The Confidante: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Helped Win WWII and Shape Modern America
“A book for our times with the current focus on social justice . . . a magnificent portrait of a political life lived with passion and integrity.”
Anna Marie Rosenberg certainly deserves to be better known. She was a Jewish immigrant who barely managed to eke out a high school education, yet used her natural skills and smarts to become a key advisor to the most powerful men in America. Christopher Gorham has done his homework, and the depth of his research pays off in this portrait of how one person can make an enormous difference, even someone as disadvantaged as Anna was. Nobody gave women much credibility or power, much less a Jewish woman. But Anna’s lists of accomplishments are staggering.
Gorham manages to shape the mountain of information he has into a compelling story, tracing Anna’s path from high school activist to personal advisor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Assistant Secretary of Defense. Along the way, she held many other powerful positions, shaping public policy. She was instrumental in FDR’s New Deal, the integration of the military, and the G.I. bill providing education for veterans, among other pivotal legislations. Gorham sums up well her incredible achievements:
“That a civilian woman came to be President Roosevelt’s personal envoy to wartime Europe is but one episode in a lifetime spent at the pivot points of history. . . . After FDR’s death, Anna remained a key Washington policy maker in the administrations that followed.”
Gorham focuses mostly on Anna’s time with FDR, for good reason, describing well the traits she brought to each tough problem she faced:
“Her methods worked. Settling a strike or striking a deal, Anna would command, ‘Pipe down, boys, and listen to me.’ Whether union or management, she would tell them not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear.”
She brought this technique to her tenure as regional direction of a new national program, the Social Security Administration, and while advising FDR, Truman, and later Lyndon Baines Johnson on how to get Civil Rights legislation passed. Gorham marshals the necessary details to show how Anna’s intense interest in civil rights and women’s rights were woven into several presidential administrations. Her dogged fights to include the unrepresented and disadvantaged makes this very much a book for our time with the current focus on social justice.
The one hole in the book, the subject that Gorham deftly avoids touching, is FDR’s attitude toward the Nazi treatment of Jews. It should be well known that the U.S. Government—and the American public, for that matter—knew that Jews had no civil rights under Hitler and that the camps they were sent to were basically for extermination. That didn’t stop Roosevelt from slamming doors on Jewish refugees, cutting down the numbers of those allowed to emigrate. In the particularly horrific instance of the St. Louis, the government refused to allow the ship to land in Florida in 1939, turning back escaping Jewish families to face their doom. Did Anna advocate for these people? If she didn’t, then why not? Was she worried that she would look “too Jewish”? She was clearly aware of that stigma and worried about that later when General George Marshall asked her to be his Assistant Defense Secretary:
“Anna didn’t want to become Marshall’s ‘Dreyfus case.’ Her fears were well-founded.”
Still, she couldn’t say no to Marshall, which meant facing anti-Semitism openly when Senator Joseph McCarthy accused her of being a Jewish communist. Anna knew how to use being a woman to disarm her critics, but perhaps there was no way to cast a positive light on being Jewish. This was a time when congressmen warned of the need to “keep the Zionist Jew from becoming the dictator of the Pentagon.” Anna did manage to survive McCarthy’s attack. She fought for General Marshall then as much as for herself.
The lack of advocating for Jews during WWII—and it is a lack—doesn’t diminish Anna’s very real accomplishments. If anything, it shows how entrenched anti-Semitism was. For her as a Jewish woman, it may have been more difficult to fight than racism and sexism. And it wasn’t a battle where she could rely on Roosevelt.
Gorham gives Anna the credit she deserves for managing the desegregation of the military, including in the schools on bases, where the fight was most entrenched. He delineates clearly the arc of her involvement in civil rights from the beginning of her career to the end. He tries to do the same in her work for women in the military, but here again there’s a strange gap. While Anna helped ensure that women serving in the Korean War got the recognition and benefits they’d earned, the women veterans of WWII got no such attention. More than 300 WASPs (Women’s Army Service Pilots) lost their lives in service, yet none got a military funeral, and the survivors didn’t even get veterans’ benefits until the 1970s after decades of lobbying.
Of course, Anna couldn’t be everywhere and do everything, but given that her focuses were labor rights, civil rights, and women’s rights, it’s another odd lapse. Admitting to these imperfections wouldn’t tarnish Anna’s image and might have given even more context to this complicated life. The impulse to write a hagiography isn’t surprising with all that Anna did, but biographers need to be balanced and critical to present a full life.
Still, these are very small nits in a magnificent portrait of a political life lived with passion and integrity, something that seems like a fairytale in today’s world.