In the inner circle: Anna Rosenberg and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidency, 1941-1945.

Author:McGuire, John Thomas
Position:The Historical Presidency - Essay

Scholars have long noted how President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a network of both formal and informal advisors with overlapping jurisdictions and newly created executive agencies to provide him with extensive information and enable him to retain final decision-making authority (Neustadt 1960, 50-52; see also Burns 1956, 1970; Dallek 1995; Dickinson 1996; Rung 2011; Schlesinger 1959). The United States' involvement in World War II forced the president to focus his energies and attention on formulating military strategy (Burns 1970, 312). He created new agencies, such as the National Defense Mediation Board and the Office of Emergency Management, and increasingly delegated domestic presidential duties to close advisors such as James F. Byrnes (Burns 1970, 116,332-33,340,347).

This is a familiar story. Less familiar is that a woman, Anna Rosenberg, became one of Roosevelt's important advisors during the war years. From the spring of 1941 through Roosevelt's death in April 1945, she undertook a diverse array of tasks for the White House, including relaying demands from the African American community concerning the creation of a new agency regulating racial equality in defense employment; overseeing relations between the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) and the president; the planning of postwar retraining and rehabilitation procedures for returning soldiers; and, most importantly, serving as the president's alter ego in the fraught area of labor--management relations.

Although Rosenberg received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1945, the first woman ever to be so honored, students of the Roosevelt years have been "remarkably silent" about her World War II activities (Jones-Branch 2011, 143). (1) Few if any presidential scholars have heard of her, and Rosenberg's name does not even appear in the index of several of the best-known Roosevelt biographies (see, e.g., Burns 1970; Dallek 1995). Those few historians who have taken note of Rosenberg's contributions focus on her career after Roosevelt's death. For instance, Anna Kasten Nelson's article, "An 'Honorary Man,"' focused mostly on Rosenberg's importance in the Cold War defense establishment, while a 2006 dissertation by Elizabeth A. Collins mostly assessed the attempts to discredit her as a leftist during her confirmation hearings for assistant secretary of defense in 1950 (Collins 2006; Nelson 2004). By drawing upon both Rosenberg's personal papers and presidential files, this article explores the duties performed for President Roosevelt that earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rosenberg's inclusion in Roosevelt's coterie of advisors becomes more remarkable when one considers her background. She came to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915 at the age of 13, just as the massive emigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States neared its end." Never graduating from high school, she married and became a mother by the age of 21. Rosenberg did not allow marriage and family to prevent her involvement in New York City's tough, Tammany Hall-dominated system. She managed the successful 1922 campaign of a New York City Democratic alderman and thereafter established an impressive political network, which eventually included future New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Nelson A. Rockefeller (Kessner 1989, 69-70; Nelson 2004, 135-36; Smith 2014, 129-31 Thurston 1999, 877-87). (3)

The first encounter of Anna Rosenberg with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt occurred just prior to the 1928 elections. While Franklin pursued electoral office as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in New York, Eleanor worked as the director of the women's section of the state Democratic Party (Davis 1985; Cook 1999). Rosenberg's first substantial contacts occurred with the future First Lady. As Rosenberg later explained, the members of the women's section acted "extremely kind and nice" and tried "to involve me in their activities." But despite this auspicious beginning, Rosenberg's relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt never developed into a friendship until after World War II. (4) Instead Rosenberg seemed more intent on affixing herself to the rising political star of Eleanor's husband, who had been successfully elected.

Rosenberg's first important work with Roosevelt occurred in the area of labor mediation in the late 1920s, a natural starting point given her new profession. (5) In 1924 Rosenberg had established a consulting firm that focused on labor--management relations and welfare services (McGlade 1996, 242-43). The firm not only brought her great financial success, but also extended Rosenberg's contacts to labor leaders such as William Green of the American Federation of Labor and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (McGlade 1996, 244; Thurston 1999, 878). This mixture of political savvy and considerable knowledge of labor issues would prove invaluable in Rosenberg's presidential advising, much as Woodrow Wilson's Colonel Edward House and Harry's Truman's Clark Clifford parlayed their considerable business and legal reputations into successful prepresidential (and presidential) advising careers (Acacia 2009; Hodgson 2006).

Rosenberg's first federal government jobs, however, came from her local political contacts. In the spring of 1933 she managed Nathan Straus's unsuccessful campaign for the presidency of the New York City Board of Alderman. When Straus became New York State director of the newly formed National Recovery Administration (NRA) later that year, he appointed Rosenberg his assistant. The next year she became the state director of compliance and then accepted a regional directorship with the Social Security Board after the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935. Rosenberg also served as chairman of the New York State constitutional convention's subcommittee on civil rights and general welfare issues, and organizer of New York City's Industrial Board (Thurston 1999, 878). Having accrued substantial financial and political power during the early 1930s, Rosenberg sought to increase her access to Roosevelt, now in his first presidential term. (6)

Roosevelt first met with Rosenberg in January 1936, partially, as explained by the president to his secretary Marvin McIntyre, because of a request relayed through Eleanor Roosevelt. Her access was initially quite limited. In the fall of 1937, for example, McIntyre reminded Roosevelt of Rosenberg's request for an appointment. The president scribbled a testy reply on the bottom of McIntyre's reminder: "Mac, what does she want to see me about? I would prefer to have her come to Washington after our return [from Hyde Park]." Thus Rosenberg's initial efforts at increasing her presidential access met with mixed success.

Within four years of this memorandum, however, the president's apparent brusqueness turned into a strong appreciation of Rosenberg's abilities. Materials in the presidential files indicate that, by late 1940, she was meeting informally with the president every week. In October of that year, for example, Rosenberg asked Major General Edwin "Pa" Watson, the president's military aide and unofficial gatekeeper, if the president minded if she "skipped a week in Washington" and the next month confirmed a meeting with "the Boss." The weekly meetings continued at least until 1943, as evidenced by the president confirming a meeting in April of that year and a subsequent note from Rosenberg stating that she would skip a weekly appointment unless Roosevelt decided otherwise. Thus by 1941 Rosenberg had become a key presidential advisor. (8)

When later asked about her increasing importance to Roosevelt, Rosenberg described the situation as one in which she simply...

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