Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,224

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,224

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This is the grave of Cordell Hull.

Born in 1871 (I know the grave says 1872 but it is evidently wrong; it’s amazing how common this is) in Olympus, Tennessee, there wasn’t a lot of Hull’s background to suggest what he would become. The family was relatively well off for the area, but this was a poor area and they lived in a log cabin. But Hull managed to climb his way up. He attended National Normal University in Ohio briefly in 1889 and 1890 and got a law degree from Cumberland University in 1891.

Hull was already a very active Democrat by this time. He was chairman of his county’s Democratic Party at the age of 20 and was elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1893, where he served two terms. He stepped away to fight in the Spanish-American War, where he was very excited to go kill some Spaniards in Cuba. He was a Fourth Regiment of the Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. He became a local judge and then ran for Congress in 1907.

It didn’t take Hull long to become a power player on the Hill. An internationalist, Hull was also mostly protected from defeats due to him being a Democrat in the South. Sometimes, his positions were typical of your southern Democrats–low tariffs for example. But in other ways, he had pretty liberal economic positions. It’s hard to remember this now, but there was a time when the income tax was the most popular political position in the nation. That’s how it became a constitutional amendment. Since the right wing Supreme Court threw it out, it was popular enough to become a constitutional amendment, which as we all know, is nearly impossible. Hull was the lead author of the Sixteenth Amendment. He also was the head of the group that created the inheritance tax.

Hull however did lose his seat in the backlash to the League of Nations. He was a big supporter. But many Americans strongly opposed it and the South was a major area of resistance. So he lost in 1920 to a Republican based around this. But that didn’t last long. He was head of the Democratic National Committee and then got his old seat back in the 1922 elections. He retained his power and then moved to the Senate in the 1930 elections. His internationalism also changed his tariff policies and he moved toward free trade as a guarantor of peace.

When Franklin Roosevelt came to the presidency in 1933, foreign policy wasn’t the first thing on his mind, but he needed a steady hand and he needed to placate the South who worried about a potential liberal. Hull was solid on both of these fronts. Hull was most definitely an internationalist but he also most definitely shared the racial politics of his time and place. He was a racist and he would operate that way in the State Department. He pushed through FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America that stopped the invasions of the region by the Marines for awhile and dealt with Latin American nations a bit more on an equal basis. On the other hand, Hull’s interest in helping Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was below zero. He advised FDR not to let in refugees, including on the St. Louis, dooming hundreds of people to their deaths. He was hardly the one way responsible for this, but he also certainly was a major factor. He also ordered U.S. embassies to be very stingy in approving visas for Jews.

Still, one thing Hull does deserve credit for is working through the complicated issues of Mexico in 1938 without an invasion. That year, Mexico nationalized its oil and that took a lot from American oil companies. Plus the Mexican Revolution had cost a lot of American companies a lot of land and money taken by the state. Lots of corporate heads wanted an invasion to overthrow the Cardenas government. Hull and Cardenas may have disagreed, but he and FDR were not going to go back to the Wilson playbook here. He also visited Latin America a few times, assuring Latin American leaders that the era of American invasions was over and, hey, let’s sign from free trade agreements while we are at it. It really did a lot of good for American policy here.

Less usefully, Hull kind of failed when it came to Japan. He was disgusted by what the Japanese were doing in Asia, but was reticent to do anything about it, considering that the U.S. really had very few economic or military interests in the areas where Japan was expanding. While I think it would be hopeless naive to say that a stronger response by Hull would have prevented the war, Hull’s nonexistent response also didn’t help.

In truth, by the time World War II came about, Hull was a more minor player than he would have liked. FDR did a lot of the foreign policy himself and relied on Sumner Welles more than Hull. Hull was also sick a lot during these years and wouldn’t resign and FDR didn’t want to push the issue. But Hull had tuberculosis and that wasn’t good. Like a lot of American leaders, Hull also hated Charles de Gaulle and was pretty much pro-Vichy or at least was anti-de Gaulle, which amounted to the same thing and in doing so got in the way of the war effort at times. Hull couldn’t be shoved out by FDR due to the suspicion that the South had of him, especially by the 40s. He would have far rather have Welles as Secretary of State. But Hull had his revenge, exposing Welles’ homosexuality, which caused him to be driven from government.

For all of this, Hull was still a strong internationalist. He was one of the main architects of the United Nations and for his work on it, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945. He had finally left office due to his health in 1944, making him the longest serving Secretary of State in American history at over 11 years.

He went into retirement, wrote his memoirs in 1948, and he never visited Tennessee again. He was a long ways from the mountains of east Tennessee by now, both culturally and financially. That was a world to be left behind. He was a DC animal and so he would remain. He died there in 1955, at the age of 83, of his lung issues.

Cordell Hull is buried in Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of State, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bainbridge Colby is in Ellery Center, New York and Edward Stettinius is in Locust Valley, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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