Woodcock was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1911, the son of Ernest Woodcock and Margaret Freel. At the outbreak of World War I, the family was living in Germany and Ernest was interned. While Leonard had been born in the United States, his parents were British and mother and son returned to the UK for the duration of the war. The family was eventually reunited and sought a new life in North America. They originally settled in Canada, relocating south of the border a few years later, to Detroit, Michigan.
The United Auto Workers
The pressures of the Great Depression led Woodcock to drop out of Detroit City College in 1933. He found work as a machine assembler in Detroit, and both he and his father became involved in the union movement. Woodcock became International Vice President in 1955 and in 1970 he succeeded Walter Reuther as UAW president, after Reuther's tragic death in a plane crash.
Woodcock was an active participant in the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King and adding his voice and political clout to the cause. He was a champion of both minority and women's rights, pushing for comprehensive non-discrimination rules and introducing the first union-wide contracted maternity leave in the US.
It was during his time at the helm of the UAW that Woodcock appeared on Nixon's enemies list at #9, with the annotation "No comments necessary".
In 1977, Woodcock retired from the union and was named by President Jimmy Carter as head of the United States Liaison Office in Beijing which, in the absence of full diplomatic relations, served as the de facto U.S. embassy in the People's Republic of China. During this same period, Woodcock was charged with leading a special delegation to Laos and Vietnam in search of POW and MIA American soldiers.
After leading negotiations to establish full diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1979, Woodcock was appointed the first United States ambassador to the PRC, and the first ambassador to mainland China since 1949, when Leighton Stuart served as ambassador to the Republic of China.
Though some questioned appointing a labor leader to head such a delicate a diplomatic mission, Carter insisted that he needed a negotiator. A Doonsbury cartoon at the time read, "If he can take on the Big Three, he can handle the Gang of Four."
In a 2000 speech at the White House to celebrate 20 years of Most Favored Nation status, former President Carter said of the time:
''One of the choices I had to make was whom to send to China to begin the secret negotiations with Deng Xiaoping; he was the unquestioned ruler of the nation. And I chose a man who was the senior statesman of the American labor movement, Leonard Woodcock—respected by, I guess, every working man and woman who was a member of a union or not in this country, and he was also respected by all those who had dealt with him from the management side. And he was my personal representative in Beijing.
Leonard Woodcock, working directly with me from the White House, negotiated successfully the terms for normalization of diplomatic relations. And on the first day of January, 1979, we formed those relationships. That year, Leonard Woodcock, still highly conversant with, and whose heart was attuned to, the labor movement of America, negotiated the first trade agreement, Most Favored Nations agreement, with China, in 1979. And now for 20 years, each year the Congress has confirmed his decision, and mine.''
Woodcock married Loula Martin, with whom he had three children, in 1941. He remarried in 1978, to Sharon Tuohy, a nurse working with the American delegation in China. He later taught political science at the University of Michigan, living in Ann Arbor with Sharon until his death on January 16, 2001.
Woodcock had three children, Leslie Woodcock Tentler (professor of history), Janet Woodcock (photographer) and John Woodcock (ret. Lt Col, USAF); a son-in-law and two daughters-in-law (Thomas Tentler, professor of history, married to Leslie; Carol Collins, framer, partner of Janet; and Susan, married to John); three grandchildren (Sarah Tentler, speechwriter and political advisor; Gregory Tentler, art historian; and Daniel Tentler, lawyer); and a godson, Daniel Miller.
- "Woodcock, Leonard Freel." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.
Douglas A. Fraser
|United States Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China
Arthur W. Hummel, Jr.