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Woodring, Harry Hineslocked

(31 May 1887?–09 September 1967)
  • Keith D. McFarland

Woodring, Harry Hines (31 May 1887?–09 September 1967), banker, governor of Kansas, and secretary of war, was born in Elk City, Kansas, the son of Hines Woodring, a grain dealer, and Melissa Jane Cooper. Being the youngest of six children and the only boy, Woodring grew up in an overprotected environment. Although a good student, he never graduated from high school, choosing instead to go to Indiana and live with an aunt so he could attend Lebanon Business University. After his return to Elk City in 1905, he worked as a bank cashier and four years later took a similar position in nearby Neodesha, Kansas. In 1918 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Camp Colt, Pennsylvania. In October he completed officer’s school and was commissioned a second lieutenant, in the tank corps, but the war ended before he could go overseas.

He returned to banking and in the early 1920s became director and major owner of the First National Bank of Neodesha. During that same period, he became active in numerous organizations, especially the American Legion, then one of the largest and most active political organizations in the United States. As state commander of the legion, he fostered friendships throughout Kansas and in 1930, just one year after selling his interest in the bank, ran for governor on the Democratic ticket. In a very controversial election, an independent candidate, John Brinkley, stole enough votes from the Republican incumbent, Frank Haucke, to enable Woodring to win by 251 votes.

As governor, Woodring performed much better than most people had expected. Faced with a house and senate controlled by the opposition and a citizenry racked by economic depression, he succeeded in pushing through important tax legislation, including a state income tax and property tax limitations. He successfully took on the powerful natural gas industry, bringing about significant rate reductions. An extensive public works program, centering on road construction, improved the transportation system and put many Kansans to work. The establishment of a Crippled Children’s Commission put the state among the leaders in meeting the needs of the handicapped.

In 1931 Woodring was one of the first governors in the nation to support the presidential candidacy of fellow Democratic governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York. The next year Woodring ran for reelection against Republican Alf M. Landon and the independent Brinkley. This time Woodring came in second, as Landon out-polled him by fewer than six thousand votes. That same election day saw Roosevelt win the presidency of the United States, and four months later, on 6 April 1933, he rewarded the Kansan by naming him the assistant secretary of war.

Woodring instituted many positive changes in the way the army secured equipment and supplies, with his most impressive achievement being the institution of a system of competitive bidding, which made better products available at less cost. Always a supporter of air power, he championed and then approved the development of a four-engine bomber—the B-17. He was also instrumental in the formation of General Headquarters, Air Force, an organizational change that gave considerable autonomy to the Army Air Corps. A quick learner and effective orator, Woodring established himself with Congress and the press as a respected spokesman for the War Department.

In August 1936 Secretary of War George Dern died, and Woodring was given an interim appointment, which was made permanent in April 1937. His major contribution came in the complete revamping of the army’s mobilization plans. By 1939 he and army chief of staff Malin Craig had in place the Protective Mobilization Plan, which provided for a 400,000-man force three months after mobilization began and a million-man force eight months after M-Day. While the plan was less ambitious than earlier versions, it was clearly workable, as became evident when the United States entered into the Second World War. As both assistant secretary and secretary, Woodring was a key figure in developing the nation’s industrial mobilization plans. That the United States was able to mobilize so much of its industrial and manpower potential during the war was in large part due to his efforts. In April 1939 Congress approved the so-called Woodring Plan, which increased the authorized strength of the air corps from 2,320 to 6,000 aircraft.

Although an able administrator and leader of the War Department, Woodring came into increasing conflict with his assistant secretary of war, Louis Johnson, and his superior, President Roosevelt. Johnson openly sought the secretary of war position and continually undermined Woodring. The intense feuding between the top civilian leaders created an awkward situation for military leaders at the War Department. What led to Woodring’s downfall was his difference of opinion with Roosevelt over whether surplus military supplies and U.S. military aircraft should be given to England to halt German military expansion in Europe. Roosevelt felt the aid should be extended, but the secretary felt that if the scarce military supplies were given away and Britain fell to the Nazi menace, the United States would then be vulnerable. Woodring became so obstructive that on 19 June 1940 Roosevelt fired him—the only cabinet member FDR fired in his thirteen years in the presidency.

After his dismissal, Woodring and his wife of seven years, Helen Coolidge, daughter of Massachusetts senator Marcus A. Coolidge, returned to Kansas with their three children. In 1946 and again in 1956 he sought, unsuccessfully, to win the governorship. In 1946 his son Marcus died of polio, and in 1960 his marriage ended in divorce. Financial problems also plagued him during these later years. He died in Topeka, Kansas, following a stroke brought on by burns he suffered in his home when his pajamas caught on fire.

That the U.S. Army, including the air corps, was able to mobilize so quickly and efficiently during World War II was in large part due to Woodring’s contribution in the realm of industrial and military mobilization planning. His strong advocacy of air power helped the groundwork for the role that the air corps played during the war. His accomplishments are even more impressive when one considers the financial austerity and isolationism of the 1930s.

Bibliography

Woodring’s official correspondence as assistant secretary of war and secretary of war are in the National Archives, Washington, D.C., under War Department, Chief of Staff, 1936–1940; Supply Division, 1936–1940; and War Plans Division, 1936–1940, all in RG 165; and also under War Department, Secretary of War, General Correspondence, 1932–1942, RG 107. His personal papers are located in the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas at Lawrence, while his official correspondence as governor is at the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. For details of his life, see Keith McFarland, Harry H. Woodring: A Political Biography of FDR’s Controversial Secretary of War (1975). An excellent account of his years as governor can be found in Francis W. Schruben, Kansas in Turmoil, 1930–1936 (1969). For his activities at the War Department, see Mark S. Watson, Chief of Staff: Prewar Plans and Preparations (1950), and Marvin A. Kreidberg and Merton G. Henry, History of Military Mobilization in the United States Army, 1775–1945 (1955). An obituary is in the New York Times, 10 Sept. 1967.