Looking Back at Cordell Hull

I first heard the name Cordell Hull in the World War II film Tora, Tora, Tora.  Hull, of course, was the Secretary of State during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In the film, Cordell Hull was played by actor George Macready, Jr.  The two men even looked similar.

Secretary Hull

Hull is an interesting character.  No other Secretary of State served as long as he did — nearly twelve years in office.  Politically, he was known as a killer.  He would destroy anyone who got in his way and not give it a second thought.

Born in 1871, Cordell Hull was part of a family with a long history of Tennessee politics.  For most of Tennessee’s history, feuding was commonplace.  During one of these feuds, during the American Civil War, someone shot Cordell’s father, William Paschal Hull, in the face.  William survived the assassination attempt.  After the war, William Hull tracked down the assailant and killed him.  This is the man most responsible for how Cordell Hull (and his four brothers were raised).

Hull, like his brothers, was born in a log cabin in Olympus, Tennessee.  It was a common occurrence in 1871.  Nearly everyone lived in a log cabin.  Hull’s mother was a descendant of Isaac Riley, who was granted two hundred acres of land in Pickett County in recognition for his Revolutionary War service, and also ancestor Samuel Wood, an Englishman from Leicestershire who fought on the side of the American cause.

Cordell attended college for a year (1889-1890), afterward serving as the chairman of the Democratic Party in Clay County, Tennessee, and then passed the Tennessee State Bar after graduating from the Cumberland School of Law.  Hull was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1893, serving until 1897.  During the Spanish-American War, he served as a captain in the Tennessee volunteer infantry.  From 1903 – 1907, Hull served as a local judge until he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for a total of twenty-two years.  During that time, he became an influential member of the Ways and Means Committee and claimed responsibility for the federal income tax law (1913) and the Inheritance Tax (1916).

After Hull’s defeat in the election of 1920, he served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and was one of several presidential candidates in 1928.  Hull and Albert Gore, Sr., the father of former Vice President Al Gore, Jr., formed a close political relationship in the 1930s.  Historians give Hull credit for the election of Al Gore, Sr., to the U.S. Congress in 1938.

Cordell Hull was elected to the Senate in 1930 but resigned in 1933 to accept Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination as U.S. Secretary of State.  Hull’s primary focus as Secretary of State was to increase foreign trade and lower tariffs.   President Roosevelt personally handled the matter of the United States’ role in World War II by passing Hull and dealing directly with Hull’s under-secretary, B. Sumner Welles.  Threatened by Welles’ relationship with the president, Hull effectively destroyed Welles’ career by threatening to expose him as a homosexual.[1]

During Hull’s tenure as Secretary of State, there were several minor “flaps” that dragged him and his office into the public eye, including a shouting match between New York Mayor La Guardia and the government of Adolf Hitler, which quickly turned anti-Semitic, and another terse exchange of messages when the German government referred to American women as prostitutes.

Hull also engaged in a famous dialog with Eduardo Hay, Mexico’s foreign minister, over the issue of Mexico’s nationalization of farms in Mexico, through which certain Americans lost their land in Mexico without compensation.  What evolved was the so-called “Hull Formula,” which even today remains controversial (particularly within Latin American countries).  Most such countries subscribe to the Calvo Doctrine.[2]

Historians give much credit to Franklin Roosevelt for his so-called Good Neighbor Policy, but the adoption of improved relations with Latin American countries actually began in the Hoover administration.  Under Roosevelt, Cordell Hull took Hoover’s work, expanded on it, and FDR took credit for it.  In any case, contemporary scholars credit the Good Neighbor Policy as having prevented Nazi subterfuge in Latin America during World War II (excepting Argentina, of course).  Additionally, Secretary Hull and President Roosevelt strived to maintain relations with the Vichy government, which Hull credited with allowing French forces under General Henri Giraud to join allied forces in the North African and subsequent campaigns in Germany and Italy.

Roosevelt also preferred that Cordell Hull handle formal statements with foreign governments, notably with the Imperial Japanese government, before and after Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack.  Notably, Hull received news of the attack outside his office.  When Hull returned to his office, he found the Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura and special envoy Saburo Kurusu waiting to see him.  They had a fourteen-part message that officially notified the U.S. government of a breakdown in negotiations.  But the U.S. military had broken the Japanese codes, and Hull already knew the message’s content.  Hull famously exploded, saying … In all my fifty years of public service, I have never seen such a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehood and distortion.

But Cordell Hull was controversial in his own right.  He made no effort to hide his contempt for Charles De Gaulle, and he assumed an antisemitic position toward European Jews in late 1939.  Hull strenuously advised Roosevelt to prevent the S.S. St. Louis from reaching port in the United States, thereby preventing just under a thousand Jewish passengers from requesting political asylum in the United States.  As a result, some academics argue, Nazis ultimately murdered 254 of the Jewish passengers Hull sent back to Europe.

Hull’s position, stated most emphatically to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, was that the passengers could not legally be issued tourist visas because they had no home addresses in their country of origin.  Moreover, Hull insisted that the U.S. had no role in resolving this Jewish problem.  Whether Hull realized it (or not), Morgenthau spoke for his long-time friend, Franklin Roosevelt.

Later, in the fall of 1940, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attempted to bypass Hull’s refusal vis-à-vis Jewish refugees aboard a Portuguese ship, S.S. Quanza, to obtain U.S. visas.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts permitted around 100 (of 327 passengers) to enter the United States.

In another incident, when American Jews attempted to raise money to prevent the murder of Romanian Jews, the State Department stepped in to block all such efforts.  According to Ruth Gruber, “In wartime, to send money out of the United States, two government agencies had to sign a simple release: the Treasury Department under Henry Morgenthau, and the State Department under Secretary Cordell Hull.  Morgenthau signed immediately.  The State Department delayed, delayed, and delayed, as more Jews died in the Transnistria camps.”[3]

In 1940, Jewish representatives in the U.S.A. lodged an official complaint against the discriminatory policies of the Hull State Department.  The result of these protests was fatal because Secretary Hull gave orders to every American Consulate (worldwide) forbidding the issuance of visas to any Jews.  When Jewish members of congress petitioned President Roosevelt directly, asking him to permit the admission of 20,000 European Jewish children into the United States, Roosevelt refused to respond.

In 1945, Cordell Hull was the architect and underlying force behind the creation of the United Nations Organization.  For these efforts, he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace.  In 2004, former Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold published Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos.  Gold was highly critical of the UN’s moral relativism in the face of occasional support of genocide and terrorism.  He contends that the UN has become diluted to the point where only 75 of its 184 member states were “free democracies.”

Gold emphasizes that the UN today, as a whole, is more amenable to the requirements of fascist dictatorships.  As an illustration of this hijacking, critics of the UN point to the fact that the UN General Assembly held a moment of silence in honor of North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Il following his death in 2011 — but failed to offer similar recognition for Vaclav Havel, an important anti-fascist dissident in the Czech Republic.

Today, there is much doubt that Cordell Hull warrants any recognition for the monster he helped create in 1945 and an equal number of questions about whether he deserves any accolades as one of the pilots of America’s ship of state.

Due to his failing health, Cordell Hull resigned from his post on 30 November 1944.   Upon Hull’s departure from the State Department, Roosevelt said he was “the one person in all the world who has done his most to make this great peace plan (the United Nations) an effective fact.”  Right.  I’m sure the millions of people murdered in their beds throughout the fourth world nations of Africa fail to see the value of Hull’s efforts.

Cordell Hull died on 23 July 1955 at his home in Washington, D.C.  He was 83 years old.


  1. Hull, C.  The Papers of Cordell Hull.  Two volumes.  Hodder & Stoughton, 1948.
  2. Dalleck, R.  Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932 – 1945.  Oxford University Press, 1979.
  3. Pratt, J. W.  Cordell Hull, 1933 – 44.  U.S. Congress, 1964.
  4. Gellman, I. F.  Secret Affairs: FDR, Cordell Hull, and Sumner Welles.  Enigma Books, 2002.


[1] Welles had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat beginning in 1914 under the administration of Woodrow Wilson.  Welles specialized in Latin American affairs and served in several diplomatic posts until pushed out of service by Calvin Coolidge, who believed that Welles’ homosexuality would not best serve the interests of the United States.  Franklin Roosevelt gave Welles another chance.  After attending a funeral in Huntsville, Alabama, and returning to Washington, D.C., Welles solicited sex from two Negro porters.  Information of this incident reached Hull, who made sure that the information was presented to certain members of the U.S. Senate and the Director, FBI — J. Edgar Hoover … himself a closet homosexual.  Although Hoover maintain file cabinets of information on Welles (and others), he never released any of that information to the American public.

[2] The Calvo Doctrine is a foreign policy principle that holds that jurisdiction in international investment disputes lies with the country in which the investment is located.  The Calvo Doctrine stood in contrast to historical rules governing foreign investment which held that foreign investors could appeal expropriation decisions by a foreign government in their home country.  The Calvo Doctrine proposed to prohibit diplomatic protection or armed intervention before local resources were exhausted. 

[3] Ruth Gruber, Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel.  Open Road Media, 2010. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Depression Era, History, Holocaust, Jews, Latin America, Politicians, Tennessee, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Looking Back at Cordell Hull

  1. Andy says:

    Based on this, and this alone, Hull was an interesting character, as you point out. However, he was equally ruthless and unsavory. He was definitely not someone you would want to work with or for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I completely agree. One of those cigar chomping whiskey drinking backroom boys we used to hear about. I don’t think the world misses him in the least. Thank you for dropping by, Andy.


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