Leo Thomas Crowley (August 15, 1889–1972) was a member of the cabinet of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the head of the Foreign Economic Administration. Previously he had served as Alien Property Custodian and as chief of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He also served President Harry Truman but due to philosophical differences, such as the advisability of conscription, declined to continue in Washington.
Leo Crowley was born to Thomas and Katie Crowley in Milton, Wisconsin, immigrants of Irish Catholic origin. His father worked for the Milwaukee Road. Young Leo delivered groceries and saved his tips from customers. In 1905, with $1000 he bought a part of the General Paper Company, some of the products of which he had been bringing to customers. He worked hard to grow the company, and his share in it, until he owned it outright in 1919. That year he took over the T. S. Morris company with financing from Milo Hagen and W.D. Curtis. Selling stock in this company relieved its debt, and he bought a wholesale grocery for his brothers to run, and land in Madison, Wisconsin.
Crowley began his entry into the political arena by supporting Albert G. Schmedeman for governor of Wisconsin. The biographer Weiss says "He managed Schmedeman as a parent might his children, and as he managed his family and most of the nurses at Saint Mary’s Hospital."
Crowley served as a delegate for Al Smith at the Democratic National Convention. He thus came in contact with Jouett Shouse and John J. Raskob, operatives for Al Smith. Progressivism was strong in Wisconsin, as expressed by Senator John J. Blaine and the newspaper Capital Times edited by William T. Evjue. Crowley was effective in bringing about a progressive-democratic alliance for the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
It was the Glass–Steagall Act that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), one of the most popular elements of the New Deal. The biographer Weiss tells of the incredible tale of how the nearly-bankrupt Crowley became the figurehead for banking security in a time of common bank runs.
Crowley's special capacity for smoothing troubled waters drew him closer to FDR. A wartime cabinet-level conflict involving foreign economic operations in Europe and North Africa threatened cabinet solidarity. So Crowley became head of the Foreign Economic Administration in September 1943, with responsibility for Lend-Lease and Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., was promoted to Undersecretary of State. Crowley was now a cabinet member in the Roosevelt administration.
The skeleton in Crowley’s closet was his misappropriation of funds in 1931, early in the Great Depression. Though disguised, his banking misdeeds threatened to undo his place in political diplomacy, for instance years later when Henry Morgenthau, Jr. or Arthur Vandenberg were checking his credentials. His unusually close relations with the President and James F. Byrnes, as well as adroit personal moves, preserved him in office. He had received the Order of Saint Gregory the Great from Pope Pius XI in 1929. He was an early target of I. F. Stone, whose investigations were republished by the Capital Times in Madison.
Back in the business world, Crowley was named chairman of the Milwaukee Road in December 1945 and made it turn a profit until the mid-1960s. He continued contact with the White House: President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Crowley to the United States Commission on Civil Rights in his second term, and he was known to have dined with Lyndon Johnson. He died in 1972.
Very negatively for Crowley in 1955, Harry Truman wrote about how Crowley had caused a problem with the Russians when Germany was defeated. The episode was recounted by daughter Margaret Truman in 1973. She adds:
- …the real lesson was one that he hesitated to state in his memoirs – the extreme hostility which certain men in government, such as Mr. Crowley, felt toward Russia. It did not make my father’s task any easier, to find the middle path between these men and the Henry Wallace types, who could not believe the Russians were capable of any wrongdoing.
- Hannan, Caryn (2008). Wisconsin Biographical Dictionary. North American Book Dist LLC.
- Stuart L. Weiss (1996) The President’s Man: Leo Crowley and Franklin Roosevelt in Peace and War, page 7, Southern Illinois University Press ISBN 0809319969
- Margaret Truman (1973) Harry S. Truman, Wm. Morrow & Company (p. 255)
- Laurence C. Eklund (1969) Advisor to Presidents, The Milwaukee Journal, August 17–27 (ten articles).
- "Leo the Lion", Time Magazine (23 March 1942) (Personal sketch of Crowley).
- "Leo Crowley's Aniline" Time Magazine (26 April 1943) (Crowley and synthetic mica).
- John. W. Jeffreys (1998) "One of FDR's Forgotten Men" Humanities and Social Sciences Net-Online.
- Truman Presidential Library: Photograph in Truman Cabinet, (7th from Left).