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The Untold Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Advised Presidents and Shaped America

She was a close advisor not only to FDR, but to his successors Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. 
[additional-authors]
May 17, 2023

“Pipe down, boys, and listen to me. Do you want to settle this strike or don’t you?” This was the kind of blunt talk that made Anna M. Rosenberg, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant with only a high school education, a remarkably powerful figure in business and government for more than forty years. Born in 1899, by her late teens Rosenberg became an ardent campaign fundraiser and organizer for Democratic candidates in New York. By her mid-20s she was a sought-after public relations and labor mediation consultant, with clients including John Hay Whitney and Nelson Rockefeller. 

She knew how to talk, how to listen, how to find common ground, and how to get things done. Her progressive political leanings earned the trust of union representatives, while her business acumen and social ease among the wealthy earned trust by the bosses, too. Never fully losing her Hungarian accent, after successfully completing a mediation between workers and their bosses she’d say, “Wunnerful job, gentlemen!” 

Anna Rosenberg with General Omar Bradley, France, 1944

Her talents brought her to the pinnacles of government power, and this is the remarkable story told in Christopher C. Gorham’s admiring — if often fawning — biography, “The Confidante: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Helped Win WWII and Shape Modern America.” During Franklin Roosevelt’s first administration, Rosenberg implemented many New Deal programs regionally and nationwide, including the early iterations of Social Security programs, while also continuing to pioneer the new art of labor mediation. She was a close advisor not only to FDR, but to his successors Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. 

FDR leaned on her in extremely sensitive and high stakes situations. In 1941, with the Nazis on the march in Europe and still trying to keep the U.S. out of the war, the president faced the threat of a 100,000-person march protesting ongoing discrimination against Blacks in the booming defense industry. FDR needed the votes of Southern congressmen for the war effort, and most still vehemently opposed the growing civil rights movement. He called on Anna Rosenberg to somehow stop the march. (Revealingly, Gorham fails to note that until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nearly all these segregationist members of Congress were Democrats.) 

“Mrs. Fix-It,” as FDR called Rosenberg, drafted an executive order she believed both sides could live with, and “marched straight into the President’s office … pulled the papers from her purse … and thrust a pen in his hand.” She ordered, ‘Sign it, Mr. President; sign it!’” Executive Order 8802 was a crucial turning point in the history of American Blacks.

FDR sent Rosenberg as his emissary to the troops in Europe in 1944, telling the Army, “see that Anna doesn’t get hurt.”

FDR sent Rosenberg as his emissary to the troops in Europe in 1944, telling the Army, “see that Anna doesn’t get hurt.” Overseas, Rosenberg visited with soldiers, including the wounded, met with Army generals, and was among the first Americans to encounter skeletal Holocaust survivors at newly liberated concentration camps. With so much of the book detailing the war effort and Rosenberg’s involvement as an advisor and powerhouse during this time, it is a shameful omission that Gorham failed to acknowledge the malicious antisemitism in FDR’s own State Department, which cruelly denied entry to hundreds of thousands of helpless European Jews facing almost certain death. FDR’s State Department even suppressed their usual quotas for German Jewish immigrants far below capacity. Anna Rosenberg had the president’s ear, an office in the East Wing, and regularly met with him privately. How did she, as an immigrant Jew, feel about this? What records, if any, showed how she responded to this — the ultimate denial of civil rights? This is where Gorham’s cheerleading of Rosenberg and FDR shows a glaring blind spot.    

In 1950, General George Marshall suggested Anna Rosenberg as Assistant Secretary of Defense, a post no woman had ever held. The Korean War had begun. Senator Joseph McCarthy was on the warpath for Communists and fired up to scuttle the nomination of FDR’s favorite New Dealer. Her name was also uncomfortably close to that of Ethel Rosenberg — and Anna was also married to a man named Julius. She endured grueling, taunting congressional investigations about her supposed communist past before her detractors were shown as empty, but vicious suits. She then took her place in a Pentagon office. It is ironic once again that in this lengthy episode about her nomination, Gorham makes much of antisemites from the right — in politics and in media — whose claws were out for Rosenberg, while remaining silent about the antisemitism from the left in FDR’s own administration.

Anna Rosenberg earned her reputation as tough yet charming. Always fashionably dressed in chic suits, jangling bracelets, and couture hats, she could “oil the squeaks” and “meet men politically as an equal.” She attributed her success in part to her being a woman: “I have no ax to grind, and I am a woman. Men will talk more freely to a woman than to another man, and when men talk freely nine times out of 10 misunderstandings vanish.”  When leaving the Defense Department in 1953, she told a reporter that being a woman in a male-dominated military establishment was liberating rather than constraining, because she wasn’t “bogged down with traditions and service customs which accumulated over the years. I refused to be bogged down, so went ahead and did what had to be done.”

Rosenberg is a fascinating figure and the outsized role she played for so many decades in government—as a woman still in a man’s world—deserves attention and praise. 

Rosenberg is a fascinating figure and the outsized role she played for so many decades in government — as a woman still in a man’s world — deserves attention and praise. Yet Gorham’s treatment of his subject borders on hero-worship. Did her hard-charging ways ever rankle those around her? What was known about her marriage to a man she dramatically outshone professionally and whom she divorced after more than three decades? One wonders what Gorham knew but didn’t tell about these issues. Yet more information would have added nuance about this extraordinary woman who truly helped shape the United States during the Depression, World War II, and beyond.


Judy Gruen’s most recent book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.” 

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