The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Thomas Knight Finletter (1893-1980)

Thomas Finletter, the son of a prominent judge and who helped forge American air power and shape Democratic Party strategy, was born and educated in Philadelphia. In 1915, after completing his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he served as a field artillery officer in World War I France. In 1920, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he moved to New York City to begin a career as a bankruptcy attorney. In 1926, he joined the firm Courdert Brothers, with whom he remained affiliated until he retired. In 1941, Cordell Hull asked him to serve as his special assistant and two years later tapped him to direct the Office of Foreign Economic Coordination and supervise the management of strategic materials essential to postwar planning. After the war, as a consultant to the committee charged with drafting plans for the United Nations, he advised Adlai Stevenson and worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1947, President Truman asked him to chair the President's Air Force Commission and to recommend steps to improve American air power. Although Truman disagreed with Finletter's call for a more streamlined procurement process and funding equal to that awarded the other military branches, he appointed Finletter secretary of the air force in 1950. Secretary Finletter argued that an increase in air power was the most effective deterrent to war and became the major proponent of strategic bombers and the Strategic Air Command.

Finletter, who had left the Republican Party when it opposed the League of Nations, advised key Democratic officials throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He served as Adlai Stevenson's foreign policy advisor in the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, a position he used to assail Eisenhower's emphasis on budgetary costs and to accuse the president of forfeiting American nuclear superiority. In 1953, he convened the Finletter Group, an informal gathering of scholars and politicians, to develop and promote specific positions for Stevenson. In 1954, he helped Averell Harriman win the New York gubernatorial election. In 1956, he played a key role in convening the Democratic Advisory Group, a group of politicians, scholars, and activists charged with developing effective, coherent positions and platforms for national and statewide candidates. Two years later he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor. He worked closely with ER, Herbert Lehman, and other reform Democrats in their efforts to dislodge Tammany Hall. Although he supported Stevenson in 1960, John Kennedy appointed him ambassador to NATO, a position he held from 1961 to 1965. He returned to Courdert Brothers where he practiced law until he retired in 1970. He died in New York City April 24, 1980.

Source: American National Biography Online. Internet on-line. Available From

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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