Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews


Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy. By George

McJimsey. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. xiv + 474p.;

illustrations, notes, index. $25.00.)

Perhaps it was the common bond of a Grinnell College education that lured

George McJimsey to Harry Hopkins as a biographical subject. Certainly few

men other than heads of state and a handful of generals were more important

than Hopkins during World War II, and no one, including Franklin D.

Roosevelt himself, was more pervasive as the New Deal swept across the

nation. Yet, like other presidential factotums, Hopkins has been largely

forgotten by all but historians and a diminishing generation of older Americans.

McJimsey begins his account with a description of Hopkins' early years and

family life in Sioux City and Grinnell, Iowa. The son of a harness maker,

Hopkins enjoyed a happy turn-of-the-century existence. He delivered papers,

easily made friends in school and had a steady girl. He was also a good athlete,

particularly in basketball. Even in the idyllic small-town environment of

Grinnell, though, Hopkins was already developing the healthy cynicism that

later deflated so many of the New Deal's critics.

After high school, Hopkins matriculated at Grinnell College. There, influ-

enced by professors who believed Grinnell graduates should improve the world

through social commitment, the young Hopkins began to refine the attitudes he

carried into public life. His Grinnell education led him to social work in New

York City, and later to positions with the American Red Cross, the Association

for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) and finally to the executive

directorship of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA),

where he attracted Roosevelt's attention in 1932.

The ensuing phases of Hopkins' life are better known. He directed with skill

and compassion a number of New Deal relief programs, all the while never

deviating from a simple conviction: "Hunger is not debatable." So humane a

philosophy naturally endeared him to America's poor. In his unwavering

devotion to that humble constituency Hopkins truly exemplified the highest

sense of the term "public servant."

World War II, of course, altered America's and Hopkins' destiny. At

Roosevelt's beckoning, Hopkins made an effective transition from relief

minister par excellence to diplomat extraordinaire. Before and after the United

States' entry into the war Hopkins advanced America's cause. He was

virtually everywhere-Placentia Bay, Casablanca, Tehran, Yalta and else-

where, even though serious digestive problems frequently debilitated him.

McJimsey devotes about two-thirds of his book to Hopkins' career during

the war years. It is here that the author is most artful, describing in patient

detail the Gordian snarl of Lend-Lease and other wartime policies. Hopkins

seemed to sense instinctively how idiosyncrasy and personal pique often shape

diplomacy, steering a delicate course, for instance, between Winston Churchill

and Josef Stalin, although he tended to placate the Soviet leader.

McJimsey used a wide variety of printed and manuscript sources, including

Grinnell College records, Red Cross and other social service agency papers,

the correspondence of several prominent New Dealers and wartime figures and