Review of “The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler” by David Roll

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The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler
by David Roll
520 pages
Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 2013

The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler” by David Roll was published in 2013. Roll is a senior partner at Steptoe & Johnson (a DC-based law firm) and previously served as Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission. He is also the author of a biography of General George Marshall which I read earlier this year.

Readers acquainting themselves with Franklin Roosevelt invariably become enamored with two people central to FDR’s orbit: Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins. I read David Michaelis’s biography of Eleanor shortly after its release in 2020. And I’ve finally gotten around to this somewhat older – but marvelously compelling – biography of FDR’s closest political advisor.

Harry Hopkins (1890-1946) began his professional career managing humanitarian and social relief agencies. During the early years of the Depression his skills were put to wider use and by 1933 he was administering aid programs at the national level for FDR. But Roosevelt discovered that Hopkins was a man of even broader talents and with the onset of World War II Hopkins quickly became FDR’s closest and most trusted adviser – and was the hub of the Roosevelt-Stalin-Churchill triumvirate until the war’s end.

Roll draws heavily on Robert Sherwood’s classic 1948 exploration of the relationship between Hopkins and FDR, but also provides fresh insights based on sources uncovered within the past few decades including an FBI file on Hopkins (and his third wife), notes from KGB archives and papers donated to Georgetown University by one of Hopkins’s sons.

Harry Hopkins makes an especially enticing biographical subject: he was extraordinarily quirky and prone to odd maladies…but was highly intelligent and incredibly shrewd. Most importantly, he was an excellent judge of character who understood how power interacts with human nature and he dedicated himself to FDR’s interests. To the reader’s great benefit, nearly every aspect of the friendship between Roosevelt and Hopkins is artfully observed, dissected and explained.

But the heart of this biography, and where it shines brightest, is the middle-third of the book which details his actions as FDR’s emissary during World War II – as he communicated directly with, and coordinated between, the US, Britain and Russia. And although Hopkins’s personal life took a notable back-seat to his public career, Roll does a nice job ensuring that his subject’s three marriages, five children and other important relationships (such as with Eleanor Roosevelt) never fade far from view.

As commendable as this biography is, though, many readers will note that events outside Hopkins’s sphere tend to slip out of view. Planning for the cross-channel invasion of France, for example, is discussed frequently…but the actual assault receives almost no notice. In addition, the narrative chews through Hopkins’s first fifty years in about fifty pages. But if the balance between his early life and service to FDR isn’t quite ideal, it’s not far off the mark.

And overall, David Roll’s biography of Harry Hopkins proves both well-written and wonderfully illuminating. Roll provides a clear-sighted assessment of Hopkins’s strengths and weaknesses and is able to provide, given his access to previously unavailable sources, a far more comprehensive review of Hopkins’s life than previous biographers. Readers interested in Hopkins as a biographical subject, or anyone seeking an engaging biography, will quickly discover this an excellent choice.

Overall rating: 4½ stars