Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Groton School and the Foreign Policy of FDR and Truman

Franklin Roosevelt on Horseback, Rhinebeck, New York 1905Early in 1905, Franklin Roosevelt took time away from his law studies at Columbia to pose for this photograph in Rhinebeck, New York. He and Eleanor were married on March 17 (Uncle Ted came up from DC to give the bride away) and after the school year was over the young couple spent the summer honeymooning in Europe. At the same time, many of the teenage boys who would later become instrumental in the formation and execution of American foreign policy during World War Two and its aftermath were studying at The Groton School, 40 miles west of Boston.

FDR was the old man of the group--23 by the date of his wedding. He'd graduated from Harvard in 1904, and Groton in 1900.

Francis Biddle (a senior at Groton in the spring of 1905, and a freshman at Harvard that fall) would go on to become FDR's wartime Attorney General (1941-1945) and was later appointed by Truman to serve as a judge at the Nuremberg Trials.

Dean Acheson arrived at Groton in the fall of 1905 as a twelve-year-old; he would go on to serve as Secretary of State under Truman from 1949-1953. He played a central role in the creation of many important institutions, including Lend Lease, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, and the early organizations that later became the European Union and the World Trade Organization. (HIs Groton claim to fame was finishing last in his class; Groton Rector and Headmaster Endicott Peabody repeatedly criticized Acheson's school performance. Purportedly, Peabody told Acheson's mother that he could not make a "Groton boy" out of her son, and Mrs. Acheson replied, "Dr. Peabody, I didn't send Dean here to have you make a 'Groton boy' out of him. I sent him here to be educated. . . . I will leave him here as long as I think you can succeed, though you give me considerable doubt.")

Sumner Welles was a year ahead of Acheson at Groton, where Eleanor Roosevelt's brother Hall was his roommate. He would take a break from his studies in March of '05 to travel to NYC and carry Eleanor's train at her wedding; Endicott Peabody was the minister at that happy occasion. Welles would become a foreign policy advisor to FDR and serve as under secretary of state from 1937-1943.

Averell Harriman was a year ahead of Welles. He would serve as a special envoy to Europe under FDR, and as Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1943-1946. He would continue to serve future presidents (JFK and LBJ) including a stint as the chief US negotiator at the Paris peace talks on Vietnam. (Harriman is famous at Groton for having, at the age of 13, communicated to his father, rail magnate E.H. Harriman, that Endicott Peabody "would be an awful bully if he weren't such a terrible Christian.")

It's hard not to think that something was in the air in the hills of Massachusetts in those first years of the new century that called all of those young men to public service. "If some Groton boys do not enter political life and do something for our land," said Rector Peabody, "it won't be because they have not been urged." And urge he did. Franklin Roosevelt said of Peabody, "As long as I live his influence will mean more to me than that of any other people next to my father and mother." Peabody would remain Headmaster at Groton until 1940, and live to see Roosevelt win all four presidential elections.

Illustration Credits and References

The photo at the top of this post is from the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

The story about Endicott Peabody and Mrs. Acheson is reported in a number of sources; I have used the version in James Chace's 1998 book, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World.

The communication from Averell Harriman to his father is quoted in Rudy Abramson's 1992 book Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman 1891-1986.

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