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With public support rising for a living-waged Green New Deal as a job creating and environmental lifeline, its a good time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of FDR's program. The review of his recent biography does that.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

A Political Life

Robert Dallek

Penguin Random House

ISBN-13: 978-0525427902

FDR – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – brought an extraordinarily effective style of leadership to the crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War: a combination of charm and exuberance that inspired millions of Americans with hope in grim times and allowed him to pursue skilful diplomatic relationships with Churchill and Stalin. His New Deal created an American version of the welfare state – a remarkable achievement in a country committed (at least rhetorically) to rugged individualism. Yet congressional opposition and his own indifference to Keynesian ideas prevented him from finding sustained solutions to economic problems, while the fascist threat abroad eventually demanded that ‘Dr New Deal’ give way to ‘Dr Win-the-War’. Mass mobilisation for war put people back to work – a kind of military Keynesianism that became the American norm – but war also created the foundations of the national security state, and the Cold War accelerated its growth into a behemoth that all FDR’s successors had to learn to live with. The welfare state became the warfare state – an outcome Roosevelt neither foresaw nor desired.

Robert Dallek is troubled by the absence of leadership in contemporary American politics, and his biography of FDR is meant to show us what the real thing looks like. ‘In this time of demoralisation,’ he writes, ‘it seems well to remind Americans that the system has been capable of generating candidates for high office whose commitment to the national interest exceeded their flaws and ambitions.’ Yet he doesn’t answer the questions he raises here: how does ‘the system’ (rather than the accidents of history) generate leaders? How do leaders define the national interest? How do citizens distinguish leadership from demagoguery? Dallek shies away from the ambiguities and resorts to conventional wisdom. His list of leaders includes Harry Truman and John Kennedy – two presidents who risked war by exacerbating tensions with the Soviet Union. Dallek views FDR from the perspective of a mid-century liberal who has apparently made his peace with the warfare state.

As Dallek sees him, FDR, like his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, was an ‘instinctively brilliant politician’ who consulted opinion polls but ‘principally relied on his feel for the public mood’. Descendants of the New York Anglo-Dutch elite, both men got along fine with ordinary voters despite their sense of their own superiority. But Franklin in particular possessed what Dallek calls a ‘capacity to charm people he wished to befriend whatever his real feelings about them’ – a combination of geniality and duplicity that served him well both in private and in public.

He courted his future bride, Eleanor Hall Roosevelt (Theodore’s niece), in secret, intending to present his possessive and suspicious mother with a fait accompli – an engagement. This portended his MO in politics: ‘Never let the left hand know what the right is doing.’ As editor of the Harvard Crimson, he established a reputation for what a classmate called ‘frictionless command’. Theodore’s command was rarely frictionless.

Yet Teddy, the Republican Roosevelt, exercised a profound influence on his Democratic cousin. When FDR was at Groton, ‘Cousin Theodore’ came to visit, and scored a big hit with the students, who embraced Teddy’s strenuous life as the ‘model’, in Dallek’s words, ‘for how every schoolboy should behave’. It was no accident that FDR’s favourite charity was the Boy Scouts. Like Teddy, the young FDR pursued an ideal of virility through vigorous action, and as an aspiring politician styled himself ‘an aristocrat at odds with the bosses’ as well as an enemy of those who cared only for money. A sense of noblesse oblige underlay both Roosevelts’ commitment to what was increasingly being called ‘Progressive reform’.

By 1910, Franklin was a handsome and dashing Democratic state senator who aimed to emulate his cousin’s rapid ascent to the presidency. In a speech that year at Troy in New York State, FDR announced a ‘new theory’ of politics, one that would enhance ‘the liberty of the community’ rather than simply protect the liberty of the individual. The anodyne language concealed his growing distrust of free market mythology. Dallek reports him as saying that ‘everything he learned about economics at Harvard was wrong.’ Like many of his contemporaries in the 1910s, FDR slowly came to accept the Progressive view that government could restrain private gain in the service of public good.

FDR’s Progressive inheritance was most marked in his views on foreign policy. He melded Teddy’s perspective with that of Woodrow Wilson, who despite the antagonism between the two men, shared the older Roosevelt’s commitment to military intervention abroad, provided it could be cloaked in robes of righteousness. After Wilson’s election in 1912, FDR managed to get himself appointed assistant secretary of the navy – a post Theodore had held 14 years earlier. Like Teddy, FDR was a devotee of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose treatise The Influence of Sea Power upon History became the bible of Americans seeking a place at the imperial table. Like Wilson, FDR supported intervention in the war, seeing it as an extension of ‘democratic values’ abroad, while at the same time supporting the curtailment of these values at home through the suppression of wartime dissent. He was rewarded for his loyalty with the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1920. Engulfed by a Republican landslide, he had nevertheless shown himself to be a young man to watch.

In August 1921 polio felled him. Before he fell ill, though exhausted by the demands of the navy department, he had thrown himself into non-stop action at Campobello, his country estate: fighting forest fires, running across the island – it was three miles wide – and falling into water so cold it left him numb for hours. The overall effect, Dallek suggests, may have been to compromise his immune system, rendering him more susceptible to the polio virus. Polio rarely had serious consequences for adults, but it devastated FDR.

Eleanor, who had discovered Franklin’s affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer, remained committed to his success in public life – unlike his mother, who wanted him to retire and live the life of a country gent. Eleanor knew that public engagement was the key to FDR’s well-being. Struggling to build upper-body strength through a strenuous programme of swimming, weightlifting and physiotherapy, Roosevelt agreed with his chief political adviser, Louis Howe, that he must maintain a façade of physical vitality to ensure electoral success. He wasted no time in rejoining the political fray and dragged himself to the 1924 Democratic Convention – ‘an invalid on crutches, perhaps in pain, who conquered the frailties of body by sheer power of will’, as one newspaper commentator wrote. It was a public relations triumph. His genius, as he resumed his pursuit of the presidency, lay in masking grim determination with a display of ease and confidence. The economic collapse of the early 1930s presented him with the perfect opportunity to deploy this tactic. No personal style could have been more appealing to Americans than FDR’s buoyancy, as they felt the bottom drop out of their lives and their security vanish. His ebullience ensured his easy victory over the dour incumbent, Herbert Hoover.

During the four months between Roosevelt’s election and his inauguration, the economic outlook darkened relentlessly. The president-elect concealed his private doubts and anxieties, saying ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ to everyone who called on him, from the radical Huey Long of Louisiana to the conservative Joe Robinson of Arkansas. ‘Orson, you and I are the two greatest actors in America,’ he told Orson Welles.

FDR’s acting talents were very soon challenged by events. The sense of paralysis that gripped the Hoover administration during its last days had spread to the country as a whole: banks failed by the dozen, downtowns were deserted, an ominous silence descended. The dominant mood, as Roosevelt and his speechwriters sensed, was fear. Hence the famous line in FDR’s inaugural address, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ written by the self-help guru Napoleon Hill, author of the 1937 runaway bestseller, Think and Grow Rich.

The president knew how to carry out Hill’s positive-thinking agenda. His first official act was a masterstroke of spin: he closed the banks to prevent them failing and called it a ‘bank holiday’. By the time the ‘holiday’ was over, he had held his first press conference, secured a bank bailout from Congress, and broadcast the first of his Sunday evening ‘fireside chats’. When the banks reopened, depositors started putting their money back in them. In those days, before capital had become thoroughly globalised, it was possible, though only just, to save the US banking system by restoring domestic confidence. But FDR’s campaign pledge, his promised ‘new deal for the American people’, was yet to be tested.

Though most newspaper publishers were Republicans, the press reinforced FDR’s upbeat self-presentation. Early cartoons represented him coming to the rescue of a society in distress – there was no hint of the president’s disability. When he gave his first fireside chat, the newspapers’ response was overwhelmingly positive. As one reporter said, ‘if he burned down the Capitol we would cheer and say: “Well, we at least got a fire started.”’ He compared himself to a quarterback calling plays at the line of scrimmage, committed to ‘bold, persistent experimentation’. Better to try something – anything – than do nothing.

The experimental spirit informed his brains trust of advisers, most of them from academic life; they included corporatist conservatives (Raymond Moley), anti-monopolists (Adolf Berle), economic planners (Rexford Tugwell) and social-welfare liberals (Harry Hopkins). This was the heterogeneous group that lay behind the American version of the welfare state. A flurry of legislation followed; dams and highways were built; electricity was brought to remote rural areas; there was regulation of finance capital; people were put to work maintaining parks and schools as well as writing local histories and compiling navigation tables. This was the New Deal: it sometimes targeted specific interest groups – farmers in need of price supports, for example – but its major achievements addressed needs that most Americans shared in common. The most important achievement was probably the Social Security Act, which created a nationwide pension system for elderly, disabled and dependent populations (including children), acknowledging that there were some stages and conditions of life when individual striving was inadequate.

Still, suspicion of government handouts remained strong. Social security acquired legitimacy by depending largely on employees’ own contributions, and FDR himself remained ambivalent about the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which oversaw direct assistance to the indigent, insisting it could only be a temporary expedient to relieve suffering. Like most Americans, Roosevelt believed that work (especially for male breadwinners) was a path to independence and self-respect, while government relief was ‘a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit’, as he put it. ‘Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.’ This was the reason most New Deal relief programmes came in the form of government job programmes.

The New Deal’s most flagrant limitation was racial. The historian Ira Katznelson aptly entitled his study of the 1930s and 1940s When Affirmative Action Was White. Roosevelt depended heavily on Democratic support in Congress from the Jim Crow South. Much New Deal largesse was administered at the state level by lily-white legislatures, or written in ways that left out many people of colour. The Social Security Act, for example, specifically excluded maids and farmworkers.

The most subtle obstacle to the success of New Deal policies was FDR’s ignorance of economic theory. He clung to the conventional nostrum of the balanced budget, which left him largely unresponsive to Keynesian ideas. ‘I saw your friend Keynes,’ he wrote to his secretary of labour, Frances Perkins, in May 1934: ‘He left a whole rigmarole of figures. He must be a mathematician rather than a political economist.’ Keynes was equally unimpressed; he told Perkins that he had ‘supposed the president was more literate, economically’. Keynes stressed the importance of raising purchasing power through government expenditure financed by loans. Raising taxes to decrease the deficit, he argued, would be precisely the wrong thing to do in the depths of an economic downturn: it would reduce purchasing power at the very moment aggregate demand needed stimulating. Deficit financing could ultimately pay for itself by putting people back to work and getting more money in circulation. ‘That is why a war has always caused intense industrial activity,’ Keynes said, noting that Hitler’s rearmament programme was already pushing Germany towards prosperity.

Why not achieve the same result through peaceful public works? Roosevelt wasn’t buying it, any more than Congress would have. He had next to no faith in deficit spending and was convinced, with some justification, that banks were already involved in ‘passive resistance’ to government borrowing. The Keynesian remedy for the Great Depression would await war mobilisation at the end of the decade. And military Keynesianism would always remain more popular – at least in the US Congress – than the civilian alternative.

The success of Roosevelt’s leadership in the 1930s had nothing to do with solving intractable economic problems: it came from his ability to inspire people to believe that he had their best interests at heart. He repeatedly committed himself to ‘the right of the average man and woman to lead a finer, a better and a happier life’. What would bring this about remained an open question. He was more interested in creating jobs and raising wage scales than in collective bargaining and union organising (though he signed the Wagner Act that guaranteed those rights); his ‘share the wealth tax’ bill of 1935 was more symbol than substance, a gesture intended to calm the challenge posed from the left by Long. Still, he was a working-class hero – ‘the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a sonofabitch’, as one respondent told a pollster.

FDR’s attacks on the bosses peaked in the 1936 presidential campaign. In Madison Square Garden on 31 October, he inveighed against ‘economic royalists’. ‘They are unanimous in their hate for me,’ he said, ‘and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my administration, that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.’ The crowd was going crazy, but FDR’s voice rose above the din to reach his conclusion: ‘I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.’ The applause washed over Roosevelt (according to the New York Times) in a series of ‘roars, which rose and fell like the sound of waves pounding in the surf’. It was the rhetorical high point of American populism – the genuine article, as opposed to the contemporary right-wing counterfeit.

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Roosevelt’s populist impulses were thwarted during his second term, first by a resurgent coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, then by dangerous events abroad. As foreign affairs take centre stage, Dallek retreats to his safest and most conventional formulations. He appears to believe that there was a coherent ideology of ‘isolationism’, promoted by provincial bumpkins who had ‘never travelled outside of the United States’, who cultivated indifference to foreign conflicts, and who perversely refused to grant the president the autonomy he needed to conduct an effective foreign policy. Dallek doesn’t seem to realise that, after the failure of Wilson’s attempt to justify their personal sacrifice in taking part in the First World War, Americans might have reason to question their elites’ plans to engage in idealistic overseas adventures. Nor, after the revelations of the Nye Committee, charged with investigating collusion between bankers and munitions-makers in the run-up to that war, does he take into account the possibility that Americans might have reason to suspect that the idealism of the interventionists might be mixed with less pure motives.

Dallek’s perspective has been the official line on the 1930s for more than sixty years. It deserves a closer and more genuinely historical look. ‘Isolationism’ was never a unified or consistent ideology; nor was it promoted merely out of ignorance of foreign affairs or sympathy for fascism. By the end of the decade, some critics of overseas intervention – Charles Lindbergh most notoriously – had become apologists for Axis governments. But others – the historian Charles Beard, for example, and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio – maintained a principled critique based on pragmatic, historical and constitutional grounds. Dallek overlooks this complexity. For him it is simply Roosevelt the far-sighted interventionist against the ostrich-like isolationists in Congress and the public at large.

Roosevelt correctly sensed the dangers posed by the rise of fascism, Germany’s rearmament and the resurgence of an arms race in Europe. But, at least in the early stages of the European crisis, there were ways to meet those threats that didn’t involve armed intervention. FDR wanted to use economic and diplomatic support to help countries that had been attacked without provocation, as Ethiopia had been by Italy in 1936. But in the mid-1930s, he still believed the US could play a mainly exemplary role, as a beacon of democracy rather than an interventionist in support of it. Still he could not quite suppress his own missionary impulse, asserting privately that the governments of Europe ‘are looking to this country as the saviour of the world’.

Through 1937, Dallek writes, Congress still ‘resisted his resumption of full control over foreign affairs’, as if a concern for the constitutional separation of powers amounted to nothing more than a fit of isolationist pique. By the time he gave his State of the Union address in January 1938, Roosevelt knew that raising the spectre of foreign attack and urging military preparedness were more effective than making vague universalist appeals to save democracy across the globe.

For the next year and a half, Roosevelt inched towards war while Britain and France tried to appease Hitler’s appetite for territory. When Hitler seized Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Britain and France admitted that Appeasement had failed. Roosevelt appealed publicly to Hitler and Mussolini for ‘peaceful dealings in international relations’. As Dallek writes, FDR ‘felt as if he had inherited the challenge Woodrow Wilson had taken on earlier in the century of making the world safe for democracy’. When eventually Hitler invaded Poland and the Second World War began, Roosevelt said he had ‘a strange feeling of familiarity – a feeling that I had been through it all before’. He had and he hadn’t.

FDR’s case for military preparedness echoed his cousin’s in 1916, but it was stronger. In 1940, the US military was pathetically unprepared for combat. Army exercises in Louisiana and upstate New York, lacking actual tanks, used milk trucks with cardboard signs on their windshields saying ‘TANK’. The US army looked like ‘a few nice boys with BB guns’, Time magazine reported. FDR was able to make the case for building up the military budget, as well as for cash and carry sales of arms to the Allied belligerents, the open-ended loans to the UK known as Lend-Lease, and eventually the exchange of US destroyers for British military bases.

In the election campaign of 1940 against the interventionist Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt continued to insist that he would not lead the country into war, most dramatically in a speech at Boston Garden in October 1940. ‘I knew we were going to war,’ he later admitted to his son James, but he had to delay till there was no way out of it. Willkie was furious: ‘That hypocritical son of a bitch,’ he said. ‘This is going to beat me.’ He was right; Roosevelt won his third term, as Wilson had won his second, by posing as the peace candidate.

FDR repeatedly resorted to deception to pull the country towards war. He claimed to have documents showing German plans to seize Central and South American republics and turn them into vassal states, yet, as Dallek observes, ‘no such German documents actually existed.’ In September 1941, Dallek writes, Roosevelt ‘falsely asserted that the [US destroyer] Greer had been the victim of an unprovoked U-boat attack’: in fact, the Greer had been tracking the U-boat for a British patrol plane off Iceland. In another incident, the destroyer Kearny was torpedoed by a German U-boat: support for Lend-Lease soared. What Dallek doesn’t say is that the Kearny was convoying British merchant ships and had already dropped depth charges on the U-boats. No wonder Taft feared that Roosevelt was seeking excuses ‘to prowl the ocean in quest of offensive warfare’. As early as the autumn of 1941, the standard operating procedures of the national security state were beginning to take shape.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war made further deception unnecessary. The alliance between the US and Britain, based on ‘certain principles relating to the civilisation of the world’ announced by Roosevelt and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, could finally be mobilised against fascism. The only problem was that the third ally, the Soviet Union, didn’t share Anglo-American assumptions about world civilisation. FDR characteristically thought he could dissolve Stalin’s distrust with his charm. ‘Stalin hates the guts of all your top people,’ he wrote to Churchill in March 1942. ‘He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.’ The big point of disagreement was where and when to open a second front. Stalin wanted a cross-Channel invasion, the sooner the better; neither Roosevelt nor Churchill was ready. In autumn 1942, Roosevelt agreed with Churchill to back Operation Torch in North Africa and to delay an assault on France, but he took care to phrase all communications to Stalin so ‘as to leave a good taste in his mouth’. As he told Churchill, ‘I am not unduly concerned about our respective responses or lack of responses from Moscow … I have decided they do not use speech for the same purposes that we do.’

Even when Operation Torch appeared to be succeeding, Churchill and Roosevelt remained unwilling to cross the Channel. Stalin, suspicious of their delay, refused to allow American air bases on Russian soil. When Churchill and Roosevelt announced the doctrine of unconditional surrender at Casablanca in January 1943, they meant to reassure Stalin of their good intentions: there would be no negotiated settlement with Hitler. When FDR returned from Casablanca, Dallek writes, ‘news of a German surrender at Stalingrad brightened hopes for Allied victory in the war, though this was soon followed by the report of an American defeat in a tank battle at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.’ This is a remarkably quick dismissal of the significance of the Battle of Stalingrad, and an incongruous pairing of it with a peripheral engagement in North Africa. The Red Army had reversed the relentless advance of the Wehrmacht and demolished the myth of its invincibility. This might well have been a turning point – the turning point – in the European war, and was understood as such by anyone paying attention at the time, from Allied soldiers anxiously awaiting deployment overseas to Hitler himself. He sensed the end was coming.

Even so, the Anglo-Americans and the Soviets continued to fear a separate peace. FDR, meanwhile, was hatching plans to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan after Germany’s defeat. He remained confident of his ability to charm Stalin, even while Soviet victories over the Germans made it more possible than ever for Stalin to threaten a negotiated settlement with Hitler. D-Day finally cleared the atmosphere of a great deal of mutual suspicion. ‘History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order,’ Stalin announced.

The big questions now involved the shape of the postwar world. Roosevelt envisioned ‘four international powers’ – the wartime Allies plus France – ‘who would use their authority and power to prevent acts of aggression, promote universal disarmament for everyone but the four peacekeepers, and endorse ultimate self-determination for former colonies’. According to Dallek, FDR was trying to combine ‘Wilsonian idealism and hard-headed realism’. The realism involved recognising that the Russians had a legitimate security interest in maintaining a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, where the Red Army was already establishing a powerful presence. Churchill favoured regional spheres of influence too. When he and Stalin agreed to include Greece and Romania within their respective spheres, Roosevelt, still a Wilsonian at heart, initially baulked, but soon acceded. This realist approach was a reasonable alternative to the fatuous universalism promoted by Willkie, among others – the belief, as Dallek puts it, that ‘inside of every foreigner was an American waiting to emerge.’

Early in 1945, as his health failed, Roosevelt wanted the Big Three to meet one more time, which they did at Yalta in February. His main concern was reaffirming Stalin’s commitment to entering the war against Japan in Manchuria, where Chiang Kai-shek’s army had been fighting ineffectually for years. Roosevelt thought Russian intervention was crucial to ensuring an American victory without the fearful cost of invading the home islands. While he promised Stalin the southern half of the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin in exchange for a renewed commitment to fight the Japanese, FDR couched his public report on Yalta in universalist terms, as an agreement to oppose aggression and promote an international rule of law.

Whether the consequences of FDR’s diplomacy were always benign is an open question. The ambiguity became apparent in his efforts to address the plight of European Jews. Before the US entered the war, he pressed the case for Jewish sanctuaries in Africa and Palestine but refused to argue for larger immigrant quotas that would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter the United States. In a job market that was still depressed, the prospect of increased Jewish immigration stirred economic as well as ethnocentric anxieties in the American population. It was a concern too for FDR the political animal, who was always worried about the next election.

American involvement in the war didn’t change matters. By the end of 1942, Roosevelt, who by then knew about the death camps, tried and failed to persuade Congress to increase the quotas. During the summer of 1943, Eleanor agreed with him that the best outcome would be ‘rescue through military victory’. When Hitler proposed releasing 100,000 Hungarian Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks (supposedly to be used for non-military purposes), FDR refused on the grounds that it might reawaken Stalin’s fears of a separate peace with Germany. And he agreed with his generals that the bombing of railway lines to the death camps was an ineffective distraction from winning the war. Political and military strategy trumped direct attempts at rescue.

The postwar world may well have been a better place had FDR lived. The New Deal’s welfare state survived without him, despite constant challenges from the right; Truman tried to extend it and Johnson succeeded in doing so. New Deal assumptions even became part of the Washington consensus for several decades, until the resurgence of austerity in the 1970s and since. But foreign policy was another matter: from that point of view Truman’s accession was a disaster. He did not have a diplomatic bone in his body, and could hardly be restrained from punching the Soviet ambassador at every opportunity; as for the Truman Doctrine, it was a blank cheque for US intervention in response to actual or imagined aggression anywhere in the world. The precedents set by FDR – the concentration of war-making and military policy exclusively in the executive branch, the normalisation of secrecy and deceit – had been counterbalanced by his friendship with Stalin and his recognition of legitimate Soviet interests in Eastern Europe. When Roosevelt died, that balance was lost.

Unrestrained by FDR’s diplomacy, Cold War hysteria accelerated the growth of the national security state into a mammoth institutional presence that no successful politician has been able to challenge. Even Trump, sworn enemy of the Washington consensus, remains its captive. FDR’s capacious style of leadership has vanished from the scene. In the shadow of the Pentagon, no one dares to reassert a sceptical perspective. This is a major loss. Despite his attraction to missionary diplomacy, FDR remained committed to a traditional notion of international law, which allowed nations to respond militarily only if their own or others’ territorial boundaries had been violated. Not even his most expansive formulations included ‘regime change’. How he would have responded to the militarist posturing that passes for foreign policy debate in Washington today, who can say? I imagine he would be appalled.

Jackson Lears is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers. He is writing a cultural history of animal spirits in America.