War is Hell

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Publication Date: March 1, 1994
By Benjamin Shapell
Originally published in INSIDER’S REPORT, March, 1994
Painted portrait of Harry Hines Woodring
Harry Hines Woodring, 53rd United States Secretary of War. United States Department of War. Wikimedia Commons.

While appointments of key administration personnel can often be troublesome, as we have just pointed out, resignations of key government officials can also present a major problem for the President. Frequently such occurrences involve lower-level cabinet positions. But when such an exit involves an important position and a recognizable individual, an administration is often left groping in the dark. Firing a top administration official is perhaps one of the hardest decisions a President can make, short of going to war. He is left to negotiate a political minefield that invariably calls his judgment into question for having hired the person in the first place.

Some Presidents rarely fired anyone during their terms of office.  Others, like Richard Nixon, were forced to jettison top aides in order to save their Presidencies.  Harry Truman took hell for it and created many enemies when he abruptly fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.  But sometimes Presidents are willing to face political risks and simply cut their losses.  President Clinton, after a relatively short time in office, recently faced those risks in the wake of the forced resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.  Aspin’s dismissal was handled relatively smoothly and with dignity.  However, Clinton soon found himself back in the lion’s den with the appointment and subsequent embarrassing withdrawal of Aspin’s replacement, Bobby Inman, for which he endured much public criticism and ridicule.

Interestingly, Aspin’s departure brings to mind the dismissal of another controversial Secretary of War: Harry Woodring, who was forced to resign by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.  Woodring had been a strong advocate of neutrality, opposing aid in the form of crucial American planes and surplus military supplies to the beleaguered Allies.  Roosevelt wanted someone whose views on the war in Europe more closely mirrored his own and asked for Woodring’s resignation on June 19, 1940 in a three-page letter handwritten on White House stationery.

Like Woodring, Aspin also seemed to lack clout and credibility.  He had been at the center of controversy since the beginning of his tenure when he was embroiled in the fight over allowing gays in the military.  Aspin was also widely criticized for being disorganized, and in October was denounced for not sending badly needed armored vehicles to American troops in Somalia, the direct result of which was numerous fatalities.  Coincidentally, both Aspin and Woodring were offered diplomatic posts to take the sting out of their forced resignations and to keep them quiet about their departures.  The door was left open for Aspin to take the post of U.S. Ambassador to China, and Woodring, in the same letter in which President Roosevelt asked for his resignation, was offered the Governorship of Puerto Rico.

But that’s where the similarities end.  At the time of Woodring’s resignation, the United States was at a critical crossroads, and Woodring insisted on being heard.  He took Roosevelt’s letter as an opportunity to reiterate his personal belief that the U.S. should not get involved in a European war, and that the nation’s defense should receive first priority.  Roosevelt, on the other hand, had made it clear that he wished to aid Britain and France by all means short of war, even if it meant a temporary weakening of U.S. military strength.  After all, only a month earlier Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands had been invaded by the Germans.  And on June 5 – only 14 days before Roosevelt’s letter to Woodring – Germany invaded France.

In a speech Roosevelt delivered on June 10, 1940, he announced that U.S. policy was changing from “neutrality” to “non-belligerency,” which, in practice, meant that the U.S. would openly support the Allies without itself going to war.  Woodring’s continued differences with the administration’s evolving philosophy finally had to be dealt with.

This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the turning point of the second World War, events leading up to that historic day are certainly of great importance.  Had the attack on Pearl Harbor not occurred just one and one-half years after Woodring’s forced resignation, the U.S. might likely have stayed out of the war entirely.  Nevertheless, Woodring’s 1940 departure significantly impacted U.S. foreign policy, especially as it applied to England.  It was, after all, a high level resignation by a major U.S. government official in the midst of a major war in Europe, occurring just weeks before the Battle of Britain.

As autograph dealers, collectors, and historians, we are fortunate to have access to FDR’s three-page handwritten letter of dismissal to his controversial Secretary of War.  Indeed, such a rare specimen opens the door for additional research into FDR’s handwriting habits as President – sure to be included in an upcoming issue of Insider’s Report.  Our limited study of Franklin Roosevelt shows him to have written ALS’s as President only sparingly, generally saving them for important occasions and individuals.

In our 1992 “Top 10” list of the rarest U.S. Presidents in handwritten letters found in private hands, we found only four full-page FDR letters signed in full – not many at all for a President who served 12 years.  Being an autograph collector himself, however, Roosevelt was acutely aware of the value of autograph letters and, like Herbert Hoover (see the December 1993 issue of Insider’s Report) he seemed to deliberately limit his handwritten letter output.  We will look forward to tackling the FDR question full force when we soon begin our report on his ALS’s found in the public sector.