Cordell Hull

Cordell Hull - text
Cordell Hull was born Oct. 2, 1871 in a rented log cabin in Overton (later Pickett) County, Tenn., the son of William and Elizabeth Riley Hull. The circumstances of the Hull family were modest but improved over the years; Hull's father, a logger and merchandiser, left an estate of $200,000 upon his death in 1923. At the age of fourteen Hull enrolled in the Montvale Institute at Celina, Tenn., and later attended a normal school at Bowling Green, Ky. (1886-1887), and the National Normal University at Lebanon, Ohio (1888-1889). He then read law for five months at the Cumberland Law School at Lebanon, Tenn. After opening a practice he began to take part in politics; he was elected to the state legislature at the age of twenty-one and served for several terms. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War he volunteered for military service, but did not get to Cuba until the fighting had ended. During his several months in the army he learned some Spanish, which may have contributed to his later sympathetic attitude toward the Latin American people. Hull's political career moved forward slowly but surely after the war of 1898. In 1903 he was appointed a state circuit judge and the next year was elected to the post. In 1906 he won a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives that he held, with the exception of the two years from 1921 to 1923, until he was elected to the Senate in 1930. He resigned from the Senate to become Secretary of State on Mar. 4, 1933.

Southern Conservative, Wilsonian Liberal

Hull's years in Congress brought him increasing public notice. He took his positions on the basis of an old-fashioned progressivism allayed by caution. A Jeffersonian almost by instinct, Hull had supported William Jennings Bryan against the Grover Cleveland wing of the Democratic Party in 1896. Thereafter he became increasingly conservative, standing to the right of the more ardent progressives in his party, to the left of the Cleveland Democrats. He wrote the income tax section of the Underwood Tariff Act of 1913. An admirer of Woodrow Wilson and supporter of the League of Nations, he advised against Wilson's appeal for a Democratic Congress in 1918, thought that the president should have stayed at home rather than attend the Paris Peace Conference, and generally believed that the presidential tactics toward the Senate in regard to the League of Nations were ill-advised. Hull served on the Democratic national committee from 1914 to 1928 and was chairman from 1921 to 1924. In the months prior to the national convention of 1932 he helped break the grip of Al Smith on the party machinery, and during the convention he worked to secure the crucial California vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. With Wilson's attorney general of a dozen years before, A. Mitchell Palmer, he wrote most of the Democratic platform of 1932, making sure that it had a low-tariff plank. His appointment as the Secretary of State apparently came as a surprise to Hull. He was undoubtedly offered the job, sometime in January 1933, because of his political eminence in his region, the South, where FDR needed legislative support. The choice had narrowed to Norman Davis, whom Roosevelt's adviser Felix Frankfurter opposed, Robert W. Bingham, whom FDR did not know well, Owen D. Young, who was too closely identified with the public utilities industry, and Hull. Hull served nearly twelve years, until Nov. 30, 1944, longer than any of his predecessors as Secretary of State. His tenure spanned one of the most critical periods in his nation's history, an era of more danger in foreign affairs than any earlier time.

Poor Administrator

Hull's modus operandi as secretary differed markedly from that of most holders of the office. During his years in the department the organization grew from a relatively small group of offices, employing fewer than 800 people, to a sprawling series of bureaus with some 3,700 workers. Hull watched the department sprawl. He took little interest in its organizational problems, so that his successors found reorganization almost their first order of business--indeed, the department's lines of control were not straightened out until Dean Acheson became secretary in 1949. Hull seems to have believed that if he worked harder himself everything else would arrange itself properly; he arrived at nine each day, kept his office door open to all callers--with or without business--and almost invariably carried work home to his apartment in the Carlton and later the Wardman Park Hotel. Until ordered to stop by his physician in 1942, he worked on Sunday mornings. Sitting at a desk in an overheated room, Hull was accustomed to preside over disorderly groupings of subordinates working on draft after draft. The result, if there was any, he would modestly announce as a decision by the group of the moment, reached by "my associates and I." Hull's sole diversion from his work was croquet, which he liked to play on Henry L. Stimson's Washington estate. He is not known ever to have commented about theater, opera, the concert hall, ball park, or reading for pleasure. As for social events, especially receptions and dinners, he avoided them, passing invitations to his undersecretaries, William Phillips (1933-1936), Sumner Welles (1937-1943), and Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. (1943-1944).

Idealism of the 8 Pillars

Hull was fond of drawing up general statements of principles. This was perhaps a part of his basic moralism, but perhaps also a part of his political canniness and of his essential hesitation to move on difficult issues. He liked the pedantry of his assistant Leo Pasvolsky, and when he garbed his speeches in the verbosities favored by Pasvolsky and others the result was dull at best. His sermonizing appeared in the form of "Four Pillars of Peace," which later became "Eight Pillars of Peace" announced in a speech at the Buenos Aires Conference of 1936. Although there were many other pillars, the Buenos Aires pillars, to which he frequently alluded, were that governments should educate and organize their peoples in opposition to war and its causes; that there should be frequent international conferences and contacts between the peoples of the world's nations; that there should be peace agreements; that there must be common policy on neutrality; and that there should be liberal commercial policy; restoration of normal relations between nations; revitalization of international law; and faithful observance of international agreements.

London Economic Conference 1933

Throughout his secretaryship Hull was dominated by President Roosevelt, who frequently undercut him or by-passed him. At the outset, in 1933, Hull made what was perhaps the crucial mistake of his cabinet career in allowing FDR to break up the London Economic Conference after the president had promised support and sent Hull as head of the American delegation. "I am squarely behind you," FDR had cabled Hull, "and nothing said or done here will hamper your efforts." The president then released a press statement that, in highly undiplomatic language, refused any part in currency stabilization and thus destroyed the conference. Upon his return to America, Hull thought of resigning, but reconsidered after staying with the president for a few days at Hyde Park.

Montevideo 1933 and Article Eight

During the early years Hull's weakness vis...-vis FDR was not altogether visible because in the two special areas of diplomacy that attracted him, relations with Latin America and establishment of a reciprocal trade agreements program, he enjoyed presidential support. In 1933 at the Montevideo Conference he transformed what was expected to be a meeting without decisions into an electrifying testimony of inter-American good will. At the outset of the conference he had called personally on the principal Latin American delegates, rather than awaiting their calls. In a forthright manner he then consented to Article Eight of the Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which declared: "No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another." In signing this statement Hull gave the leaders of the American republics what they had been seeking for years, and Article Eight became the foundation of the Good Neighbor policy. The result was a new atmosphere. FDR himself journeyed to the Buenos Aires Conference three years later, while in subsequent years Hull was able to turn the Good Neighbor policy toward hemispheric security arrangements.

Mexico and Argentina

Only twice in his Latin American policy did Hull move in awkward directions. In 1938 the Mexican government nationalized American oil property, and he sent an accusatory note, dated March 26, which Ambassador Josephus Daniels wisely withheld. (Said Hull to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.: "Daniels is down there taking sides with the Mexican Government and I have to deal with those Communists down there and have to carry out international law.") During World War II Hull got into a petulant argument with the neutralist regime of General Edelmiro Farrell in Argentina and tried to force a nonrecognition policy against Farrell, not merely by the United States but by all of the hemispheric republics and by Great Britain. Hull arranged to freeze Argentina's credits in the United States, but the policy worked for only a short time, since the British needed Argentine beef and the Latin American governments began to resent the coercion. Hull's successor as secretary, Edward Stettinius, ended this policy, and when Stettinius' successor, James F. Byrnes, tried it again it again failed.

RTA 1934

tariffs 1821-1981
Hull's other major diplomatic effort during the 1930's was the reciprocal trade agreements program inaugurated in 1934. As Roosevelt signed the trade agreements bill on June 12, 1934, Hull glowed with enthusiasm. "Each stroke of the pen," he later wrote, "seemed to write a message of gladness on my heart." The principles of the program were essentially two: that commodities selected for reductions should be items of which the other country was the major source of supply (otherwise, through the unconditional most-favored-nation clause of American bilateral trade agreements, third countries would obtain important benefits gratuitously) and that commodities selected should be noncompetitive with domestic products. The economic theory was fine, but applying it during the 1930's proved difficult, since some countries raised their tariffs before negotiation, so they could lower them and obtain American concessions, while other countries, notably Britain, signed largely to avoid angering the Secretary of State of the United States. Twenty-odd agreements were nonetheless made and, after a number of extensions of the original act, the program eventually helped inspire the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in the postwar era. Hull did not look that far ahead, and liked to believe that his program might have forestalled World War II if that great conflict had not blown up so quickly after 1934.


As World War II loomed ever closer, President Roosevelt took increasing interest in foreign affairs, and Hull's role in American foreign relations became ever more confined. He failed to come to a clear arrangement of responsibilities with the president, and judging from his many private outbursts and complaints he should have done so or resigned. He essentially agreed with the president on the major issues of foreign affairs and may have felt that he could do more good for the country by remaining at the department than by leaving. He was led to believe, by the president himself, that he could be the Democratic presidential candidate in 1940, and the plain truth of the president's intention to take a third term was at last communicated to him early in July 1940, weeks after FDR had reached his decision on the issue. Hull turned down the president's offer of the vice-presidential nomination and, in the weeks before the election, again thought of resigning. His humor was partly improved by the presence in the cabinet of Henry L. Stimson, who in the summer of 1940 became secretary of war. With Stimson he was on close terms--the two men worked together as double cousins, Hull later commented. And there was indeed work to be done. Hull had warned recalcitrant senators in the summer of 1939, when the administration was seeking revision of the neutrality act, that the coming conflict would not be "another goddam piddling dispute over a boundary line," but an assault on world peace by "powerful nations, armed to the teeth, preaching the doctrine of naked force and practicing a philosophy of barbarism." The arms embargo, he said, had "substituted a wretched little bob-tailed, sawed-off domestic statute for the established rules of international law." It had in fact closed the American arms markets to the victims of aggression. Hull was mildly opposed to FDR's peace messages in 1938-939. He opposed the fact-finding mission of Sumner Welles to Europe in the early spring of 1940. He had little to do with the destroyers-bases deal or with lend-lease. He had no connection with the staff conversations with the British in Washington in early 1941 in which the representatives agreed upon defeating Hitler first. He was not present at the Argentia Conference of mid-August 1941, which drew up the Atlantic Charter.

Japan 1941

In one important respect, and it was almost crucial, Hull had a considerable influence on events from 1939 to 1941. Roosevelt was looking to Europe and virtually passed to the secretary the business of Japanese negotiation. Here the problem lay in the conflicting interests of the governments of the United States and Japan: the United States wanted the Japanese to halt their aggression in China and pledge not to take advantage of the war in Europe to pull down the British, French, and Dutch empires in the Far East; the Japanese were determined to obtain as much as possible from the preoccupied Western powers. Long conversations with the Japanese ambassador in Washington began in the spring of 1941, and Hull patiently explained the American position, all the while monitoring the Japanese position from translations of intercepted Japanese messages. By early November he knew that the conversations had a deadline of November 25. Hull on November 7 told the cabinet that "we should be on the lookout for a military attack by Japan anywhere at any time." For a moment American policy wavered. The military chiefs pressed the Secretary of State and the president for a modus vivendi with the Japanese because of the need to shore up the defenses of the Philippines. Hull and Roosevelt were tempted. But word of a possible compromise got out, and the resultant pressure from the Chinese and other governments persuaded Hull "to kick this whole thing over" (so Stimson recorded the secretary's words). With almost no consultation he so advised FDR. As Hull's biographer Julius W. Pratt later wrote, it was the petulant act of a tired and angry man; here surely was (to use the description of the historians William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason) "both bad strategy and careless administrative procedure for the civilian leaders of the Government to make the momentous decision of November 26, 1941, without formal consultation with the responsible military leaders."

United Nations for Peace

After Pearl Harbor, Hull was obviously on the sidelines. For a few weeks he occupied himself and his staff with drawing up the United Nations Declaration, signed on Jan. 1, 1942, by the Washington representatives of governments then in the war against Germany and Japan. This virtual alliance was arranged with little protest from the Senate. Hull ardently supported it and backed his support with an opinion by his department's legal adviser. He then turned his attention to a careful investigation of the bases of the future peace. As early as January 1940--which was much too early--Hull announced an Advisory Committee on Problems of Foreign Policy. A few weeks before Pearl Harbor he and Welles had secured presidential approval of an Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy, with the secretary as chairman and undersecretary as vice-chairman. By August 1943, the department had in hand a document bearing the title "Charter of the United Nations," which became the basis of proposals submitted by the United States at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944. Meanwhile Hull had in 1943 carefully arranged what amounted to a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee of Eight, presided over by Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, and had passed to it the proposed charter, thus ensuring against one of the prime mistakes of Woodrow Wilson in 1918-1919. He thus earned President Roosevelt's description--in a letter sent upon Hull's retirement from office--as "the father of the United Nations."

Wartime Conferences

Hull opposed the unconditional surrender doctrine announced at the Casablanca Conference (Jan. 14-24, 1943) in the belief that it would encourage the Germans to continue fighting. He did concede that unconditional surrender would prevent any German claim that the Nazi armies had not been defeated and that surrender had come because of the weakness of the government and people. Hull was not present at Casablanca or at the Teheran Conference (Nov. 28-Dec. 1, 1943), nor at the Cairo Conference preceding the Teheran meeting, because the president did not want him there. Secretary of War Stimson received the minutes of the Teheran Conference as sessions progressed, but there is no indication that Hull was consulted or even kept informed. FDR cabled Hull on December 3: "I will bring you the minutes of all that was said and done." But Hull did enjoy a triumph of sorts during a meeting of the foreign ministers in Moscow, Oct. 19-30, 1943, preliminary to Cairo and Teheran. He had insisted on going and could not very well have been prevented. Despite his acute claustrophobia he flew, at the age of seventy-two, to the distant capital of the Soviet Union and there deeply impressed his hosts. The Soviets, including Stalin, appreciated his friendly but dignified behavior. Hull at one point dropped his guard and displayed his Tennessee upbringing when, in a discussion of German atrocities and what to do with war criminals, he suddenly remarked that "if I had my way I would take Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo and their arch-accomplices and bring them before a drumhead court-martial. And at sunrise on the following day there would occur an historic incident." The Russians present seem to have been delighted by this remark, and the conferees then caught their breath and went on. The conference's declaration on war criminals proved more circumspect, Hull having relinquished his momentary position. It was after his return to Washington from this meeting, however, that Hull again let down his guard, this time to express unrestrainedly his hopes for the future in a way that his later critics would never overlook; in a speech to a joint session of Congress he said that after the Moscow Conference's declaration was carried into effect "there will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."

Against de Gaulle

During the war Hull tried as best he could to keep hold of some problems of foreign policy, or at least to learn of their existence and anticipate their disposition by the American military and by the president. He and FDR shared a dislike for the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle, and Hull's dislike became an obsession after the Free French, in December 1941, seized the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and displaced local officials of the Vichy regime. He and FDR both disliked colonialism, and in his memoirs he recalled Roosevelt's remark about Indochina: "France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that."

Against Morgenthau

China policy was largely out of his control, but Hull shared FDR's feelings that China could become a great power and therefore should be treated as such. As for German policy, that again was formed by the military and by such members of Roosevelt's entourage as could prevail upon the president. The secretary was bitter about the Morgenthau Plan--not so much for its proposal for the "pastoralization" of Germany and the Germans, but because Morgenthau, secretary of the treasury, had been invited to the Quebec Conference (Sept. 11-16, 1944) and had offered the plan without consulting him. He felt, too, that Morgenthau's simultaneous offer of a postwar loan of $6.5 billion had moved Churchill to acquiescence. He complained bitterly to Stimson, who was equally against the plan, and together they got FDR to back down.

Against Welles

By this time, the summer of 1944, Hull was close to exhaustion and his resignation came not long thereafter. The preceding year had seen the culmination of a long personal feud with Undersecretary Welles in which, after infinite planning, he finally forced Welles's resignation. Hull seemed to have little energy left. FDR urgently asked him to stay on until the end of the third term in January 1945, but Hull was not up to it. He agreed to remain until after the November election, but in effect he ceased to function as secretary upon leaving his office for the last time on October 2, his seventy-third birthday, since he almost immediately suffered a physical collapse and spent seven months in the hospital.


Cordell Hull lived out his last years quietly, in increasing ill health. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, but was unable to accept it in person. Appointed a delegate to the San Francisco Conference, he was again unable to attend. In the summer of 1945 he engaged in a final and perhaps unfortunate post-secretarial act of diplomacy. Upon being consulted by Secretary of State Byrnes, who was attending the Potsdam meetings, he cabled him that a stipulation in the draft of what was to become the Potsdam Declaration, explicitly allowing the Japanese to keep their emperor, should be omitted. This was done, and the omission may have prompted the Japanese government to delay acceptance of the declaration until after the two atomic bombs were dropped and the Russian armies had poured into Manchuria and Korea. In November 1945 Hull gave a long testimony to the Pearl Harbor joint congressional investigating committee, showing that he had predicted war with Japan in 1941. With assistance of a newspaperman, Andrew H. Berding, he compiled his two volumes of memoirs, which were published in 1948. The memoirs were an official rather than personal history, relating the acts of his career at the department. The years of retirement thus passed. Hull's wife, Rose Frances Witz Whitney, whom he had married in 1917, died in 1954. Deeply affected, he reduced his activities. Exactly one year after her death, on Mar. 26, 1955, another in a succession of strokes and heart attacks drove him again to hospital in Bethesda, Md., where he died a few months later.

text by Robert H. Ferrell, Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951-1955. American Council of Learned Societies, 1977.


The chief source for Hull's career is The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 2 vols. (1948). Julius W. Pratt has written a masterful diplomatic biography, Cordell Hull (1964), a volume in the series on The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. An earlier account is Harold B. Hinton, Cordell Hull: A Biography (1942). The Hull papers, deposited in the Library of Congress, are a small and spotty collection, not very useful to students of the secretary's career, and must be supplemented by the published writings and papers of such department associates as Joseph C. Grew, Jay Pierrepont Moffat, Adolf A. Berle, Jr., and William Phillips; of cabinet colleagues such as Stimson and Morgenthau; by the papers and writings of President Roosevelt, and especially the published documents of the Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, together with the department's unpublished papers in the National Archives.