About Frank Knox

Annie Reid Knox understood her late husband’s belief that America’s roots “lie embedded in British soil,” and sought to honor him and his commitment to America, the country he so deeply loved. She accomplished this by making a donation to Harvard University that would provide for an educational exchange between scholars from America and the countries that constituted the British Commonwealth. The gift resulted in the prestigious Frank Knox Memorial Fellowships, which have provided the opportunity for over 400 scholars from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to study at Harvard since the first fellowship was awarded in 1948. In addition, more than 300 Knox Fellowship recipients from Harvard have studied or conducted research in those countries. According to the wishes of Mrs. Knox, Frank Knox Fellows are selected on the basis of “future promise of leadership, strength, keen mind, a balanced judgment and a devotion to the democratic ideal.”

A Self-made Man

A true product of American idealism, Frank Knox rose from humble beginnings to become a man of the world: from small-town cub reporter to big-time newspaper publisher; from gubernatorial campaign manager to Vice Presidential candidate; from soldier to Secretary of the Navy. Even as a youth, he exemplified the practicality and enterprising spirit of the “self-made man.”

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1874, he moved with his family at age 7 to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his father ran a grocery store. By age 11, he was peddling newspapers to help with the family expenses. Before finishing high school he left Michigan and supported himself as a salesman. When the panic of 1893 cost him his job and prompted him to return to Michigan, he enrolled at Alma College and paid his way by working various odd jobs — all while earning high marks and distinguishing himself as an adept football player.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Knox, a college senior, enlisted in the Army and joined Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders. From then on he was a faithful disciple of the burly military man and future president. Fourteen years later, Knox would prove instrumental in drawing Roosevelt into the historic “Bull Moose” campaign.

Journalist at Heart

After returning to Michigan and marrying his college sweetheart, Annie Reid, Knox landed a job as a reporter at the Herald and rapidly climbed the ranks to city editor, then circulation manager. Knox remained a staunch newspaperman for the next four decades. His early tenure as publisher of the Sault Sainte Marie Weekly News and, later, The Manchester Union Leader, not only afforded him solid publishing experience but also fueled his commitment to progressive Republican politics and reform.

By 1927, Knox had become General Manager of all 27 of William Randolph Hearst’s dailies. Four years later, he had accumulated enough savings to retire comfortably. Yet according to Fortune magazine, Knox was a poor candidate for retirement. He had swallowed whole Teddy Roosevelt’s “doctrine of the strenuous life.”

Knox’s most impressive achievement in the newspaper world was yet to come — as publisher of the Chicago Daily News, which he actively managed from 1931 until his appointment as Secretary of the Navy in 1940. Throughout his tenure at the News he remained faithful to his early ideals of political rectitude, exposing Chicago rackets and corrupt politicians and airing his misgivings about the New Deal in his own editorials. Those editorials expressed such vehement opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic policies that they cost the News thousands of readers — a predictable outcome in overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago. Still, Knox continued to voice his opinions, going so far as to call FDR’s managed economy “alien and un-American” and “a complete flop.”

A Politician is Born

In the fall of 1934, Knox found himself raising money for the Republican Party and was such a success that he was invited to speak at meetings throughout the Midwest. Before long, so many people were saying Knox would make a good Republican presidential candidate that it seemed a likely possibility. When the delegates assembled at the 1936 Republican National Convention, however, it was clear that Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas was the overwhelming favorite for the presidential nomination. Rather than foster a split in the party, Knox ordered his name withdrawn from the race. The next day he became the governor’s unanimously approved running mate.

The Navy Years

Although FDR swept the 1936 election, at the end of that term he defied partisan biases and appointed Knox Secretary of the Navy. The appointment was a testament to Knox’s impressive capabilities and reputation, especially given his previously outspoken opposition to the New Deal. Yet for all his antagonism toward Roosevelt’s domestic reforms, Knox was an enthusiastic supporter of the president’s foreign policy. Since 1936, he had been watching with increasing alarm the political developments around the world. After Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Knox pressed for approval of the president’s billion-dollar naval expansion plan. When war finally erupted in Europe in 1939, Knox wrote front-page editorials calling for widespread support of Roosevelt’s foreign policy decisions, the repeal of the neutrality laws, and a bipartisan cabinet.

Knox with Naval OfficersImpressed by Knox’s opinions and aware of the leveraging potential of a bipartisan cabinet, Roosevelt offered Knox the position of secretary twice before he finally accepted. In response to those who questioned her husband’s motives, Mrs. Knox explained that for him, “patriotism was a living fire of unquestioned belief and purpose.” He had cut short his college career to fight in the Spanish-American War, and at age 43 he had left a thriving newspaper business to enlist in the Army during WWI. Frank Knox had made considerable sacrifices to serve his country, and he would continue to do so, even at the expense of his friends, business and political reputation. Knox himself was frequently in the newspapers, not least because of his bold and often controversial public statements. Early on he toed a fine line between asserting his pro-British, anti-Axis stance and alienating die-hard American isolationists. By 1941, he told a governor’s conference that “the time to use our Navy to clear the Atlantic of the German menace is at hand,” infuriating isolationists with his aggressive pronouncements. Some members of Congress went so far as to demand that he either resign or be impeached. Still, he gained support from many others, including Roosevelt. In fact, Knox’s assertiveness may have helped the president gauge public response to interventionist views.

Knox presided over the department at a pivotal moment in its history. Before the war, he had written magazine articles advocating a naval system based on the construction and maintenance of a two-ocean Navy. With the passing of the “Two-Ocean Navy” bill just one week after he took office, Knox’s vision became policy. By the time of his death in 1944, the U.S. Navy had become the most powerful in the world. Its development was so rapid that within four years, Navy personnel had increased from 190,000 members to well over 3 million. To the 385 combat ships it owned in 1940, the Navy added nine battleships, 19 first-line aircraft carriers, more than 500 destroyers and escort ships, over 100 submarines, and thousands of amphibious ships and other naval craft.

With war raging in Europe and the British in desperate need of naval aid, Knox became deeply immersed in foreign affairs. Three weeks after Knox took office, the British ambassador approached him directly for help. The negotiations that ensued paved the way for the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Not only was Knox instrumental in conceiving the destroyers-for-bases exchange, but he also played crucial roles in both persuading Congress to pass the bill and implementing its provisions.

One of Knox’s more heavily publicized contributions as secretary was his investigation into the Pearl Harbor bombing. Three days after the attack he flew to the base to interview local authorities and assess the damage. Knox’s trip made big news. In his report he concluded that the attack succeeded “due to a lack of a state of readiness” by both the Army and Navy, an assessment which Secretary of War Henry Stimson publicly acknowledged.

An International Outlook

In addition to his trips to Pearl Harbor, Knox traveled the world to inspect naval units and observe battlefront activities. In the last two and a half years of his life, he spent 802 hours in the air and flew 141,000 miles. Besides examining naval installations in Europe, North Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the continental U.S., he traveled to Brazil in the role of “goodwill ambassador” after Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy in 1942. Knox also believed strongly that apart from facilitating international cooperation, he and the other civilian secretaries should “get out in the field and see actual conditions.” He argued that such trips elicited “far more intelligent” decision-making among civilian leaders and served as “a definite aid” to the morale of the troops.

Secnav Frank Knox and Sponsor Mrs. Annie Reid Knox, at the launching ceremony, Newport News Shopbuilding & Drydock Co., 1943Knox’s trips across the globe enhanced his vision of democracy within an international context. He was especially adamant about the continuing cooperation between the United States and Great Britain, and in 1943 he toured the United Kingdom and the North African-Mediterranean theater of operations — a trip designed as much to foster good relations as to inspect naval units. In a press conference following his return to the States, Knox praised the mutual support between America and Great Britain in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. That same year he announced to the English Speaking Union in Chicago that “all means to preserve the peace will fail [unless they are] founded on Anglo-American cooperation.”

Knox’s belief in the importance of U.S. and British relations suggests the motivating principles behind the Knox Fellowship. In a speech he delivered to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, he elaborated on the strong ties between the United States and the U.K.: “Our social, our economic, and our political systems were brought to the new world many years ago as transplantations from the British system. Close personal contacts and a constant exchange of ideas between the American and the British peoples has nourished the sturdy growth of American national life, whose roots lie embedded in British soil.” When Knox died of a heart attack in the spring of 1944, flags were brought to half-mast not only in America but on all British and Canadian vessels as well. His extensive travels as Secretary of the Navy had taken a heavy toll on his normally robust health. “Truly he put his country first,” the president announced to a grieving nation. “We shall greatly miss his ability and friendship.”

Knox had come a long way from his cub-reporting life in Grand Rapids. Yet through it all — whether as soldier, journalist, publisher or government executive — he remained honest, forthright, and committed to high ideals. By the time Knox died, he had attained not only shrewd business sense and political savvy but something far more significant: a global vision.