The President’s Man

Rudi Guliani has taken a lot of flack for bypassing established figures to pursue the President’s investigation in Ukraine. Who does he think he is? But his activity is not without precedent – a famous one with high stakes when President Franklin Roosevelt bypassed Congress and even his own cabinet to send his close confidante Harry Hopkins to various parts of the world to prepare for U.S. involvement in World War Two.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins

FDR, as he was called, was determined to bring down the evil Nazi regime of Germany, but he faced formidable opposition. Many, maybe most Americans didn’t want to repeat the losses and horrors of the First World War by embarking on a second. Known as “isolationists,” but more accurately non-interventionists, they had considerable support in Congress and the media which was then divided in opinion, not monolithic.

So the President had to act with care largely behind the scenes to avoid possible impeachment. By recruiting Hopkins, he knew he had an envoy he could completely trust – the next best thing to going abroad himself. So Hopkins got a presidential reception wherever he went – to Churchill, Stalin and other leaders. There’s no question he furthered the President’s cause with loyalty, energy, competence.

But as in the current case of Guliani, there was a downside to a lone actor operating in a complex foreign thicket. Hopkins, who had lost much of his stomach to cancer, was quite ill much of the time and had to endure exhaustive air trips. The President had to send messages ahead to make sure he was cared for. Above all, whatever his gifts, Hopkins lacked a larger view that could have been provided by others accompanying him like diplomat George Kennan, for example, who later authored the containment policy to deal with a triumphant and aggressive Soviet Union, a Russia on the march.

No doubt reflecting the President, Hopkins promised significant military aid to the Soviets without asking for anything in return in contrast to the British who relinquished some possessions for U.S. bases to receive assistance. The idea of both President and envoy was to treat the Soviets as kindly as possible to assure an harmonious post war order. But Soviet ruler Stalin, butcher of millions of his own people, was not susceptible to the personal politics that had served FDR so well in the U.S. He was determined to grab as much of Europe as he could, and Roosevelt and Hopkins played into his hands.

Symbolic of this misreading was the slaughter of 10 thousand Polish army officers at Katyn Forest in 1943. The Soviets immediately blamed the Germans, which was echoed by Roosevelt and Hopkins as well as much of the media. In fact, the Soviets were responsible, a harbinger of what was to come after the war. Yet both Roosevelt and Hopkins died still blaming the Germans. They had won the war –  more credit to them – but not the peace.

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