Jean Edward Smith, biographer who reassessed presidential reputations, dies at 86

September 14, 2019 at 8:55 p.m. EDT

Jean Edward Smith. (Christine Smith)

Jean Edward Smith, a scholar who was one of the most admired biographers of his time, the author of smoothly written accounts of several presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, that became prizewinning bestsellers, died Sept. 1 at his home in Huntington, W.Va. He was 86.

He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Christine Smith.

Dr. Smith, a Washington-born political scientist who spent seven years as an Army officer, was a faculty member at the University of Toronto for many years and later taught at Marshall University in West Virginia. His first books were on German politics, but beginning in the 1990s, he became a prolific chronicler of the lives of major figures in U.S. history, and was praised by historians and everyday readers alike.

In 2012, Columbia University historian Henry F. Graff called Dr. Smith “indubitably America’s most distinguished biographer.”

His 2001 study of Grant, the Civil War general who later served two terms as president, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and helped raise scholars’ estimation of Grant’s effectiveness as president.

Grant was a failure in business — “He was too…

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War Comes to Warsaw: September 1939


Staff members drape a large American flag over the roof of the embassy in Warsaw in anticipation of German air attacks. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum / Julien Bryan Archive

U.S. Consulate General Warsaw on Sept. 1, 1939. U.S. Library of Congress

Warsaw, Sept. 1, 1939, 5:30 a.m. The shriek of air raid sirens awakens Ambassador Anthony “Tony” J. Drexel Biddle Jr. Troubled by heightened German-Polish tensions, Adolf Hitler’s demands for territorial rectifications and the recent mobilization of the Polish Army, Biddle calls the duty officer at the Polish Foreign Ministry.

Is this an attack? The answer: Yes, there are numerous reports of German incursions onto Polish soil. Electing to telephone rather than cable flash news, Biddle manages to reach Ambassador William C. Bullitt in Paris. Bullitt, in turn, places a trans-Atlantic call.

2:55 a.m., Washington time. A sleeping President Franklin Roosevelt awakens to Bullitt’s call. After weeks of tension, a war of nerves is now a shooting war. The president alerts Secretary of State Cordell Hull and other senior officials. In the pre-dawn hours, lights suddenly begin to burn at the State Department. Twenty years after the peace settlement of Versailles, Europe again plunges into general war.

The German attack does not catch Ambassador Biddle or the department entirely by surprise. In March 1939 the department had…

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How Franklin Roosevelt learned of the start of the Second World War

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, President Roosevelt was awakened in his bedroom at the White House by a telephone call from his Ambassador in Paris, William C. Bullitt, who advised the President that Germany had invaded Poland and that several Polish cities were being bombed. Roosevelt understood immediately that this meant a larger war, for Great Britain and France had pledged to come to Poland’s defense if Germany attacked. World War II had begun. The President wrote this unique “bedside note” documenting for posterity how and when he had received the news of the outbreak of World War II.


“The President received word at 2:50 am, by telephone by Ambass. Biddle through Ambass. Bullitt that Germany has invaded Poland and that several cities are being bombed. The President directed that all Navy ships and Army commands be notified by radio at once. In bed 3:05 am, September 1, 1939. FDR”

On September 3, FDR went on national radio to speak to the American people about the crisis in Europe. “This nation will remain a neutral nation,” he declared, “but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. . . . Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience.”

In the crucial months that followed, the President would demonstrate that his sympathies lay with the victims of Axis aggression. Yet America’s isolationist mood limited FDR’s freedom to act. In particular, the country’s Neutrality Acts prohibited the sale of American weapons to warring nations.

Complied by Cynthia M. Koch, August 29, 2019

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, “Found in the Archives, FDR’s Bedside Note, and the special exhibition, “Freedom From Fear: FDR, Commander in Chief,” September 2, 2005- November 5, 2006 (compiler’s files).

No Refuge

In April 1933, at the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term, Undersecretary of State William Phillips called Labor Secretary Frances Perkins on the phone, expecting to tell her how immigration policy would work in the new administration. Philips “was almost blown off his end of the telephone.” Perkins told him “in no uncertain terms” that accepting immigrants whose lives were in danger was an American tradition and that “it was up to her department, not the State Department, to decide whether such admission would adversely affect the economic conditions or entail a fight with the AFL [American Federation of Labor].”1

a black and white photo of a middle-aged white womanAs the first woman cabinet secretary and longest-serving Labor Secretary in American history, Perkins is best remembered as a key architect of the New Deal and Social Security. A lesser-known component of her tenure is her role in U.S. immigration policy, which was largely under her department’s control in the 1930s. From her volunteer work in a Chicago settlement house to her work on industrial safety in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, immigration issues had always been a part of Perkins’ labor activism. In many ways, if you were looking to flee Europe in the 1930s, she may have seemed like the ideal cabinet secretary to oversee immigration to the United States. Yet when she joined the cabinet, the United States did not even have an official definition of refugee, let alone a coherent policy for managing their petitions for entrance to the country.2

Understanding the story of Perkins’ attempt to carve a welcoming refugee policy out of scraps of existing law, from her phone call with Phillips to the complete transfer of INS out of her control in 1940, requires us to follow a series of bureaucratic maneuvers between and among cabinet departments.3 But these maneuvers—and the smaller battles over bureaucratic turf that both precipitated and followed them—were part of fighting a greater war for the spirit and implementation of the nation’s immigration policy. Would the United States cling to its legally-codified hostility towards immigrants—even refugees—or would it open its doors to those fleeing persecution and violence? Perkins’ struggle to open those doors in the 1930s shows us how a culture war can be fought through, and consciously disguised by, bureaucratic battles over policy and implementation.

Barely a month before FDR’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Americans had followed Hitler’s rise to power in the news, and now they followed the deteriorating status of Jewish Germans. In March 1933, Nazis smashed windows of Jewish stores, broke streetcars, and assaulted Jewish passersby. The following month, they boycotted Jewish businesses. In mid-April, FDR’s Cabinet convened to discuss a sudden surge in applications for immigration visas from Jewish Germans.4

At this time, immigration to the U.S. was guided by…

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The Mystery of This Dusty Book, Signed by Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt


Aug. 23, 2019

The trunk had sat in the library of a Midtown Manhattan acting school for decades.

No one seems to have ever fully rifled through its contents, save for a researcher here and there, said Whit Waterbury, an archivist and librarian at the Neighborhood Playhouse, the conservatory where Robert Duvall, Jeff Goldblum and Allison Janney trained.

So several years ago, Mr. Waterbury rolled up his sleeves and got busy.

Most of the materials he found had to do with the early days of the theater, between 1915 and 1927. Photographs and playbills of a Hindu drama attributed to King Shudraka in 1924. Productions featuring the music of Ernest Bloch, Claude Debussy and Alexander Borodin.

And then he found the book.

At first, he didn’t think much of the dusty thing, with its fragile binding and fading yellow ribbon on the outside. He set it aside to focus on documents more clearly related to the school and its founders, Alice and Irene Lewisohn, two sisters and community activists who built one of the first Off Broadway theaters in New York.

But then last spring, he actually flipped through its pages. There was…

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What FDR Understood About Socialism That Today’s Democrats Don’t

President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in characteristic style: beaming, from the back seat of an open car. He had earned this smile. It was June 27, 1936, and he had just been re-nominated by acclamation in the smoke-filled Philadelphia Convention Center a few blocks away. It was, arguably, the high-water-mark of his career. Thanks to the monumental initiatives of Roosevelt’s first term, it was also a moment of transcendent significance in the nation’s history, though none of the 100,000 people sweating in the yellow-brick football stadium realized it.

This was the pinnacle of American socialism, by that or any other name.

In the four years just past, Roosevelt had transformed the purpose of the United States government, making it a constant companion in the lives of Americans. The Social Security Act of the previous year was merely the crowning achievement. Roosevelt’s initiatives, meant to curb the misery brought on by the Great Depression ,directly funded millions of government jobs, employing everyone from photographers to brush-clearing conservation workers. To pay for this, he raised the income tax—which hadn’t even existed two decades earlier—to 75 percent on the highest incomes. The rich were subsidizing the poor, and that was A-OK with FDR.

The giant crowd bristled with excitement to hear their hero defend these policies. What followed was his so-called “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech, which historians rank among the greatest of his career, a tall order from the man whose oratorical roster included “nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “a day that will live in infamy.” But while those speeches perfectly captured individual moments, Roosevelt’s “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech came far closer to revealing his inner theories and motivations: Never before or after would he lay out his vision in greater clarity.

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