After tearing through Belgium, the Netherlands and France, Adolf Hitler’s armies had surrounded British and allied troops at Dunkirk in early June 1940. Fearing Germany would attack Great Britain next, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for arms so the British could defend themselves from Nazi fascism. In America, however, isolationists bitterly condemned FDR, accusing him of dragging the United States into another costly European war. On June 3, Representative Hamilton Fish, a New York Republican and ardent isolationist, took the floor of the House of Representatives and hurled a rhetorical bomb, suggesting that Democrats were encouraging FDR to “set up a dictatorial government in the United States.”1
Amid a drumbeat of attacks on FDR’s war policies, the Republican Party prepared to select a presidential nominee at its national convention in Philadelphia in late June 1940. If a staunch isolationist won the election that fall, America might refuse to send aid to any allies; the prospect of a Nazi empire spanning all of Europe loomed.
On June 20, 1940, FDR launched a bold strategy to undercut the isolationists. In a surprise announcement, he appointed two prominent Republicans—both strong supporters of aiding America’s European allies—to critical posts in his cabinet. Henry L. Stimson, who had been secretary of state under FDR’s Republican predecessor, President Herbert Hoover, would be secretary of war, and Frank Knox, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1936, would be secretary of the navy. The White House said the appointments, setting partisan politics aside in the name of defending the country, were intended to create “national solidarity.”2
By their example, Stimson and Knox encouraged other Republicans to support the Democratic president. The appointments immediately set off an uproar among Republicans. On the day of FDR’s announcement, Republicans lambasted Stimson and Knox at their national convention. They were, some said, “read out” of the party and no longer spoke for it. Yet days later, in a stunning volte-face, the convention rejected the leading isolationist candidate and instead chose Wendell Willkie, whose war policy was closest to FDR’s, as the party’s 1940 presidential nominee.
The Stimson and Knox appointments were a daring and risky move that placed a bipartisan political relationship at the very center of America’s defense against fascism. The gamble paid off. Stimson and Knox cultivated an appearance of nonpartisan leadership, and their support ultimately helped FDR win the 1940 presidential election. The nation’s capital gained a new spirit of solidarity, and many bills passed Congress over the next five years with strong backing from both parties. The bipartisan coalition worked effectively to unite the nation, rapidly expand and strengthen the American military and secure victory in World War II.
Stimson, despite his relatively advanced age—he accepted FDR’s appointment at seventy-two—spearheaded the bipartisan alliance and carried it through the end of the war. Other prominent Republicans soon joined forces with FDR, including his recent opponent Willkie, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia and William Donovan, who was appointed to lead the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy agency. Each of these men chose to stand with FDR to defend democracy at a time when doing so meant losing favor with large numbers of Republicans.
The alliance was in full swing long before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor spurred the nation to widely support the war effort and abandon isolationism. It arose at a time when isolationists held sway in Congress and blocked preparations for war—a time when it was not easy for Republicans to side with the Democratic president. Yet even after Pearl Harbor, FDR found significant benefits in bipartisanship and sought to work with more Republicans as the war went on. He even imagined a future in which liberals in the Republican Party would convert to the Democratic Party, which would in turn send its conservatives over to the Republicans.
This embrace of bipartisanship—as Hitler’s war machine savaged Western Europe—stands as an act of audacity and brilliance that was instrumental in leading America and her allies to victory in World War II. Yet it has been all but forgotten. One reason for this national amnesia is that FDR and Stimson were so skilled at creating unity that their party differences faded into the background. Another is that political partisans typically attract adherents and campaign contributions by demonizing their opponents as irrational and intransigent—not by celebrating shared goals achieved through collaboration with opposing parties. There is an old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. To this one might add: compromise, even for the national good, is a neglected child.
I first learned about the FDR-Stimson alliance years ago while writing a biography of Robert Cutler, a Boston Republican and closeted gay man who served under President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the nation’s first national security adviser. A decade before that service, Cutler had gone to Washington to work in the War Department.3 I was amazed to discover that there was something of a Republican brigade in command of the War Department under FDR’s Democratic administration and set out to unearth the story of this partnership. The logical starting place was Stimson’s diary, an authoritative contemporaneous account often cited by historians yet never fully mined for a picture of his wartime collaboration with FDR. Among the remarkable things I found was a letter revealing that Stimson considered becoming secretary of war akin to taking the War Department as a “hostage” of the Republican Party.
The FDR-Stimson alliance was informal—it had no founding charter, no written agreement. It also expanded beyond FDR to include First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and cabinet members like Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. The two major parties still dominated politics in Washington, and partisan disputes—even very acrimonious ones—still arose, yet they did so against a backdrop of leadership in the White House that constantly worked for bipartisan agreement.
Today, it may seem a matter of course that—at a time when the nation’s existence was threatened—Republicans and Democrats would set aside partisan disputes and work together. But it was never a matter of course. A lifelong Republican, Stimson had publicly criticized Roosevelt, and many Republicans denounced his acceptance of the post of secretary of war. On the other side, FDR had fought innumerable battles with Republicans over his long career. He could have secured wavering Democratic voters in 1940 by appointing a prominent Democrat.
Stimson and FDR, both students of history and admirers of President Abraham Lincoln, surely knew of the pitfalls of bipartisanship revealed by events seventy-five years earlier. Lincoln, the heroic Republican, sought to build a spirit of national unity in the midst of the Civil War by choosing a pro-Union Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, to be his vice-presidential running mate. They won the 1864 election. After the war ended the next year, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson became president. The new Democratic president eventually fired his Republican secretary of war, Edwin Stanton—causing a storm of protests among Republicans. Republicans in the House of Representatives impeached Johnson over Stanton’s firing; although the Senate acquitted Johnson, the party divide that Lincoln had hoped to close grew wider again. This was a searing cautionary tale of the risks of bipartisan control of the executive branch. Nonetheless, three-quarters of a century later, a Democratic president and a Republican secretary of war chose the path of bipartisanship in an effort to unite America. This was neither an obvious choice nor a preordained one; it was a courageous decision by both men that ran contrary to partisan pressures, political convenience and the lessons of history.
Over nearly five years of war, Roosevelt and Stimson labored together over hotly contested matters such as initiating a military draft, invading North Africa and a long dispute with Churchill over whether to invade Nazi-occupied France. Sometimes their work was amicable, sometimes marked by anger and discord, but their relationship—underlain by a bond of trust—only grew stronger through the years. Ultimately, as FDR wrote his friend in November 1944, “we both have faith and that is half the battle.”4 FDR and Stimson also struggled with issues for which they are widely and correctly faulted—their refusal to desegregate the armed forces even as Black soldiers fought and gave their lives to preserve America’s freedom, their internment of Japanese Americans and their sometimes halting response to the Nazi genocide of European Jews.
After FDR’s death in April 1945, Stimson sought to continue his collaboration with the Democrats by working closely with FDR’s successor, President Harry Truman. The relationship faltered when Truman diminished Stimson’s role in the decision to drop the atomic bomb, but Truman ultimately embraced bipartisanship in creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to defend democracy.
Just as it was in 1940, the United States is once again riven by extreme partisanship. And once again, in America and elsewhere around the world, democracy faces enormous threats. The following chapters tell the compelling story of the wartime bipartisan alliance—marked by both brilliant achievements and haunting failures—a legacy that may guide and inspire those who have hopes of uniting America today.
1The Hunter and the Strategist
On the morning of January 9, 1933, Republican secretary of state Henry L. Stimson took a train north from New York City along the Hudson River through falling snow. He got off at Hyde Park, then rode in a car sent by Franklin D. Roosevelt to Springwood, Roosevelt’s estate overlooking the Hudson. FDR, the Democratic governor of New York, was preparing to take office as president, and the elegant mansion was cluttered with packages from his recent election campaign and the Christmas holiday. Despite the relaxed setting, both men were in suits and the occasion had the air of a diplomatic visit. Before FDR won the presidential election the prior November, Stimson, at the urging of Republican president Herbert Hoover, had attacked Roosevelt publicly. Yet after defeating Hoover in the election, FDR asked Stimson—not Hoover—to meet with him in Hyde Park.
FDR received him “with great cordiality,” Stimson noted later that day in his diary. “We both spoke with the utmost freedom and informality.” Stimson marveled at FDR’s handling of his paralysis from polio. “I was much impressed with his disability and the brave way in which he paid no attention to it whatever.” They agreed to reveal no details of their conversation to the press—an accord they held to when reporters were at last ushered in and photos were taken as the two men had lunch. A photo the next day in the paper showed Stimson as bolt upright while FDR appeared relaxed and garrulous. Resisting questions with a smile, FDR said, “It was delightful to have the secretary of state here for lunch.… Everything in relation to foreign affairs was discussed.”1
The two men continued their friendly conversation as FDR accompanied Stimson in a car through deep snow back to New York City. Their discussion that day ranged over many topics, including particularly a mounting financial crisis—European nations had defaulted on their war debts—an issue over which FDR and Hoover had clashed. Stimson steered the dialogue to Japan’s invasion of the northern Chinese realm of Manchuria, and on this point by the end of the day he had what he sought—FDR’s agreement to preserve Stimson’s policy of declaring Japan’s invasion of Manchuria a violation of international law and refusing to grant recognition to the puppet state Japan had established there.2 Dismissing the concerns of his own advisers, who wanted the United States to remain strictly neutral on the Japanese invasion, FDR announced a week later that he would uphold Stimson’s policy on Manchuria.3
The spirited meeting of FDR and Stimson that day in Hyde Park marked the start of a relationship that seven years later—as war spread across the globe—would become what is surely the most important bipartisan political alliance in American history.
The two statesmen hit it off so well at Springwood that it was as if they had long known each other. In fact, FDR and Stimson had circled each other in New York public life for decades. Yet living in the disjointed orbits of Republicans and Democrats, they had never had a conversation until that day. Both men were prominent in national politics, had gone to Harvard, were wealthy and had deep ties to Wall Street. Both men also were fierce admirers of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican cousin of FDR who occupied the White House from 1901 to 1909. Yet their life paths diverged, and their characters were in some ways sharply opposed.
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STIMSON WAS BORN in New York City two years after the Civil War ended. His father, Lewis A. Stimson, was a Yale College graduate who had served in the Union Army during the war, and afterwards married Candace Wheeler, who gave birth to Henry Lewis Stimson on September 21, 1867. After Candace became ill, and doctors were unable to diagnose her condition, Lewis took her to Europe in 1871 in search of a cure, leaving Henry and his younger sister with Lewis’s parents. Lewis’s campaign to find a cure for his wife led him to study with Louis Pasteur in Paris.4 After the couple returned to New York, Lewis obtained a medical degree but he was unable to save Candace, who died in 1875.
Amid his grief, Lewis Stimson sold the family home and rented a small apartment to devote himself to the practice of medicine as a surgeon. He sent Henry to Phillips Academy, a historic boys school in Andover, Massachusetts. Henry reveled in outdoor life at the school, known simply as Andover. “There was football, baseball, skating, bobsledding, and walking over the hills and woodlands of northern Massachusetts,” he recalled, adding that the school’s academics were rigorous. “Andover fitted a boy for college and it fitted him well.”5
After his freshman year at Yale, Harry Stimson spent the summer in Colorado hunting and fishing. He became enamored of the wilderness. “For over twenty years thereafter, I spent a portion of nearly every year in mountains or forests of the western Rockies or Canada, exploring, hunting, and traveling by horse, foot or canoe,” he recalled. “I became a fair rifleman and canoeman; could pack my own horses, kill my own game, and cook my own meals.”6 In the summer of 1885, Stimson went to New Brunswick, Canada, and spent two months canoeing in the wilderness with a guide from the Mi’kmaq tribe. Stimson shot a bear and the two men survived on bear meat, fish and game as their supplies dwindled. Stimson shot a second bear and “gathering the remains of a salt barrel in an old logging camp, we salted it down and ate it to its toes.”7
At Yale, Stimson was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and graduated third in his class in 1888, but it was after he enrolled in Harvard Law School that he found his greatest academic challenge. “The whole atmosphere was electric with the sparks of competitive argument,” he recalled.8 He completed his legal studies in 1890 and returned to New York City to work at Root & Clarke, the law firm of Elihu Root, a prominent lawyer who had served as US attorney in New York under Republican president Chester Arthur. The firm’s clients included railroad magnate Frederick Vanderbilt, Standard Oil Company and an energetic Republican New York police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.9
On January 1, 1893, Stimson became a partner in the firm, ensuring him the financial wherewithal he felt he needed in order to marry Mabel Wellington White. He’d first met Mabel, the daughter of a prominent New Haven family, while he was at Yale. He was instantly smitten and the young couple soon became engaged, which they kept secret for half a decade. Stimson later recalled that his salary increase in 1893 at last permitted him, after five years of waiting, “to marry and support his wife.” The couple was wed on July 6, 1893, and moved into a rented home in the city.10
Mabel soon joined Henry on his ventures into the outdoors. On their first trip together, they canoed through a hundred miles of New Brunswick wilderness with meager rations until Henry shot a moose. Henry later recalled Mabel “had a love of nature which developed at once into a love of nature’s greatest expression—the untouched wilderness.”11 The couple would have no children, but they had an enduring love of each other and of the outdoors.
After Root was named secretary of war in 1899 by Republican president William McKinley, Stimson and another partner, Bronson Winthrop, took over the law firm, which they renamed Winthrop & Stimson. After McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, became president. Two years later, when Stimson was in Washington to attend a meeting, he went horseback riding with a friend along Rock Creek, which was swollen with heavy rains. At one point, Stimson heard Root summon him to cross the creek on his horse “on the order” of the president, who was riding with Root on the opposite side of the rushing creek. Stimson tried to cross, but both horse and rider were immediately submerged in the turbulent waters. Stimson managed to extricate himself and rode up to the president and his secretary of war. Stimson recalled: “I said, ‘Mr. President, when a soldier hears an order like that, it isn’t his business to see that it is impossible.’ T.R.… laughed and said ‘well it was very nice of you to do it. Now hurry home and drink all the whiskey you can.’” That night, at a dinner of the Boone & Crockett Club, a conservation group founded by TR, the president drew uproarious laughter recounting the story and hailing Stimson as “young Lochinvar,” Sir Walter Scott’s heroic knight who rides a mighty steed.12
Stimson’s law practice, meanwhile, grew rapidly, providing Henry and Mabel sufficient income in 1903 to purchase a farm on more than one hundred acres in the village of Huntington on Long Island. They named the property “Highhold” because it sat atop a ridge from which one could see both north to Long Island Sound and south to the Atlantic Ocean.13 Highhold was about six miles from TR’s home, Sagamore Hill, near Oyster Bay, and the two men occasionally visited each other.
In 1906, TR appointed Stimson US attorney for the Southern District of New York, a position in which Stimson brought important prosecutions in TR’s campaign against trusts, the sprawling businesses that the president accused of undermining competition and driving up prices. In May 1906, Stimson filed antitrust indictments against American Sugar, the New York Central Railroad, and four executives of the two businesses. Stimson’s cases resulted in convictions.14 In a second round of indictments, Stimson accused American Sugar of engaging in a conspiracy to falsify records on the amount of sugar it imported in order to avoid paying import tariffs. The company and five managers were convicted after trial.15
Not long after Stimson took office as US attorney, Wall Street was rocked by a financial collapse that would ultimately be known as the Panic of 1907. Fear spread through the markets, investors pulled money out of banks and stocks and the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted to almost 50 percent of its peak the previous year. Within months, in early 1908, Stimson brought charges against a man seen as a chief malefactor in the panic, Charles W. Morse, who backed a failed effort to take control of the United Copper Company.16 An indictment filed by Stimson accused Morse of fraudulently taking large sums of money from a bank he controlled. After a trial that drew wide attention, Morse was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.17
Among the young lawyers Stimson hired in the US attorney’s office was Felix Frankfurter, a graduate of Harvard Law School. At a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent, Stimson opened the door to professional relationships with Frankfurter and others of Jewish descent. Frankfurter, who became a lifelong friend of Stimson’s, later recalled him as a “wholly scrupulous” prosecutor, noting that Stimson accompanied investigators on raids to ensure they complied with court orders and protected the rights of suspects.18
In 1908, TR—who had vowed not to serve more than two terms as president—backed his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, to be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. Taft won the election and, after he was inaugurated in March 1909, Stimson resigned as US attorney and resumed his law practice at Winthrop & Stimson.
In 1910, TR urged Stimson to run for governor of New York. Stimson agreed. With the former president’s backing, Stimson won the nomination and threw himself into campaigning, with TR joining the effort. Stimson attacked his Democratic opponent, John A. Dix, as subservient to Tammany Hall, the Democratic political organization in New York City that held power with the support of laborers and immigrants. Dix and his Tammany supporters, meanwhile, charged that Stimson was merely a puppet of TR, and that electing Stimson as governor would be a first step in returning TR to the White House.19 The New York Times profiled Stimson in a story that likened him to TR and recounted his prosecutions of the Sugar Trust and Morse under the headline “Stimson Fighter of Big Graft Cases.”20
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ANOTHER ENTRANT IN the elections of 1910 was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at age twenty-eight was a Democratic candidate for a state senate seat. FDR and TR both descended from a Dutchman who immigrated to New Amsterdam, as New York was then called, in the 1650s. The family eventually split into branches—one along the Hudson north of New York, where FDR lived, and the other on Long Island, where TR lived. One of FDR’s forebears, Isaac Roosevelt, helped draft New York’s first constitution and, with Alexander Hamilton, founded the Bank of New York.
FDR’s father, James Roosevelt, was a lawyer and investor in industries such as coal and railroads.21 After his first wife died, James Roosevelt in 1880 married Sara Ann Delano, whose family lineage included seven passengers on the Mayflower.22 Franklin was born on January 30, 1882—more than fourteen years after Stimson—and he grew up at Springwood, the estate in Hyde Park, where he was tutored in French, Latin, German and other subjects. The family traveled often and spent summers at their home on the Canadian island of Campobello off the coast of Maine, where Franklin learned to sail and began a lifelong love of the sea, ships and fishing.23
In 1896, Franklin entered Groton School, in northern Massachusetts about thirty miles from Andover. The private school provided the children of wealthy Americans with an education infused with Christian principles and fortified with vigorous physical exercise. After completing Groton, Franklin in the fall of 1900 entered Harvard, where he would become editor of The Crimson, the student newspaper.24 That December, during Franklin’s freshman year at Harvard, his father, James, died at Springwood.25 In the wake of his death, Franklin, already a great admirer of his cousin Theodore, measured himself against the public service career of TR, who had become president in September 1901.26
In November 1902, Franklin attended a horse show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, an event that brought together a large group of Roosevelts from both the Hudson River and Long Island branches of the family. Among them was eighteen-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt, the daughter of TR’s younger brother Elliott and wife Anna. Both Elliott and Anna had died about a decade earlier, and Eleanor, who had grown up in the care of various family members, was a favorite of her uncle, TR, who was her godfather.27 Franklin and Eleanor soon began courting.
In October 1903, while Franklin was in his senior year at Harvard, he proposed marriage to Eleanor and she accepted, although at the behest of Franklin’s mother, Sara, they agreed to keep the engagement secret for a year.28 In October 1904, while Franklin was at Columbia University Law School, the couple revealed the news of their engagement. TR wrote Franklin a congratulatory letter: “You and Eleanor are true and brave, and I believe you love each other unselfishly; and golden years open before you.”29 Franklin and Eleanor were wed in New York on March 17, 1905, the president giving Eleanor’s hand away.30
Copyright © 2022 by Peter Shinkle