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Four Who Made History

Four Who Made History

A new book explores the four unusual people who formed the heart of Franklin D. Roosevelt's historic presidency.

Michael Mandelbaum
Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made
by Derek Leebaert (St. Martin's Press, 476 pp., $32.99)

March 4, 2023 will mark the ninetieth anniversary of the first inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the thirty-second president of the United States. He went on to win an unprecedented three additional presidential elections before dying in office on April, 12, 1945; and his extraordinarily eventful twelve years as the nation’s chief executive made his presidency, along with those of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, one of the three most consequential in American history. Compared with the other two, however, Roosevelt's political legacy remains a more vital presence in contemporary American public affairs than those of the other two in that, nine decades later, he continues to be an icon of the Democratic Party.

Roosevelt conducted what were, in effect, two distinct presidencies during his time in office, each of them a response to a major, unanticipated, ominous development. He was initially elected to cope with the devastating impact of the Great Depression of the early 1930s, the worst economic downturn in American history. In response, he launched a series of new institutions, regulations, and subsidies that came to be known collectively as the New Deal. It laid the basis for the contemporary American welfare state and made the federal government a far larger part of American life than it had been for the first 150 years after independence.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

No president had ever held the office beyond two four-year terms, and Roosevelt almost certainly would not have done so, either, but for the outbreak and the course of World War II in Europe. In particular, the unexpected defeat of France by Germany in June, 1940, which left Great Britain as the only European country holding out against Hitler’s Third Reich, made the world seem dangerous enough in that year for FDR to offer himself as a presidential candidate again and for the American electorate to give him a third term. He presided over the country’s war effort until almost the end, victory in Europe coming a month after his death and victory over Japan four months after that. Like the New Deal, the war transformed the United States, making it a military power and political force of global scope, as it has remained to the present day.

What he did in office, and the impact of what he did on his country and the world, made Franklin Roosevelt a towering historical figure. He did not, however, act alone. Like any modern political leader, he governed with the assistance of people whom he appointed and trusted and to whom he delegated some of his authority. Four in particular loomed large in the Roosevelt presidency: Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor; Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior, Henry Wallace, initially the secretary of agriculture, then vice president during FDR’s third term, and also briefly secretary of commerce. The fourth, Harry Hopkins, was also for a time secretary of commerce but before that had been director of the Works Projects Administration, a major New Deal employment program, and during the war became the president’s personal emissary to the leaders of America’s two principal allies­–Winston Churchill of Great Britain and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.

The four served in the Roosevelt administration from beginning to end. They exerted deep and wide-ranging influence. They were famous in the United States and beyond during their heydays–each appeared on the cover of Time magazine, then the equivalent of the nation’s billboard–but, as is the fate of secondary figures in public affairs, memories of who they were and what they did have faded. In his new book, Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made, Derek Leebaert, the author of several major works about American foreign policy, revisits their personal histories and their contributions to the history of the United States. In addition, while Roosevelt and his presidency have been the subject of many memoirs, biographies, and historical studies, Leebaert’s lively, informative, and compelling account of the Washington careers of his four chief aides offers a new perspective on the twelve momentous years between 1933 and 1945.

Perkins had a significant role in Roosevelt’s governorship of New York, which preceded his presidency. She then became the first female member of a president’s cabinet and played an instrumental part in launching the most enduringly important New Deal program, Social Security. Ickes, a lawyer from Illinois whose initial political allegiance was to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement, acquired wide administrative duties at the Department of the Interior–he had, for example, wartime responsibility for Hawaii, which was then under martial law. He was the Roosevelt administration’s most public and emphatic champion of civil rights and, before the United States formally entered World War II, of opposition to fascism. Wallace, an Iowan and also originally a Theodore Roosevelt progressive who was both an accomplished plant geneticist and the publisher of an influential newsletter about agriculture, presided over the creation of a series of programs that were intended to provide temporary assistance to farmers beleaguered by the Depression but that have endured to this day. Harry Hopkins, another Iowan, who had moved to New York to work as a social worker, took on a variety of major and often delicate tasks in the Roosevelt years, all the while plagued by ill health. Of the four he became the one closest personally to the President himself, living for a time in the White House.

The four had several traits in common. All began as outsiders to national politics and the federal government. None would have risen to anything like the eminence each attained in pre-FDR America. All achieved their eminence because of their abilities. Each brought both fresh ideas and considerable energy to their posts, and each operated deftly and successfully within the government to enact the Roosevelt agenda, their effectiveness owing in no small part to their alliances and friendships–shifting though they could be–with one another. Finally, each suffered from personal difficulties, or emotional problems, or both. Leebaert calls them “wounded” and suggests that their psychic wounds created a strong connection between each of them and a president similarly wounded by the crushing experience of becoming immobilized by polio in the prime of his life.

Together, the four did more than anyone other than FDR himself to shepherd a battered America through the Great Depression and to lead a fearful but ultimately determined America to victory in World War II. In fact, Leebaert judges Perkins, Ickes, and Wallace to have been the most consequential secretaries of labor, the interior, and agriculture in American history. The four initially had positions concerned with domestic affairs and so played major roles in the New Deal. When war came, they, along with Roosevelt and the country, shifted their focus. They carried out crucial tasks in mobilizing America for its great overseas military efforts; and Hopkins, as FDR’s personal envoy, and Wallace as vice president, took a hand in the diplomacy that accompanied those efforts.

The book’s subtitle refers to the four as Roosevelt’s lieutenants, and the word is appropriate. The original French – lieu tenantmeans taking the place of someone or something and that aptly describes their relationship to the president. They stood in for him in the departments and agencies of the federal government, translating his general policies into specific programs just as lieutenants in the military convert the strategic directives that come from higher up the chain of command into operations by the smaller units that they supervise.

In this way, Unlikely Heroes bears comparison to John Keegan’s classic 1976 book The Face of Battle, a study of three battles that took place in the same corner of northwest Europe but centuries apart: Agincourt, which pitted the French against the English, in 1415; Waterloo, matching Napoleon’s army against a multinational force commanded by Great Britain’s Duke of Wellington in 1815; and the Somme, where Britain and France fought Germany in 1916. Keegan broke new ground in military history by describing each battle as the men who were doing the fighting experienced it, rather than from the point of view of the commanders at the rear or from the wholly detached perspective that historians often adopt. Similarly, Unlikely Heroes gives the reader the Roosevelt presidency as those on its front lines saw and lived it. The book describes the tumultuous years between 1933 and 1945, twelve years that changed both America and world, through the eyes of the four people who did more than any single figure except Franklin Roosevelt himself to bring about those changes. Nine decades later, what the four of them did remains part of the fabric of American life.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, (2022).

Image: Franklin D. Roosevelt with (from left to right) General Paul Malone, Louis Howe, Harold Ickes, Robert Fechner, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and Civilian Conservation Corps Company 350 at CCC Camp Big Meadows. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

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