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The Winning Hand


In 1932, Walter Lippmann famously remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was said to have described FDR, who had just paid him an unexpected visit on his ninety-second birthday, as having a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” Both assessments were wrong, Lippmann’s notoriously so. Holmes hardly knew FDR, and the President soon proved he had a quick mind, a retentive memory, and a strong sense of what he wanted to accomplish.

Roosevelt was devious, imaginative, dishonest, charming, empirical, calculating, but nonetheless Churchill was surely right when he observed, as Jon Meacham writes in his excellent book Franklin and Winston, that meeting FDR “with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescence,” was like “opening a bottle of champagne.”

Unlike Churchill, Roosevelt was not sentimental. Underneath his habitual cheerfulness he was a somewhat cold man. Meacham quotes Harry Truman as saying of Roosevelt, “He was the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President. He brought the country into the twentieth century.”

Whether you succumbed to the charm or not—and most did—the difficulty was to know exactly what the President really wanted. In a heroic attempt to uncover FDR’s personality and policies, Conrad Black, a Canadian-born press magnate who now sits in the British House of Lords, and whose control of his newspapers has recently been challenged, has produced a remarkably balanced and lucid assessment. It is also an exhausting, though not a ponderous, book, 1,134 pages excluding notes and index, a monumental work making the case for a man Black immensely admires.

There were two presidents whose politics profoundly affected Franklin Roosevelt—Eleanor’s Uncle Theodore and Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he served as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I. FDR very much wanted to emulate TR, whose daring use of broad executive action greatly increased the power of the presidency. Above all, FDR admired TR’s “New Nationalism,” which was designed to make national leadership transcend self-interest. Both Roosevelts were especially contemptuous of the greedy rich who betrayed the patrician values they both embraced. Like TR, FDR believed that happiness “lies not in the possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of the creative effort.”

In FDR’s second term, Wilson’s ideas of the “New Freedom,” which stressed curbing monopolistic practices in order to stimulate competition, tended to predominate, in part as a reaction to earlier measures taken by the New Deal that resulted in overregulation. But in FDR’s third term, Wilson also served as a cautionary model for FDR as a war leader. His grievous error had been his refusal to seek bipartisan cooperation in postwar planning. FDR was in favor of a system of collective security, and was determined not to fail in this, as Wilson had.

Faced with the enormity of the Great Depression, FDR, who always thought of himself in peace and war as a practical idealist, was willing to try almost anything. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” he declared in one of his early Fireside Chats on radio. He later added, “The country needs…bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” No national politician could talk like that today.

In trying something, anything, that might alleviate the nearly 30 percent unemployment, the collapse of banks, and the seeming threat of revolution, Roosevelt sought national solutions. This often meant turning away from an internationalism that had been narrowly conceived. In scuttling the 1933 London Economic Conference, convened to stabilize world currencies, he was right not to endorse a stabilization based on a return to the gold standard. This would have led to further deflation and depression, not only in the United States but worldwide, as John Maynard Keynes argued. It was not until the Bretton Woods agreements at the end of the Second World War that the United States was prepared to manage its economy cooperatively with others. (It was also evident in 1945 that the United States would direct any effort to manage the world economy, with the dollar as the principal reserve currency, in effect, world money.)

Roosevelt’s attempts to regulate the excesses of capitalism helped to save capitalism, as Black repeatedly points out. These efforts in themselves, along with emergency measures such as loans to farmers, however, did not cure the Depression. It was not until 1939, two years before America entered the war, that large-scale spending programs, some of them for rearmament, managed to put the country on the way to full recovery. Government expenditures throughout the war virtually eliminated unemployment and demonstrated to the world the enormous vitality of the American industrial machine. As Black points out, the New Deal reforms of banking and credit, as well as revised tax codes and new welfare systems, would prove to be safeguards against another collapse. So did the new regulation of the securities market, which led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).1 To help Americans survive the Depression, the country needed Roosevelt’s buoyant optimism, his understanding that not only was emergency relief available to give the unemployed food and shelter, but also that “useful work” was possible in order to provide men and women with self-respect. He preached freedom from fear, and he himself seemed free from any fear of the future.

Black is strongest in his portrayal of FDR as a war leader. He describes how FDR shrewdly managed public opinion in order to persuade citizens to shed their isolationist yearnings, though here and elsewhere he credits the President with too precise a vision of the road he intended to follow. He writes that at the outset of the war in Europe, FDR had a design for the future that included “winning the war and leading the world to a postimperial Pax Americana.” Despite Roosevelt’s deft maneuverings between 1937 and 1940 to prepare the nation for war, it seems dubious that he planned so far ahead to carry out such an ambitious goal.

On taking office, Roosevelt, as a former member of Wilson’s administration and vice-presidential candidate in the 1920 election, was rightly seen as an internationalist. But just as he willingly abandoned international economic cooperation, he was also prepared to shed any residual support for the League of Nations. In January 1932, the publisher William Randolph Hearst, in what turned out to be the last time he would have any serious influence in a presidential election, castigated Roosevelt and other Democratic candidates as dangerous Wilson- ian internationalists. In response to this attack, FDR disavowed his long-held support for the League.

His wife, Eleanor, according to Black, “was so disappointed in her husband that she didn’t speak to him for some time.” Roosevelt’s political adviser Louis Howe pointed out to her that, in trying to placate Hearst, FDR was taking into account political realities. And it was true that the League was an ineffectual talking shop. Black is right to point out that only an American military alliance with France and Britain would have dramatically changed the course of events in the 1930s by challenging Hitler. But Roosevelt’s repudiation of the League sent an important signal to beleaguered internationalists that American foreign policy was going to largely follow the pattern that had emerged in the Hoover administration.

That Roosevelt intended to do just that is evident in the meeting he had with Hoover’s secretary of state, Henry Stimson, who had also been Taft’s secretary of war, and was a fervent admirer of TR. As such, Stimson was a man who preferred action to temporizing; but he had found himself unable to do much of anything to counteract Japanese aggression in Manchuria in 1931. Instead, he announced what became known as the Stimson Doctrine, which decreed that the United States would not recognize territorial or jurisdictional changes that violated the 1928 Kellogg-Briand peace pact, which had outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. “We have nothing,” Stimson lamented, “but scraps of paper.”

On a snowy day in early January 1933, the president-elect had a lengthy lunch with Stimson at Hyde Park. Though both men came from the same social milieu in New York, Stimson had never met FDR, who received him with great cordiality. To his surprise, Stimson found that Roosevelt and he agreed on all major issues. On the question of Japan’s aggression against China their opinions were especially close: they thought that economic sanctions against Japan (but nothing more severe) would be useful, and they had faith in the continued vitality of Japanese liberalism. FDR also adopted Stimson’s Latin American policy of avoiding US military intervention and relying on local leaders to preserve stability (even if those leaders proved to be less than democratic). FDR remarked to the man who would become his secretary of war in 1940, “We are getting so that we do pretty good teamwork, don’t we?” Blending Stimson’s cautiousness about intervention with New Deal economic nationalism, FDR devised an approach that he hoped would allow him effective freedom of action, as long as he accompanied it with plenty of moral pronouncements.

It was a foreign policy that sustained Roosevelt until 1937, when the aggressive actions of the Japanese and German governments, encouraged by the timid behavior of Britain and France, persuaded Roosevelt that the United States must begin to take a more active part in supporting the large democracies and prepare to take military action as well. Black believes that Roosevelt was getting the American people ready to fight a war that he expected would come. But a case can be made that he continued to hope to the end that he could find a way to avoid committing US forces to combat. He often referred to himself as a poker player and juggler; by employing American power on the side of the Allies he thought he could find a way to continue to provide the economic and industrial means to prevent Hitler’s final victory in Europe while at the same time intimidating Japan so that it would make no further conquests.

His critics have accused him of plotting to get America into the war, but the evidence for this is lacking. The late Isaiah Berlin, writing on Roosevelt after the President’s death, is more persuasive in believing that

when he promised to keep America at peace he meant to try as hard as he could to do so, compatibly with helping to promote the victory of the democracies. He must at one period have thought that he could win the war without entering it, and so, at the end of it, be in the unique position, hitherto achieved by no one, of being the arbiter of the world’s fate, without needing to placate those bitter forces which involvement in a war inevitably brings about, and which are an obstacle to reason and humanity in the making of the peace.

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    Ironically enough, the SEC has been involved in the recent inquiries into Black’s newspaper holdings.

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