They have my article up and running over at Roads to the Great War about husband and wife team John Jacob and Edith Nourse Rogers. This was a fun piece to write.
I was texting someone earlier today about William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” to ask if he had ever read that large tome. Shirer published his classic history of Nazi Germany in 1960, fifteen short years after the war’s end. The scholarship on the Second World War has inevitably moved on in the six decades since the book’s publication. That’s how it works. You could make a strong case—I would—that the history of the war has not truly been written yet; so much of what we know, or think we know, about the conflict has been filtered through the prism of the events came afterward. Governments and individuals have been using and misusing the history and memory of the war for three quarters of a century now. As I was telling my friend though, despite the inevitable changes in historiography over the past six decades Shirer brought an immediacy to his narrative that cannot be replicated by today’s scholars. Born in 1904, the American journalist moved to Europe in the 1920s to work as a correspondent and to write in the romantic vein of contemporaries like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It is telling that all three writers were from the American Midwest. In the 1930s Shirer found himself in Germany, where he witnessed, well, the rise of the Third Reich. Among other things Shirer attended one of Hitler’s mass rallies at Nuremberg in 1934 and was in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. He worked in other European and world capitals as well. It helped that Shirer spoke German, Italian, and French. After the texting back-and-forth with my friend, I ordered a copy of the book online.
I am determined to learn the history and memory of both the war and the Holocaust over the next two years as some colleagues and I move forward on the project I mentioned the other day. I know a fair amount about the 1930s-40s but am working now in a more methodical manner. Shirer’s work began a new phase in Americans’ understanding of the war. In the decade and a half since Hitler’s suicide Europe was rebuilding itself and Americans in their postwar prosperity were in a period of willful forgetting. Essentially everyone was trying to move on and forget. Shirer’s book and the contemporaneous capture, trial, and execution of Otto Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s began to refocus people’s attention on the terrible events of just two decades ago. “Rise and Fall” won the National Book Award and was a Book of the Month Club selections at a time when that meant more than it does today. In other popular culture of the time the Twilight Zone episode “Deaths-Head Revisited,” about a camp commandant returning to Dachau years after the liberation, premiered on November 10, 1961.
I mention all this because today is the 76th anniversary of the start of the Yalta Conference, the gathering of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in the Crimea where the three made plans for what the postwar world might look like. Needless to say the three had contrasting visions. I have always been struck at how poor Roosevelt looks; he was failing quickly and would be dead less than ten weeks later. The conference ran from February 4-11, 1945. By the time of V-E Day that spring Truman would be in the White House.
(images/top, National Archives; bottom, Library of Congress)
I was reading the social media feed of an email acquaintance a few days ago, a prolific and well-regarded historian of the Civil War Era, who noted that he was starting to believe that the memory and historiography of post-Civil War Reconstruction seem to be supplanting our remembrance of the actual fighting that occurred between 1861-65. That is becoming my sense as well. How could it not given events of the past several years? We have seen the same phenomenon with the popular memory of the Second World War over the past three quarters of a century. Battles make for riveting narratives filled with interesting characters behaving shamefully or courageously, often at the same time. War’s aftermath however is always complicated and, in comparison to tales of the battlefield, almost always unheroic. No one wants to study shabby compromises. I can’t help but think of all these things this January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I don’t wish to go too much into the details at the moment because it’s still a ways off, but some colleagues and I are working on a project related to the Shoah that will come to fruition sometime in the future. Specifically our project covers the American response to the war and Holocaust before, during, and after the conflict. It’s a fascinating topic and we intend to cover it thoroughly. The historical memory of the Holocaust began before the war ended: on April 12, 1945–four weeks prior to what became V-E Day–Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, George S. Patton and Troy H. Middleton toured the Ohrdruf labor and concentration camp. Benjamin Runkle wrote a piece for Tablet magazine two years ago about Eisenhower’s role in not just ensuring the documentation of the liberation of the camps, but his work–mistakes and all–in accommodating displaced persons after the war’s end. The 75th anniversary of the Second World War’s end was last spring. That was only part of the story; as in post-1865 America, post-1945 Europe was hardly at peace. These next few years are an opportunity to examine what came immediately after Germany’s surrender, in all its complexity.
(image/photographer, William Newhouse; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)
I don’t know if I have anything particularly insightful, new, or especially revelatory to say about it, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima.
Truman had been in office less than four months at this time. Roosevelt had kept the Manhattan Project a secret from his vice-president, who learned of the race to build the atomic bomb only after Roosevelt’s death in April. Imagine hearing about such a thing for the first time, and knowing you would be the one who would have to make such a decision. The history, creation, and use of the atomic bomb is a story that resonates on the individual and universal level. Very rarely do tipping points in history come so sharply and clearly as they did seventy-five years ago today. There was no turning back or putting the genie back in the bottle for humankind after August 6, 1945. The world had unambiguously entered a new age.
(image/Truman Library Institute)
V-E Day had come and gone six weeks previously when representatives of fifty countries gathered in San Fransisco in late June 1945 for the signing if the United Nations charter. The war was still very much going on, quite brutally in fact. It is easy to think today that everyone knew that the war in the Pacific would be over by summer’s end, but of course no one could have predicted any such thing on June 25-26 when Edward Stettinius, President Truman, and others gathered at San Fransisco’s War Memorial Opera House to prepare for the future, whatever it might look like. The seeds of the creation of the international organization date to the start of American involvement in the Second World War: on New Years Day 1942 the United States and over two dozen other countries issued the United Nations Declaration expressing their cooperation in defeating the Axis Powers.
In an ironic way it is easier and more comforting to study war than it is peace; battles have a beginning, middle, and end, and easily recognizable sides to go with their timelines. Orders of battles imply the illusion of, well, order. Peace is messy and more often than not comes filled with ironic and bitter compromises. Truman of course was a veteran of the Great War and knew the failures of Versailles. The day before his speech in San Fransisco the president told a hospital ward full of wounded soldiers that “in the next generation the veterans of this war are going to run this country.” And that is essentially what happened.
Over the past several days I have been listening daily to Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” the seventy-nine-year-old musician’s recent single about the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy had fought in the Pacific. Thinking of the signing of the United Nations charter seventy-five years ago this week I can’t help but think now of JFK’s words from his first inaugural, just sixteen year later, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”
(images/Truman Library Institute)
The above quote comes from the opening lines of the speech Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered at the Harvard University graduation commencement on July 5, 1947. Marshall had been the Secretary of State for all of about ten weeks when he showed up in Cambridge, Massachusetts to give the graduation commencement and receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws. As one can see from the list of names in the caption, a disparate mix of men received honorary degrees that day. George Marshall’s appointment was more controversial at the time than one might realize today; many Americans were concerned that a military man would be a bad fit to run American diplomacy. Menswear often coveys a message and Marshall is transmitting one here. In the photograph above we see the onetime five-star general sitting third from the left, pointedly wearing a crisp suit and avoiding any display of military display.
The war had been over for more than two years by this time but Europe was hardly at peace. V-E Day had been both and end and a beginning. Millions of Europeans now faced civil war, religious and ethnic strife, refugeeism, food insecurity, unemployment, homelessness, and other issues. Men like the late FDR, Marshall, Truman and others understood the failures of Versailles and what that led to in the 1920s and 1930s. This speech was the germination of Marshall Plan; the following April President Truman signed the Economic Recovery Act, one of the most generous and forward-thinking achievements in American statecraft.
(image/Los Alamos National Lab)
I have been trying not to do too much today, which is not something that comes easily to me, but I would be remiss if I did not note that today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He died at the health spa he founded for the treatment of infantile paralysis in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945. I am old enough to remember a time when there were still plenty of Americans–your teacher, the mailman, your Aunt Shirley, whoever–who regarded Franklin Roosevelt as essentially a family member. While I do believe it is unhealthy and unwise to venerate any public official to such a degree, it is not difficult to see why so many would have thought in such manner given the way Roosevelt had come over the radio into people’s living rooms offering a soothing, confident tone during the Depression and Second World War. One of the things that has been so devastating these past several years has been to see the erosion of everything that the men and women of the mid-century–Franklin & Eleanor, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Dwight Eisenhower to name just a few–be undone thread by thread. Many today do not recognize how fragile the thing is and how difficult it was to put together to begin with.
I have been perusing some of the coverage and came across this piece by Kurt Graham, the director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, in which Mr. Graham recounts what Truman and Roosevelt were doing on this date seventy-five year ago: preparing their separate talks for the annual Jefferson Dinner to have been held the following day. None of that happened, of course. With Roosevelt’s death Truman ascended to the president and a new era had commenced.
(image/FDR Presidential Library)
Today marks the 85th anniversary of the passage of one of the most significant acts of legislation to come during the Roosevelt Administration, which is saying a lot: it was on April 8, 1935 that the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act became law. The act gave Franklin Roosevelt even wider latitude to distribute Depression emergency funds as he saw fit. Surprisingly there does not seem to be an image of the signing, which took place after Roosevelt returned from a spring fishing trip. FDR being the master politician he was that probably was not accidental, though I don’t know why. Perhaps he was trying to paper over the failures and miscues of some of the alphabet soup agencies that had come into being in the two years since his presidency began. Two central ideas of the bill were 1) that the money would be more decentralized, giving state and local leaders more input into how to spend New Deal funds, and 2) that the emphasis would shift from relief itself to public works. The biggest change that came out of the bill was the creation of the Works Progress Administration.
The WPA’s influence surrounds most Americans every day, even if they are unaware. A good many of our bridges, post offices, roads, and so much more came out of it over the next several years. Culturally it did a lot too. As I type these words I can see the WPA American Guides for New York and Washington D.C. on my bookshelf. In addition to writers they put painters such as the young Jacob Lawrence to work via the Federal Art Project. Politically the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act led to a power struggle between Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins over who would become the czar distributing these billions of dollars. Hopkins, who hardly anyone knows anymore despite all he did during the Depression and Second World War, won the struggles. The New Deal was not perfect and had all sorts of unintended consequences but I do not have the confidence in anyone within a leadership position in the current federal administration that I would have had in Hopkins, or Harold Ickes for that matter. So much of that story began eighty-five years ago today.
(image/Library of Congress)
This past November I received an email from Bob Crothers, an independent scholar who had my article in the Journal of the American Revolution about Isaac Roosevelt and was reaching out to tell me of his research relating to New York State before, during, and immediately after the Revolution. Bob received his B.A. in Economics from Brown and M.B.A. from Harvard Business School before a long career on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Now retired, he is pursuing his interest in History full-time researching and presenting on various subjects. Among other topics, Bob has an interest in the New Deal Era mural in the Poughkeepsie post office depicting the 1788 New York State Ratification Convention that took place in that city. Bob and I finally met in person last month when he came to Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Last week he traveled to Washington D.C. to conduct research on the post office mural. Here is his guest article on the experience.
By Bob Crothers
I’m preparing a talk to be given in the fall of this year on the debate and compromise of the New York State Ratification Convention. This Convention took place June 17-July 26 1788 in the then-third Court House of Poughkeepsie, which burned down in 1804. In November 2019, the day after Thanksgiving, I visited the only memorial to this long-forgotten event. That memorial is a late 1930s mural located on the second floor of a Depression Era-built Post office painted by a New Jersey artist named Gerald Foster.
The mural shows 23 of the 67 delegates to this convention and focuses on a handshake between Alexander Hamilton, the most well known Federalist, both state and nation-wide, and Governor George Clinton, probably the most dedicated Anti-Federalist in the nation at this time. Clinton was the first non-royal New York governor; he would go on to serve twenty-two years in the post; he also served as Vice-President in Thomas Jefferson’s second term. Clinton subsequently died in office as James Madison’s first term Vice-President in 1812.
Two more dedicated political enemies than Hamilton and Clinton (perhaps excluding Hamilton and Burr) would be hard to find. Governor Clinton, first elected in June 1777, had done a remarkably effective job of protecting the state’s interests and keeping taxes low, taking full advantage of the great harbor growing in NYC.
The mural memorializes the July 26, 1788 breakthrough in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate and stalemate threatening to keep New York State from ratifying the U.S. Constitution. The stalemate was finally broken when the prominent Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith, a one-time sheriff of Poughkeepsie but at the time a NYC resident, brought his mentor, Governor Clinton, to an agreement with Federalist Alexander Hamilton, to ratify the Constitution. The key to this was the pledge that the first American Congress, set to meet in NYC would pass, in its first assembly, both 1) a Bill of Rights and 2) the promise of another Constitutional Convention within two years. This handshake ended by far the most difficult negotiation between these first two identifiable political parties in US constitutional history. Under those terms, New York became the eleventh state to ratify the US Constitution.
As I studied the mural, it seemed to me unlikely that the painter would have known of this history and thus been able to choose the participants depicted in this painting, But who could have advised and directed him? I had a candidate in mind, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but needed to find a way of gaining more information.
I knew FDR to be a serious historian, particularly of his own Dutch Colonial family and of Dutchess County, where his branch of the family had resettled in the early 19th Century, following the arrival and settlement of his family in New York City in the 1600s.
I enlisted two potential resources: 1) the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park NY to trace FDR’s involvement and 2) the Smithsonian Institution’s Archive of American Art in Washington, DC, which holds the papers of the artist, Gerald Foster.
The FDR Presidential Library suggested I send them an email outlining my interest, which would be assigned to one of their several archivists, who would respond to me within two weeks. Precisely two weeks later, to the day, I received a healthy packet of materials from Mr. F., my archivist, which contained two particularly interesting items, The first was a copy of a manuscript letter dated May 28, 1939 from Foster to the head of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Section of Fine Arts (“the Section”), the funder of the mural, pertaining to ”the subject matter and the characters portrayed” in his Ratification Mural. One sentence reads: The idea for this group was suggested by Pres. Franklin D, Roosevelt. Another reads: Authentic old portraits were found for eighteen (out of 21) of the figures shown.
The second item was a copy of a typewritten letter from the chief of the Section of Fine Arts to the President of the United States, dated April 29, 1939, dealing with a jury of local Poughkeepsie arts experts, including a “Miss Reynolds” concerning the approval of designs for several Poughkeepsie post office murals. A sentence reads: “Since Miss Reynolds is not in agreement with the jury, and as there are four or five designs which appear to us to be of merit, I would appreciate very much your reviewing the designs.”
So FDR was clearly involved in this mural development and there was a Cherchez La Femme individual named Reynolds making trouble. Shades of Alexander Hamilton’s affair many years earlier! (Further research turns up many references to Miss Reynolds as FDR’s great friend and fellow historian at the Dutchess County Historical Society, Helen Reynolds. Mystery solved!)
This past week, I explored the painter’s side of the occasion and found several interesting references in the microfilm of Gerald Foster’s papers at the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. The first was a typed memo describing Foster’s recollections and personal details of his meeting(s) with FDR on this and two other, less significant, murals done by the painter. Another was a handwritten note on the verso of an unidentified sketch noting FDR’s involvement in the details of its preparation. And lastly there is the local Poughkeepsie newspaper’s page one announcement on May 18, 1938 of the Ratification mural’s dedication.
QED, the Ratification mural in the Poughkeepsie Post Office was conceived and directed by our then-president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aided by his fellow Dutchess County Historical Society correspondent Helen Reynolds, and executed by muralist Gerald Foster in 1937/38.
Here are a few more images from my presentation this past Monday at Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Here we see an announcement for a Washington Birthday Democratic fundraiser held in Fort Worth, Texas on February 23, 1942. This was less than two months after Pearl Harbor in those tense days when the United States was getting up to speed in its war effort. The U.S. had been the “arsenal of democracy,” manufacturing tanks, bullets, jeeps, and whatnot for the Allies long prior to Pearl Harbor. Now American fighting men themselves would join the fray. As we see from the announcement the dinner was held on February 23, not Washington’s actually birthday, because the 22nd fell on a Sunday.
Roosevelt himself did not attend the dinner, though as we see the Texas Democratic leadership was not hesitant to use his likeness, and on equal footing with President Washington no less. One must remember that Texas in this era was part of the Solid South, comprised, like the rest of the region, of Dixiecrats who since the Civil War eighty years previously had stood against the Party of Lincoln. In the 1930s these leaders, and those who voted for them, were part of the fragile New Deal coalition supporting FDR in cooperation with the Democratic machines of the northern cities. That coalition would hold another three decades until fracturing in the chaos of the Vietnam War and bitterness of the Civil Rights Movement. Roosevelt’s vice-president in his first two terms had been John Nance Garner, a Texan and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The tension and unease in their relationship were representative of the strains within the New Deal coalition itself.
Garner was gone by 1942 and now Roosevelt was facing the war in his unprecedented third term. What we see here is the snippet of an article from the February 23, 1942 New York Times describing the mood on Washington’s birthday in those weeks just after Pearl Harbor. The first public observation of George Washington’s birthday had been at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Now America was facing a “new Valley Forge.” Attendees at the Fort Worth soiree did not meet Franklin Roosevelt, but they did hear him. That night he gave one of his fireside chats over the radio outlining the progress and stakes of the war, and the lessons to be learned from the experience and difficulties of Washington and the men of his Continental Army all those years earlier.