Leonard Woodcock was born in Providence, Rhode Island on February 15, 1911. He was the son of English immigrants Ernest and Mary (Freel) Woodcock. In 1914, the Woodcock family was living in Germany, where Ernest, a skilled tool and die maker, was installing machinery for an American firm. That year, World War I began. Ernest was interned in Germany for the duration of the war while Leonard and his mother were repatriated to England. The family was reunited in England in 1918. Leonard's parents immigrated to Detroit in 1925 and Leonard joined them the next year. After completing his primary education in England, Leonard then attended classes at the College of the City of Detroit in the early 1930s.
He was the President of the United Auto Workers (UAW), the largest industrial workers's union in North America, from 1970 to 1977, Woodcock is credited with winning substantial gains for automobile workers in the United States. He was also instrumental in establishing normalized diplomatic relations between the United States and China, first as an envoy appointed by U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and then as the United States's first ambassador to China from 1979 to 1981.
In his envoy post, Woodcock was directly responsible for the agreement with the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, which resulted in the United States formerly recognizing the People's Republic of China. Accordingly, it was only natural that Woodcock become the first United States ambassador to China when relations between the two countries were normalized on January 1, 1979.
It was during tenure as ambassador to China that Woodcock met and married his second wife, Sharon Tuohy, who worked as a nurse at the American embassy in China. Woodcock's first wife was Lola A. Martin, whom he had married in 1941, and subsequently divorced.
With the election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1980, Woodcock left his post as ambassador to China, settling in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to teach political science at the University of Michigan.
Woodcock was later able to make use of his experience in the auto industry and as a diplomat to help establish agreements with China in which that country would import American automobiles and trucks, lifting a ban that had stood for several years.
Woodcock was 89 years old when he died. He is survived by his second wife and three children from his first marriage: John Robert Woodcock, Janet Kathleen Woodcock, and Leslie Catherine Woodcock Tentler, as well as a sister, Joyce McCormick, and three grandchildren.