Mordecai Lee keeps writing books on a topic that the head of a library once suggested.
“I went to the FDR library, which is in Hyde Park, New York, and requested some files, and often those are files that no other scholar had asked to see because these are, sort of, secondary subjects,” Lee said. “And I was chatting one day with the head of the library, and I said I’m just sort of fascinated by his assistants, many of whom are totally unknown to history. And he said that he thought that there was this enormous need for writing about these assistants — White House assistants and agency heads for FDR.”
Today, Lee is filling that need, publishing extensively on former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aides and agency heads. Lee’s next book, “FDR’s Budgeteer and Manager-in-Chief: Harold D. Smith, 1939-1945,” is set to release in Sept. 2021.
Lee has been a full-time researcher since 2018, when he became a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Before that, he held many different positions: professor at UWM, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee, member of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission, member of the Wisconsin Legislature’s State Assembly and State Senate, legislative assistant to Congressman Henry Reuss and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.
He says FDR “defined the modern presidency.”
“If you were a citizen of the United States before FDR, the most contact that you had with the federal government was your letter carrier,” Lee said.
But after the New Deal was enacted, Lee said, “Citizens realized that the federal government touched them, and it touched them for the good. And so, all of a sudden, whenever there were problems, people automatically thought about ‘what is President Roosevelt going to do about this?’”
Lee’s upcoming book is “FDR’s Budgeteer and Manager-in-Chief: Harold D. Smith, 1939-1945.” It focuses on the president’s budget director for World War II, Harold D. Smith, whom Lee describes as an “unsung hero” of the war. According to Lee, Smith went behind FDR’s back to dictate memos of his meetings with the president. These memos are a valuable historical tool that allowed Lee to see the period with an unusual perspective.
“It’s sort of like history in the present tense,” Lee said. “There’s no hindsight that warps what he was thinking about, what the president was thinking about.”
Lee’s research has also provided insight on historical antisemitism. He learned that FDR’s State Department opposed the president by preventing German Jews from gaining tourist visas to the United States even as conditions deteriorated for Jews in Germany.
“In this very quiet way that the president would never find out about, they were doing what they’ve always done, which is to deny Jews entrance to the United States,” Lee said. “It was an example of the limits of a president’s power.”
This finding, coupled with Lee’s discovery of pervasive rumors leveled against Jews during World War II, allowed him to contextualize cases of modern antisemitism, like the Charlottesville rally of 2017, which included neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
“It sure was a wake-up call that we didn’t win, that you have to fight the battle all the time,” Lee said. “It’s just that it’s important not to cry wolf about relatively incidental stuff, but it’s very important to cry wolf about the big stuff like that.”
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A sampling of books by Mordecai Lee, on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aides and agency heads:
- “The First Presidential Communications Agency: FDR’s Office of Government Reports.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
- “A Presidential Civil Service: FDR’s Liaison Office for Personnel Management.” Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.
- “Get Things Moving! FDR, Wayne Coy, and the Office for Emergency Management, 1941-1943.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018.
- “FDR’s Budgeteer and Manager-in-Chief: Harold D. Smith, 1939-1945.” Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming September 2021.