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Desperate Times

Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-45

by Wayne S. Cole
University of Nebraska Press, 698 pp., $26.50

In this age of promiscuous interventionism, the word “isolationism” has lost much of the odium it used to have forty years ago. Global crusades have latterly proven a source of infinite mischief, and to many Americans it no longer seems such a bad idea to limit the world aspirations of the United States. Critics of globalism like Walter Lippmann and Senator Fulbright have not even flinched from the charge of “neo-isolationism.” If it is too much to talk of an isolationist revival, still the swing in intellectual circles—and in public opinion too, to judge by the polls—has been for some time in the neo-isolationist direction.

Contemporary neo-isolationism is very different, however, from historic isolationism. In the period Professor Cole discusses in his able and interesting book, both Walter Lippmann and Representative Fulbright (as he then was) were notable internationalists. Neo-isolationism signifies doubt about American omnipotence and omniscience and desire to confine intervention to areas of indisputable American interest. It does not signify economic, commercial, or cultural isolationism; but then neither did historic isolationism (which is why those historians altogether miss the point who think they have exposed isolationism as a “legend” by demonstrating that “isolationist” United States in the 1920s had financial relations with other countries).

Historic isolationism meant not autarky, but unilateralism—no “entangling alliances” in Jefferson’s phrase; unrestricted freedom of political and diplomatic action. Many contemporary neo-isolationists are quite ready to approve entanglements that they believe protect American interests, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. Traditional isolationism would reject such entanglement per se, whether in the form of alliances or of membership in collective security organizations.

Professor Cole defines the isolationist tradition as unilateralism plus “nonintervention in Europe.” This second item is more dubious. For three centuries we have participated in every European war that involved large-scale naval action in the North Atlantic, from the War of the Second Coalition against Louis XIV (1689-1697) through the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions and the Seven years’ War to the Second World War. Still it is true enough that intervention in Europe, not unilateralism, was an immediate issue in the late Thirties, and to that extent Professor Cole’s definition has its justification. But unilateralism remained the lurking issue, for isolationists feared, among other things, that intervention in war would lead ineluctably on to collective security in peace.

Roosevelt and the Isolationists traces the evolution of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relations with the isolationists (or atleast with one important isolationist faction) from warm important collaboration on domestic issues in his first term to wary disagreement over foreign policy in his second to calculated determination on his part in his third term to eradicate isolationism forever. Professor Cole is, along with Justus D. Doenecke, one of the ranking scholars of isolationism. He has written books on Charles A. Lindbergh, on Gerald P. Nye, on the America First Committee. His new book, the culmination of his isolationist studies, is based on exhaustive research; over a hundred manuscript collections are listed in the bibliography. It is neutral in tone, thoughtful in analysis, and blunt in style.

Its title, however, is misleading. By “the isolationists” Professor Cole means (most of the time) the Western progressive isolationists in Congress. He sees isolationism as basically the product of an agrarian, Jeffersonian, smalltown, antimonopoly mentality, initially sympathetic to the New Deal and for a season even to its left, geographically anchored in the Great Plains and the upper Mississippi valley. Its characteristic spokesmen were Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, William E. Borah of Idaho, Hiram Johnson of California, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, and Robert M. La Follette, Jr., of Wisconsin. Charles Lindbergh of Minnesota headed the isolationist forces outside Congress. The isolationist-interventionist conflict, Professor Cole suggests, in great part sprang from the divergence between a provincial-rural-agrarian-debtor outlook in the West and a cosmopolitan-urban-industrial-creditor outlook in the East.

Now Jeffersonian progressivism was manifestly a significant element in the isolationism of the 1930s. But it is surely going a little far to equate it with isolationism as a whole. For such devout Hamiltonians as Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, author of Alexander Hamilton, The Greatest American, and Henry Cabot Lodge II of Massachusetts, whose grandfather had written another (and considerably better) life of Hamilton, were also isolationists. So were proponents of central government planning like Hugh S. Johnson of NRA, George N. Peek of AAA, the historian Charles A. Beard, and the Socialist Norman Thomas. So were conservative politicians like Herbert Hoover and Robert A. Taft. Wall Street lawyers like John Foster Dulles, steelmasters like Edward L. Ryerson, Jr., financiers like Joseph P. Kennedy. So were big advertising men like Chester Bowles and William Benton. So were specialists in international law like John Bassett Moore, Edwin Borchard, and Philip Jessup. So were Irish Catholics from industrial states like David I. Walsh of Massachusetts and Father Coughlin of Michigan. So were sophisticated young Yale men like Sargent Shriver, Kingman Brewster, Potter Stewart, and Jonathan Bingham. But these other varieties of isolationism receive short shrift from Professor Cole, whose book could have been more precisely entitled “Roosevelt and the Western Progressive Isolationists in Congress.”

The first two-thirds of the book retell the diplomatic history of the 1930s through FDR’s relationship to the isolationists. While excerpts from the personal papers of leading isolationists supply a valuable inside account of isolationist endeavors, this account does not markedly differ from that offered in Robert Dallek’s excellent Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945.* The more original and striking part of Cole’s book is the last third, where he portrays Roosevelt as proceeding systematically, by fair means and foul, to extirpate the whole isolationist tradition.

Cole’s portrait of Roosevelt is astute, dispassionate, and, most of the time, meticulously fair. Like Dallek, Cole concludes that FDR was “always an internationalist” whose isolationist moments during his first term were not the expression of conviction but tactical accommodation to the overriding claims of Depression priorities and to political realities. Still, though an internationalist, “Roosevelt did not want war abroad, and he did not want the United States to enter that war.”

When war broke out in Europe, Roosevelt outmaneuvered the isolationists by organizing the debate around the policy of all aid short of war, a policy that enjoyed majority support. He thwarted the isolationist attempt to make the issue war-or-peace, the issue on which they could claim the majority. The aid-short-of-war formula, Cole writes, “failed insofar as it may have been designed to keep the United States out of war. But insofar as the aid-short-of-war formula was designed to overcome isolationist opposition, it was successful.”

Cole is discerning and not unsympathetic in his delineation of Roosevelt’s course. While the president was disillusioning the isolationists, he was at the same time disappointing the all-out interventionists, including members of his own circle like Hopkins, Ickes, Morgenthau, Stimson, and Knox. Yet he understood the problem, Cole correctly argues, better than they did. If war was to come, Roosevelt resolved to make sure that it came upon a relatively united country. As Raymond Gram Swing wrote at the time, “Impatience with Roosevelt…now paradoxically becomes part of the Roosevelt strategy. He needs all the impatience which can be mustered. The more his friends are in anguish about his inscrutable delay, the better they serve him.” Unlike the isolationists themselves, Cole does not accuse Roosevelt of scheming to bring the country into war; unlike Dallek, he is not even sure that Roosevelt ever reached a clear decision in favor of war before Pearl Harbor.

Where Professor Cole loses his sympathy with Roosevelt is when he considers the means the president used to destroy isolationism. History, Cole agrees, would have accomplished this in any case. But FDR accelerated the process: “From 1941 to 1945, Roosevelt skillfully and almost ruthlessly demolished the isolationists and isolationism.” The crucial device was the “guilt-by-association pattern of identifying leading isolationists with Hitler and the Nazis.” The administration did this with such success that by 1941, Cole contends, “isolationists were widely viewed as narrow, self-serving, partisan, conservative, antidemocratic, anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, fifth columnist, and even treasonous.” This may put it a little strongly, though that is rather the way the reader of Ralph Ingersoll’s PM, and even to a degree of Helen Reid’s Herald Tribune, was instructed to regard isolationists. Professor Cole concedes that isolationist rhetoric depicting Roosevelt as a warmonger, a dictator, a pawn of the British or of the Jews, was equally vicious.

But Roosevelt had the power of government at his disposal, which the isolationists did not, and he tried to use that power without much scruple, in Cole’s view, to exterminate isolationism. He directed the FBI to investigate isolationists and their organizations; he asked for a grand jury investigation of the money behind the America First Committee; he authorized wiretapping in terms that could be stretched to include isolationists.

By Cole’s own account, however, Roosevelt had more success in subverting public opinion than he had in mobilizing the government. “Roosevelt prodded the FBI and Justice Department to look into America First and the affairs of leading isolationists,” Cole writes, “but he got less action than he wanted.” The FBI discovered no sinister foreign connections; Cole can find no evidence that the FBI ever wiretapped America First offices or isolationist leaders. There was no grand jury investigation of America First finances. In fact, there was so little follow-through on Roosevelt’s prodding that one suspects the prods resulted more from passing irritation than from constant purpose. After all, Roosevelt had appointed Francis Biddle, a distinguished civil libertarian, as his attorney general and kept him on the job throughout the war despite Biddle’s resistance to presidential requests that threatened the Bill of Rights.

Several points must be considered before one can pass judgment on Roosevelt’s performance. Obviously when a president honestly believed that a Nazi victory threatened the United States, and when Congress concurred to the extent of enacting by large majorities a program so flagrantly unneutral as the Lend-Lease Act, the president would have been delinquent in his duties if he did not take precautionary measures against Nazi espionage, sabotage, and “fifth column” penetration. We know now that such dangers were considerably exaggerated. No one could know that then, and a president could not afford to take chances.

Moreover, despite his Lend-Lease triumph, Roosevelt was not winning the fight against the isolationists in 1941 with quite the ease that Professor Cole sometimes implies. The House passed the draft-extension bill by a single vote four months before Pearl Harbor, and sixty-four Democrats voted against the president. In November 1941 more members of Congress voted against neutrality revision than had voted against Lend-Lease in March. Professor Cole notes Robert E. Sherwood’s assessment: “As the limitless peril came closer and closer to the United States, isolationist sentiment became ever more strident in expression and aggressive in action, and Roosevelt was relatively powerless to combat it. He had said everything ‘short of war’ that could be said. He had no more tricks left. The hat from which he had pulled so many rabbits was empty.” But Cole discounts such statements and gives less than full weight to the sense of desperation that prevaded the administration in late 1941.

Nor does he adequately recognize, I believe, the direction in which the isolationist movement was propelled by its own internal dynamics. His emphasis on the Western progressives overplays the liberal role in isolationism. An analysis that took, say, Herbert Hoover rather than Burton K. Wheeler as the representative isolationist would have been equally, probably even more, valid. For, as Professor Cole concedes, isolationism was stronger in the Republican than in the Democratic party, as it was stronger in the business community than in the labor movement. Many isolationists were fanatically anti-New Deal from the start. Even the Western progressives, as they became obsessed with isolationism, tended to move to the right on domestic issues. Wheeler, Nye, Hiram Johnson, Henrik Shipstead, Philip La Follette (who by 1944 was backing Douglas MacArthur for president) all lost their commitment to domestic reform. Among the senatorial progressives only George W. Norris, who abandoned isolationism well before Pearl Harbor, and Robert La Follette, who abandoned it after the war, kept the New Deal faith. The rest marched in increasingly nationalist-rightist directions, not without sinister undertones. Professor Cole notes occasional anti-Semitic outbursts among the isolationists but does not see how, had Pearl Harbor not intervened, anti-Semitism would almost inevitably have grown as part of the isolationist pattern.

Nor does Professor Cole give sufficient weight to the genuine fear after Pearl Harbor that a recrudescence of isolationism might wreck the peace. We must remember that war broke out in Europe only twenty-one years after the 1918 armistice—hardly longer than the flash of time from the Kennedy assassination to the present. The Great War and the subsequent disillusion were bitterly alive in the minds of people who had been in their twenties at the time of Sarajevo and were only in their forties at Pearl Harbor. The isolationist-interventionist debate of 1939–1941, much the angriest national debate of my lifetime, raged over the proximate question whether the United States should repeat 1917 and enter another European war. But behind lay the further question: would the United States also repeat 1920 and reject the postwar collective security system, thereby, according to the Wilsonian view, insuring more ghastly wars in the future?

This longer-term possibility alarmed old Wilsonians like Roosevelt, Cordell Hull, and Summer Welles, just as the prospect of joining such a system alarmed sons and grandsons of men who had fought Wilson and the league, like Lindbergh, the La Follettes, and Cabot Lodge. It was above all the specter of unilateralism—of a second repudiation by the United States of the peace system—that made the Wilsonians of 1941-1945 regard the destruction of isolationism as an urgent and necessary national objective. People who were around when the Senate rejected the League of Nations a short quarter-century before were passionately concerned to assure American participation in the peace system this time. The determination to crush isolationism was not caused by the pointless vindictiveness sometimes implied in Cole’s narrative so much as it was, in the Wilsonian view, an essential prelude to lasting peace.

With all these pleas in extenuation, questions remain about Roosevelt’s treatment of the isolationists. No doubt some among them were on German and Japanese payrolls. But most isolationists, and all the major isolationist leaders, were patriotic men and women, loyal to the republic, who were fighting to spare the United States what they considered the disaster of participation in another world war. To vilify them, as the administration did, because their words allegedly gave pleasure in Berlin was as irrelevant and mean as it was to denounce opponents of the Vietnam War twenty years later because their words allegedly gave pleasure in Hanoi and Moscow. When Harold Ickes called Lindbergh the “No. 1 Nazi fellow traveler” in the United States in 1941, he made it easier for joe McCarthy to get away with calling other Americans communist fellow travelers a decade later.

Still, these were desperate times. Desperate times rarely produce rational behavior. The Civil War does not provide an exact parallel, because civil wars are qualitatively different from foreign wars. Yet Lincoln, our greatest and most humane president, took more drastic action against the Copperheads than Roosevelt, though he revived the Civil War term, took against the isolationists. The Second World War—the treatment of Japanese-Americans excepted—was a good deal easier on civil liberties than the Civil War had been.

Perhaps Roosevelt could have steered the nation as successfully through the desperate days before Pearl Harbor without defaming the isolationists. Perhaps during the war he could have built a consensus for the United Nations without pressing on to crush isolationism. One wishes, as one does with Lincoln, that he had acted at the time with the wisdom and restraint available to historians after the peril has passed. But Lincoln and Roosevelt had to reckon with the gravest threats to the fire of the republic, and they could not foretell the outcome. “It is very difficult to remember,” said Maitland, “that events now in the past were once far in the future.” Whatever Lincoln and Roosevelt felt compelled to do under the pressure of crisis did not, as the sequel shows, corrupt their essential commitment to constitutional ways and democratic values.

  1. *

    Oxford University Press, 1979.

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