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.’”
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