Cordell Hull, Flawed American Statesman

By: Tara Tyrrell

Cordell Hull was born in 1871 and died in 1955. He was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long-serving Secretary of State, and is also credited as one of the primary founders of the United Nations.

Political Life of Cordell Hull

Hull’s political career began when he was elected chairman of the Clay County, Tennessee Democratic Party when he was just 19 years old. After serving as a captain in the Fourth Regiment of the Tennessee Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish-American War in Cuba, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served a total of eleven terms between 1907 and 1931. He wrote the federal income tax laws of 1913 and 1916, the inheritance tax statute of 1916, and served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1920. In 1930, he was elected to the United States Senate, but resigned when he was named Secretary of State in 1933 by President Roosevelt. Hull recorded twenty-five years of combined service in the House and the Senate.

During his time as Secretary of State, Hull led the American delegation to the London Economic Conference with the aim of increasing foreign trade and lowering tariffs. He pursued a Good Neighbor policy with Latin American countries, which prevented Nazi infiltration to those areas during World War II.

As Secretary of State, he served 11 years until his retirement due to failing health. He is known to be the longest-serving Secretary of State in US history.


Hull’s political life was not without its uglier moments. As European antisemitism was becoming more and more widespread and deadly, Hull is known to have opposed admitting Jewish refugees, including those aboard the infamous SS St. Louis, a German passenger ship fleeing the Nazis that was eventually forced to return to Germany. He also ordered US consulates around the world to not issue US entry visas to Jews.

Pearl Harbor

Cordell Hull with Ambassador Nomura ans Special Envoy Kurusu, 17 November 1941

Secretary of State Cordell Hull with Ambassador Nomura ans Special Envoy Kurusu, 17 November 1941

As Secretary of State, Cordell Hull was in charge of United States foreign relations in the time leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. On November 26, 1941, he sent what became known as the Hull Note to the Japanese. The note outlined a proposal for an agreement between the two countries. On the day of the attack—in fact, while it was happening—Kichisaburo Nomura, the Japanese ambassador, and Saburo Kurusu, the Japanese special envoy, were waiting outside Hull’s office to notify him of a breakdown in negotiations between Japan and the USA. The two Japanese representatives had not been informed of the attack, and before the meeting, President Roosevelt had advised Hull not to tell them about it. Hull’s anger got the better of him, however, and Nomura and Kurusu fled the office in astonishment.




United Nations

Hull was honored with a US postage stamp in 1964

Hull was honored with a US postage stamp in 1964

Cordell Hull became an architect in the formation of the United Nations, drafting the United Nations Charter in 1943. In 1945, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The UN was established in 1945 as a replacement to the League of Nations to prevent future global conflicts. At the time of its foundation, the United Nations had 51 member-states; today there are 193.

Cordell Hull died in 1955 from a tuberculosis-like disease called sarcoidosis. Near his birthplace in Byrdstown, Tennessee there is now a Cordell Hull Museum which houses his papers and other memorabilia.

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