Why Don't More People Know About Harry HopkinsHistorians/History
tags: Harry Hopkins
News photo of Hopkins departing for Britain, January 1941
Harry Hopkins entered my life in my final year at St. Andrews University in Scotland when my tutor, who was from Texas, wanted me to assess the reputation of a man who had fallen “through a trapdoor in history.”
I had never heard of Harry Hopkins before and nor, as my tutor remarked sadly, had anyone else in the United Kingdom. Yet, he told me that Britain’s wartime survival in the face of the Nazi onslaught owed a great deal to a man whom Winston Churchill had called “a lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbour.”
The memory of that conversation has stayed with me. Forty-five years later, I hope I have thrown some light on the crucial role played by Harry Hopkins in the British war effort during the desperate months of 1941.
The story of Harry Hopkins’s mission to wartime London begins with the departure of the discredited American ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, in October 1940. Kennedy had been quite open about his admiration for Hitler’s Germany and dismissive of England’s chances in the war. He left at the height of the blitz when it became clear he was no longer welcome at the Court of St. James.
However Kennedy had raised a question which echoed around Washington at the turn of that year. Could Britain survive? Was it worth sending aid to a country that would shortly be forced to negotiate surrender to Germany? Roosevelt decided to send Harry Hopkins to London to find out. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard the identity of the envoy he simply said: “Who?” It was a good question. No one in London knew anything about Hopkins.
As a friend and confidante of President Roosevelt, Hopkins occupied a unique position of power in Washington. He had no formal position in the administration yet lived in the White House in the splendour of Lincoln’s old study. His radicalism during the New Deal had left him politically isolated – loathed by Republicans and distrusted by most Democrats. His unrivalled access to the Oval Office grated on most members of the cabinet. Scourged by illness, he nevertheless pursued a playboy lifestyle at odds with the restrained character of Roosevelt’s White House. Despite this, Eleanor Roosevelt adored him and treated him like a son.
Strangest of all, Hopkins was the product of a narrow middle-American upbringing that left him a natural isolationist. He was born in Sioux City but spent his early years in Grinnell, Iowa, where he went to college. There in heartland America, the young Hopkins developed his deep-rooted dislike of class and privilege allied with a suspicion of anything to do with British red-coats and their empire. Yet this was the man, an unelected White House crony with a deep distrust of “abroad,” whom the president chose to project onto the stage of world diplomacy. The reason was simple. Hopkins was the president’s eyes, ears – and legs. Roosevelt would trust no one else on such a dangerous and politically sensitive mission to London at a time when the British were staring defeat in the face.
After a punishing four-day flight via Brazil, Africa and Portugal to the southern coast of England, Harry Hopkins arrived in London on the evening of January 9 to find himself in the middle of an incendiary raid. Since the previous September, 28,000 people had been killed and 40,000 homes destroyed in nightly air raids in London alone. He was met by the US embassy charge, Herschel V. Johnson, and taken to Claridges Hotel through streets engulfed in fire. Amid the deafening roar of anti-aircraft guns in nearby Hyde Park, the wail of sirens and the shriek of falling bombs, Hopkins checked in and went straight to the bar.
The next morning he was driven to 10 Downing Street for lunch with the prime minister. In a letter* to Roosevelt sent by courier, Hopkins described the meeting.
“A rotund, smiling, red-faced gentleman appeared, extended a fat but nonetheless convincing hand and wished me welcome to England. A short black coat, striped trousers and a clear eye and mushy voice was the impression of England’s leader as he showed me with obvious pride photographs of his beautiful daughter-in-law and grandchild.”
This was the beginning of a one-sided courtship. Churchill had to woo and win a man who would be his conduit to the White House. Hopkins on the other hand knew he had to resist the prime minister’s famous charm and his oratorical skills and sift fact from Churchillian fantasy.
In making Hopkins his personal envoy to London, Roosevelt had cleverly neutralized isolationist suspicions about the mission. The view in Congress was that Churchill’s war-mongering rhetoric would have little effect on the son of a harness maker who had been raised in the Corn Belt; Hopkins was also well aware of Roosevelt’s own ambivalent attitude toward the future of Britain and its wartime leader.
Roosevelt had not liked Churchill when they first met – and clashed - in London in 1918. The prime minister was also a vocal champion of the Empire, which did not sit well in Washington. On top of that, Churchill had campaigned for American military support from the moment he had become prime minister the previous May. This alarmed Roosevelt who had gone out of his way to reassure the mothers of America that their sons would not be sent to fight in another foreign war.
But Roosevelt and his advisers were also deeply disturbed by the prospect of a fascist victory in Europe. The Lend-Lease bill, aimed at providing Britain with basic foodstuffs and military hardware, was wending its way through a reluctant Congress. Churchill wanted much more. Roosevelt’s military commanders told him that there was little point sending supplies to a country that was about to capitulate to Hitler.
This was the political minefield awaiting Harry Hopkins in London.
For the first two weeks, Hopkins saw the prime minister every day and dined with him almost every night either at 10 Downing Street or his official country residence, Chequers. He was impressed by Churchill’s soaring oratory but initially skeptical about possible US intervention. He was also appalled by the working conditions. Both Chequers and 10 Downing Street were ill heated in the bitter mid-winter and Hopkins was forced to work in his overcoat in the only warm place in either residence, the bathroom. Churchill also liked working in the bathroom – while taking a bath.
Thus Hopkins found himself trying to take notes while the prime minister held forth from the bath amid clouds of steam and much splashing. Every door opened for the president’s envoy. Hopkins was given briefings by top commanders and intelligence chiefs. King George VI received him at Buckingham Palace. Churchill insisted he visit cities in the front line of the blitz such as Portsmouth, Southampton and Glasgow. Hopkins spent time with the firemen, police and ambulance drivers who faced the horrors of the blitz every night on the streets of these cities.
The American envoy was deeply impressed. He realized that Churchill’s defiant speeches, and the bloody minded courage of ordinary men and women, were carrying the British through their trial by fire. Fearing the lingering influence of Ambassador Kennedy, Roosevelt had ordered Hopkins to avoid diplomatic channels and use naval communications for his dispatches. Through these the president learnt that Hopkins shared Churchill’s view that the war would be won or lost not in the English Channel but in the Atlantic. Merchant shipping losses were rising sharply and food and fuel stocks were falling below the point of national survival.
Hopkins had arrived in England hostile to any American involvement in the second European war in a generation. His stance quickly changed and he began urging the president to send military supplies to the British and switch naval units from the Pacific to the Atlantic to protect the vital convoys.
In a letter* written to the White House on January 14, Hopkins said:
“The people here are amazing from Churchill down and if courage alone can win, the result will be inevitable. But they need our help desperately and I am sure you will permit nothing to stand in the way… this island needs our help now Mr. President with everything we can give them.”
These were powerful words from someone Roosevelt trusted intimately. But while London burned, the president refused to commit himself and publicly repeated his non-interventionist policy.
Harry Hopkins returned to the US in the second week of February a changed man. He would fly back to London that summer to arrange the first wartime meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill aboard their respective battle ships off the Newfoundland coast. He would help host Churchill’s visit to Washington over Christmas 1941 after Pearl Harbor. And he would play a pivotal role in the diplomacy between Russia, Britain and the US as the allies bought Nazi Germany to its knees.
But nothing so became Harry Hopkins as the four weeks he spent in Britain, mostly at Churchill’s side, in January and February 1941. The harness maker’s son from Sioux City won the trust of the beleaguered prime minister, alerted his president to Britain’s dire peril and had forged a line of communication between the White House and 10 Downing Street that would lead to a war winning Atlantic alliance.
With his characteristic grasp of history and love of language Churchill called Hopkins a Paladin, an allusion to the knights errant of old who rescued damsels in distress.
In the view of this writer, Hopkins did that and much more. I hope that my novel about his role as the president’s wartime envoy, which is grounded in the history of the period, helps remind people on both sides of the Atlantic of his contribution to history.
*The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins by Robert E Sherwood (1948), volume 1.
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