On this day in 1944, Edward R. Stettinius Jr. becomes Franklin Roosevelt’s last secretary of state by filling the Cabinet spot left empty by the Cordell Hull.
Cordell Hull had served as FDR’s secretary of state for 11 years and retired after Roosevelt’s unprecedented election to a fourth term as president, in November 1944. Hull earned a reputation for negotiating extensive changes in U.S. tariff and trade practices, calling for the lowering of prohibitive tariff rates that choked U.S. foreign trade for decades and pushing Congress to pass legislation that would grant “most favored nation status” to qualified nations—a forerunner to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) agreement.
It was Hull who pursued closer relations with Latin America, promoting the Good Neighbor Policy that promised an end to U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of its southern neighbors. This had the effect of undoing decades of distrust between the United States and Central and South America and was essential to creating a united pan-American front against the fascist powers of Europe. Hull was less conciliatory toward Japan, refusing any relaxation of economic embargos against the Axis power until it had completely withdrawn from China and Southeast Asia.
In November 1944, having enjoyed the longest tenure of any secretary of state, and in ailing health, Hull retired to devote his time to the creation of an international peace organization, which would become the United Nations.
Needless to say, these were big shoes for Stettinius to fill. The industrialist, who had worked for General Motors and U.S. Steel, left private enterprise to join the war effort, accepting the chairmanship of the War Resources Board in 1939. In 1940, he went on to chair the National Defense Advisory Commission and a year later became supervisor of the Lend-Lease program, which distributed cash and war materiel to U.S. allies fighting the European war. In 1943, FDR appointed Stettinius undersecretary of state, and he finally replaced Secretary of State Hull upon Hull’s retirement.
Stettinius’ tenure in that Cabinet post was unremarkable, consisting mostly of implementing a foreign policy to which he contributed little in the way of original ideas. He did play an advisory role to FDR’s participation at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Stettinius, like his predecessor, believed in the necessity of a postwar international peace organization and headed the U.S. delegation to the San Francisco conference that drafted the U.N. Charter.
Shortly after FDR’s death, Harry S. Truman replaced Stettinius with James F. Byrnes, leaving Stettinius to become chairman of the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations. It was Cordell Hull, however, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the creation of the United Nations.