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Edwin "Pa" Watson

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Title: Edwin "Pa" Watson  
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Subject: Military aides to the president, Interception of the Rex, Douglas MacArthur's escape from the Philippines, Leo Szilard, Secretary to the President of the United States
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Edwin "Pa" Watson

Pa Watson supporting President Roosevelt stand in 1939

Edwin Martin "Pa" Watson (10 December 1883 – 20 February 1945) was a United States Army Major General, friend and a senior aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving both as a military advisor and Appointments secretary (a role that is now encompassed under the duties of the modern-day White House Chief of Staff).[1]

Early life

Edwin M. Watson was born on December 10, 1883 in Eufaula, Alabama. He was raised in Virginia, the son of a businessman in the tobacco industry.[2]

Military Service

He attended the United States Military Academy at Jonathan Wainwright. Watson entered with the Class of 1906 on June 16, 1902, but was discharged for a deficiency in mathematics on April 9, 1903. He was readmitted as a plebe on August 23, 1903, but resigned in the middle of his third class year on December 29, 1904. He re-entered the Academy as a member of the third class in August 1905 and graduated in the Class of 1908.

His classmates gave him the nickname "Pa" for his precociously parental ways and wisdom.

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry.[3]

He served overseas twice, in the Philippines and Mexico, before being transferred back to the United States in 1915. There, he gained his first experience with Presidential service, acting as a junior military aide to President Woodrow Wilson.

Shortly after America’s entry into the First World War in April 1917, Watson requested an active duty assignment with the American Expeditionary Force heading for the front in France. He served there for the remainder of the war, earning the U.S. Army Silver Star and the Croix de Guerre from the French government. He remained in France for the Paris Peace Conference to write the Treaty of Versailles to formally end the First World War. There, he again worked for the adoption of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points to guide the post-war world.

Association with FDR

He would continue this pattern of service until becoming Senior Military Aide to the newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. He helped FDR navigate the bureaucracy of the War Department and the Army, especially during the crucial years prior to America’s entry into the Second World War. He was also appointed the President's Appointments secretary in 1938 after the previous secretary Marvin H. McIntyre's illness prevented him from continuing with his duties,[4] managing access to the President and dictating the tenor of his daily schedule.

Watson lived with his wife, professional pianist Frances Nash Watson, on a Virginia estate called Kenwood. The land, just beyond Monticello, was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and the estate house was designed by FDR's cousin, celebrated architect William A. Delano. Watson and FDR were personally close above and beyond their close professional ties, and FDR adopted Kenwood as his "Camp David" during his presidency and retreated there on several occasions for vacation. The guest cottage was built in 1940-41 for Roosevelt, though he stayed there on only one occasion, preferring the social activity of the main house. On subsequent visits, including four days in June 1944 while awaiting the Normandy invasion, he slept in the front bedroom of the main house. Mrs. Watson later bequeathed Kenwood to the University of Virginia, which in turn has leased the property to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.[5]

Watson and FDR's son James were the ones who enabled Roosevelt to stand and to walk on the occasions when he did. Roosevelt had to wear steel braces. Watson and James, on those occasions would support him on his left arm.[6]

By virtue of his proximity to the President, Watson was present at some of the defining moments of the Second World War. These included FDR’s agreement to the Atlantic Charter alongside British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, providing a framework for those values that would guide the post-war world. He was in constant contact with Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz. He attended the Teheran Conference where the first of the negotiations between FDR, Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin took place. Although in poor health, he attended the Yalta Conference in February 1945 as well, where the Big Three negotiated for the future of Europe. On the return voyage, he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage and died at sea.

General Watson was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery with the President in attendance.[5] The President himself died two months later in April.

The War Department, in recognition of his service, posthumously awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, which was presented by President Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt to his widow Frances Nash Watson.[5]


  • Commemorative Chairs: Edwin Watson
  • No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  1. ^
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  3. ^
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  5. ^ a b c
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Political offices
Preceded by
Marvin H. McIntyre
White House Appointments Secretary
Succeeded by
Matt Connelly
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