The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Hopkins, Harry Lloyd
(August 17, 1890–January 29, 1946)

–social worker, relief director, and presidential assistant—was the fourth of five children born to David Aldona Hopkins and Anna (Pickett) Hopkins. He was born in Sioux City, Iowa, one of the short-term residences of his salesman, harness maker, storekeeper father. After moves through several small towns in Nebraska and a stay in Chicago, the family settled in Grinnell, Iowa, and Harry graduated from Grinnell College in 1912. Influenced by the college's teaching of Social Gospel Christianity and political science professor Jesse Macy's advocacy of honest public service, he moved to New York City, where he secured a position with a social settlement house.

    Hopkins rose rapidly in the social work profession. In 1923 he became director of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association. He also served as president of the American Association of Social Workers. In New York, he met and married social worker Ethel Gross, with whom he had three sons. In 1931 they divorced, and Harry married Barbara Duncan, with whom he had a daughter. In 1937 Barbara died of cancer. In 1942 Hopkins married Louise Macy.

    Early in his career Hopkins came to believe that during times of economic decline, government should relieve the distress of the unemployed, so he experimented with "work relief" programs in New York City. When the Great Depression produced massive unemployment throughout New York, Hopkins accepted a nomination from the newly inaugurated Democratic Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt to direct his Temporary Emergency Relief Organization. Hopkins's strenuous and imaginative efforts to create work relief jobs earned Roosevelt's respect, so that when Roosevelt became president, he chose Hopkins to head his Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

    Both Roosevelt and Hopkins expected that federal relief would be temporary, lasting only until Roosevelt's New Deal programs for industry and agriculture restored prosperity. But prosperity remained elusive, and Hopkins's role grew correspondingly. During the winter of 1933-1934, Hopkins responded to a rise in unemployment by setting up the Civil Works Administration, which created some four million jobs. The next year Roosevelt obtained a $3.6 billion appropriation to relieve unemployment, much of which he allocated to Hopkins's newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA).

    Hopkins threw himself into making the WPA an instrument to aid the spectrum of the nation's unemployed. Although most WPA employees worked on construction projects, others produced or performed works of art, literature, and music. As an administrator, Hopkins showed a talent for hiring capable, dedicated persons and inspiring them to their best effort. As his programs gained national attention, they also became targets of Roosevelt's political opponents. Hopkins responded by outspokenly defending Roosevelt and the New Deal and by channeling WPA projects to the president's supporters. Hopkins's loyalty and effectiveness led Roosevelt to encourage him to run for president in 1940. As preparation, Roosevelt nominated him to be secretary of commerce, for which he was confirmed in 1938.

    But Hopkins's political advancement was not to be. Late in 1937 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Surgery removed a large portion of his stomach, saving his life but leaving him debilitated with a dangerously poor digestive system. In May 1940 Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House and asked him to spend the night. Hopkins would remain there for nearly four years. In the summer of 1940, Roosevelt sent him to Chicago to manage his nomination for a third presidential term. Hopkins resigned from the government, expecting that after the election he would leave Washington. But Roosevelt would have other plans.

    Roosevelt had run for a third term because of the crisis created by the outbreak of war in Europe and the gathering threat from Japa nese expansion in the Pacific. Determined to help Great Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany, he proposed that Congress permit him to ship war supplies to nations he identified as necessary to America's defense. In January 1941, in order to ascertain Britain's military needs, he sent Hopkins to confer with British prime minister Winston Churchill.

    Hopkins returned to Washington with a list of Britain's supply requests and with a heroic impression of Churchill. Roosevelt appointed Hopkins a presidential assistant to implement the Lend-Lease Act, which Congress passed in March. During 1941, Hopkins became a key person in the American defense effort, working to remove obstacles in finance, production, and shipping. In the process, Hopkins created a network of persons strategically located in key civilian and military agencies. As Roosevelt's principal diplomatic spokesman, Hopkins again flew to London to prepare for the Atlantic Conference between Roosevelt and Churchill and to Moscow to offer American support to the Soviet Union, recently invaded by Germany.

    After the United States entered the war, Hopkins continued to play a major role in developing war strategy, especially with Great Britain. He worked with Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to coordinate production and shipping with military strategy. He continued to untangle a myriad of problems and to resolve conflicts large and small. He also continued to perform his diplomatic work at the major war conferences at Casablanca and Tehran.

    During 1944, Hopkins and Roosevelt drifted apart. Hopkins's third marriage resulted in a move out of the White House in late 1943. Then a bout of ill health kept him in the hospital until the summer of 1944. He returned to help Roosevelt reorganize the State Department and to accompany him to the Yalta Conference in February 1945, after which he reentered the hospital, remaining there until Roosevelt's death in April.

    Hopkins's last public service came in May 1945, when President Harry Truman sent him to Moscow to resolve problems that had arisen over forming the United Nations. Hopkins's mission succeeded, and President Truman later awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest civiliandecoration.

    Hopkins retired to New York City, where he lived only a few months before dying of liver failure.

    Harry Hopkins combined a love of public service with a selfless dedication to accomplishing a task, be it helping the unemployed or winning the war. He had a gift for understanding the essentials of a given problem, winning people's confidence, and inspiring them to work together to solve it. During the war, Churchill said he should be dubbed "Lord Root of the Matter."
Sources Hopkins's papers are in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y., and the Lauinger Library, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Book-length biographies include George McJimsey, Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy (1987); June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer (1999); and Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins (1948; reprint 1953).
Contributor: George Mcjimsey

Cite as: McJimsey, George. "Hopkins, Harry Lloyd" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017