“Right Hand Man”: The People Around the President

By Kaleena Fraga

In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.

Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.

Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.

grant and rawlins
Rawlins, left, and Grant, center

Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”

Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.

When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.

Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”

Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.

Harry S Truman

When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.

truman and ross
Truman, Ross, and Eisenhower

Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.

In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:

“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”

When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”

That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.

The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:

“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”

George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

lbj and jenkins
Jenkins (far left), LBJ, and Lady Bird

Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.”  By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.

So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.

The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”

Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.

“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”

Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post. 

(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)

Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”

                           

When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.

After the Storm: Ford’s First Week as President

By Kaleena Fraga

When Richard Nixon departed the White House on August 9th, 1974, becoming the first president to resign from the office, he made Gerald Ford the first unelected president in American history.

As Nixon took off in his helicopter, Ford took the oath of office. After taking the oath, Ford gave a short speech which he said was not “an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech–just a little straight talk among friends.” Ford went onto say that he was well aware that he had not been elected by American ballots, but he hoped he would be confirmed through American prayers.

Then Ford uttered the words that became enshrined in American memory.

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

He continued:

Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.

As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.

Ford entered the White House with a list of issues to tackle. There was the Cold War, the end of the war in Vietnam, unrest in the Middle East, and inflation, among other things. Not to mention he had to define his presidency as independent from Nixon’s, while serving out the rest of Nixon’s second term.

Ford had to move his family into the White House; he had to address a divided and bitter nation; and he had to deal with the question that had been born even before he took the oath of office, of whether or not he should pardon Richard Nixon for any crimes associated with Watergate.

grf_leaves_home_a0180-07aFord and his family would not move to the White House until 10 days into his term, and in the meantime Ford would continue to commute from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The images of Ford leaving his home, looking very much like a regular businessman on his way to work, and not the leader of the free world, obscures the reality of the heavy burden which had fallen on his shoulders. Betty Ford, who had remarked at the beginning of Ford’s political career that she was “unprepared to be a political wife” but was unworried because she “didn’t think he was going to win” would leave her own mark on the presidency and the role of First Lady. Only a month into the role she held her first press conference and answered questions about women in politics, abortions, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She would also bring awareness to breast cancer and addiction, acknowledging her struggles with both.

As the question of a Nixon pardon floated in the air–Alexander Haig, the chief of staff under Nixon and Ford had first broached the issue with the new president 10 days before Nixon’s resignation–one of Ford’s first acts as president was to address Congress. He did so three days after taking the oath of office.

“I am not here to make an inaugural address,” Ford said. “The nation needs action, not ford congresswords…my fellow Americans, we have a lot of work to do.” To Congress he said, “I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.” Ford, who had climbed the ropes in Washington as a member of Congress, seemed uniquely able to build such a relationship. Yet he would veto 66 bills passed by the Democratic Congress, many of which were then overridden by Congress–the largest percentage of overrides since Congress overrode Andrew Johnson’s vetoes following his unexpected ascension to the presidency.

Ford later reflected: “When I was in the Congress myself, I thought it fulfilled its constitutional obligations in a very responsible way, but after I became president, my perspective changed.”

The decision to pardon Nixon came about a month after Ford took office, and was initially met with outrage and opposition from the country and from many of Watergate’s main players. Although Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein initially met the news of the pardon with dismay, they much later acknowledged that Ford had made the right choice. Woodward called the pardon “an act of political courage”, with Bernstein agreeing that the pardon took “great courage.”

Despite the retrospective, Ford erased any good will he may have had in his first weeks in the presidency by pardoning Nixon. He set himself up for a tough reelection, in which he would be challenged by a right-leaning upstart named Ronald Reagan, and would eventually lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Herbert Hoover Edition

By Aaron Bauer

Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.

His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.

At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.

The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.

Hoover CRBThe organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.

His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:

                                                    I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,

When it comes to loving you.

By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”

Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:

“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”

One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.

With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Coolidge and HooverRepublican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.

Sources:

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte

Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye

Preparing America for World War II: Franklin Roosevelt, Isolationism, and America First

By Aaron Bauer

June 1940 was a dark time in human history. After the conquest of Poland in October 1939, Hitler unleashed his armies on Western Europe in the spring of 1940. Denmark and Norway fell quickly, Belgium was overrun, and by early June, France was near total collapse. On June 10th, Italy entered the war on Germany’s side, declaring war on its former allies France and Britain. That same day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt FDR at UVAwas scheduled to address the graduating class at the University of Virginia. He used the opportunity to comment on the events transpiring across the Atlantic. Roosevelt condemned Italy’s aggression as a stab in the back, and spoke of the dangers of a world dominated by the brutal fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. Going a step further, the president declared that the U.S. would “extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense.”

To most Americans today, Roosevelt’s statement would seem natural, expected even, in the face of unprovoked aggression. Yet, the profound isolationism that followed the utter implosion of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist vision in 1919 still dominated U.S. politics in 1940. From 1920 onwards, the financial heft of Wall Street and the material resources of a continent ensured America’s place as an economic giant, but disengagement and disinterest were the order of the day when it came to global affairs. Throughout the next two decades, both the American people and their government saw events beyond the nation’s shores as none of their concern. Congress translated this sentiment into law in the form of immigration restrictions, tariffs, and even repeated proposals for a constitutional amendment requiring a popular referendum for any declaration of war. As totalitarian wars of conquest raged in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt had to contend with a dominant political faction at home who believed taking sides the height of folly.

In his June 10 address, Roosevelt met the isolationists head on:

Some indeed still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.

Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare of a people without freedom—the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.

Leading isolationists of both parties fired right back. Roosevelt’s pronouncements were “nothing but dangerous adventurism” in the opinion of North Dakota Republican Gerald Nye. Massachusetts Democrat David Walsh decried the idea of sending armaments overseas to aid those fighting Hitler: “I do not want our forces deprived of one gun, or one bomb or one ship which can aid that American boy whom you and I may someday have to draft.” Aviation celebrity and arch isolationist Charles Lindbergh derided the June 10 speech as “defense hysteria” and argued that foreign invasion was only a threat if “the American people bring it on through their own quarreling and meddling with affairs abroad.”

This was not the first time Roosevelt and isolationists had come to rhetorical blows. When Japan began its bloody conquest of China in 1937, Roosevelt called for a “quarantine” of aggressor nations. Isolationists in Congress responded by threatening impeachment. Realizing the strength of the opposition, Roosevelt resolved to take an incremental approach. The president was very conscious of the risk in getting too far ahead of public opinion. As he put it to an aide, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”

Despite the challenges, by mid-1940 Roosevelt’s incremental strategy had begun to show signs of life. Though the overwhelming majority of the public continued to oppose direct involvement in the war, polls showed two-thirds now supported some kind of aid to Britain. Mainstream newspaper editors, who enjoyed far more influence in 1940 than the print media of 2018, came around and began to advocate for sending aid. Dr. Seuss, who in the war years drew political cartoons for the New York paper PM, mocked Republican isolationists as half-elephant/half-ostrich creature with its head in the sand (the GOPstrich). As Americans bickered and dawdled, the war in Europe was going from badchurchill june to worse. The French surrender on June 22nd left Britain as the sole nation still in the fight against Hitler. German aircraft pounded British cities and there were fears of an imminent German invasion of the British Isles. The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that getting America into the war was his country’s only hope for victory. In a defiant speech to the House of Commons that June, he promised that Britain would fight on “until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

In the face of the crisis, Roosevelt knew he must act decisively. The U.S. desperately needed to build up its army, which at the beginning of 1940 was approximately one twentieth the size of Germany’s and armed with weapons decades out of date. By the end of World War I, America had fielded the fourth largest army in the world. Between post-war disarmament and an isolationist Congress opposed to military spending and determined to shut down weapons manufacturers, the U.S. army had slid to eighteenth by 1939, just ahead of the Portuguese. To give the U.S. the time it needed to rearm, Britain had to be kept in the war. Further complicating matters, 1940 was a presidential election year, and Roosevelt had to undertake all this while running for reelection to an unprecedented third term. It would take every bit of his considerable political skill to see it done.

One of Britain’s most urgent needs was additional ships to defend her shores and commerce. Roosevelt negotiated with Churchill to trade unused U.S. destroyers for leases establishing military bases on a number of British territories in the Western hemisphere. Knowing there was no time for a lengthy fight in Congress, Roosevelt simply bypassed it and announced that the deal had been made. With characteristic deviousness, Roosevelt tried to steal some media attention from his 1940 opponent Wendell Willkie by making this announcement at the same time as Willkie’s speech accepting the Republican nomination. While Roosevelt was praised for getting the better end of the deal with the British, his end-run around Congress brought on full-throated condemnation from his critics. Willkie called the move “the most dictatorial and arbitrary of any President in the history of the U.S,” and the St. Louis Post Dispatch proclaimed “Mr. Roosevelt today committed an act of war. He also becomes America’s first dictator.” Public criticism aside, Roosevelt had taken an important step in forging a transatlantic alliance against Hitler, and U.S. arms sales became a crucial lifeline for the British.

Preparing the U.S. military required a far greater act of political courage. With the Army’s need to begin training an army of more than a million men as soon as possible, Roosevelt took the risky step of vigorously supporting the first-ever peacetime draft in U.S. history. On this issue, the president received key support from an unexpected quarter: Wendell Willkie. Though critical of Roosevelt’s methods and parts of the New Deal agenda, Willkie differed from many Republican elected officials in his belief that “we cannot brush the pitiless picture of their [the stricken people of Europe] destruction from our eyes or escape the profound effects of it upon the world in which we live,” and that “some form of selective service is the only democratic way in which to assure the trained and competent manpower we need in our national defense.” The selective service bill made it through Congress with bipartisan support, and Roosevelt, over the objections of his advisers, began conscription just a week before voters went to the polls. America would have a military capable of meeting the threats abroad.

Neither conscription nor Willkie’s charisma proved able to shake Roosevelt’s political coalition, and 1940 saw the nation’s first (and only) election of a third-term president. His electoral victory did not, however, signal the defeat of the forces of isolationism. September 1940 saw the formation of the America First Committee, which would become one of the largest anti-war organizations in U.S. history. Its spokesperson, Charles Lindbergh, clashed frequently with the Roosevelt administration. Largely based in the Midwest, the Committee argued that staying out of the war was vital to the preservation of American democracy and that the sending of aid weakened the U.S. and risked drawing the country into the war. Roosevelt had his own case to make, and in December delivered the sixteenth “fireside chat” radio address of his presidency to put it before the American people. If the Axis is victorious, he argued, Americans would be “living at the point of a gun.” Roosevelt pointed out the futility of negotiating, that experience had “proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis. No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb.” America’s role was clear, he declared, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself.”

As 1940 drew to a close a new emergency arose: the financial underpinnings of the American aid to Britain were in dire straights. The previous year, Roosevelt had pried from Congress authorization for “cash and carry” arms sales to Britain. But after more than a year of war, Britain had nearly exhausted its ability to pay hard cash. The mess of debts that had languished after the First World War (Britain still owed the US $4.4 billion in 1934) killed any political appetite in the U.S. to loan the British the funds they needed. A creative solution was required, and fast, if American weapons and supplies were to remain on the front lines of the war. The solution came to Roosevelt, almost fully formed, while he was enjoying a post-election vacation cruise. The Lend-Lease policy, as it came to be called, was a classic Roosevelt workaround. The U.S. would lend, rather than sell, Britain the equipment it needed for the duration of the war, with the expectation that it would either be returned or Britain would pay to replace it. The president’s staff were stunned by his sudden insight. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins called it a “flash of almost clairvoyant knowledge and understanding.” “He did not seem to talk much about the subject in hand, or to consult the advice of others, or to ‘read up’ on it,” recounted speechwriter Bob Sherwood. “One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece.”

Conceiving of Lend-Lease was one thing, but getting it through Congress was something else entirely. Roosevelt’s first step was to explain the idea to the public. In a press conference, he used an accessible and compelling metaphor:

Well, let me give you an illustration: Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

The President’s critics were having none of it. Such an arrangement would inevitably entangle the country in foreign wars. Ohio Republican Senator Robert Taft, the son of former president William Howard Taft, believe that Lend-Lease would give Roosevelt dictatorial powers “to carry on a kind of undeclared war all over the world.” Charles Lindbergh characterized the policy as “another step away from democracy and another step closer to war.” But during the weeks of hearings Congress held in early 1941, the law’s supporters won the argument—public support rose from 50 percent to 61 percent and Roosevelt signed it into law in March 1941. In a time when totalitarian regimes were ascendent across much of the world, Roosevelt saw this process as exemplifying the strength of a democratic system: “Yes, the decisions of our democracy may be slowly arrived at. But when the decision is made, it is proclaimed not with the voice of one man but with the voice of 130 million.”

Even as the passage of Lend-Lease allowed for continued and increasing U.S. aid to Britain, the American public and its government remained deeply divided over the nation’s path. German submarines were sinking a lot of American supplies in transit, but public support for U.S. Navy convoys to protect them remained lukewarm (52 percent in May). Enough isolationists in Congress pledged “unalterable opposition” to convoys to block any possible action. Furthermore, large majorities opposed getting further involved, with 79 percent of Americans expressing desire to stay out of the war and 70 percent believing Roosevelt was doing enough or too much for Britain. In late May, Roosevelt exercised one of the few remaining available options and used his authority to declare an “unlimited national emergency.” This granted him additional unilateral authority to prepare the country for war by increasing the size of the military and exercising more control over the defense industry. Roosevelt announced this move in a national radio address in which he cast the war in Europe not as a local squabble, but as “a war for world domination.” He painted a bleak picture of a world culturally and economically dominated by Nazi Germany, and implored Americans to realize the danger: “Some people seem to think that we are not attacked until bombs actually drop in the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago, but they are simply shutting their eyes to the lesson that we must learn from the fate of every nation that the Nazis have conquered…”

By the summer of 1941, Roosevelt felt he had reached the limit of where he could lead the public. When Germany launched its massive invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941, Roosevelt intervened again and again to break through a reluctant bureaucracy and get aid flowing to the war’s Eastern front. Missouri Democrat Bennett Clark spoke for many when he described Nazism versus Communism as “a case of dog eat dog.” “Stalin is as bloody-handed as Hitler,” Bennett said, “I don’t think we should help either one.”

It was the German U-boats, just as in 1917, that swung public opinion decisively in favor of war. Repeated sinkings of U.S. merchant and military ships throughout 1941 that killed more than a hundred American sailors convinced a majority that war was necessary. Support for the arming of merchant ships (forbidden by a Neutrality Act passed by Congress in the 1930s) rose from 30 percent in April 1941 to 72 percent by the fall. Even so, isolationists in the Senate were able to stall a Neutrality Act revision. Roosevelt again took to the airwaves, announcing in a September fireside chat a “shoot-on-sight” policy. “No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, we will keep open the line of legitimate commerce in these defensive waters…. Let this warning be clear. From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril…. When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” With public opinion continuing to shift (a September 1941 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent agreed that the defeat of Germany was more important than keeping America out of war), the revision eventually passed the Senate by a small margin.

Roosevelt once said “I am a juggler. I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” Across 1939 to 1941, he indeed performed a remarkable feat of political juggling. The president removed legal and political barriers to supplying military aid to the nations fighting Hitler, played a role in the complete reversal of public opinion on the importance of defeating Germany, and rebuilt the U.S. military from a state of near complete neglect, all the while dealing with entrenched isolationism in Congress, weathering attacks from America First, and winning the only third term in U.S. history. Roosevelt’s public leadership, along with German submarine warfare and the news of the destruction wrought by Hitler’s armies relayed by American journalists in Europe, emotionally prepared the U.S. for war. Though it was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war that brought the U.S. into the Second World War, Roosevelt’s dogged, incremental efforts to overcome isolationism were essential to prevent Axis victory in the war’s opening years. This same persistence in building up the nation’s army, navy, and military production saved precious months and years when the time came to truly get into the fight. Roosevelt had succeeded in making America an arsenal of democracy.

Sources:

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

American Warlords by Jonathan W. Jordan

The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by George McJimsey

The American Presidency Project by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley

 

The Case of the Missing Monument: John Adams and Historical Memory

By Kaleena Fraga

The Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial. Washington D.C. is dotted with such landmarks testifying to the importance of America’s early presidents. But there is one founding father conspicuously absent from D.C.’s memorial scene–the nation’s second president, John Adams.

Even in life, Adams worried about his place in American history. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson written in 1815, after both of their presidencies had ended, Adams wrote:

“The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him, and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.”

George Washington, he predicted, and Benjamin Franklin, would be celebrated while he, John Adams, faded away into oblivion.

A few years later, the question of Adams’ place in American memory continued to gnaw at him. On top of being forgotten, Adams worried that he would be misremembered. He lamented,

“Mausoleums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not——Panegyrical Romances, will never be written, nor flattering Orations pronounced to transmit my Character to Posterity in glorious Colours. No nor in true Colours neither.”

Adams is perhaps overshadowed in American history by the presidents whose administrations bookended his one term in office–George Washington, as the nation’s first president, and Thomas Jefferson, who called his own election “the revolution of 1800.” Yet Adams played a crucial role in the nation’s founding, no less so than either Jefferson or Washington.

One of the only founding fathers who did not own slaves, Adams participated in the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s first vice president, and as the nation’s second president. He was a determined advocate for the Declaration of Independence, passionately defending it while the quieter Jefferson preferred to listen and watch. Although his maneuvering to avoid war with France during his one-term in office made him unpopular–and his infamous Alien & Sedition Acts even more so–Adams once grumbled:

“I will defend my Missions to France as long as I have an Eye to direct my hand or a finger to hold my pen. They were the most disinterested And meritorious Actions of my Life. I reflect upon them with So much satisfaction that I desire No other Inscription on my Grave Stone than “Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the Responsibility of the Peace with France in the Year 1800.”

Recently, the House of Representatives took concrete steps to establish such an Adams memorial, after years of lobbying by the Adams’ family and their foundation, the Adams Memorial Foundation. Previous attempts to organize a memorial for Adams failed over indecision over the location, running into certain laws that prohibit construction on the Mall or Tidal Basin, the kind of places most of Adams’ proponents would like to see his likeness.

In July 2018 the House passed a bill that would “establish a commission to plan, fundraise and build a memorial to the country’s second president.” The bill’s sponsor, Stephen F. Lynch, who represents the district where Adams was born, Braintree, Massachusetts, believes that the entire Adams’ family deserves to be honored.

“John Adams’ legacy was instilled through his entire family,” Lynch said. “John’s wife Abigail is known as an advocate for women’s rights and his son, John Quincy Adams, later served as our nation’s sixth president.”

John Adams worried that he and his accomplishments would be forgotten. With the passage of the House bill, perhaps the second president will finally get the recognition that he deserves.

Julia Grant at the Corner of History

By Kaleena Fraga

Julia Grant is one of the many women largely forgotten by most Americans, yet one who bore witness to watershed moments and even likely altered the course of American history.

Part I: The End of the Civil War

Grant, née Dent, was married to the Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant. She was his steadfast companion during the war, despite her own Southern roots. She, like Mary Lincoln, endured questions about her loyalty to the Union cause–both were labeled secesh, or a supporter of secession because of their Southern roots and their families’ divided loyalties. But Julia Grant completely supported her husband and the Union. When approached in a grocery store by a woman who suggested that Julia Grant was “Southern in feeling and principle,” Grant responded, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.”

Still, Grant admitted to deep melancholy after touring the fallen city of Richmond, Virginia. She described abandoned streets littered with paper “like forest leaves after summer is gone.” In her memoirs, she wrote how she left the tour feeling distraught. “I fell to thinking of all the sad tragedies of the past four years. How many homes made desolate! How many hearts broken! How much youth sacrificed!…tears, great tears, fell from my eyes…could it be that my visit reminded me of my dear old home in Missouri?”

As the two armies faced off near Richmond, and as the war began to look hopeless for the South, Confederate general James Longstreet seethed that continuing to fight was “a great crime against the Southern people and Army….[a] hopeless and unnecessary butchery.” In discussions with a Union General, Edward Ord, Longstreet suggested that his own wife could pass through Union lines and meet with Julia Grant, whom she had known as a girl, and then Julia could visit the Confederate side.

Julia Grant, for her part, was enthusiastic to participate. “Oh how enchanting, how thrilling!” she exclaimed to her husband. But when she asked Ulysses S. Grant if she could go, he refused. “No, you must not,” he said. “The men have fought this war and the men will finish it.”

The war would continue for two more months, before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Part II: Julia Grant, Mary Lincoln, and a Fateful Decline

In the end, Julia Grant’s greatest influence on the Civil War itself may be her companionship to her husband–she traveled over 10,000 miles during the war in order to accompany him as often as possible–and the fact that Ulysses S. Grant, an alcoholic, never drank when his wife stayed with him.

Yet Julia Grant would command an oversized influence on the events directly after the war. Over the course of the conflict, her husband had developed a close working relationship with the president, Abraham Lincoln, who had struggled to find an effective leader for the Union Army. As the war wound down near Richmond, Julia Grant also spent time with Lincoln’s wife, Mary.

mary lincolnTheir first meeting was auspicious. In his biography of her husband, Ron Chernow writes that it became family lore among the Dents. In their telling, Julia Grant paid a courtesy call on Mary Lincoln, only to find that the First Lady “expected [Julia] to treat her like royalty.” Mary Lincoln is infamous for her wild rages, but she had special reasons to dislike the Grants–she suspected that Ulysses S. Grant wanted her husband’s job, and he had allowed her son Robert to join him as an aide-de-camp, against her wishes.

Their relationship never improved, and Julia Grant was horrified when Mary Lincoln accused General Ord’s wife of flirting with her husband in a blistering tirade. When Julia tried to intervene, Mary Lincoln snapped, “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”

A few months later, when the Lincolns invited the Grants to a night at the theatre, Julia Grant “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln.” When the president later encouraged her husband to accompany them, Ulysses S. Grant offered his regrets, joking that he “now had a command from Mrs. Grant.” Lincoln understood, saying, “Of course…Mrs. Grant’s instincts should be considered before my request.”

In the end, the Lincolns invited Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone. That night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth–dramatically altering the lives of everyone else in his box. Word had already spread that Grant would be accompanying the Lincolns that night, and, indeed, Booth sought to assassinate both Lincoln and Grant. We’ll never know if Grant would have been killed alongside with Lincoln, or if his military instinct might have saved both their lives.

There’s no doubt that Julia Grant played an important role during the Civil War by supporting her husband and suppressing his inner demons. Her fateful decision after the war to refuse the Lincoln’s invitation likely altered the course of events for decades to come.

Happy Summer from History First!

History First will be offline for the next two weeks–but we’ll return the week of July 30th with our usual biweekly publications.

In the meantime we encourage you to check out some of the articles we’ve written over the past few months!

We’ve written about everything from McKinley’s bad luck to Bush Sr.’s baseball game with the Queen of England. We looked back on the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial–and which speakers weren’t allowed to sit on the stage–and examined JFK’s famous speech in Berlin, putting to rest the notion that he compared himself to a donut in front of thousands of Germans. In other words, we’ve covered a lot! Check out a list of recent articles to the right, or search to see if we’ve written about your favorite presidential story.

Happy Summer!

Love,

History First