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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
President Roosevelt liked to use memoranda—the telephone was more for immediacy. Looking over some of his brief and pungent messages, I am again amazed at the number of matters on which he kept a hand. It has often been repeated that he was not a good administrator; but it may be questioned whether administrative ability is an attribute that is necessary or altogether desirable in a President of the United States. He practiced the far more difficult art of driving a score of subordinate princelings, few of whom could be described as tame, and of keeping their actions in perspective with the needs and the will of the country, settling their disputes, stroking their ruffled feathers, and nicely balancing the need for competent appointments with the political demands of the party system. He had the country to lead at the same time and, finally, the war to direct. I do not think that his success would have been as great if he had neglected one function in favor of the others.
As the war went on and absorbed more and more of his time, Roosevelt tended to concentrate on his job as Commander in Chief, but never to the exclusion of everything else. Toward the end he became weary of the constant details of politics, particularly the endless appointments. I have before me a touching plea: could I not persuade Congress, he wrote me, to get rid of the law requiring him to sign the appointments of notaries public? He was patient until he died, and I sometimes think the little dull burdens were more responsible for his death than the weight of the great decisions.
He grew infinitely tired of the continual bickering between department heads, which went on as if there had been no war; this noisy friction gave the country a sense of disunity and a feeling that the administration did not know where it was going. Differences of opinion were healthy, but the jurisdictional fights for power between the departments and the new war agencies, avidly seized on and dramatically exaggerated by a press eager to exploit struggles among the temporarily great to achieve power, created public confusion and blurred the vision of the war effort. Heads of departments “planted” stories that would present their position, particularly when there was a dispute, or arrange for a subordinate to do so. The subordinate who disagreed with his superior might give his side of the picture to a newspaper friend, whose code forbade him to reveal the source of his information. One hardly dared to share a confidence lest it turn up in a column. There was no domestic censorship, and the use of information was largely left to the patriotism of the reporters. The military found it easier to clamp down on everything than to exercise the difficult practice of judgment, and the military point of view was continually in conflict with the civilian. I remember soon after war had been declared one of my friends’ saying to me that to a great extent my part in the war effort would be fighting the Army.…
Every now and then the President would lecture the Cabinet on the unseemliness of washing our dirty clothes in public, or write a letter to the department and agency heads. In the middle of that hot and depressing summer of 1942 he sent out such a communication suggesting that we desist from arguing controversial questions in public. Elmer Davis, Director of the Office of War Information, had told him that satisfactory progress had been made toward eliminating much of the conflict and confusion among the departments and agencies so far as their press releases and speeches were concerned. But remarks at press conferences and elsewhere often did not contribute either to the accuracy or the consistency of public information. “If the agencies,” the President concluded, “would refrain from resorting to public debate of this kind they would have a good deal more time to attend to their business, and the nation would have a good deal more assurance that the business was being done right.”
The language of Roosevelt’s memoranda was fresh, informal, and often amusing. “For preparation of a reply”—he wrote once—“with the thought that an offensive’s always better than a defensive.” He saw that criticisms of my decisions were relayed quickly to me if they touched some essential matter: “There is a good deal of a howl because the Department of Justice has refused to participate as amicus in the Texas Primary case. How about it?” I told him that the “howl” came from Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the President remembered people, not organizations; that we had established the right to vote in primaries as a right enforceable in the federal courts in the Classic case; and that if we intervened here again the South would not understand why we were continually taking sides. I attached a three-page memorandum from the Solicitor General discussing the legal aspects of the case—the President liked to read that sort of thing. If it bored him or if it was too long, he put it on a pile of papers to be read, and when the pile got too high would tell his personal secretary, “Missy” LeHand, to take it away.