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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
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.
By tradition, the Postmaster General was the political representative in the Cabinet of the party in power and usually chairman of the National Committee at the same time. Although Frank Walker became Postmaster General in 1940, he was not chairman of the National Committee until 1943, and served for a year only. He disliked his political job, but always did what the President wanted him to do, and just then the President wanted the politicians off his back so that he could get on with the war. Frank was never a professional politician in the sense that Jim Parley was, or Ed Flynn (who succeeded Jim as chairman) or Bob Hannegan, who followed Walker. Frank was too mild, too decent, too gentle, to fill that toughest of all political jobs. But he could and did protect his friend, the President.
Harold Le Claire Ickes was a very different type. If Frank Walker was not a professional politician by temperament, there was nothing amateurish about him. People instinctively understood and liked him. Harold Ickes, on the contrary, was the opposite of the politician—a reformer, a liberal (few politicians on either side are liberal by conviction), and an independent (witness his activity as a Progressive from 1912 to 1916). A good cabinet minister should be a competent administrator, and there was none better than Ickes, who sat all through the Roosevelt Cabinet and for a year under President Truman, until he resigned in 1946 with a clarion blast against that President who was no unworthy opponent himself. He spent another six years wasting his talents on a syndicated newspaper column that gave him narrow scope for his fierce invective and occasionally lending his now-mild influence to some liberal measure. Harold Ickes was not a man who, having tasted the satisfactions of public office on a high level, could bear the narrower existence of a critic and gadfly.
I had not fully realized what a suspicious and thwarted human being he was until his secret diaries were published after his death. He had no heroes, and his friends—Tom Corcoran, Ben Cohen, and I were among the closest—remained so only as long as they did not oppose him. Obversely, his enemies were those who stood against his strong urges toward increased official dominion.
In spite of his faults I liked Ickes. Occasionally I lunched with him in his office in the Interior Department, where, looking like an angry and belligerent Donald Duck, he would let go as much at the Democrats as at the Republicans. I can still see him on a particular occasion when he was wartime petroleum and solid-fuels administrator. Striding up and down, his hands clasped behind his back, his lower lip protruding, he announced that he had won a terrific victory over some oil barons whom he had persuaded to cooperate with him, and that under such circumstances one must either kiss a woman or have a drink: would I join him in a Martini? …
I had first come into personal contact with him in 1938, when I was counsel for the committee investigating the Tennessee Valley Authority. He called me in Knoxville to ask if I would give him professional advice about whether a political speech he was going to make in Philadelphia was libelous. I flew from Knoxville to Washington—I had some T.V.A. business in the capital—and read the speech, the Secretary’s gimlet eyes watching me from behind his desk. The speech was libelous, and I told him so. “Very well, then,” he quacked, “I’ll make it.” I remember his last sentence. After denouncing two Republican stalwarts in the city, Moe Annenberg, the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer , and one of the Pews, he ended: “Pew! Annenberg! Annenberg, phew!”
A striking characteristic of Harold’s was his ability to fire a subordinate without the slightest qualm or hesitation if he thought him disloyal or incompetent there was no beating around the bush or trying to place the man elsewhere. Once, after a row in which an undersecretary of the Interior was involved, the Secretary had decided to get rid of him promptly; Ickes gave instructions that after the incumbent had left for the day, the lock on his office door was to be changed—he was not to be admitted to his office or given access to his personal files.
Ickes was combative, shrewd, belligerent. He was a very effective radio speaker—he did not ad lib—and he had a genius for what Justice Holmes called hitting the jugular. He was disliked by many of his subordinates, feared by members of Congress, and highly respected by the public, who regarded him with a mixture of amusement and admiration. He could not have been a happy man. He took too much and gave too little to have understood what love or friendship could mean. Yet the grains of suspicion and malice in his nature, mixed with fearlessness, gave him a sharpness of character which was a relief after so much that was soft and sentimental floating on the placid surface of American life. Harold was never a bore.
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. …
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.
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.
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.
But usually the President did not want a balanced report; he wanted to be told what should be done, and how to do it. As late as January 10, 1944, he wrote me: “Your memo of January sixth is very interesting but it does not tell me what to do. Do please suggest an out, a modus vivendi , something really brilliant which will go down into history as a judgment of Solomon!” He could be very terse, exact, and firm. Whenever Congress tried to get hold of correspondence of the Chief Executive or his subordinates that for any reason he did not wish released, he was, in accordance with the tradition of his great office, adamant.
One of the most knowledgeable and pungent messages that I received from him concerned the conditions in Hawaii, where martial law had been declared immediately after Pearl Harbor.
Harold Ickes and I had sent out our representatives, with the President’s approval, to investigate what was going on. The Army ran everything—food supply and distribution, communications, traffic, hospitals and health, price control, civilian defense, liquor distribution, gasoline rationing, fiscal matters—even to a large extent the courts. General Delos Carleton Emmons, who was in command of the Hawaiian Department, styling himself “Military Governor,” established and enforced the law by issuing military orders. The resulting administration appeared to be autocratic, wasteful, and unjust. A confidential report from the FBI stated that it was common knowledge that blackout regulations were flagrantly violated by officer personnel and that cocktail hours lasted far beyond blackout hours—Pearl Harbor conditions again after a brief year! Emmons got most of his knowledge of local affairs from a small handful of powerful pineapple planters—the Big Five, as they were known. Among the populace there was deep resentment that did not come to the surface, since criticism of the local administration was suppressed by the military.
By the end of 1942 it seemed desirable that the civilian government should be reinstated. After discussing the matter with Ingram Macklin Stainbeck, Governor of the Territory, we took it up with the President, who approved our recommendation to end martial law and told us to prepare a proclamation for his signature and clear it with the Army. The Army in this case meant Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, General Emmons, and another general, Emmons’ executive officer, a stuffy, overzealous, unyielding type who had prepared an elaborate and complicated chart showing the setup. I sent it along with a confidential report to the President, as it told the story with laborious eloquence. I ended by saying that the situation had the makings of a lurid congressional investigation and enclosed a note to Grace Tully (who became the President’s secretary after “Missy” LeHand’s death), asking her to give it to him at once.
The President responded promptly and vigorously. I should talk the matter over with Secretary Stimson in person , and tell him from the President that the situation was bad and that he knew from many sources that Emmons got most of his knowledge of conditions from the Big Five. There must be a special Army and Navy investigation into violations of blackout regulations. Hawaii was a thoroughly insidious place for officers stationed there. “That statement needs no argument. There should be a constant rotation of officers and men.”
Before Pearl Harbor the President was much concerned with the activities of America First, which he thought of as substantially treasonable. “Will you speak to me about the possibility of a Grand Jury investigation of the America First Committee? It certainly ought to be looked into and I cannot get any action out of Congress.” There were too many isolationists in Congress for any such investigation, and there were no grounds to warrant a grand jury investigation—which, the President believed, would show that much of America First’s money came from Germany.
There had been a good deal of German propaganda before Pearl Harbor, but there was not much pro-German response, not nearly as much as in the First World War. In the twenty-five years between the two wars there was little German immigration; a large number of the older immigrants had died, and their sons had been quickly absorbed. But the Irish-American population, unified by Catholicism, held its immense identity. Almost all of them were Americans by naturalization or by birth, but they retained the ancient grudge against England. Their isolationism was calculated to prevent linking our fate with that of Great Britain. There it stopped.
Isolationism, as a way of American life, had deep if sometimes irrational roots, going far back into what had been a simpler but not too-distant past. What gave the word a reproachful connotation, often unjustifiably, was that many isolationists shared some of the same views as those who cherished and thrived on hatred: the Jew-baiters, the anti-English, the proGermans, and others of that ilk who at heart despised American democracy.
The extravagant abuse of prosecutions for sedition had been the most serious example of hysteria in the First World War. The chief element in the crime of sedition, loosely defined, is incitement by action or language against the government. During a war any criticism of the government is too often construed to be incitement, and severely punished. When, therefore, early in 1942 there were several arrests for “seditious” utterances palpably innocuous, I ordered that the men be released and the prosecutions dropped. One man had expressed the opinion, in a letter to a congressman, that “the Administration of Roosevelt would prove to be as unpopular as the Popular Front government of Daladier and Blum, that undermined the morale of France.” Another had told a small group of listeners that the President should be impeached for asking Congress to declare war. A third, a Danish seaman, had started a barroom brawl by proclaiming that Roosevelt was no good and that he himself was for Hitler. Half a dozen isolationists were held in $25,000 bail each. The journalist Jonathan Worth Daniels noted a few other foolish acts that had followed the declaration of war: a man who booed the President’s picture in a Chicago theater got thoroughly pommeled by his neighbors—he explained that he was a Republican who had contracted the habit of booing Roosevelt on all occasions and had not had time to readjust himself to new conditions of national unity. He was fined $200 by a magistrate—on Bill of Rights Day.
I directed that thereafter no United States attorney should institute any prosecution based on sedition without my personal written authority and that information about arrests already made should be at once reported to me. I announced that freedom of speech should be curtailed only when public safety was directly imperiled. The majority of the press supported this restraint.
Unfortunately, the fifth columnists and their dupes on the lunatic fringe, some of them shrewd enough to find a not-unprofitable way of life in organizing movements based on racial prejudices, took heart at what they considered an official pledge on my part to protect them and allow them to say anything they wanted. A pamphlet, distributed at a West Coast rally, boasted: “Remember: the United States says we have a perfect right to talk—and we will! …”
The attacks on our allies—without foundation of fact and pandering to hatreds of every possible class and race—increased after war had been declared. These were no longer the voices of isolationists concerned lest we should be dragged into a war that was not our business, but the cries of defeatists welcoming a program of domestic fascism calculated to demoralize the war effort. The movement grew; it was apparently well organized and centrally directed. Nor was it a matter of a handful of scattered publications—the Christian Science Monitor estimated that there were nearly a hundred of them.
The “line” in all was about the same and was taken directly from or closely related to official German propaganda: America, not Japan, was guilty of starting the war in the Pacific; American aid to Britain was a Jewish plot, and Roosevelt (“Rosenfeld”) was a Jew; American boys were being killed to support a tottering British and French imperialism; the secret manipulations of the new money power and the munitions makers had brought about the war; fighting was useless against the New Order, and we should retire from the war.
The President began to send me brief memoranda to which were attached some of the scurrilous attacks on his leadership, with a notation: What about this? or What are you doing to stop this? I explained to him my view that it was unwise to bring indictments for sedition—although considering the temper of the times it would be easy to obtain true bills and to convict—except where there was evidence that military recruitment was being substantially interfered with, or where the attacks had some connection with propaganda centers in Germany. I reported that we were in the midst of a study of the material—we must have had a ton of it in the Department—and might ask for some indictments if we could tie up these strident voices with the enemy. Roosevelt was not much interested in the theory of sedition or in the constitutional right to criticize the government in wartime. He wanted this antiwar talk stopped.
The President was getting a good deal of mail complaining about the “softness” of his Attorney General. After two weeks during which F.D.R.’s manner when I saw him said as plainly as words that he considered me out of step, he began to go for me in Cabinet. His technique was always the same. When my turn came, as he went around the table, his habitual affability dropped. He did not ask me as usual if I had anything to report. He looked at me, his face pulled tightly together: “When are you going to indict the seditionists?” he would ask; and the next week, and every week after that, until an indictment was found, he would repeat the same question. Of course I felt uncomfortable. I told him when we were alone that there was an immense amount of evidence; that I wanted the indictment to stick when it was challenged; and that we could not indict these men for their naked writings and spoken words without showing what effect they had on the war effort. His way of listening made my explanation sound unreal. At the Cabinet meeting a day or two after the return of an indictment ∗ he said, now in his most conciliatory manner: “I was glad to see, Francis, that the grand jury returned a true bill.” I cannot remember any other instance of his putting pressure on me. He never tried to interfere with any decision I made, even if he thought it might have serious political repercussions.
∗ On July 29, 1942, twenty-six native Fascists were indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Criminal Conspiracy Act of 1940. It was a case beset witast of which was the violent conduct in court of the defendants. Their trial dragged on for more than a year, and was eventually dropped after the death of the judge. Though none of the accused was ever convicted, their seditionist activities had been throttled.
There were a great number of memoranda about appointments. “Tom Connally wants Keating for Judge. Has been Attorney General of Texas—just over age. Can we do?” The age limit for federal judges, to which the President referred, was sixty—an arbitrary measure he had fixed on when he was trying to enlarge the Supreme Court, and which he disregarded when it suited him. Or again in longhand: “F. Biddle: Bill Cole of Md. for Customs Ct. in N.Y. Speaker [Sam Rayburn] and John [McCormack, Democratic majority leader of the House] say O.K.???” Sometimes, if the suggestion seemed without enthusiasm and the candidate unpromising, I would table it, and often the President would not mention it again—he had done his bit, and could say to Tom or Sam or John that he had taken it up with the Attorney General.
Now and then I would send him something that I thought might amuse him. When his old friend Ed Flynn, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was accused of using WPA work in connection with a private road that he was building at about the same time Errol Flynn of movie fame was engaged in more romantic adventures at sea, a little verse by Thomas Hornsby Ferril appeared in the Rocky Mountain Herald . I sent it to the President:
F.D.R. didn’t like it—he was a little hurt or angry or indignant when his professional friends were under attack; after all, he was the most professional of all of them. He rejoined curtly—“You must think you’re quite a poet.”
But if he did not like this verse about the Flynns, he unreservedly enjoyed a book I sent him, not long before he went to the fateful conferences at Yalta. It was Mark Twain’s famous 1601; or Conversation at the social fireside as it was in the time of the Tudors . It was hard to get, too ribald to send through the mails, and my copy from some anonymous publisher in Canada had been sent years before by express. Roosevelt once told me that when he was librarian of the Fly Club at Harvard he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of this description of Sir Walter Raleigh’s unseemly behavior at Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Finally a friend of mine secured one for me. I took it over to Cabinet and gave it to him after the meeting —everyone had gone except Jesse Jones, who seemed determined to be the last and evidently had something of importance to take up that he did not wish anyone else to hear. The President picked up the book eagerly, began to thumb through it, and called to Secretary Jones: “Come here, Jesse, and listen to this—how little Willie wet the bed”: and in his strong resonant voice he began to read to us Eugene Field’s poem, which was included in the book, while Jesse, who did not like anything, particularly humor, to come between him and the President, listened with a dark, patient look to a man who at times could be so inappropriately boyish.
After the President had died I asked Grace Tully if she had ever heard him speak of the book. She remembered that he had given it to her and told her she must put it away carefully in his library where no one would find it, and she was not to look at it, it was very naughty, and now and then she might remind him where it was—Jesse Jones had given it to him after a Cabinet meeting. Thus is history writtenl I hope the book is preserved in the Hyde Park library. …
I tried never to bother the President with anything that was not essential, and to wait until a substantial number of problems—many of them appointments had accumulated. I would call “Pa” Watson, the President’s appointment secretary, and was often summoned for lunch with the President in his study, where we had solid food—an omelette or fish or chops, with plenty of coffee. When he would lean back in his chair and take the first long, deeply inhaled pull at his cigarette, I would get down to business, sometimes submitting a brief memorandum or directive for initialing. In this way I could get in a comfortable hour, except during the last year of his life, when he began to resent such accumulating burdens, and to postpone them.
His training had made him cautious; he knew that everyone who saw him was in a hurry to get quick approval; he had come to practice the procrastination that brought him a sense of relief. Yet when he wanted to act, particularly where the war called for speed—and war decisions almost invariably did—he would hound the responsible official, often calling him more than once personally.
He rarely queried me about department problems, but frequently asked what I thought of so-and-so. He liked to relax in reminiscence, and I would ply him with questions about his own life, about Cousin Theodore, or about the war. Once I remember suggesting that there were those—I was not one of them—who thought him too pro-British, too much led by Churchill, who had recently been staying at the White House. I hoped he fought back now and then; the British understood that, and always respected a show of opposition. He agreed, nodding his head. He told me of a proposal—half serious, half jocular—that he had made recently to “Winnie,” one of several “after-the-war” arrangements, like the internationalization of Hong Kong, about which his lively imagination used to play without coming to rest on them. Why not, when the war was over, F.D.R. had said to his guest as they relaxed together over brandy after dinner, why not give the Elgin marbles back to Greece? It would be a wonderful gesture of international friendship; the whole Near East would applaud at the sight of the British lion disgorging. “You know you stole them and you ought to give them back. You could announce that you had been cleaning them and putting them in proper shape.” “How did he take it?” I asked. “Take id” he answered. “He almost went through the roof.”
FD.R. took his time about appointing judges and never considered there was any particular hurry about filling a vacancy. While I was in office there was only one on the Supreme Court, caused when James Francis Byrnes resigned on October 3, 1942, to become Director of Economic Stabilization. For ten months Byrnes had been on leave of absence from the Court, working with the President in the war effort.
Several times I suggested to F.D.R. that the Court was shorthanded, that Byrnes ought to resign, and that the President should appoint a successor; but he waved me aside a little impatiently, saying, “Let’s keep it open for Jimmy, they can get along.” But when the 1943 term of Court opened, there were several mildly critical editorials. For nearly two years the Court had felt the burden of the extra work, a load which is always great and which at times, when each member is not pulling his weight, may become intolerable. Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone asked me if I would speak to the President, and I took it up with him again, urging him to make the appointment as soon as he could find the right man. He nodded an unwilling assent—he supposed I was right, he would think it over.
Eventually I convinced him that we could not keep the position open for Jimmy Byrnes any longer. Well then, he asked, could we not appoint some old boy for two or three years who would agree to retire when he had reached seventy, so that Jimmy could be brought back? I replied that this would not quite fit in with his often avowed intention to put younger men on the high tribunal. I suppose not, he acquiesced without enthusiasm. I suggested that I might talk to Chief Justice Stone again, and he assented. “See if you can’t get me a nice, solid Republican,” he said as I left, “to balance things a bit, preferably someone west of the Mississippi, and not a professor.”
When I saw Stone early in November, he said at once that he wanted someone who would “stick.” He wanted a man of broad legal training and experience—a judge from one of the Circuit Courts would fit in admirably. I said I thought the Circuits had little material of first-rate caliber. “Nonsense, Biddle!” he said, and pulled out a volume of the Circuit Court reports containing a list of the judges. This he read carefully; then looked up. “By gum,” he said, “you’re about right.”
But there were a few: Learned Hand, head and shoulders above any others; John J. Parker, Sam Bratton, who had been on the Tenth Circuit since 1933 (a good Democrat, he had been Senator from New Mexico); Orie Phillips, if you wanted a Republican, also from the Tenth; and Wiley Rutledge, who had been on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for four years after teaching law for fifteen —Rutledge was a good man and young, a little pedestrian but sound. And Charley Fahy, the Solicitor General, I asked him. He considered, his chin in his hand. They had all liked the way Fahy presented his cases-he was objective, clear, scrupulous. But if we put another Catholic on the Court in addition to Frank Murphy, he suggested, the Church might feel it was always regularly entitled to two. I mentioned Dean Acheson, but it was clear that Stone preferred one of the federal judges.
Outside of Hand, who was far more distinguished than any of the others, Rutledge seemed to me the most promising. His views were sound, carefully reasoned, and lawyerlike. He was apt to be long-winded, probably because he suffered from a sense of obligation to answer everything in the case. He was a liberal who would stand up for human rights, particularly during a war when they were apt to be forgotten. But there was nothing extreme or messianic about his approach. He was certainly not a nice solid Republican.
All of which I reported to the President. Where did Rutledge come from, he asked me. He was born in Kentucky, had taught high school in Indiana, New Mexico, and Colorado and law in Colorado and Iowa. “He’ll do,” said the President, and then, “What do you think about Hand?” I repeated what the Chief Justice had said—head and shoulders above the others. The President told me that he had had a great many letters from men whose opinion he valued, favoring Hand. When I saw him again, he was much cooler when I spoke of Hand; and I heard later that he resented what he called the “organized pressure” in Hand’s behalf. The President told me that he had determined to appoint Rutledge, and that I should get the papers ready and send them to Grace Tully.
Rutledge was a modest man and was amazed when I told him—he really believed he was not up to it. Ten years later, when a chance ocean-crossing threw Hand and me together, and I got to know him and to admire his really first-rate qualities of heart and mind, I came to believe that his appointment would have been more suitable and that I should have urged the President to appoint him in spite of his age. He had the “fire in his belly” that old Holmes used to talk about.
During the many discussions and speculations about Byrnes’ successor, it was natural that I should have been mentioned. My two predecessors, Frank Murphy and Robert Jackson, had gone from the Attorney Generalship to the Court; the precedent seemed to have been established. I was determined, however, not to accept the appointment even if the President wished me to do so. My brief experience on the Circuit bench had not been satisfactory, and I did not wish to renew the mild level of judicial life, on which I had felt cut off from the world and out of things. The members of the Court in Washington seemed to me terribly overworked. I had immensely enjoyed arguing cases as Solicitor General, but that was different—I was doing the arguing, not listening to it.
I dreaded the quiet, plodding, uninterrupted work of a judge. And I did not want to leave the heart of things while war was on. I was always more interested in the vivid present than the future. I was afraid that the President might send down my name without speaking to me first, and it would be embarrassing then to say no. I said a word to Lewis Wood of the New York Times , whom I knew well, as he was assigned to cover the Justice Department and the Court, and in a story he reflected the “impression” that I did not want to be appointed. Soon after, I went over to see the President.
I told him I had come to talk about the vacancy on the Court. Did I want it, he asked. No, I said, I did not wish to leave him during the war, I was happy where I was, I had not liked being a judge. I reminded him of the time he had asked me three years before to go on the Circuit Court, and I had said that being a judge was like being a priest. The President was listening, enjoying the recollection. I added that on that occasion I had asked for an hour or two to think it over; and he had said he was going to a movie and to call him back; and that I had replied that I would call his assistant, Marvin Mclntyre. “No,” he had said, “don’t call Mac, call me.” He laughed again—he was in a good humor that day —and took my arm: “You are quite right, Francis,” he said, now gravely. “You and I are too young to go on courts; we’ve got our careers ahead of us”—he was sixty, I fifty-six. I believe I never liked him more than at that moment.