to him, which Morgenthau did not. He tired easily under the new strain of war and left the office early each day to keep fit, but he always looked ruddy and clear-eyed. If you had to see him, it was wise to go in the morning —by five o’clock he was weary and peevish. He had no small talk. On those few occasions when we did not talk shop—once or twice, for instance, when I went to see him and stayed for lunch at the Pentagon to finish a discussion—I found him difficult and rather shy.
I never thought of calling Stimson by his first name, as did Morgenthau, a familiarity which I felt he resented. I suppose he was old-fashioned. He did not particularly welcome the views of others on matters in his field. He had the Elizabethan sense of humor of a sturdy man; though not often revealed, it was like a gust of wind when stirred. I remember his telling a story about General George Patton when our troops were in Europe. Patton detested rules and regulations, army forms, and army reports. After General Eisenhower had warned him that he should pull himself together and follow the fitting formulas, the first of Patton’s reports showed that he had taken the suggestion to heart; it was impeccable—succinct, objective, impersonal, strictly according to army Hoyle—until the last sentence: P.S. I have just pissed in the Rhine . …
Mr. Stimson used strong language with the men he was fond of, an intimation that to them he could let go. In Washington he was closer to Jack McCloy, who was his Assistant Secretary throughout the war, than to anyone. Once, when Mrs. Stimson had not been feeling well, Jack and his wife went over to spend the night with them. The next morning Mrs. Stimson, entirely recovered, was having breakfast with the McCloys. The Secretary’s voice, suddenly rising from an adjoining room, broke into the peaceful meal: “I’ll be damned if I will,” he shouted, “I’ll be God-damned if I’ll do anything of the sort.” “It’s nothing,” said Mrs. Stimson. “Mr. Stimson likes to dictate his journal in the morning, and he often gets rather excited.” They could hear him striding up and down the room, as the expletives burst on the air. Then he came in for his soft-boiled egg, relaxed and smiling. … To me he was a heroic figure of sincerity and strength.
It has been customary for critics and historians to discount the changing roles of the Cabinet as it developed with the times, charging it with ineffectiveness because it had not fulfilled the original function for which it was intended. But what of that? The Cabinet was thought of by the first President as an advisory and authoritative body, an American Privy Council, to form policy and decide major questions as they arose. Today it is composed of a dozen administrators heading vast departments, who generally meet once a week to discuss their problems and report to the President what they are doing. Though the members are not primarily there to shape policy, their decisions often do. For policy can never be wholly separated from operation and often is developed and defined by the cumulation of action rather than by a reasoned decision taken before the event. Operation down the line, sometimes far down the line among the N.C.O.’s of government, can change and modify the original plan or even create a new one which is hardly recognizable. The American Cabinet gives some unity to this vast, sprawling, poorly co-ordinated system and keeps the President informed of what his chief administrators are doing. During my three-and-a-half years there was of course a single overriding consideration which created a sense of unity: the successful prosecution of the war.