Cordell Hull was born on October 2, 1871, near Byrdstown, Tennessee. Hull attended college from 1889 until 1890. He gave his first speech at the age of 16. At the age of 19, Hull became the elected chairman of the Clay County Democratic Party. Hull studied at National Normal University (later merged with Wilmington College, Ohio) from 1889 until 1890.
In 1891, he graduated from Cumberland School of Law at Cumberland University. Although Hull gained admission to the Tennessee bar in 1892 and was appointed a circuit judge in 1903, his great passion was politics.
Hull served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1893 to 1897. During the Spanish–American War, he served in Cuba as a captain in the Fourth Regiment of the Tennessee Volunteer Infantry.
From 1903 to 1907, Hull served as a local judge. Following service on his county’s Democratic Party Executive Committee and in the Tennessee State legislature, Hull was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1906. Hull’s career was nearly derailed when he lost his congressional seat during the Republican Party landslide of 1920. Nevertheless, Hull remained at the center of national politics by becoming Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1921 and returned to Congress after a two-year absence. Altogether Hull served eleven terms in the House (1907–1921 and 1923–1931) and authored the federal income tax laws of 1913 and 1916 and the inheritance tax of 1916.
In 1928, Hull sought the Democratic Party’s Vice-Presidential nomination. Although his bid was unsuccessful, he did secure the support of the Democratic nominee for the governorship of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hull was then elected to the Senate in 1930.
Four years later, as a U.S. Senator, Hull repaid the favor when Roosevelt sought the Presidential nomination. In return for his backing, and to firm up his support amongst Southern Democrats, President Roosevelt appointed Hull as his Secretary of State on March 4, 1933.
Influence on American Diplomacy
As Secretary of State, Hull’s role in U.S. foreign policymaking was greatly circumscribed by President Roosevelt. Hull nonetheless achieved prominence as an advocate of trade liberalization, closer relations with Latin America, and a postwar multinational institution to promote peace and security.
Roosevelt and Hull pursued the Good Neighbor policy, which sought to avoid U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs. In the aftermath of Mexican agrarian reforms, he developed the Hull Doctrine to compensate foreign investors in the aftermath of nationalization. Hull was the first sitting Secretary of State to attend the International Conference of American States (precursor to the Organization of American States). At the December 1933 meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, he announced that the U.S. Government would henceforth observe a policy of “non-intervention” in the affairs of its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1939, Hull advised President Roosevelt to prevent the SS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 936 Jews seeking asylum from Germany, from docking in the United States. There were two conversations on the subject between Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and Hull. On June 5, 1939, Hull told Morgenthau the passengers could not be issued U.S. tourist visas because they had no return addresses. Furthermore, Hull said the issue was between the Cuban government and the passengers. On June 6, Morgenthau said they did not know where the ship was and asked if it was “proper to have the Coast Guard look for it.” Hull said he didn’t see any reason why it could not, but added he didn’t think that Morgenthau would want the search for the ship to get into the newspapers. When Morgenthau said nothing would be in the papers, Hull responded “Oh, that would be all right.”
Hull’s decision sent the Jews back to Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. Although the plight of European Jews grew increasingly precarious, but Hull’s attitude did not change.
In September 1940, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt maneuvered with another State Department official to bypass Hull’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees aboard a Portuguese ship, the SS Quanza, to receive visas to enter the U.S. Through her efforts, the Jewish refugees disembarked on September 11, 1940, in Virginia.
In a similar incident, American Jews sought to raise money to prevent the mass murder of Romanian Jews but were blocked by the State Department. Doing so required the signature on a release from Morgenthau and Hull. Morgenthau signed immediately, but the State Department did not. Meanwhile, Jews were dying. Throughout the war, the State Department created obstacles to aiding Jews in occupied Europe, including those who were American citizens.
Although President Roosevelt typically represented the United States at the major conferences with Allied leaders during the Second World War, Hull took the lead in attempting to delay war with Japan following its invasion of China. In November 1941, he presented the Hull note to Japan, demanding Japanese withdrawal from French Indochina and China.
When the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle occupied the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, south of Newfoundland, in December 1941, Hull lodged a very strong protest and even went as far as referring to the Gaullist naval forces as “the so-called Free French.” His request to have the Vichy governor reinstated was met with strong criticism in the American press. However, the islands remained under the Free French until the end of the war.
His greatest contribution to the postwar world came within the realm of international trade. As a firm believer in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of liberal internationalism, Hull believed that free trade promoted international peace and prosperity. He considered high tariff barriers a pressing issue that had contributed to the economic decline leading to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.
Hull also championed the creation of the United Nations. In 1943, Hull and his staff drafted the document that became the United Nations Charter. For his efforts in creating the United Nations, Hull was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945.
Cordell Hull resigned as Secretary for health reasons on November 30, 1944, but served as a delegate to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco in 1945. Hull holds the distinction of being the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of State – 11 years (1933–1944).
At the age of 45, in 1917, he married a widow Rose Frances (Witz) Whitney Hull (1875–1954), of an Austrian Jewish family of Staunton, Virginia. The couple had 6 children. Mrs. Hull died at age 79. Cordell died in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 1955.
There is now a Cordell Hull Museum located near his birthplace in Byrdstown, Tennessee, which houses his papers and other memorabilia. The Cordell Hull Dam on the Cumberland River near Carthage, Tennessee, is named for him as is a speaker’s forum at Cumberland School of Law. A segment of Kentucky highway routes 90, 63, and 163, from Interstate 65 at Mammoth Cave National Park south to the Tennessee State Line, is named “Cordell Hull Highway.” The Cordell Hull Building in Nashville houses the offices of the Tennessee Legislature.
The Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, next to the White House, contains the ornately decorated “Cordell Hull Room” on the second floor, which is used for meetings. The room was Hull’s office when he was Secretary of State.
Photo: Public Domain.