On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World
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The book begins in , the year before America enters World War I, and Washington in those days was a much smaller town, and much more segregated by function, at least as far as government employees and their families were concerned. If you had business with the Congress, you tended to gravitate to the boarding houses and hotels and apartments near Capitol Hill. He was the assistant secretary of the Navy. It was loaned to him by his cousin because he didn't have any money -- the Roosevelts never had any money.
They may have been from an old family, but Franklin Roosevelt was always strapped for cash. Around the corner on 18th Street was a big mansion that was a multi-family home. A general named John Watson Foster, who had been a secretary of state, owned the house. His son also lived there, and one of his sons-in-law, Robert Lansing, who was the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, and three of General Foster's grandchildren by another daughter -- John Foster Dulles, the future secretary of state, Allan Dulles, the founder and longest serving director of the CIA, and Eleanor Dulles, who would go on to become a world-class economist.
So those two houses were calling places if you wanted a career in the Navy or the State Department. But up 19th Street was a shabby boarding house where, among others, lived Walter Lippman, who would go on to be the most prominent political journalist in the twentieth century, along with Felix Frankfurter, who would become a Supreme Court justice He served as kind of a den father for this collection of young, elitist progressives who were coming here to make their careers. And so they drank the new cocktail called the daiquiri, they danced to jazz on the Victrola, they smoked furiously, and they stayed up all night arguing what it meant to be a progressive.
He was young, he was movie-star handsome and athletic, and by that point in time had begun to have affairs, most chiefly with his wife's social secretary Lucy Mercer, who lived on P Street. Among the other people who came by was the man who represented the beau ideal, who represented everything that progressivism found attractive.
On Dupont Circle
Remember that this was a political philosophy whose religion was science, data, and facts. It had replaced organized religion with the certainty that if you had adequate data, all answers were clear. And this was a man who became an orphan, never had a high school diploma, became a famous mining engineer, fought Chinese bandits, made a fortune, retired wealthy, and saved Belgium from starving in the first year of World War I. His name was Herbert Hoover, and everybody loved him. Now, Hoover wasn't a likeable person -- he was very ill at ease, he was very easily bored, he was dogmatic, but he got things done.
He was brought back by Wilson to run the food rationing program, which he accomplished without forced rationing. He saved thousands and thousands of tons of food for the Army. To Hooverize became a common phrase for doing something more efficiently and successfully.
BOOK REVIEW: ‘On Dupont Circle’
In , he was so beloved that Roosevelt begged him to run for president as a Democrat, and that he, Roosevelt, would run as his vice president. Hoover's great flaw was that he hated politics, and he hated politicians. If you could have anointed him president, he would have been perfectly happy. He didn't know how to do that retail give and take, which you have to be able to do with a fractious Congress, with always-changing public opinion He didn't know how to do that. So that's where it begins.
They all end up in Paris at the Paris Peace Conference, where they're thrown together for six months -- there never was an international conference before, nor would there be one since, in which men and women in their twenties and early thirties had so much power. Everybody talks about Lloyd George, and Wilson, and Clemenceau, but they couldn't have made their decisions without the staff work of these young people, who got to know each other intimately. They drank with each other, they chased girls, the French pulled their champagne from out of their cellars, there was the arrival of jazz in Paris.
They just had a wonderful time. But at the end of it they realized it wasn't going to be the one-size-fits-all solution. All of them got together at the very last week of the conference and agreed to set up a trans-Atlantic conversation, and out of that stemmed, in London, something called the Royal Institute of International Affairs, otherwise known as Chatham House, and in New York it became the Council on Foreign Relations. And those two entities are still the most important formative organizations for foreign policy theory today. What my book is about is the next twenty years -- to They all go off, they all have their own lives, they all have sexual escapades, they drink too much, they smoke too much, they swap wives.
At the end, Roosevelt does a very daring thing. In , we're not in the war. He commissions a secret study group to plan post-war American foreign policy, because whether we're in the war or not, we're going to emerge as the dominant power.
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It had to be secret because the isolationists would have gone absolutely ape and, again, it started at the Council on Foreign Relations. It became the outline for the Atlantic Charter that Churchill and Roosevelt signed in , and in that Charter one of the mentioned objectives is the creation of the United Nations. Sumner Welles, the undersecretary of state, was at the center of this. Welles, when sober, was the most talented diplomat in twentieth-century history. When he was drunk he was a predatory homosexual who preyed on working-class people -- he was a time bomb waiting to explode.
The episode where he was most egregious comes, just literally, two months before the election. What was that episode? And furthermore, it almost sounds like these people were living in a bacchanalian era of anything goes The only sin you could commit was to get a divorce. There was a very strict dividing line between an individual's public career and his private life.
Allan Dulles, for example, was a serial philanderer -- he could never be the CIA director today. So was Franklin Roosevelt -- not only with Lucy Mercer, but with one of his secretaries, with a whole host of other women -- could never have been a multi-term president today. As for Sumner Welles, remember, homosexuality in the '30s and '40s was a felony in all forty-eight states.
You could go to jail for a consensual sexual act. What he did was -- the Speaker of the House, William Bankhead, died in September , and Roosevelt chartered two trains to go to the funeral in Alabama, and he took his entire Cabinet and much of Congress and most of the press corps with him.
When they got back on the train after the funeral, everybody got drunk, and Sumner Welles tried to seduce not one, but five Pullman car porters, to the point that the Pullman car waiters and porters called the Secret Service. The narrow three-story house featured a large living room-dining room space on the ground floor that served as a commons area; tall French windows on the front could open in the evening to catch the breeze.
The furnishings there and in the six upstairs bedrooms were secondhand and a bit rump-sprung, but that added to a raffish, slightly bohemian atmosphere that made it highly attractive to the young people who were drawn there. Another important attraction of the house was its location in the newly fashionable neighborhood of embassies and important residences that orbited the Dupont Circle intersection of the grand boulevards of Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues. As late as the s, the area had been a marshy wasteland and dumping ground at the outer limits of the city. But by , the boundaries of the District of Columbia had been greatly expanded northwards in response to a building boom.
The circle with its small park was less than a mile northwest of the White House and the baroque office building that housed the State, Navy, and War Departments, so government workers and high officials alike enjoyed an easy commute. Radiating out from the circle, newly paved streets crossed a recently opened bridge on P Street across Rock Creek Park to link with Georgetown; another bridge for trolleys extended Connecticut Avenue northwards and spanned the Rock Creek to reach out to the faraway farm hamlet of Chevy Chase. If one had business in downtown Washington, Dupont Circle was where one wanted to live.
The neighborhood had undergone change almost from the start of its development twenty years earlier. First, huge beaux arts mansions had been built by the wealthy and powerful. But plainer row houses then filled in what had been empty lots on either side of the major spokes off the circle. Many of the older, more ornate structures had changed hands by and now housed important embassies including those of Great Britain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and China.
But the House of Truth was in a compact enclave of row houses and small apartments that had originally served a community of affluent African American families of mid-level government employees. Valentine was a generous host when it came to entertaining, so the House of Truth quickly became a social magnet for the influx of young men and women who had come to Washington for exciting careers.
Two early visitors who became residents were a young lawyer from New York named Felix Frankfurter and a British nobleman, Lord Eustace Percy, who was the private secretary to the British ambassador. Percy later recalled,. That household had a touch of du Maurier's Quartier Latin, with law and the erratic politics of the then infant New Republic taking the place of art as the focus of its endless talk and even more endless flow of casual guests.
The range of our talk and our entertainment was 'extensive and peculiar'; but we hardly took ourselves or our symposia seriously enough to deserve the mocking nickname of the "House of Truth," which some humorist conferred upon us. Despite his age he was seventy-five , Holmes quickly had established himself as the paterfamilias of the younger men, and he relished ruling over the dinner table debates as both referee and devil's advocate.
Most of the bachelors of the House of Truth were very young, in their twenties.
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They favored the new soft—collar shirts and slightly shabby suits common to the graduate students they had recently been. Their drink of choice was the newly popular daiquiri cocktail, and they pursued debutantes of suffragette convictions with the intensity of their arguments and their taste for dancing to gramophone records of that new syncopated rage known as "jass. The house on Nineteenth Street was just one of several important addresses in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that were homes to prominent political names in the Progressive roster.
These houses served as both debating arenas and recruiting centers for what New York socialite Mabel Dodge had dubbed as the young "movers and shakers" of the movement. Nearby at Eighteenth Street was a vastly different place that was the focus for what might be called the Old Guard Progressives.
The huge art-filled mansion of former secretary of state John Watson Foster was a base for older reformers who had come to power in the previous century, but it also drew young place-seekers from the wealthier families of the Eastern Establishment. Its lure for young visitors was enhanced by the fact that by , one of Foster's sons-in-law, Robert Lansing, had just been made secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson. Lansing and his wife lived there as well.
Champagne, not cocktails, was the drink of choice for the guests in white ties and tailcoats who gathered amidst the collection of Russian and Spanish art collected during Foster's tours as U. During the day, young diplomats wore the same high starched collars of their elders, and when their day jobs did not require the cutaway coat and striped trousers of officialdom, their suits were cut more formally and were newer than those of their friends at the House of Truth.
Lansing, a Democrat, and Foster, a Republican, were the two most prominent activists in what was called the arbitration movement in international affairs. For more than twenty-five years, they had participated in more negotiations to settle international disputes than anyone. The common wisdom that prevailed was that conflicts between nations could be reduced to legal issues and adjudicated peacefully if only the contending parties would concede to the judgments of impartial arbitrators. Arbitration had drawn the support of determined peace activists such as Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who funded a prize to reward those who sought to end war.
Steel baron Andrew Carnegie had donated the funds to establish a World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, as a permanent forum for international law adjudication. The quest for peace was hardly new. After the carnage of the American Civil War, the nature of war itself had morphed from distant conflicts between professional armies to a general melee that resulted in horrifying civilian destruction without resolving the causes of the wars themselves. Whatever other issues might engage Progressive reformers, all agreed that the quest for peace was paramount.
The new genre of warfare — exaggerated by new armaments of staggering firepower — threatened civilization itself.
On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World
No one felt safe. So Prussia could conquer France with ease; Russia could attack the tottering Ottoman Empire and in turn be sent into near-revolution by its defeat at the hands of the upstart Japanese navy. However emotionally satisfying America's triumph over the Spanish in might have been, it nevertheless added to the growing instability of the globe.
See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview Prize-winning author James Srodes offers a vivid and scintillating portrait of the twelve young men and women who, on the eve of World War I, came together in Washington, D. Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy in Washington: Dear Mr. Percy later recalled, That household had a touch of du Maurier's Quartier Latin, with law and the erratic politics of the then infant New Republic taking the place of art as the focus of its endless talk and even more endless flow of casual guests.
Continues… Excerpted from "On Dupont Circle" by. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. At one residence lived Felix Frankfuter, a future Supreme Court Justice, and Walter Lippman, later the most important political writer of the twentieth century. Nearby lived young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who even then were rising political stars, William Bullitt, a charming and unscrupulous writer and future ambassador, and Herbert Hoover, already the most famous American in the world.
He is one of the founders and a past president of Washington Independent Writers and is a member of the Authors Guild.