Frank Knox was a Republican who was asked by a Democratic president to serve his country in a time of danger. Knox was the publisher of the Chicago Daily News starting in 1930. Under his leadership, the newspaper had a conservative and pro-Republican editorial policy.
In 1936, Republican Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas asked Frank Knox to be his running mate as the Vice Presidential nominee against the Democratic ticket of Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York and John Nance Garner of Texas. FDR won in a landslide. Landon and Knox carried only two states, Maine and Vermont.
But in 1940, FDR realized he needed to reach out to Republicans to build bipartisan support for his pro-British foreign policy and the lend-lease program whereby America would let Great Britain borrow surplus American ships to fight Nazi Germany. This was not a neutral policy and FDR knew it and so did the Germans. In a typically astute political move, FDR asked Knox, a nationally prominent Republican, to serve as Secretary of the Navy in his administration and the pro-British Knox agreed. He was on duty on the Sunday of the Pearl Habor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Within days he was on his way to Hawaii on a fact-finding mission.
William Franklin Knox was born in Boston in New Year's Day in 1874. When he was age 7, his family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan where his father ran a grocery store. At age 11, Frank was selling newspapers to help meet family living expenses. Before he finished high school he was supporting himself as a salesman and left the state only to return again when the financial panic of 1893 cost him his job.
He worked his way through Alma College and in his senior year he volunteered for service with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. When the short conflict was over, he came back to Grand Rapids to work as a newspaper reporter. He changed his first name to Frank around 1900 perhaps for a simpler byline.
Frank Knox married his college sweetheart Annie Reid and quickly rose through newspaper ranks to become city editor of The Grand Rapids Herald. He was publisher of the Sault Saint Marie Weekly News and later the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire. he was a progressive and a reformer within the context of early Twentieth Century GOP politics. He was one of those who urged his former commander in Cuba, Col. Teddy Roosevelt, to run for President as the Bull Moose candidate in 1912. Knox like many former Rough Riders signed up to help on the campaign.
Before America entered World War I, Knox was an advocate for preparedness. During World War I, Knox served as an artillery officer in France and rose to the rank of colonel. He got back to the newspaper business very quickly after the Armistice of November 1918 and started to work for Hearst newspapers.
By 1927, Knox was general manager of all 27 daily newspapers then owned by William Randolph Hearst.
In 1930, Knox became publisher and part owner of The Chicago Daily News. But unlike Col. Robert McCormick at the Chicago Tribune, Knox was not an isolationist. He was an internationalist who again editorialized for military preparedness as he had done before the First World War.
When he was nominated by the Republican National Convention for Vice President in 1936, he was the first and only former supporter of Teddy Roosevelt to be named to a Republican ticket. The bitter split in the Republican ranks during 1912 last a long time and many former Bull Moose supporters were not eagerly welcomed back into the GOP fold. One exception to that rule was Sen. Medill Cormick from Illinois who was elected as a Bull Moose to the Illinois General Assembly in 1912 and 1914 and was elected under the new system of direct election as a Republican to the US Senate in 1918.
After the huge loss to FDR and John Nance Garner in 1936, Knox returned to a conservative but still internationalist editorial policy advocating military preparations because he feared Germany under Hitler would not be appeased.
On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was almost 68 years old. But he nevertheless took on a demanding schedule of travel that would have challenged a much younger man. His directive from FDR was to expand the Navy into a two-ocean military force capable of fighting two enemies in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Knox had to deal with Admiral Ernest J. King who was Chief of Naval Operations and who often kept secrets from the civilian leadership and who saw himself in a power struggle with his civilian boss. But Knox was able to prevent King from a power grab to get control over procurement of war supplies. Knox also had to realize the fact that his Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was closer personally and politically to FDR and had a lot of influence, more so than his ostensible boss.
In 1940, Frank Knox had appointed fellow Illinoisan, Adlai E. Stevenson, II as legal counsel, speech writer, and administrator in the office of the Secretary. After the war, Stevenson was later elected governor of Illinois in 1949 and twice ran for president against Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.
When they were in Washington, both Knox and Stevenson and their wives attended war-time receptions and dances for service men and women that were sponsored by the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC. Another famous name standing in the receiving line for several such events with Knox and Stevenson was Col. Ulyses S. Grant, III who was also an active member of the society for many years. He was born in Chicago and was the grandson of President Grant.
Knox flew all over the world in the last two years of his life on military and diplomatic missions. He was in the air 802 hours and covered 141,000 miles in trips to Navy bases in the Pacific, he Carribean, on goodwill missions to South America where Germany had lobbied for support, and to England.
In spite of his globe-trotting travel schedule, when he was in America Knox continued to keep tabs on his ownership interest in The Chicago Daily News and his other business affairs. This might seem strange but Knox never knew when FDR might ask him to retire and even though he was wealthy he still wanted his old business to go back to. But at the age of 70 on April 28, 1944, Frank Knox died in Washington from a heart attack. Some associated speculated that his work load and travel schedule literally killed him.
As was the custom, all American flags on all Navy ships at sea were lowered to half-mast in honor of the Secretary of the Navy, a former Army colonel in the first World War. But something very unusual also happened at the direction of the former First Lord of the British Navy and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. All Union Jacks on all British ships at sea were also lowered to half-staff in honor of Frank Knox at the same time that American ships lowered their flags. All Canadian ships also followed suit. It was a great tribute and mark of respect from allies for Frank Knox who had come from very humble beginnings in Boston.
A few months after the death of Frank Knox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson returned to Chicago to try to buy the Knox ownership interest in the Chicago Daily News. But he was out bid by another investment group.
The USS Frank Knox was named in his honor. His widow Annie Reid Knox also wanted to honor his life long affection for America's British roots. She donated money to establish the Frank Knox Memorial Fellowships at Harvard University to help meet expenses of students from various countries in the British Commonwealth who came to Boston for graduate study.