Union Notables

Robert Porter Patterson    class of 1912


Robert Porter Patterson, Number Twenty-One, Union Worthies, 1966

It is not an exaggeration to say that Robert Porter Patterson was among the most important people responsible for shaping the allied victory in World War II, although his extraordinary modesty never permitted him to claim credit for it. As Under Secretary of War from 1940-1945, he was the person most responsible for mobilizing and organizing America's industrial resources to produce the weapons and equipment with which the war was eventually won by the United States and its allies. When he took office in 1940, America was largely an unarmed country; by the end of the war in 1945, it was producing a greater supply of military goods than were being produced by its enemies and allies combined. Roosevelt had famously promised that America would become the Arsenal of Democracy; it was Patterson, more than anyone else, who presided over the creation of that arsenal.

Born in Glens Falls, NY, Patterson graduated from Union College in 1912 and from Harvard Law School in 1916. A combat veteran of World War I, he fought (among other places) in the furious battle of the Argonne Forest, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star for bravery.

Returning to civilian life, he worked for a decade as a Manhattan attorney until being appointed Judge of the US District Court in Manhattan by President Hoover in 1930. A Republican with reservations about much New Deal legislation, he nevertheless upheld from the bench Congress' right to fight the depression by enacting such legislation. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the Federal Court of Appeals in New York.

As Hitler marched across Europe, Judge Patterson resigned from the Appeals Court and enlisted in the Army, looking once again to share the challenges of combat. Literally while on KP duty in boot camp, he was summoned to Washington by President Roosevelt to fill the high position he was to occupy in the outer cabinet for the duration of the war, serving with John McCloy and Robert Lovett under the legendary Henry Stimson, who was Hoover's Secretary of State and Roosevelt's longest-serving Secretary of War. In this capacity, Patterson was to be in charge of military procurement, constantly in contact with hundreds of managers in America's industrial world, awarding billions of dollars worth of military contracts without a hint of scandal, as America converted the old factories and built the new factories needed to achieve the massive wartime production on which victory in World War II depended.

When Stimson retired at the end of the War, President Truman appointed Patterson to succeed him as Secretary of War (having also offered Patterson an appointment to the Supreme Court). In this post, Patterson presided over the demobilization of a large percentage of the armed forces he had helped build during the War, but also over the reconfiguration of the remaining armed forces to fulfill the evolving missions of the newly-emerging Cold War.

Together with George Marshall, Patterson was the principal architect of the new Department of Defense, created in 1946. He was asked to serve as the first Secretary of Defense, but decided instead to return to civilian life. He became a prominent New York attorney, but was tragically killed in a airplane crash in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1952. In his memory, family and friends established the Robert Porter Patterson Professorship in Government at Union College. One of the "Wise Men" of that generation, good citizenship, rectitude, honesty, and energy characterized his personal and professional values, as attested to by the New York Times editorial on the occasion of his death:

Here was a man of superlatively high standards, complete integrity, and boundless enthusiasm for whatever task he took in hand. No one ... is likely to forget the candor of his speech, the courage of his faith, the warm and glowing brightness of his friendship. ... He fought hard for every cause in which he enlisted, and the causes for which he fought were good and right. -- January 23, 1952.