Hopkins, Harry

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Harry Hopkins

born august 17, 1890 sioux city, iowa

died january 29, 1946 new york, new york

social worker, relief administrator, diplomat

"Roosevelt trusted Hopkins implicitly [totally]—trusted his instincts and trusted his loyalty. No president had ever placed such confidence in another man; no president had given another man such power and influence."

june hopkins, granddaughter of harry hopkins, in harry hopkins: sudden hero, brash reformer

From humble beginnings Harry Hopkins rose high in the U.S. government during the 1930s and 1940s. Hopkins's loyal service to his country helped President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) guide the United States through the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II (1939–45), two of the worst crises of the twentieth century. Hopkins was uniquely qualified to administer the New Deal relief programs of the Roosevelt administration. Tutored by Roosevelt throughout the 1930s in the art of politics and diplomacy, Hopkins became the president's representative and messenger during World War II.

Young Harry

Hopkins gathered the philosophies he would live his life by from his family, his college years, and his experiences as a young social worker in New York City. Born in Sioux City, Iowa, to David Aldona Hopkins and Anna Picket Hopkins, Harry was the fourth of five children.

His father, known as Al, was highly outgoing, made friends easily, participated in community organizations, and was a fierce competitor in the sport of bowling. Anna was a self-disciplined woman and a devout Methodist. She was generous, sympathetic, and devoted to home mission work. Al paid considerably less attention to business matters than to bowling and friends, which often left the family struggling financially. As a result, they moved frequently from town to town in Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois. In 1901 Anna chose Grin-nell, Iowa, a town where she believed her children could be well educated, to permanently settle her family. Anna looked on education as a means to a greater spiritual awareness for her children. Al opened a harness and leather shop there.

Harry excelled in school. His personality seemed to be a blend of characteristics from his parents. Like his dad, he was friendly, optimistic, and competitive. He had little concern for social standing; on the contrary, he delighted in outsmarting snobbish people or those he considered too self-centered. Although Harry rejected his mother's strict religious practices, the missionary zeal Harry demonstrated later in life for social work and New Deal relief programs likely came from his mother. Harry took all of these characteristics with him to Grinnell College.

College days

Hopkins often recalled his years at Grinnell College as the happiest time of his life. Grinnell, a small liberal arts college, had long been a school at the center of social reform and taught the application of Christian principles as a method of lessening the troubles brought on by rapid modernization.

At Grinnell Hopkins learned that a person must accept others of different races or nationalities, and that working to improve the living conditions of the less fortunate would improve the condition of all society. Grinnell students often looked toward a life of serving others. Economic and social status were considered unimportant compared to the quality of one's character.

Hopkins was well known on campus and involved in an array of activities, including newspaper productions, tennis, baseball, basketball, and drama. He was elected senior class permanent president, meaning he would serve as leader of the class after graduation.

Hopkins's favorite professor was Jesse Macy. Macy taught political science, a brand new subject on college campuses, and embraced Progressivism, a political and economic doctrine that advocated bringing an end to the power of corrupt city politicians, returning the government to the people, and supporting labor rights. Progressivism also included the belief that government should aid in improving the lives of the poor. As a freshman and sophomore Hopkins had concentrated on fun and ranked near the bottom of his class, but during his last two years he made As and Bs. In Hopkins's senior year, Macy considered Hopkins his top student.

Birth of a social crusader

Upon graduation in 1912 Hopkins took a summer job at a boys' summer camp in Bound Brook, New Jersey. The camp was run by the Christadora Settlement House in New York City's Lower East Side, a poverty-stricken slum area. The camp was just across the Hudson River from New York City. Taking the summer job mainly to get to New York City, Hopkins never anticipated the impact it would have on his life. What happened to Hopkins is described by Robert E. Sherwood in his 1948 book, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History:

on arrival at the christadora summer camp at bound brook, he [hopkins] confessed that he was bewildered by his first contacts with the products of the east coast slums. he had certainly known poverty in his own family and friendly neighborhood in the middle west, but that kind of poverty involved the maintenance of a kind of dignity and self-respect and independence; it did not involve hunger, or squalor [filth], or degradation [poor conditions]. the poverty of the city slums was, to him, something alien, shocking and enraging.... this was his real birth as a crusader for reform. the missionary impulse that he had inherited from his mother became the most powerful force within him. as with other changes in the circumstances of his life, he adjusted himself to his new environment with remarkable rapidity. after two months in the camp at bound brook he was the zealous champion of the underprivileged which he would always remain.

From that summer on, Hopkins held only jobs as a social worker or relief giver. His first full-time job was at Christodora House; his title was Director of Boys Work. He married fellow social worker Ethel Gross in 1913, and they had three sons. Hopkins worked for a large Manhattan private charity, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor; the reform administration of Mayor John Mitchel; the Board of Child Welfare; the Red Cross during World War I (1914–18); and the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association through the 1920s. At the Tuberculosis and Health Association, Hopkins met and fell in love with a secretary, Barbara Duncan. He divorced Ethel and married Barbara in June 1931. They had one daughter, Diana.

Hopkins's efficient and effective work caught the attention of Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945), who was governor of New York at the time. Governor Roosevelt appointed Hopkins New York relief administrator in 1931. By that time the economic crisis of the Great Depression was severely affecting New York City, and Hopkins set out to relieve the suffering. It was in New York that Hopkins developed his firmly held belief that people wanted work, not handouts, and that work was far superior for morale and the economic health of the community.

Who Were the Unemployed?

In a speech presented to the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York in New York City on May 4, 1935, Harry Hopkins, then head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, explained who the unemployed were and who would benefit from work relief programs:

without reading the relief rolls (although we have the data to document our belief), we know that the unemployed are genuinely the people who laid the bricks, erected the steel, sawed the boards, preached in the pulpits, clerked in the stores, typed the letters, kept the books, dug the ditches, drove the trucks, ran the factories, and cured the sick before the curtailment [reduction] in business and in industry almost overnight changed them from america's workers to america's unemployed.

Chief relief administrator

Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, ran for president and easily won the November 1932 election over the incumbent Republican, Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry), whose policies had been ineffective against the Depression. Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, and immediately set in motion his New Deal programs to bring relief, recovery, and reform to an ailing nation. He appointed Harry Hopkins his chief relief administrator. On May 22 Hopkins was handed the reins of the newly formed Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and $500 million to bring immediate relief to people devastated by the Depression. FERA gave cash grants to cities and states to provide direct relief assistance for groceries and rent. Hopkins also quickly initiated the Works Division within FERA to hire those on relief to work and earn pay for their labor on federal, state, and local projects such as road improvement.

According to the Time magazine issue of February 19, 1934, which pictured Hopkins on the cover, Hopkins worked in a tiny office in the Hurley-Wright Building overlooking the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. The writer of the article notes, "It [the office] has no clock because Harry Hopkins does not want to know how late he works. Frequently he skips lunch altogether.... [Hopkins immediately] made a reputation for himself ... as the greatest disburser of ready cash in the country's history ... a professional giver of relief ... [who] had done a thoroughly professional job."

In June 1933 Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. Title II of the act allowed creation of the Public Works Administration (PWA) to relieve unemployment by funding public works projects that would provide jobs. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (1874–1952; see entry) was put in charge of developing the work relief projects, but Ickes worked slowly and methodically, debating every aspect of each project. In October 1933, as winter came on, an impatient Roosevelt took $400 million out of PWA funds, created a temporary agency called the Civil Works Administration (CWA) by executive order, and put Hopkins in charge. Hopkins was fond of saying, "Hunger is not debatable." He immediately cut through the red tape—unnecessary, time-wasting procedures that were delaying action and progress—and by February over four million Americans had been put to work on short-term projects suggested by local authorities, such as repaving streets, repairing schools, improving parks, and assisting with sanitation projects.

Congress was so impressed by the boldly determined yet totally honest and sincere Hopkins that they would have allocated however much money he asked for. But as planned back in the fall of 1933, Hopkins ended the CWA program in the spring of 1934. Nevertheless, he continued to urge the president to create expanded work relief programs, even as the PWA was finally getting into gear.

On May 6, 1935, President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and placed Hopkins in charge. The WPA operated between 1935 and 1943. Over $11 billion was spent on work relief projects, from huge construction projects to local arts and music programs. Millions of Americans were put to work. Hopkins appointed two of his former classmates from Grinnell College, Deborah Herr and Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969; see entry) to administer two of the WPA's divisions, the Women's Division and the Federal Theatre Project. The president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962; see entry), eagerly supported Hopkins's work, as did Roosevelt's close friend and personal secretary, Louis Howe. Hopkins was firmly entrenched in the innermost circle of the White House.

New Deal Agencies Administered By Harry Hopkins

The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA):

FERA was created by Congress on May 12, 1933, under the Federal Emergency Relief Act. Congress allocated $500 million to be immediately spent in direct relief of the hungry and the unemployed. Each state received money according to need, to pay for rent and food for its residents. The Works Division of the FERA was the forerunner of the CWA.

The Civil Works Administration (CWA):

CWA was created by Executive Order 6420-B on November 9, 1933. The CWA offered jobs for people in need of work through the winter of 1933–34. Unlike the FERA, the CWA was operated entirely by the federal government, with Hopkins and his staff delivering the paychecks. The program ended in the spring of 1934 but was a forerunner of the WPA.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA):

WPA was established by Executive Order No. 7034 on May 6, 1935, under authority of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. The WPA was an innovative work relief program that employed an average of 2.3 million workers each year between 1935 and 1940. Seventy-five percent of the WPA workforce worked on engineering and construction projects. But the WPA also established work relief programs for artists, musicians, writers, and actors, and youth programs such as the National Youth Administration (NYA). The WPA shut down in 1943.

Personal tragedy struck Hopkins in 1937, when his wife, Barbara, died of cancer. Shortly thereafter Hopkins had much of his stomach removed; he, too, had cancer. Hopkins
would remain in fragile health for the next nine years. Nevertheless, he managed to carry out the policies of President Roosevelt in a tough, courageous, but sometimes sarcastic manner. Critics abounded, saying Hopkins spent too much money or was "too big for his breeches," but Hopkins persisted in realistically assessing the needs of those devastated by the Depression and delivering appropriate relief. By 1941 as the United States prepared to enter World War II, WPA projects focused on defense, and by 1943, with jobs in the private sector plentiful, the WPA ceased operations.

World War II mobilization

By early 1941 the United States had begun full mobilization for World War II. Factories were rapidly manufacturing war materials, and suddenly there were more jobs than there were people to fill them. Many young Americans entered the armed forces. The Great Depression had ended.

The war effort completely consumed President Roosevelt's attention. Hopkins, now a seasoned governmental figure, became the president's trusted representative in meetings with European leaders. Despite his fragile health Hopkins became Roosevelt's emissary to Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill (1874–1965). Hopkins organized the Lend-Lease program to supply England with defense equipment. Hopkins met with the Soviet Union's leader, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), to help him prepare for defense against German invaders.

The United States formally entered the war after Japan's December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Hopkins played key roles in munitions allocation, continued overseeing the Lend-Lease program, and served as a major adviser to Roosevelt in foreign policy. Hopkins and his daughter, Diana, lived at the White House from 1940 to 1943. During this time, he married Louise Macy, but tragedy would again enter his life: In February 1944 Hopkins lost his youngest son in fighting in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. Then in the spring of 1944 he again underwent surgery and returned to work in a greatly weakened state. But once more Hopkins persevered and was credited with superbly preparing the Americans for the Yalta Conference in February 1945. The Yalta Conference was one of the most important meetings between the victorious Allied nations of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Their goals were to determine the character of postwar Europe, including the division of Germany into East and West Germany, and the need for a world peacekeeping organization, later known as the United Nations.

President Roosevelt died suddenly in April 1945. Hopkins, at President Harry Truman's request, returned to the Soviet Union for talks with Stalin. Truman awarded Hopkins the nation's highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Service Award. Hopkins, in rapidly failing health, hoped to write his memoirs but died in January 1946.

Hopkins's legacy

Although Hopkins served as a powerful diplomat during World War II, historians more often speak of the legacy of his Depression-era work. Largely through the tireless actions of Hopkins and his staff, the federal government extended a helping hand to the poor and the unemployed during the 1930s Great Depression. The government offered not only food and jobs but reassurance, hope, and renewed confidence in the American political and economic system. As decades passed, millions of American families remembered that during those desperate years of unemployment, government efforts halted further loss of their mental and physical health. The thousands of CWA and WPA projects Hopkins directed brought work and respectability for the unemployed as well as new and improved roads, schools, hospitals, parks, power and irrigation systems, and airports throughout the nation.

For More Information


adams, henry h. harry hopkins: a biography. new york, ny: g. p. putnam's sons, 1977.

charles, searle f. minister of relief: harry hopkins and the depression. syracuse, ny: syracuse university press, 1963.

hopkins, harry l. principal speeches of harry l. hopkins: works progressadministrator. milwaukee, wi: milwaukee state teachers college, 1938.

hopkins, june. harry hopkins: sudden hero, brash reformer. new york, ny: st. martin's press, 1999.

mcjimsey, george. harry hopkins: ally of the poor and defender of democracy. cambridge, ma: harvard university press, 1987.

sherwood, robert e. roosevelt and hopkins: an intimate history. new york, ny: harper, 1948.


"national affairs: professional giver." time (february 19, 1934): pp. 11–13.

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