Tag Archives: Francis Biddle

Jackson List: Firing a Cabinet Officer Face-to-Face (1945)

In early 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Robert H. Jackson, then the Solicitor General of the United States, to serve as U.S. Attorney General, a member of the President’s Cabinet.  President Roosevelt then appointed former U.S. circuit court judge Francis Biddle to succeed Jackson as Solicitor General.

Eighteen months later, Roosevelt appointed Jackson to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.  At that time, the President, at Jackson’s urging, promoted Biddle to succeed Jackson as Attorney General.

Attorney General Biddle served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet for the next four years—for all of the remainder of his presidency, and for nearly the entire period of U.S. involvement in World War II.

On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died suddenly.  Harry S. Truman became the 33rd president of the U.S.  Within two weeks, the new president recruited Justice Jackson to serve as U.S. chief of counsel for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals—the appointment that became Jackson’s position as U.S. chief prosecutor at Nuremberg.

President Truman also decided to appoint his own Cabinet officers.  In the case of Attorney General Biddle, however, Truman chose not to communicate his wishes directly.  The President had his press secretary, Stephen Early, telephone Biddle on May 16, 1945, to request his resignation.

Attorney General Biddle did not appreciate the President’s effort to fire him by emissary.  So after speaking to Early, Biddle called the White House and requested a meeting with President Truman.

They met later that morning.  As the story soon emerged in the press, Biddle told Truman that he had, immediately after Roosevelt’s death, submitted his letter of resignation for the President’s acceptance if that was his preference.  Biddle added that he quite appreciated that a president would want to have his own friends, people with whom the president was comfortable—and Biddle had reason to think that this was not Truman’s view of him—in his Cabinet.

“But,” Biddle added, “the relation between the President and his Cabinet is such that if you want to accept my resignation, it seems to me that you should tell me so yourself, not detail it to a secretary.”

President Truman, reportedly embarrassed, agreed.  He told Biddle, to his face, that he was accepting his resignation.

According to Biddle’s later memoir, the President “looked relieved; and I got up, walked over to him, and touched his shoulder.  ‘You see,’ I said, ‘it’s not so hard.’”


This post was emailed to the Jackson List, a private but entirely non-selective email list that reaches many thousands of subscribers around the world. I write to it periodically about Justice Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court, Nuremberg and related topics. The Jackson List archive site is http://thejacksonlist.com/.  To subscribe, email me at barrettj@stjohns.edu. Thank you for your interest, and for spreading the word.

Jackson List: Department of Justice Farewell to F.D.R. (1945)

This post, with some footnotes added, now is on the Jackson List archive site in “book look” PDF file form.

Attorney General Order: Keep a Diary

When Francis Biddle became a senior U.S. Department of Justice official (first Solicitor General, then Attorney General) in the 1940s, he “ordered” top lawyers to start keeping diaries.  He explained that diary-keeping would improve performance—having personal records would help everyone “later” when they needed to revisit topics and remember accurately, in detail, what things had happened, how and why.  (Biddle also had an artistic, literary temperament and a strong sense of history; I suspect that he advocated writing not just for its value to management, but also because engaging in the writing craft can bring pleasure to the writer, and because writing lasts.)

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Warner W. Gardner, a leading, great federal government lawyer in the 1930s and 1940s, including in Biddle’s DOJ, told me of Biddle’s edict.  In his old age, Gardner—himself a great writer of briefs, articles, and a superb memoir—lamented that he never complied very well with the order to keep a diary.  He wished he had, but he said that he just never had time and never developed the habit of making the time.  He made some notes now and then, but in hindsight he found them much too spare.

As Gardner realized, Biddle was right.  Days, moments, people, events and words fly by, and often a “later” comes, in places ranging from the workplace to private reflection, when memory is less than a person wants to have.  And of course history loses everyone in the end.  It needs—in the arresting title of Gardner’s memoir—“pebbles from the paths behind.”  (One chapter of Gardner’s memoir is here, and here is an oral history he gave to the Truman presidential library.)

This all comes to mind as I work with 1945-1946 Nuremberg trial documents and personal records.  I’m grateful for every word that “Nurembergers,” including Francis Biddle (who, after his stint as Attorney General, served as U.S. judge there) and of course Robert Jackson, made time to jot amidst their hard post-war work and living conditions.  Such words have solidity and power that memory can’t match.  They permit historians (me and many others) to do their work, and to do it better than they could otherwise.  Contemporaneous words—and specifically the ones that, on assessment, seem reliable—help me to figure out things about Nuremberg such as who really did, saw and said what, how people thought day by day about what they were doing there, and whose later memory is trustworthy and whose is faulty.

This also comes to mind as I read about newsman Brian Williams’s misstatements about what he saw and experienced as a reporter visiting Iraq and the war in 2003.

If some experience or thought might matter, and also for the pleasure, and also for history, try to make time to make some notes.