President Franklin D. Roosevelt Fires His Isolationist Secretary of War During WWII

June 19, 1940

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Fires His Isolationist Secretary of War During WWII
Autograph Letter Signed
3 pages | SMC 1373

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      Background

      Franklin Roosevelt liked Harry Woodring, really and truly, and that made maneuvering him out of the War Department a difficult business. He first attempted to remove the Secretary, in December 1938, with a reshuffling of his Cabinet; if Woodring would go, FDR proposed, he could be Ambassador to Canada. Woodring demurred, and FDR, who didn’t wish force his old friend out of office, hadn’t the heart to insist.  With the advent of war in Europe, however, what was initially hard for the President, became harder: Woodring, a popular Washington figure, drew on a deep well of isolationist support. To remove him would expose Roosevelt to charges that he intended to embroil the United States in what, to many Senators, was a dangerous European entanglement. Still, in January 1940, Roosevelt tried again – this time offering Woodring the Ambassadorship to Italy; again, Woodring declined. In fact, one Washington columnist concluded, Woodring’s “defense of his post against all assaults has been a tactical masterpiece which probably will be studied by military men for decades.” But when Woodring began to actively obstruct Roosevelt’s policy of arming, whenever and however possible, the Allies, he crossed a line which even Roosevelt could not brook. On June 17th, Roosevelt directed the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau to, as he put, “give the English some help”: a dozen B-17 bombers. Woodring, however, rather than comply, fired off a memo to Roosevelt, stating that he strongly opposed the proposed action – and that was why Roosevelt wrote this rare autograph letter to his old friend, firing him.
       
      Because of a succession of recent events both here and abroad, and not within our personal choice and control, I find it necessary now to make certain readjustments. I have to include in this a change in the War Department - and that is why I am asking that you let me have your resignation. At the same time it would be very helpful to me if you would accept the post of Governor of Porto Rico… Your service as Secretary of War has been carried out loyally and faithfully - and for this I shall ever be grateful to you. This note goes to you with the warmest feeling of friendship on my part… for your help during all these seven  years.

      Despite FDR’s trying to sell the governorship of Puerto Rico as “of the utmost importance to this country,” Woodring responded that, fearing as he did that Roosevelt’s arming the Allies would lead the United States into a major conflict for which it was not prepared, he could not continue to serve the Administration in another post. Woodring left Washington a week later; he was finished, politically.


      Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 3 pages, recto and verso, quarto, The White House, Washington, June 19, 1940. To Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring.

      With autograph envelope, incorporating initials (“Private from FDR”)
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