Harry Hopkins

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A superb administrator, Hopkins led the United States in combating unemployment during the Great Depression in the 1930’s and the menace of Fascism during World War II.

Early Life

Harry Lloyd Hopkins was born August 17, 1890, in Sioux City, Iowa, and grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, where, after several moves, his family settled in 1901. His father, David Aldona Hopkins, was a moderately successful traveling salesman and merchant who imparted to Harry his competitive, good-natured character and his loyalty to the Democratic Party, while his strictly religious mother, née Anna Pickett, impressed on him values of honesty and moral rectitude. Two other early influences were Grinnell College, from which he was graduated in 1912 and which emphasized Social Gospel Christianity, stressing one’s responsibility to help the underprivileged, and his sister Adah, who preceded him at Grinnell College and entered professional social work.

Upon graduating from college, Hopkins went to New York City, where he became a social worker and rose rapidly in the Association for Improving the Poor. From 1915 to 1930, he held various high positions in social work in which he was responsible for instituting new programs: pensions for widows with children, relief for the families of servicemen during World War I, and coordination of health services in a major “demonstration” project. He helped to organize the American Association of Social Workers, his profession’s first national society, and served a term as its president. In 1924, he became director of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, which he developed into the major health agency in New York City.

In these years of early achievement, Hopkins was a handsome man, six feet tall with features that in different moods varied from sharp to boyishly rounded. In his later years, ill health caused him to become gaunt, hollow-cheeked, and round-shouldered. Consistently, however, people were drawn by his large, dark brown eyes, which conveyed sympathy, eagerness to learn, and a merry delight in life.

In 1913, Hopkins married Ethel Gross, who shared his interest in social reform. They had three sons. In 1931, the marriage ended in divorce when Hopkins fell in love with Barbara Duncan, a secretary at the Tuberculosis and Health Association. They were married shortly after his divorce became final and had one daughter.

Life’s Work

Although Hopkins achieved notable success as a social worker, his greatest accomplishments came as a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Hopkins became known to Roosevelt during the early years of the Great Depression when, as governor of New York, Roosevelt appointed him to manage and then to direct the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration to help New York State’s unemployed. When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he brought Hopkins to Washington to head the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which granted money to states for unemployment relief. Hopkins set to work rapidly, stressing the duty of the states to set up professionally competent relief organizations and to appropriate funds that matched the federal contribution. The prospect of an unemployment crisis for the winter of 1933-1934 caused Hopkins to recommend that the federal government establish its own relief program. Roosevelt followed his advice and created the Civil Works Administration, which Hopkins administered until it was ended in the spring of 1934. The persistence of unemployment caused Roosevelt to recommend a large federal program which Congress approved and which developed into the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Hopkins’ supervision. By 1936, the WPA had become the administration’s major effort to combat the Depression.

Roosevelt appointed Hopkins to these positions because Hopkins demonstrated a genius for emergency administration. Drawing on his years of experience in developing innovative social work programs, Hopkins appointed an able staff (which included Aubrey Williams, Jacob Baker, and Ellen Woodward) and gave them inspiring leadership that emphasized the need for creative ideas, hard work, and practical results. One new idea that fit the practical realities of the Depression was work relief—that the unemployed should earn government support by doing socially useful work. This approach rejected the belief—common to American society at large and to many social workers—that persons on relief suffered from character defects that caused them to fail as useful workers. Hopkins emphasized instead that the unemployed were simply victims of economic circumstances that were beyond their control.

Politically popular because it relieved local officials from having to cope with unemployment, WPA enriched American society by building thousands of miles of streets, roads, bridges, and grade separations, laying out parks and playgrounds, and constructing schools, airports, and other public buildings. WPA also provided jobs for artists, who decorated buildings with murals, and for musicians and actors, who formed local orchestras, choirs, and theatrical groups. One of WPA’s most notable contributions was the American Guide series. Produced by a program for unemployed writers, the series contained volumes that combined state and local history and culture with tourist information.

Although WPA involved the federal government more heavily than ever before in unemployment relief, Hopkins operated it in a decentralized fashion. State and local governments proposed and supervised projects that WPA approved and funded, making it possible for localities to define their own needs and giving local politicians the chance to claim some credit for local improvements. This latter feature of WPA involved Hopkins in Democratic Party politics, especially with such big-city bosses as Edward J. Kelly of Chicago and Frank Hague of Jersey City.

Hopkins’ alliance with state and local politicians and the national prominence of the WPA led him to develop the ambition to succeed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, an ambition which Roosevelt encouraged. Yet Hopkins’ dreams soon turned to ashes. In 1937, he underwent surgery for cancer of the stomach. The surgery cured his cancer but left him with a digestive disorder that condemned him to a weakened state. In 1939, Roosevelt appointed him secretary of commerce, but Hopkins was not strong enough to work...

(The entire section is 2656 words.)