Anna Rosenberg and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency, 1941-1945

John Thomas Mcguire. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 45, Issue 2. June 2015.

Scholars have long noted how President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a network of both formal and informal advisors with overlapping jurisdictions and newly created executive agencies to provide him with extensive information and enable him to retain final decision-making authority (Neustadt 1960, 50-52; see also Burns 1956, 1970; Dallek 1995; Dickinson 1996; Rung 2011; Schlesinger 1959). The United States’ involvement in World War II forced the president to focus his energies and attention on formulating military strategy (Burns 1970, 312). He created new agencies, such as the National Defense Mediation Board and the Office of Emergency Management, and increasingly delegated domestic presidential duties to close advisors such as James F. Byrnes (Burns 1970,116,332-33,340, 347).

This is a familiar story. Less familiar is that a woman, Anna Rosenberg, became one of Roosevelt’s important advisors during the war years. From the spring of 1941 through Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, she undertook a diverse array of tasks for the White House, including relaying demands from the African American community concerning the creation of a new agency regulating racial equality in defense employment; overseeing relations between the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) and the president; the planning of postwar retraining and rehabilitation procedures for returning soldiers; and, most importantly, serving as the president’s alter ego in the fraught area of labor-management relations.

Although Rosenberg received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1945, the first woman ever to be so honored, students of the Roosevelt years have been “remarkably silent” about her World War II activities (Jones-Branch 2011, 143). Few if any presidential scholars have heard of her, and Rosenberg’s name does not even appear in the index of several of the best-known Roosevelt biographies (see, e.g., Burns 1970; Dallek 1995). Those few historians who have taken note of Rosenberg’s contributions focus on her career after Roosevelt’s death. For instance, Anna Kasten Nelson’s article, “An ‘Honorary Man,'” focused mostly on Rosenberg’s importance in the Cold War defense establishment, while a 2006 dissertation by Elizabeth A. Collins mostly assessed the attempts to discredit her as a leftist during her confirmation hearings for assistant secretary of defense in 1950 (Collins 2006; Nelson 2004). By drawing upon both Rosenberg’s personal papers and presidential files, this article explores the duties performed for President Roosevelt that earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rosenberg’s inclusion in Roosevelt’s coterie of advisors becomes more remarkable when one considers her background. She came to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915 at the age of 13, just as the massive emigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States neared its end. Never graduating from high school, she married and became a mother by the age of 21. Rosenberg did not allow marriage and family to prevent her involvement in New York City’s tough, Tammany Hall-dominated system. She managed the successful 1922 campaign of a New York City Democratic alderman and thereafter established an impressive political network, which eventually included future New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Nelson A. Rockefeller (Kessner 1989, 69-70; Nelson 2004, 135-36; Smith 2014, 129-31 Thurston 1999, 877-87).

The first encounter of Anna Rosenberg with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt occurred just prior to the 1928 elections. While Franklin pursued electoral office as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in New York, Eleanor worked as the director of the women’s section of the state Democratic Party (Davis 1985; Cook 1999). Rosenberg’s first substantial contacts occurred with the future First Lady. As Rosenberg later explained, the members of the women’s section acted “extremely kind and nice” and tried “to involve me in their activities.” But despite this auspicious beginning, Rosenberg’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt never developed into a friendship until after World War II. Instead Rosenberg seemed more intent on affixing herself to the rising political star of Eleanor’s husband, who had been successfully elected.

Rosenberg’s first important work with Roosevelt occurred in the area of labor mediation in the late 1920s, a natural starting point given her new profession. In 1924 Rosenberg had established a consulting firm that focused on labor-management relations and welfare services (McGlade 1996, 242-43). The firm not only brought her great financial success, but also extended Rosenberg’s contacts to labor leaders such as William Green of the American Federation of Labor and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (McGlade 1996, 244; Thurston 1999, 878). This mixture of political savvy and considerable knowledge of labor issues would prove invaluable in Rosenberg’s presidential advising, much as Woodrow Wilson’s Colonel Edward House and Harry S Truman’s Clark Clifford parlayed their considerable business and legal reputations into successful prepresidential (and presidential) advising careers (Acacia 2009; Hodgson 2006).

Rosenberg’s first federal government jobs, however, came from her local political contacts. In the spring of 1933 she managed Nathan Straus’s unsuccessful campaign for the presidency of the New York City Board of Alderman. When Straus became New York State director of the newly formed National Recovery Administration (NRA) later that year, he appointed Rosenberg his assistant. The next year she became the state director of compliance and then accepted a regional directorship with the Social Security Board after the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935. Rosenberg also served as chairman of the New York State constitutional convention’s subcommittee on civil rights and general welfare issues, and organizer of New York City’s Industrial Board (Thurston 1999, 878). Having accrued substantial financial and political power during the early 1930s, Rosenberg sought to increase her access to Roosevelt, now in his first presidential term.

Roosevelt first met with Rosenberg in January 1936, partially, as explained by the president to his secretary Marvin McIntyre, because of a request relayed through Eleanor Roosevelt. Her access was initially quite limited. In the fall of 1937, for example, McIntyre reminded Roosevelt of Rosenberg’s request for an appointment. The president scribbled a testy reply on the bottom of McIntyre’s reminder: “Mac, what does she want to see me about? I would prefer to have her come to Washington after our return [from Hyde Park].” Thus Rosenberg’s initial efforts at increasing her presidential access met with mixed success.

Within four years of this memorandum, however, the president’s apparent brusqueness turned into a strong appreciation of Rosenberg’s abilities. Materials in the presidential files indicate that, by late 1940, she was meeting informally with the president every week. In October of that year, for example, Rosenberg asked Major General Edwin “Pa” Watson, the president’s military aide and unofficial gatekeeper, if the president minded if she “skipped a week in Washington” and the next month confirmed a meeting with “the Boss.” The weekly meetings continued at least until 1943, as evidenced by the president confirming a meeting in April of that year and a subsequent note from Rosenberg stating that she would skip a weekly appointment unless Roosevelt decided otherwise. Thus by 1941 Rosenberg had become a key presidential advisor.

When later asked about her increasing importance to Roosevelt, Rosenberg described the situation as one in which she simply answered presidential summonses. “‘No,” Rosenberg quoted Roosevelt as saying, “‘[d]on’t get mixed up with those women and with Eleanor. Just stick to working with me.'” In private circumstances Rosenberg disclosed a more complex set of reasons for Roosevelt’s interest. In a 1969 interview with prize-winning journalist and historian Joseph Lash, she confessed that the president could be a “flirt” but begged the interviewer to keep that comment confidential. “FDR was always trying to get her to come down to D.C.,” as Lash related in his notes, “and then would say, ‘If you’re not willing to come down, you’ll have to do chores for me.'”

Rosenberg’s description evaded, probably deliberately, two important factors. First, she could exhibit a flattery just as beguiling as the president’s. When Roosevelt sent Rosenberg an autographed photograph after a 1938 White House visit, for example, she stated in her thank-you note that she received the gift with a “lump in my throat” and “tears in my eyes.” Second, the preternaturally sharp Rosenberg most likely realized the equivocal relationship between Roosevelt and his wife. While Eleanor served as the president’s closest advisor on such matters as civil rights and African Americans, she was also his personal bete noire on other issues (Goodwin 1994, 36-37). Rosenberg probably concluded that the president needed a female friend who could act both as an intimate companion and unofficial presidential advisor.

Of course, Rosenberg was not the only woman to be admitted into Roosevelt’s inner circle. During Roosevelt’s first two terms, social justice feminists such as U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Molly Dewson played important roles in securing Roosevelt’s domestic legislation such as the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. These efforts sprang from the social justice feminist movement’s attempts to use labor legislation regulating only working women as an entering wedge for the inclusion ofall workers under state protection. Rosenberg never became a social justice feminist, as evidenced by her failing to join Eleanor Roosevelt’s group in the late 1920s. Instead, after first making her career in the heavily masculine activities of politics and labor relations, she would demonstrate during World War II how a woman could also become a trusted presidential advisor in such areas as national defense and military policy.

Civil Rights and Civilian Defense

Rosenberg first established her usefulness to President Roosevelt through her deft handling of two major problems, one related to civil rights and the other civilian defense. Because the war effort demanded that the president maintain working relationships with the southern congressmen who ruled their chambers’ committee chairmanships, Roosevelt encouraged a continuation of the segregationist policies found in the civilian defense industries and armed forces (Burns 1970, 123). But the president also needed to satisfy African Americans, who comprised an increasingly important part of his Democratic electoral coalition (Kirby 1980; Sitkoff 1978; Weiss 1983).

In April 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, threatened to organize a “March on Washington” to highlight demands for equal access to defense industry jobs. The president became concerned because, as one historian puts it, “[t]he prospects of one hundred thousand Negroes” marching in Washington, DC, “did not present a comforting vision” (Kennedy 1999, 767). Moreover, when Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a letter to Randolph warning that such a march constituted a “very grave mistake,” she received no reply. This signaled that even an entreaty from someone considered the best conduit between blacks and the Roosevelt administration could not change the march organizers’ resolve (Kennedy 1999, 767).

According to the later recollections of National Youth Administration official Aubrey Williams, the president summoned him in June 1941 and requested that that he take action. “Get the missus [Eleanor Roosevelt] and Fiorello [La Guardia] and Anna [Rosenberg], and get this stopped,” Roosevelt commanded (Kennedy 1999, 767). Williams then contacted Rosenberg, who advised the president in a June 14, 1941, memorandum to arrange a meeting with La Guardia and black leaders.

The White House meeting, held within four days of the receipt of Rosenberg’s memorandum, soon soured. Roosevelt failed to charm Randolph, who promptly confirmed his determination to organize the march. When the president asked him what he could do to change the situation, the African American labor leader demanded an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry. “You know I can’t do that,” a nonplussed Roosevelt declared, no doubt envisioning the wrath of southern congressional solons. The impasse continued for another hour until the mayor of New York City intervened. “Gentlemen,” La Guardia stated, “it is clear that Randolph is not going to call off the march, and I suggest that we all begin to seek a formula” (Anderson 1973, 257-58; Kennedy 1999, 768). The ensuing agreement canceled the threatened demonstration in exchange for the issuance of Executive Order 8802, which not only banned discrimination in defense industry work based on “race, creed, color, or national origin,” but also established a temporary Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) (Eddy 1983, 159-60).

The FEPC soon became embroiled in another fight over commission appointments. Here, too, Rosenberg played an important advisory role, by suggesting that the president appoint Milton Webster, one of Randolph’s key aides. Although Webster’s Republicanism initially proved a problem, the additional appointment of a black Democrat to the FEPC alleviated the president’s political concerns (Kersten 2007, 6162).

In the fall of 1941 the president asked Rosenberg to undertake a second, even more difficult challenge: the management of relations between the OCD and the White House. Established by presidential order in May 1941, the new agency mingled civilian leadership and military technical assistance in the overseeing of such policies as urban blackout procedures and emergency hospital plans. But Roosevelt’s appointment of La Guardia as the new agency’s director soon created major political problems. The New York City mayor tried to expand his powers in anticipation of a possible 1944 presidential bid (Kessner 1989, 492-501). He instead strained Roosevelt’s patience with budgetary mismanagement and the public mishandling of a subordinate’s resignation (McNickle 1993, 177; Shirley 2013, 479). Eleanor Roosevelt’s appointment as OCD assistant director further complicated the situation. She not only clashed with La Guardia over setting an overall agenda, but contributed her own public political embarrassment by hiring two friends as advisors. Congressional opponents soon transferred the OCD’s $100 million air defense budget to the U.S. State Department (Roberts 2013, 45).

With a reluctant nation poised to officially enter World War II, Roosevelt asked Rosenberg to oversee OCD activities. She knew La Guardia well due to their long friendship and their joint labor mediation efforts, and Rosenberg had already worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on civil defense issues. Most important, as Rosenberg vividly remembered, the president gave her a direct order. “I can’t take Eleanor and La Guardia,” he declared. “I want you to try to keep them away from me and to resolve their differences.” Although no memorandums or other papers survive to record Rosenberg’s efforts, the absence of such records can be attributed to the situation’s political sensitivity. To the great relief of all involved, La Guardia and Eleanor Roosevelt resigned their positions by March 1942.

Mediating Labor-Management Relations

Scholars of the United States’ involvement in World War II generally agree that the nation’s chief contribution to victory lay in its impressive production of war materials (Franklin 2011, 488). This achievement naturally did not occur without considerable complexities, particularly in the area of labor-management relations. Any work stoppages or delays could cause considerable damage to the war effort, and labor leaders proved especially restive. The 1930s not only witnessed an impressive growth in labor unions’ membership and political power, but also an enhancement of their equal bargaining position through the National Labor Relations Board Act of 1935. But after Pearl Harbor, union officials instituted a no-strike pledge for the war’s duration and agreed to wage caps, two galling concessions in light of the doubling of corporate profits during the war (Kennedy 1999, 641; Lichtenstein 1982, 77, 111). Given the importance of maintaining harmonious industrial labor relations, it is not surprising that Rosenberg returned to her primary area of expertise by the summer of 1942, as evidenced by her appointment as a regional director of the War Manpower Commission (WMC).

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library folder containing Rosenberg’s labor relations work for the president during 1942 demonstrates her rapidly expanding range of activities. In March, William Green and Philip Murray of the United Steelworkers of America expressed their displeasure about the lack of labor appointees to the newly created Manpower Mobilization Board. “They understood,” Rosenberg related in a telephone conversation with one of Roosevelt’s aides, “[that] the President would not appoint this Board until they had had a chance to talk to him.” Several weeks later she became involved in an informal exchange between the White House and labor leaders over eliminating weekend overtime. By May, Rosenberg assumed a wider variety of assignments: working on labor appointments to the Wage Stabilization Board, overseeing the recycling of steel scrap, preparing statements for Roosevelt’s press conferences, and continually reassuring labor leaders of presidential fealty. News photographs of the period also reveal her growing importance, capturing Rosenberg leaving the White House in the midst of labor leaders after presidential meetings.

Rosenberg’s unofficial position as presidential overseer of labor-management relations in the United States is confirmed in a note Roosevelt sent to Harry Hopkins in September 1942: “H.L.H.: Any change in labor tell Anna and she will straighten it out. FDR.” The president further underscored Rosenberg’s importance in a 1943 memorandum to James F. Byrnes, now heading the Offices of Economic and War Stabilization. “Get Anna,” he ordered Byrnes, “to clear all orders affecting labor.” Roosevelt thus firmly expressed his total confidence in Rosenberg’s serving as his alter ego in domestic labor issues.

Until early 1944 Rosenberg continued as Roosevelt’s chief labor advisor, even negotiating an increase in allotments of German war prisoners for New York factories. In the summer of 1944, however, the president unofficially appointed Rosenberg as his overseer of the U.S. Army’s efforts to retrain and redeploy soldiers serving in the European Theater of Operations. Arriving in London as a member of a special labor commission, Rosenberg soon charmed Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Expeditionary Forces in London, and Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff. Smith not only became a close friend, but would provide invaluable postwar assistance as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (Nelson, 2004, 139-40; Thurston 1999, 877).

By November 1944, as a visibly ailing Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term, Frances Perkins also neared the end of her 12th year as secretary of labor. While she and the president maintained their close friendship, Perkins’s relationship with Congress remained one of mutual distrust, mostly stemming from an aborted 1939 impeachment attempt after she refused to deport Communist labor leader Harry Bridges (J. A. Martin 1939; G. Martin 1976). By this time, Rosenberg had not only emerged as Roosevelt’s main labor representative, but she also attracted considerable national attention, becoming known as the “female Felix Frankfurter” and being promoted as a possible speaker for that year’s Democratic national convention. Rumors began circulating after the election that Rosenberg might replace Perkins. The anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune noted her availability before the election, and Time magazine flatly stated that “[t]rim, smart Anna Rosenberg” might replace “Perkins’ unfashionable hats with modish millinery from Manhattan.” The president also received correspondence from the public urging him to make the appointment.

These rumors, however, proved false. Perkins continued overseeing the Department of Labor until the summer of 1945 (G. Martin 1976, 462). Roosevelt biographer Ted Morgan claims that Rosenberg tried to promote herself for the cabinet position through Eleanor Roosevelt, but the evidence is inconclusive (Morgan 1985, 675). What seems more likely is that either Rosenberg did not receive serious consideration as a possible replacement or she expressed her disinterest to the president. There are two reasons why she would not have been interested in the post. First, any cabinet confirmation would be contingent on her continuing to forego her considerable private earning power, a condition she agreed to in the fall of 1942 after the revelation of her $25,000 annual consulting income aroused considerable controversy. Second, and most important, Rosenberg’s focus on national defense matters deepened after being appointed to advisory positions with both the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion and the Retraining and Redeployment Commission in January 1945 (Nelson 2004, 139). She was therefore reluctant to return to work on labor issues.

Although Rosenberg’s new responsibilities reflected Roosevelt’s continuing confidence in her, their once-weekly personal meetings dwindled after the summer of 1944. Rosenberg’s request for a White House meeting in January 1945, for example, never received an acknowledgment until after Roosevelt’s death. Even so, she remained in touch with the president until the end. On March 26, 1945, just a few weeks before Roosevelt’s death, she sent Roosevelt a recently published book touting penicillin.

Four months after Roosevelt’s death, Rosenberg resigned her WMC position, claiming that the war’s conclusion ended the need for her position. Perhaps Rosenberg’s removal from the proximity of presidential power also prompted her resignation. While she accepted subsequent appointments from President Truman to the Reconversion Advisory Board and to the first conferences of the United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), she found such experiences disenchanting, particularly as the UNESCO delegates’ idealism clashed with her pragmatism. “I don’t know who was more annoyed,” she later confessed to Walter Bedell Smith, “-they or I-by my attendance as I kept on reminding [the delegates] of the unpleasant facts of life” (cited in Collins 2006, 63-64).

By 1947, Rosenberg not only resumed her private employment, but she also publicly supported the attempt to enlist her new friend Eisenhower for the 1948 Democratic presidential nomination (Collins 2006). Rosenberg’s appointment as assistant secretary of defense in 1950 owed more to the enormous power and prestige of her old friend and superior George Marshall than to any rapprochement with President Truman (Thurston 1999, 879).


Although the name of Anna Rosenberg is largely unknown to presidential scholars, a perusal of her personal papers and presidential files demonstrate her importance to the Roosevelt presidency between the spring of 1941 and Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. She helped to smooth relations with African American leaders over a proposed march on Washington on the issue of racial equity in the defense industry and advised Roosevelt on appointments to the subsequently created Fair Employment Practices Commission. Rosenberg also served as a buffer and mediator in relations between the Office of Civilian Defense and the president, organized the postwar retraining and redeployment of millions of U.S. Army soldiers, and most importantly, worked as Roosevelt’s alter ego in overseeing national labor-management relations from the spring of 1942 through early 1944. Her success in the last area led to rumors that she would serve as secretary of labor in the president’s fourth administration.

Rosenberg’s activities also demonstrate a key facet of Roosevelt’s administrative style. Scholars of his presidency have long highlighted his use of a network of both informal and formal advisors with overlapping jurisdictions from a bewildering array of executive agencies. This proved especially true after the United States officially entered World War II in December 1941. Roosevelt not only created new administrative structures such as the War Production Board, but also delegated domestic policy oversight to advisors, who he tasked with mediating the conflicts generated by his administrative structure as well as by the conflict of interests between labor and capital and southern blacks and southern whites that could not be papered over by wartime rhetoric of national unity. Although largely forgotten today, Anna Rosenberg was among the most important of those wartime advisors who Roosevelt trusted to mediate those conflicts and thereby protect his “power stakes” (Neustadt 1960, 90).