Seventy years ago this week, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a few of his closest advisors made a private trip to Charlottesville to relax and do some brainstorming in the midst of the first full year of the Second World War.
Law professor John Q. Barrett of St. John's University sends out periodic snapshots of the life of Robert Jackson, who served as FDR's Attorney General and was later appointed by Roosevelt to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson also served as chief prosecutor at the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg after the war. Taken altogether, these "Jackson list" postings are a biography of Jackson, though in the form of an anecdotal mosaic.
In his latest note (not yet online but in email form), Barrett writes:
On Saturday, April 11, 1942, Justice Robert H. Jackson arrived, by invitation, at the White House. That afternoon, he was driven, along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his press secretary Stephen Early, Postmaster General Frank Walker and presidential physician Dr. Ross McIntire, to Charlottesville, Virginia.Among the items that came up for discussion was an incipient idea of Roosevelt's that he should appoint a White House counsel, a lawyer inside the West Wing who could provide him with legal advice.
In those early months of United States military involvement in World War II, the President was getting away from Washington to relax with current and former assistants. They spent that Saturday might at the Charlottesville home of President Roosevelt’s appointments secretary, U.S. Army Major General Edwin M. (“Pa”) Watson. They probably played some cards and had a drink or two.
Jackson was not too keen on that proposal. He thought that the job of legal counsel to the President belonged to the Attorney General and that, as he recalled later, "A White House counsel between the President and the Attorney General was a bad thing likely to lead to conflict and I wouldn’t want it if I were Attorney General." If the President didn't like the advice he was getting from the Attorney General, Jackson said, he should appoint a new Attorney General, not a separate White House counsel.
Subsequent presidents have, of course, appointed their own White House counsels. In the Nixon administration, for instance, John Dean was White House counsel and John Mitchell was Attorney General. Both ended up in prison.
Jackson and Roosevelt also discussed the progress of the war, and the prospects of a post-war settlement. As Jackson recalled their conversation, he turned out to be more prescient than the president:
We discussed many phases of the conflict and the problems that it was going to raise in the future. Some of them we had discussed before. The proposition came up as to the future of Germany. We all assumed, of course, that there was no question that eventually the United States, with its allies, would win. How long it would take no one was in a position to say. The President long before that had said to me what he now repeated—that he thought Germany would have to be broken up to its pre-Bismarckian small states. I had argued against that. It seemed to me that peace in the world could never be advanced by atomizing large units, but would rather come by consolidating them and reducing the occasions for friction. During our week-end trip the President again was back on that thesis that Germany ought to be broken up. We discussed that at some length.Roosevelt, Jackson, and the others returned from Charlottesville to Washington on April 12. Three years later on that date, as Barrett points out, Roosevelt died.
Those interested in learning more may want to look at a book edited by John Barrett, a memoir of Robert H. Jackson about FDR called That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.