Four individuals served at the very top of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration from the spring of 1933 until his death in April 1945. They were originally outsiders but became invaluable leaders behind New Deal programs that were crucial to fighting the Depression and bringing victory in World War II. Author Derek Leebaert tells their stories in Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made.
These four people came to Washington with fully formed, practical policy ideas. Frances Perkins, the new secretary of labor, was the first woman to be named to a presidential cabinet. She had worked with FDR when he was the governor of New York, so they had already discussed her plans, including doing away with child labor, before she agreed to join his staff in Washington. Harold Ickes was the secretary of the interior, and he had plans for protecting America’s mountains and forests. Henry Wallace, secretary of agriculture, believed he could achieve parity between farmers’ and industrial workers’ wages. Harry Hopkins wasn’t named to a cabinet position until later, but his extensive professional connections—and his impressive recall of the right people’s names—gave him an ability to get things done as the secretary of commerce. Much later, as World War II was nearing its end, these four continued to be the only top officials who were putting sensible plans for the postwar world into motion.
Perkins turned out to be a particularly effective administrator, making many decisions that were “dynamizing a generation,” Leebaert writes. With a combination of “private persuasion and public advocacy,” she helped open entire work sectors to women and urged women to step into jobs that were vacant while men were away at war. Meanwhile, her child services staff worked with the Army and Navy to provide services for spouses and children of enlisted men. She broke down barriers against employing women over 45, and she did not agree with those who felt the U.S. could trust Josef Stalin.
This well-researched, absorbing narrative reveals what it was like during the FDR administration from four unique perspectives. Unlikely Heroes should be of interest to a wide range of history and biography readers.