Biography and History

Howard C. Petersen (1910-1995) was an expert in international economics and foreign trade. He served in the War Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of War for President Harry S. Truman, as National Finance Chairman and fundraiser for the Dwight D. Eisenhower campaigns, and as Special Assistant on International Trade for President John F. Kennedy. Petersen was also a principal drafter of the Selective Service Act, a lawyer, and president of Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company.

Howard Charles Petersen was born in East Chicago, Indiana on May 7, 1910. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1930 from DePauw University and a law degree (J.D.) with distinction in 1933 from the University of Michigan. He also received honorary degrees from DePauw University in 1953, Drexel Institute at St. Joseph's College in 1962, Swarthmore College in 1968, and the University of Pennsylvania in 1974. Petersen married Elizabeth Anna Watts of Princeton, Indiana in 1936, whom he met while he was a student at DePauw University. They had two children, Elizabeth Spiro Clark and Howard Jr.

From 1933 to 1941, Petersen was an associate in the New York law firm Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine & Wood. He worked predominantly on general corporation, financial, and public utility law, specializing in utility bond issues. He was also involved with the first security filings done by the firm under the new Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations. While at the law firm, Petersen was introduced to Grenville Clark. Clark enlisted Petersen to leave the practice of law and become a member of the National Emergency Committee of the Military Training Camps Association. The Military Training Camps Association was formed during World War I by Clark and Elihu Root to train officers for the United States Military. The National Emergency Committee of the association was formed in 1941 with Grenville Clark as chair. As a key member of the committee, Petersen was one of the principal drafters of the Burke-Wadsworth Bill, which became the Selective Service Act of 1940. He then served as counsel of the committee appointed by President Roosevelt to draft the initial regulations for the Selective Service.

Petersen was hired as the special assistant and then executive assistant to the Undersecretary of War, Robert P. Patterson, from 1941 to 1945. He was promoted to Special Assistant to the Secretary of War, also under Robert P. Patterson, in 1945. In December 1945, Petersen was appointed Assistant Secretary of War by President Truman, a position he held until August 1947. His worked on the economic recovery of occupied Germany and the Western Allies and supervised United States military occupational activities in Germany, Japan, Korea, Austria, and Italy, traveling overseas several times to carry out his duties. One of his significant contributions was to help prevent famine in Europe by laying the groundwork for the Marshall Plan. He also served as the War Department’s chief representative at the State Department on political policy and the War Department's member on the State-War-Navy Coordination Committee. Petersen was awarded the Medal of Merit, Exceptional Civilian Service Award, and the Selective Service Medal for his service. He resigned his post for financial reasons.

Petersen returned to private sector work as Executive Vice President and Director of Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company, later renamed The Fidelity Bank. He was elected President and Chief Executive Officer in 1950. Through his leadership, Petersen transformed a mid-sized Philadelphia trust company into a modern full-service bank within the national and international financial communities. He was also involved in the banking industry as a whole, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Bankers Association and filling key roles in the American Bankers Association and the International Monetary Conference.

He retained his position at Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company while also serving Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. From 1951 to 1953, Petersen served as the National Finance Chairman for the 1952 Eisenhower presidential campaign and as Chairman of the Finance Committee for the Citizens for Eisenhower. In 1954, he was a member of the Finance Committee of the National Citizens for Eisenhower Congressional Committee, and he assisted in fundraising for the Eisenhower campaign in 1956, but not in an official capacity. Petersen served as Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy for International Trade Policy from 1961 to 1962. He was appointed to manage Kennedy's controversial campaign for a new foreign trade policy. His main task was to assist with the passage of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, and he also negotiated the conclusion of the 1960-1962 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations with the European Economic Community. Petersen resigned after the Trade Expansion Act was passed.

He was elected Chairman of Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company in 1966. In 1969, he became the Chairman and CEO of Fidelity Corporation of Pennsylvania, later renamed Fidelcor Inc. He retired as CEO of Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company and Fidelity Corporation in 1975 but continued as Chairman of both institutions. He resumed his responsibilities as President and CEO on an interim basis in 1978, and retired December 31, 1978.

In addition, Petersen served as a member, director, or chairman of a wide variety of institutions, including financial, political, legal, education, and social organizations. These positions included chairman of the Adela Investment Company, a corporation for the development of Latin America, an officer for the Committee for Economic Development, Director of the Panama Canal Corporation, and a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Petersen was chairman of the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the Marshall Foundation, and chairman and advisory committee member of Export-Import Bank of Washington.

Howard Petersen died in 1995 at his home in Radnor, Pennsylvania, at the age of 85.

Source: From the finding aid for MC196

  • Howard C. Petersen Papers. 1915-1995 (inclusive), 1935-1970 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC196

    Howard C. Petersen (1910-1995) was an expert in international economics and foreign trade. He served in the War Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of War for President Harry S. Truman, as National Finance Chairman and fundraiser for the Dwight D. Eisenhower campaigns, and as Special Assistant on International Trade for President John F. Kennedy. Petersen was also a principal drafter of the Selective Service Act, a lawyer, and president of Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company. Petersen's papers document his entire career, especially his work with the new Security and Exchange Commission regulations as a lawyer in the 1930s and with the United States War Department during World War II, and include correspondence, articles, and publications.

  • Howard C. Petersen Papers. 1915-1995 (inclusive), 1935-1970 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC196

    Howard C. Petersen (1910-1995) was an expert in international economics and foreign trade. He served in the War Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of War for President Harry S. Truman, as National Finance Chairman and fundraiser for the Dwight D. Eisenhower campaigns, and as Special Assistant on International Trade for President John F. Kennedy. Petersen was also a principal drafter of the Selective Service Act, a lawyer, and president of Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company. Petersen's papers document his entire career, especially his work with the new Security and Exchange Commission regulations as a lawyer in the 1930s and with the United States War Department during World War II, and include correspondence, articles, and publications.