The Politics and Poetry of Advice and Consent: Congress Confronts the Roosevelt Administration during the State Department Confirmation Incident of 1944

Article excerpt

An old saying claims that politics makes for strange bedfellows. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and for that matter most informed Americans, believed that when a slate of nominees for subcabinet positions in the State Department became front-page news on both coasts for two weeks. In an event that befuddled contemporary observers, the country watched a coalition of liberal New Deal senators lead a bipartisan effort to block Roosevelt's nominees, claiming they were too conservative, only to come within a vote of rejecting the most liberal of the group. However, there is nothing bizarre about this episode. Although individual senators had their own reasons to oppose particular nominees and used whatever rhetoric they believed necessary, the Senate as a whole used the confirmation of this group to inform the president that the legislative branch wanted and was going to have a voice in postwar U.S. foreign policy.

Previous writers on this period have failed to do this incident justice. In his memoirs, Tom Connally, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes no mention of the event. Archibald MacLeish, one of the nominees, misstates and misleads in a posthumously published oral history. Dean Acheson, MacLeish's best friend and fellow nominee, dismisses the confirmation crisis as both sadistic and silly.(1) Biographers and historians have treated this event lightly, if at all. Robert A. Divine covers this episode briefly without providing any interpretation. Scott Donaldson, MacLeish's biographer, believes conservative senators opposed the nominations because MacLeish was a liberal. Waldo Heinrichs, the biographer of Joseph Grew, another of the group, states that resistance in the Senate came from liberal senators opposed to the big business background of the proposed diplomats. Both Warren Kimball and Frederick W. Marks III give no coverage to this incident or the larger issue of executive-legislative relations in their studies of Rooseveltian foreign policy. In his study of New Deal diplomacy, Robert Dallek takes relations between Congress and Roosevelt into account but ignores this incident as well.(2)

The confirmation crisis started in 1943. In the early summer of that year, MacLeish began thinking about his work and career. America was a year and a half into the war, and MacLeish thought his work at the Library of Congress was not helping the war effort. Although he had garnered fame as a poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize, he was a lawyer and a U.S. Army combat veteran of the Second Battle of the Marne. MacLeish wanted to make a more significant contribution to the war effort. He wrote President Roosevelt, telling him he wanted to leave the Library. He was willing to take another, more meaningful position in the government. His letter has not survived, but the president's response has, and from this letter it is possible to reconstruct the librarian's motivation. "I can well understand your feelings," Roosevelt wrote back, "and both of us can in our own right pray that the war will end soon."(3)

Roosevelt was receptive to finding MacLeish "war work." The writer was a loyal supporter and had played an important role in persuading Roosevelt to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940. The president could never have enough men like Archibald MacLeish in Washington. He told MacLeish he would "keep a weather eye open."(4)

This matter was not pressing for either man. MacLeish continued to serve at the Library of Congress for well over a year. Finally, he tired of waiting and resigned as Librarian of Congress on November 8, 1944.(5)

The president wanted to keep MacLeish around, and events were beginning to fall into place for him. On November 7, he won election for a fourth term. Two weeks later, Cordell Hull, the ailing secretary of state, resigned. Roosevelt used this resignation as an opportunity to reorganize the Department of State and give Archibald MacLeish a new job. …