“The two-party system, with one group always in opposition to the other and seeking to take control of the government from it, [is] the best safeguard of honest and able government… Under our system there must be sacrifices for the greater good. Those who refuse to make the sacrifices simply help [to] drag us away from party government, from the orderly expression of the popular will, to the utterly chaotic conditions which would prevail.”

Jesse H. Jones, July 27, 1928

“It is certainly not to the best interest of our country that control of the wealth, industry, and credit be concentrated in a few hands. This is so fundamental as not to be open to argument… If we ever have serious social disturbance, it will be due to this. The distance between the palace and the hovel is too great—the mountain too high to climb.”

Jesse H. Jones, November 23, 1936

jesse jones

With a democratic government we can have equal opportunities for all classes of people, and all kinds of businesses, if we will but unite for that purpose. Jesse H. Jones, April 9, 1928

Jesse Jones (left to right) Jesse Jones, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, Joseph Tumulty, and President Woodrow Wilson marching down Fifth Avenue during the immense American Red Cross fundraising parade on May 18, 1918.
Courtesy Campbell Photo Service.
(left to right) Edith Wilson, Mary Gibbs Jones, and Jesse Jones.
Courtesy Northmore—Detroit Times.
Jesse Jones and Will Rogers. Jesse Jones (front row, second from left) and President Herbert Hoover (center), 1932.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Jesse Jones, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt and then Senator Cordell Hull of Tennessee. In a rare instance, Roosevelt's leg braces are visible in the picure. Courtesy Corbis. (left to right) Mariette Garner, Vice President John Nance Garner, the Joneses, and Edith Wilson celebrate Jesse Jones's sixty-third birthday. Howard Hughes and Jesse Jones leave the State Department building on July 21, 1938, after Hughes met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull to thank him for the State Department's assistance with his record-breaking around-the-world flight. Courtesy Corbis. Jesse Jones is sworn in as Secretary of Commerce on September 19, 1940, by Associate Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, who was formerly the RFC's general counsel. Courtesy Corbis. A 1941 Fortune magazine cover story featured Jesse Jones as an omnipotent deity.
Courtesy Fortune, PARS International.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, Eastern Airlines president and a celebrated World War I pilot, shakes hands with Orville Wright at the 1943 dinner arranged by Jesse Jones to honor the fortieth anniversary of the first Wright Brothers' flight, and to announce the return of the Kitty Hawk from England. Courtesy AP/Wide World. Susan Vaughn Clayton and Mary Gibbs Jones, who sold war bonds from a desk in the RFC building's lobby, sell bonds to their husbands, Will Clayton (left) and Jesse Jones. President Harry Truman and Jesse Jones. Courtesy AP/Wide World. President Dwight Eisenhower, Mary Gibbs Jones, Mamie Eisenhower and Jesse Jones. (left to right) Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado, Jesse Jones, and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Courtesy Houston Chronicle.

During the Great Depression, Jesse Jones and the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation salvaged the nation’s financial system, saved thousands of farms, homes, banks and businesses, and developed the country’s infrastructure, from bridges, tunnels and aqueducts to the latest in high-speed trains. Jones declared in 1940, “There is no line of business that we have not aided, and probably every man, woman, and child in the United States has benefited from RFC operations.” Remarkably, Jones and the RFC did all of this and also made a substantial profit for the United States government, a feat worthy of examination today. Then they turned their attention to global defense.

Acutely aware of events overseas, the RFC began financing and orchestrating the militarization and expansion of industry eighteen months before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, ramping up production in time for the Allied Forces to fight and win World War II. Jones and the RFC showed that business, government, management, labor and academia can cooperate and quickly build entire industries to benefit the common good, nurture private enterprise and overcome dependence on other nations for vital resources. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once explained, “Jesse Jones controlled an unlicensed flow of money where you could borrow and spend… for all the war purposes… It was an authority, a power I suppose in practical terms, second only to the president… He was the conduit, the great canal, between the financial world and the war needs.” LIFE magazine simply reported about Jones in 1942, “It is his job to finance the industrial plant expansion for waging war.”

In one shining example, while Congress and the public dithered over intervening in the war, Jones and the RFC developed synthetic rubber from scratch, advancing to mass production in less than two years, right before the Japanese took over the supply of natural rubber in the Pacific. Without the government initiative under Jones’s management, the Allied forces would have been dramatically disadvantaged. The president of General Tire and Rubber said in 1943, “While all the bickering… was raging, Mr. Jones was quietly sawing wood. His synthetic [rubber] program was taking shape… It was not a job that could be done overnight.” He added, “This is not just another in the long list of important contributions which Jesse Jones made… It may mean the difference between winning and losing the war.”

Next to President Roosevelt, Jesse Jones was considered to be the most powerful person in the nation throughout the Great Depression and World War II. Largely forgotten today, he helped define Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency as one that in many instances provided positive, profound and enduring results for the nation in a financially astute and responsible manner. Both men were pivotal, heroic and successful in their efforts to preserve capitalism and democracy during two of the most tumultuous and dangerous periods in United States history, and their accomplishments and methods deserve attention today.

Despite their singular record, neither claimed perfection. Jones said in 1934, “No one claims that the Roosevelt administration has proceeded without error. The president himself does not claim that, but the mistakes have been far outweighed by the successful steps. Of greater importance is the fact that everything that has been done has been actuated by one motive—the welfare of the people as a whole.”

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