My Question: Did President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) have any primary adviser/advisors (established foreign policy wonks), whom he listened too? Was it all just him?

A President's chief diplomat and one of his primary advisers on foreign policy is traditionally his Secretary of State. The longest serving Secretary of State in American History was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Cordell Hull who served for 11 years (1933–1944). In a time of global war, Cordell Hull is best remembered for his opinions on trade tariffs, and not being part of Roosevelt's foreign policy team. He was never part of FDR's inner circle, and not called upon by Roosevelt for advice but rather putting policy into effect.

FDR's was famous for collecting many opinions when making his decisions in other areas. He had a formal Brain Trust of advisers for the economy, which rarely agreed but gave him competing options to think about. FDR also famously was a follower of the Economist John Maynard Keynes who is credited for FDR's core economic approach in combating the Great Depressions. The same diverse process seems unwieldy and out of place for FDR's foreign policy. Roosevelt picked a side early and pretty much stayed with it, with regards to foreign policy. He bent and broke laws in supporting Britain while claiming neutrality domestically and abroad. His moves were aggressive and pushed the boundaries of both what was politically possible and legally acceptable.

  • Escorting British shipping half way across the Atlantic while screening for German u-boats.
  • Lend Lease arrangement for ships, planes, and war materials with Britain while the US was still neutral
  • Trading leases on British Caribbean military bases for war materials.(HR 1776)
  • Sending 4000 Marines to Iceland for Hemispheric Defense without any legal basis
  • Using horse and tackle to get around American Neutrality Laws in selling aircraft to the allies.

Popular Aviation, June 1940 enter image description here

Roosevelt Fired his Secretary of War Harry Woodring, June 16, 1940 because he objected to Roosevelt's gift of a dozen B-17 bombers to the British.

Roosevelt Fired his ambassedor to Britain Joseph Kennedy October 22, 1940
During his stay in Washington, Kennedy had a meeting with Bill Bullitt, U.S. Ambassador to France. Kennedy told Bullitt that Britain and France were finished as sovereign countries, that Germany would win the war, and that there was nothing the United States could do to stop that from happening. Kennedy’s comments were funneled back to the White House, and FDR reportedly said, “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live. Take his resignation and get him out of here.”

So who advised Roosevelt on Diplomacy and Foreign Policy?

  • How best to assist Britain and Russia before Dec 7th 1941
  • When best to open a second front in Europe
  • Future Borders of Europe

Not to Mention the 12 Conferences Roosevelt attended discussing the war:

  • Atlantic Conference (Aug 1940)
  • First Washington Conference (Dec 22 1941 - Jan 17 1942)
  • Second Washington Conference (Jun 20 – 25, 1942)
  • Casablanca Conference (Jan 14 – 24, 1943)
  • Third Washington Conference (May 12 – 25, 1943)
  • Quebec Conference (August 17 – 24, 1943)
  • Cairo Conference (Nov 23 – 26, 1943)
  • Tehran Conference (Nov 28 – Dec 1, 1943)
  • Second Cairo Conference (Dec 4 – 6, 1943)
  • Second Quebec Conference (Sept 12 – 16, 1944)
  • Malta Conference (Jan 30 – Feb 2, 1945)
  • Yalta Conference (Feb 4 – 11, 1945)

Harry Hopkins (Former Social Worker and head of charity foundations was Secretary of Commerce until Sept 1940) was a Roosevelt close advisor, emissary and inner circle guy. He was an able administrator and central player in both the New Deal and Lend Lease. Roosevelt even used him as an emissary to Churchill and Stalin. He was probable Roosevelts closest collaborator, even moving into the Whitehouse for several years during the war. He was someone who knew Roosevelt's mind and someone trusted to turn visions into reality; but I don't think he was himself a foreign policy visionary. He was central to implementing the New Deal but was not himself an economist. He was central to implementing Lend Lease, and Foreign Policy; but he wasn't a foreign policy guy who published papers on intervention vs isolation leading up to WWII when these issues were being debated.

Sumner Wells (under Secretary of State) was a close Roosevelt advisors who was said to have played a role in Roosevelt's foreign policy. Sumner Wells seems to fit the bill of what I'm looking for only he was forced out of office in 1943 for soliciting. Was there someone else, or a group of someone elses? Someone with established credentials in Foreign Policy. Someone like the economist Keynes on the economic front whom Roosevelt consulted with on Foreign Policy.

I'm not discussing military advisors. George Marshall played a huge role in the United States' preparation for war, and he was the highest ranking US military officer during the war. After the war General Marshall would become Truman's secretary of state. FDR respected him, and relied on him but they did not necessarily agree especially on foreign policy. After the Munich Conference (Jun 30, 1938) where Czechoslovakia was ceded to Germany, FDR first proposed production of 20,000 aircraft for use by the Allies with his military advisors. Then Brigadier General Marshall was new to Washington. He and President Roosevelt vocally clashed over the policy in the meeting. Marshal's concern was that the US Military didn't have enough arms for itself in 1938-1941 and he opposed arming Britain and at that time France at the expense of US forces. After the meeting, Marshall's friends were discussing what appeared to be his short stay in Washington disagreeing with the President so vocally. FDR responded by making Marshall his Chief of Staff (Sept 1, 1939) and putting him in charge of building the Armed Services for WWII. The sales, leases, and gifts of weapons from the US to the Allies continued.

My Question: Did FDR have any primary adviser/advisors (established foreign policy wonks), whom he listened too? Was it all just him?

  • 1
    According to this article, FDR's primary foreign affairs advisor was Harry Hopkins. Apr 2, 2018 at 11:54
  • I'm really surprised that a WWII question isn't piled on. Apr 5, 2018 at 14:19
  • You could also argue Churchill.
    – Spencer
    Jan 19, 2020 at 13:06

3 Answers 3


Who advised FDR on Foreign Policy before and during WWII?

I've been thinking about this question and done a fare bit of research on it. Here are my conclusions.

My original question was flawed in that it drew a distinction between foreign policy and economic policy. In Roosevelt's time, especially in his first six years when he was primarily focused on rebuilding the economy the two were closely related. The United States was the largest economy in the world, and it's economic policy was an important component of foreign policy before WWII preparations began. Important economic issues blended into foreign policy.

  • The London Economic Conference of 1933 where Roosevelt rejected a collective approach to economic recovery and charted an independent coarse for the US economy apart from Britain and France.
  • Moving off the gold standard and devaluing the U.S. dollar to make the US more competitive. ( a Roosevelt early mistakes which put him at odds with the international community especially Britain and France, which he took steps to remedy in later years)
  • 1933, Established official ties to the Soviet Union to try to increase trade.
  • 1933, committed the United States to a "Good Neighbor Policy" in his inaugural address. Prior to this the US periodically invaded latin American countries when it's economic interests, investments, or access to raw materials were threatened. Or when loans were not being repaid in a timely manner.

FDR 1933, Inaugural Address
(sandwiched between two blurb on domestic economic policy)
"In the field of World policy, I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others, the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a World of neighbors."

  • FDR agreed with a 1933 Pan-American resolution which stated that no country had the right to interfere with the domestic or foreign affairs of another country. ( US interfered in latin America and the Caribbean to protect it's investments).
  • 1934 proposed and passed the "Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act", which allowed FDR to grant most favored trade status to country's who had trade agreements with the US.
  • Recognizing his earlier mistake in 1936 Roosevelt moved to work with Britain and France to stabilize international monetary markets.
  • FDR repealed the Platt Amendment, in which Cuba had agreed that the US had the right to interfere in their country.
  • FDR accepted Mexico's 1938 nationalization of their oil industry even though it meant the loss of US assets. FDR focused on gaining compensation for the losses rather than trying to block the Mexican policy politically or militarily.

I found many references to people calling themselves an FDR primary advisor in foreign policy. Also groups of people claiming to be the intellectual visionaries for post world war Europe as well as the cold war. The problems with all of the folks I researched was:

  1. They didn't span FDR's entire 12 years in office, most only came into his service for 2 or three years. Advisors who rose to prominence in the FDR administration during the war in the mid 1940's don't meet the criteria of who we are looking for.

  2. Others were relatively low level staffers when FDR was making monumental decisions. One would figure if FDR had a young foreign policy guru, he would have kept him around for more than a year or two and he would have been posted to DC close to FDR.

Some of the folks I Investigated.

  • Dean Acheson, As acting Secretary of the Treasury forced to resign in 1933 over disagreements on moving off the Gold Standard. Rejoined FDR's administration as assistant secretary of state in early 1941, advisor on international economic law. Became Secretary of State under President Harry Truman.
  • Charles E. Bohlen, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union(1953-57), the Philippines(1957-1959), and France(1962-1968), in late 1941 was an embassy staffer in Japan. Latter became an important advisor to Marshal but only after Marshal became Secretary of State under Truman.
  • W. Averell Harriman, Special Envoy for FDR. Roosevelt had many special envoys. and while Harriman attended several important Presidential conferences and also assisted with Lend Lease, significant published historical advise to FDR was advise FDR declined to take. Like getting tougher on the Soviets at Yalta over Poland.
  • George F. Kennan, Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In the 1930 - the end of WWII, was a state dept staffer posted in Europe. He was critical of any alliance with the Soviet Union, so while smart, opinionated and fact based, wasn't proximal to FDR was posted as deputy chief of the Moscow delegation for most of the war.
  • Robert A. Lovett, Truman's Secretary of Defense. A wealthy businessman, who was pilot in WWI. Brought on in late 1940 as undersecretary of defense, Famous for building the US Army Air Corps beginning in 1941.
  • John J. McCloy, a War Department official and later U.S. High Commissioner for Germany. A Republican Lawyer in the private sector who did a lot of business in Germany both for US companies and German Companies. Involved in suing Germany over a WWI sabotage case, and became interested and an authority on espionage. Hired by FDR's secretary of War, Henry Stimson as a consultant. McCloy did not support FDR in the 1940 election, but still became under Secretary of War in 1941 who was influential in both setting war production priorities for the country before WWII, and Japanese internment after Pearl Harbor.

All of these men would become very influential in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and all would claim to have advised FDR. I crossed off a lot of people whos influence peaked only after FDR left office. Folks who claimed to be his foreign policy primary advisors / visionaries. What I came away with was that FDR ran his foreign policy a lot like he ran his economic policy.

He hired and listened to a lot of advisors who had two things in common. They were all smart opinionated guys, and the pretty much disagreed on important policy positions. Roosevelt would hire two guys who disagreed and put them in the same office as deputies, or one as chief and the other as deputy. He would invite both along to the Whitehouse and orchestrate a conversation where ideas would be debated with FDR as referee. FDR generally did not participate in these debates but just listened and asked questions. It was not uncommon in these meetings for many people of different opinions to all come away thinking they each had the president's favor. FDR would make the final call, usually in private and sometimes didn't even inform his subordinates of the decisions.

Functional ability and performance were prized but typically isolated from policy making. Thus guys like his secretary of state Cordell Hull were trusted with running the State Department but were not authoritative or even necessarily included in crafting foreign policy.

Important Cabinet officials like FDR's first two Secretaries of War:

Publicly disagreed with FDR over foundational administration policy. Woodring was a public noninterventionist was so incensed by FDR's appointment of interventionist Louis A. Johnson as his deputy he refused to speak to him. Finally FDR fired Woodring after he publicly spoke out criticizing Lend Lease.

Policy came from FDR and from his own process. FDR's subordinates were encouraged to criticize and disagree internally, and present their cases. Public criticism was a different matter.

FDR's charm and ability to craft close relationships with his subordinates was legendary. ( close from the subordinates vantage ). FDR spoke both German and French fluently, and read all the important daily newspapers and popular literature from Britain, France and Germany. ( skimmed, more than completely read ). FDR had a long standing interest in intelligence dating back from when he was assistant secretary of War for the Wilson Administration and built and championed US naval intelligence. FDR had three or four different groups thinking they were the US governments clandestine service only to be surprised when they would discover others working in the same space all orchestrated by FDR.


As a fluent speaker in both German and French, FDR was incredible well informed. He augmented his knowledge obtained from public resources by surrounding himself with opinionated smart experienced people recruited for the diversity of their ideas. He would place people with these diverse ideas over core policy issues in the same space. Sometimes as peers sometimes as a chief and subordinate. Such as his noninterventionist Secretary of war Harry Hines Woodring and his interventionist deputy Louis A. Johnson.

Many many of his subordinates be low the secretary level were invited to the White House for policy meetings and believed they had FDR's ear and confidence. FDR managed these relationships carefully and from the Presidential perspective had only a very few inner circle advisors who were more valued for their work ethic, managerial skills, and personal loyalty than their incite and deep experience on a given foreign policy topic which they were aiding FDR with. Harry Hopkins for example was a social worker by training who had come to Roosevelt's attention as the leader of a charity working to ease the impact of the Depression on working families. FDR employed him as a special envoy to Churchill and Stalin, as well as a war materials production czar. FDR's inner circle confidants like Harry Hopkins, Eleanor, and Missy leland worked behind the scenes and perhaps helped FDR sort out all the information which he accumulated from various experts. This is how FDR ran his economic and foreign policy decisions.

If a single Guru had to be named it would be FDR himself. FDR was very secretive, and guarded; while he projected an image of giving power to many. In truth he sought advice widely, but shared authority and power infrequently and then only in silo's were implementation was isolated from policy. His close advisors were not policy people but hardworking people with demonstrated managerial skills and huge work ethics who placed FDR's relationship ahead of policy. These people were trusted to act as FDR's eyes and ears, relay personal messages and sometimes implement policy. Subject matter experts, many of whom considered FDR their close personal friend, were kept at arms length and milked for ideas. Their relationships were carefully managed and they were prized for coming up with innovative ideas and being able to defend those ideas against a gauntlet of detractors all organized and carefully nurtured by FDR. Overall FDR's approach lead to some mistakes even large ones. FDR get's high marks for not because he never made mistakes, but because when he did he was quick to recognize them and take action.


For a very interesting analysis of how US policy WWII for a specific issue was developed, may I recommend Advocating Overlord by Philip Padgett, Potomac Books, $39.95, 379 pp. Nothing in it contradicts the excellent answer by JMS or the original question, but by showing how a real, major policy decision was arrived at nicely illustrates the complexity of it all. (Real life decision-making is never as pretty as in the movies!)

If I had to summarize brutally, FDR always held 66% of the votes and the other 33% were scattered. He was brilliant and effective, but had a tendency to change his mind unpredictably, especially after talking to Churchill. Many of his aides saw their task to help him form his best judgment and then, once decided, to stick to it.

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    Your quote on decision making never as pretty as in the movies made me think of a book I read on the first persian gulf war called "The General's war". The entire book dealt with all the internal executive administration politics between the Sec of Defense (Dick Cheney), national security advisor and various factions within the Pentagon all seeking the President's ear. Very interesting book, and it's amazing how decisions are arrived at sometimes.
    – user27618
    Jul 12, 2018 at 19:31
  • Sausage is elegant in comparison!
    – Mark Olson
    Jul 12, 2018 at 19:33

An interesting perspective on this question can be had from the book 'The First Summit: Roosevelt & Churchill at Placentia Bay, 1941' by Theodore A. Wilson (1991), which describes the lead-up and activities of the two national leaders and their key advisors as they formulated the Atlantic Charter in 1941. Much of the final work was conducted on board ships in Placentia Bay and those who were present and those who were excluded becomes very evident in such isolated and confined circumstances. The contrasting methods and style of the two great leaders is a prominent theme as is the detailed descriptions of who was involved in the key negotiations over contentious matters which shaped the direction of the future Anglo-US alliance and their vision for the world which would emerge from the war under their guidance. Hopkins and Welles appear to me as the two (non-military) men who had the fullest attention of the President at that pivotal time.

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