FDR's Legacy

FDR's Legacy

Mini Teaser: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president.  Is Conrad Black a great biographer?

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (New York: PublicAffairs, 2003), 1360 pp., $40.

THE LEGACY of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is crumbling. His great political gift to the Democratic Party--the extraordinary coalition that dominated American presidential politics for two decades, the influence of which endured in the House of Representatives until 1994--has finally broken. First challenged by the Dixiecrats in 1948 and then by the Goldwater campaign of 1964, a century of Southern white devotion to the Democratic cause was finally dissolved by Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Acts. That block of Southern votes, much enlarged by air-conditioning, right-to-work laws, foreign investment and economic vigor, has now transferred its loyalty to the Republicans. Without those votes, the remnants of Roosevelt's coalition have found it difficult to assemble clear majorities in the national electorate. Since the Civil Rights Acts, the only Democrats who have been able to outflank this Republican garrison and reach the presidency have been white Southerners.

The Roosevelt inheritance in foreign policy, not in full-blooded American engagement in the world but in a strategy that melded military alliances, declarative statements of global principle and new international institutions with the United Nations in pride of place, has come under increasing challenge since the fall of the Soviet Union, fifty years to the month after the attack on Pearl Harbor bombed America into its global role. The Cold War, with its Marshall Plan and the NSC-68 document that committed an unprecedented standing army to the defense of NATO, Japan and South Korea, was waged under a grand strategy that took its precedent and its respect for allies directly from FDR's World War II template. If the new phase that finally replaces the "post-Cold War era" is indeed to be "the global war on terrorism", then it is being waged under the principle that the mission defines the coalition, rather than Roosevelt's conviction that coalition maintenance was an end-in-itself.

Roosevelt's third important legacy was the harnessing of the financial power of the Federal government in the heroic effort to confront the Great Depression and save capitalism from itself. For the first time in peace, the Federal government's share of GDP soared above 10 and then above 20 percent. The era of Big Government had come, along with routine deficit-spending in peacetime and a large and permanent bureaucracy, and it remains to this day, despite President Bill Clinton's assertion that the era was over. Along with it came Roosevelt's other profound legacy, the transformation of the federal government into an instrument of income redistribution through Social Security, which established the responsibility of the state for the welfare of its elderly citizens. This too is now coming under challenge, as an aging population, accustomed to ever more lavish state maintenance, starts to test the political and fiscal limits of Roosevelt's redistributive system.

ROOSEVELT'S eminence (and most biographical assessments rank him alongside Washington and Lincoln) may have obscured the degree to which his achievements are being eroded. And Conrad Black, who found time amid the distractions of running a global media empire to write this monumental and admirable biography, challenges the very idea of their erosion. He lists in his conclusion seven great Rooseveltian achievements and then argues that they paved the way for something even greater. Few would disagree with at least the first four, and probably the last two, that Black claims for his subject.

First, "he was, with Winston Churchill, the co-savior of Western civilization."

Second, Roosevelt secured "the anchoring of the United States in the world." He "led American opinion from profound isolationism in 1937 to accepting war rather than an Axis victory in 1941, even before Pearl Harbor galvanized the nation." This, according to Black, "was arguably the greatest tour de force in the history of democratic government."

Third was Roosevelt's "reinvention of the American state." The President "involved the government in many areas where its presence had been limited or non-existent", making him "both the savior of American capitalism and the foremost reformer in the country's history." Because of Roosevelt's achievement, Black argues, "American capitalism ceased to be a menace to itself and became an unambiguous engine to greater and better distributed prosperity." Roosevelt thereby "restored the confidence of Americans in their country."

Fourth, Roosevelt "was an almost uniformly successful war leader.... His strategic insights were almost always accurate" and "[h]is command appointments were excellent." Black argues that "[t]he management of relations with Stalin and Churchill, apart from the purely military matters, required almost preternatural insight and finesse." Furthermore, "American war production made an indispensable and immense contribution to victory. And it was achieved in a fine and relatively unabrasive partnership between the private and public sectors and business and labor."

Fifth, and probably most controversial (because the argument that sustains it must be stretched 45 years beyond FDR's death), Black credits Roosevelt with the

creation of the circumstances that enabled his postwar successors to complete the allied victory  in World War II, liberate eastern Europe, and make the world safe for democracy at last.... If he had been ambivalent about imperialism, had not forced Stalin, when the Russian leader subjugated eastern Europe, to violate agreements with the Western allies and arouse American political and public opinion, and had not drawn the United States into an international organization even before the war ended, Stalin might have been able to snaffle up eastern Europe without bringing an unwinnable war of containment and ideological and military competition down upon himself.

Absent Roosevelt's courage, "the Soviet era, in Russia and its satellites, could have been very prolonged." In short, Black claims his subject "created the principal elements for victory in the Cold War."

Sixth, and here the author is on much safer and less questionable ground, Black hails Roosevelt for his

unmatched mastery of the American political system.... In twelve years as President, Roosevelt's only political defeats were on the Supreme Court packing bill and his attempted  party purge in 1938. These are minor (and temporary) setbacks against an avalanche of electoral and legislative success with nothing slightly resembling a precedent or a sequel in American history, nor, probably, in any other of the great democracies.

"Ronald Reagan", Black writes,

could stir and shape national opinion and was an important president, but his entire program was essentially tax reductions and simplification and an arms buildup. Roosevelt governed more than four years longer, far more radically and in much more complicated times than Reagan.

Seventh, Black departs from high politics and grand strategy to salute his subject's personal virtues:

Not only the courage and determination to prevail over his disability while disguising its extent, but the implications of his triumph for all who strive against heavy odds, whether medically afflicted or not. The importance of his example is immeasurable and almost inexpressible, but it is real to anyone who considers it.

THESE conclusions are worth quoting at length because this book is not simply splendid and thorough, marvelously readable and valuable, it is also a sustained and challenging argument. A powerful and impassioned case is being made, in strong and sinewy language, by a biographer who reveres his subject, relishes the thrust of debate and repeatedly engages his putative critics on the page. The entire book (all 1,360 pages of it), though too heavy to read comfortably in bed or even on one's lap, leads up to these declarative conclusions.

Moreover, this is no hagiography. Roosevelt's great 1932 campaign speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, when he argued that (in Black's astute summation) "property rights had been corrupted into corporate rights" does not impress the biographer. "The great intellectual tour de force of Roosevelt's campaign was in fact largely an unsettling melange of socialism, atavism, humbug and snobbery." Black has few illusions about his subject's "pious trumpery" and "insatiable vindictiveness", as well as his devious and sometimes shabby ways, which included using the Internal Revenue Service against enemies like Huey Long, Colonel Robert McCormick (owner of the Chicago Tribune) and Andrew Mellon. As undersecretary of the Navy, Roosevelt played an unsavory role in a scandal about homosexual sailors in 1919 and 1920: he unleashed undercover naval intelligence agents to spy on them and the civilian

population, connived in blackening an innocent clergyman's name and then lied about it. Roosevelt often stretched the truth, claiming for example in his 1920 vice-presidential campaign to have written the constitution of Haiti and to have had "something to do with running a couple of little Republics." Black rightly calls this "a flight of self-serving invention."

Roosevelt also sought credit for combat experience in World War I, asking to be listed on the Groton school memorial: "I saw service on the other side, was missed by torpedoes and shell and had actual command." This was the result of an inspection tour in the summer of 1918, in which he crossed the Atlantic on an American destroyer and the Channel on a British one, stayed at the Ritz in London (where he called on King George V) and at the Crillon in Paris and enjoyed "a tour of five-star restaurants and risque nightclubs" before heading for the front. He did come under shellfire while visiting the King of Belgium, and his destroyer was bombed (unsuccessfully) by a German warplane while returning to Britain. Nonetheless, this hardly amounted to a rigorous tour of duty.

Roosevelt was not much of a businessman and was involved in some shady companies during the 1920s boom, including (in partnership with Henry Morgenthau) one that marketed talking vending machines selling pre-moistened stamps (the shares of which sank from $18 to $0.12), a German Trust that went nowhere and a dubious bond scheme from which he extricated himself shortly before the roof collapsed. As his wife Eleanor noted, Roosevelt "was not experienced and not always wise" in business.

He was, however, admirable in character and courage when facing the trial by fire of his crippling polio attack, an episode Black recounts splendidly, with sympathy and insight, and at entirely justified length. This chapter, which displays Black's strengths as a descriptive and narrative historian, contrasts sharply with his handling of the crisis of the Roosevelt marriage, when Eleanor found evidence of her husband's adultery in the Lucy Mercer letters. Black appears bored by Eleanor, finding her tiresome and often silly. (By contrast, he paints a memorable portrait of Roosevelt's political aide, the former journalist Louis McHenry Howe.) The dynamics of the marriage, and the nature of Eleanor's relations with her mannish female friends, do not greatly interest the author.

Black is the kind of biographer who is far more concerned with what his subject did than in trying to assess what kind of person he was. The book is, in general, mercifully free of the amateur psychology that marks so many biographies these days. Black acknowledges that Roosevelt was a very hard man to fathom, because he said so many different and often contradictory things to different people. His easy charm, his readiness to nod and be congenial, left most of his interlocutors convinced they had his agreement when all they had enjoyed was some of his attention. Complicating matters further was the fact that Roosevelt, unlike Churchill, left no memoirs. Even the official minutes and transcripts of his various meetings frustrate historians by their vagueness and mercurial changes of direction. What remains for the historical record are the wildly varying and inconsistent accounts, left by many of the lesser players, of what Roosevelt said or hinted.

"As always with Roosevelt, only the general outlines of what he thought can be discerned from the conflicting signals he sent in all directions and only his deeds are a guide to his thoughts", Black concludes. Roosevelt thus benefits from being judged by his achievements, since the mental path that led him there was so often deliberately obscured. This could make him a baffling partner, as Churchill found in 1942, when Roosevelt was urging that India be granted temporary dominion status under a regime akin to America's Articles of Confederation in the 1780s--whatever that meant. Roosevelt added to this arresting proposal a note, "For the love of heaven don't bring me into this, though I do want to be of help. It is, strictly speaking, none of my business." (Churchill told his staff that he could agree with only the final part of this message, possibly the only bit he understood.)

Black draws Roosevelt's relationship with Churchill in far more detail and with much greater care than any other, including the Roosevelt marriage. It did not begin well. At their first meeting, in London in 1919 (which Churchill had evidently forgotten), Roosevelt thought Churchill behaved "like a stinker", apparently because Roosevelt thought he had given a splendid speech and received too little praise. Their second noteworthy encounter came in 1940, when Churchill, newly installed as prime minister of an embattled and imperiled nation, telephoned Roosevelt at the White House. It must have been for Churchill a highly charged and pivotal moment. Roosevelt took the call, then returned to the company of his houseguest from California, Helen Gahagan Douglas, to ask her if it was true that the film director Anatole Litvak and the actress Paulette Goddard had made love under the tables at Ciro's. Indeed so, the future Congresswoman assured him, "to Roosevelt's great amusement, and approval."

As one may already gather, Black has a fine eye for the telling anecdote, however it reflects on his subject. Largely for his own amusement, but possibly also for the pleasure of humiliating another, Roosevelt required Joe Kennedy (in the presence of his eldest son, James) to remove his trousers so Roosevelt could see whether he was too bandy-legged for the knee britches that were part of formal dress at the Court of St. James. Determined to become Ambassador to London, Kennedy accordingly dropped his trousers, and when Roosevelt demurred that with such legs he might be "a potential embarrassment to the nation, Kennedy responded immediately that he would seek a dispensation to wear striped trousers and a swallow-tail coat if the President would give him the post."

Some readers might resent the occasional introduction of a personal note by the biographer; this reviewer finds it refreshing and informative of Black's disposition when he comments of his subject's pleasure in the company of Hollywood celebrities: "Roosevelt always knew that the intellectuals, like the film actors, would be reduced to the status of helpless groupies with a little attention and generosity from a stylish and sympathetic president." And Black suggests that Roosevelt was "almost surely" sincere when he informed Orson Welles, "Orson, you and I are the two best actors in the country." (The popular young singer Francis Sinatra was also impressed, naming his son Franklin in Roosevelt's honor, although that could easily be truncated to Frank.)

ONE OF Black's personal interventions might raise eyebrows. Discussing the appointment of General Dwight D. Eisenhower to command the D-Day invasion, Black suggests:

In some respects, the best choice for Overlord would have been MacArthur, the West's greatest strategic genius.... America's greatest battlefield commander, thorough in tactics and frequently possessed of strategic genius, MacArthur was an inspiring leader and an imaginative theater commander.

Black goes on to propose that, had MacArthur led the invasion in September 1943, the Western allies might have reached Berlin a year before the Russians. Had this happened, "[i]t would then have been possible to reconstitute Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia as neutral states, as Finland and Austria were, and possibly to have reduced the likelihood of the Cold War." This is a stretch, or perhaps a folie d'esprit, that continues down this diverting but inconsequential might-have-been path for two-and-a-half pages.

Such diversions illustrate the degree to which this is not a conventional biographical narrative penned by a distant, objective writer. Although it commands all of the detail and authority (and most of the benefits) of such an approach, Black's book is a more personal and engaged account. This comes out more fully in his analysis of Roosevelt's international role than it does in his treatment of the New Deal, in part because Black is determined to make the argument that Roosevelt's intuition perceived Hitler's menace from the beginning.

"Hitler is a madman, and his counselors, some of whom I personally know, are even madder than he is", Roosevelt told the French Ambassador Paul Claudel in April 1933. Hans Dieckhoff, the German Ambassador until 1934, concluded that Roosevelt was Hitler's "most dangerous enemy" and had "a pathological hatred" for the German dictator. In October 1937, Roosevelt gave a somber radio address, warning "Let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy, that this Western hemisphere will not be attacked." Shortly thereafter, the American munitions industry began to expand. From mid-1938 until the end of the 1939, the production of airplane engines tripled, and, despite the Neutrality Act, Roosevelt announced to his cabinet that the French should buy all they wanted. In February 1939, the New York Times quoted him (from a meeting with various senators) describing France as "the actual frontier of America in an apparently inevitable showdown between democracies and dictatorships." Black gets a touch carried away here, suggesting that

Supreme political artist as he was, he cannot have failed, by the beginning of 1939, to have glimpsed this destiny that would carry his country to heights no nation had ever occupied and himself to a position in American history rivaled, if at all, only by Washington and Lincoln.

Black refers more than once to Roosevelt's intuition, but, in making the case that he foresaw the Cold War and subtly positioned America and her allies at Yalta to win it, Black is suggesting something close to Rooseveltian prescience. The best evidence is the meeting with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in March 1943. Here Roosevelt accepted that the Baltic states would fall to Stalin (though he hoped for some fig leaf of respectability, even "a rigged referendum", in Black's words), recognized that Poland's borders would be redrawn to Russia's advantage and acknowledged the threat that Stalin would "overrun and communize" continental Europe. At the Quadrant conference in August 1943, Roosevelt thus wanted a military plan for Allied forces to reach Berlin at the same time as the Red Army. His private map showed Berlin as the point where the Soviet and Western zones should meet.

Black is ferocious in defending Roosevelt from those "posturing" critics who saw him as naive about Stalin, out-maneuvered at Yalta and cavalier about Eastern Europe's descent into Soviet rule. Black rightly stresses that the pass was sold in January 1944, at the European Advisory Commission, when the postwar occupation zones were agreed to by the British and Russian delegates over American objections. But, had Roosevelt been committed to denying Stalin Eastern Europe, one might have expected more American enthusiasm for the British plans to thrust on Berlin and less acquiescence in Eisenhower's slow and steady broad frontal advance.

In the end, battle proved the ultimate verdict. The Russians were prepared to lose 300,000 troops to take Berlin, and the West was not. Perhaps it had been decided even earlier. The failure of the British to link up with their parachute division at Arnhem in September 1944 doomed any hope of bouncing across the Rhine and into Germany before winter. As the brave paratroops marched off to captivity, frustrated in one of the war's boldest ventures, Churchill told his secretary John Colville that there was "nothing I can do for the Poles." He then arranged to fly to Moscow to present Stalin with the infamous scrap of paper that consigned the Balkans to Soviet mercies. With a large blue pencil, Stalin scribbled a tick, and, with Roosevelt half a world away, the fate of half a continent was decided.

COLD WAR historians will gnaw over Blacks conclusions, particularly his suggestion that Yalta was at least a moral victory for Roosevelt and that he (along with American economic power) left the West well placed to prevail in the Cold War. Curious, therefore, that at the end of each decade thereafter, a thoughtful observer might have judged the West to be losing the conflict. China came under Communist control at the end of the 1940s; Sputnik displayed Soviet technological prowess at the end of the 1950s; riots in America and bloody frustration in Vietnam made America look vulnerable at the end of the 1960s and so on.

The irony is that Black does not need to award Roosevelt yet more laurels for perceiving the contours and likely course of the Cold War. Whatever one's judgment of the Cold War's opening phase, Black's final conclusion holds good: "Roosevelt created the circumstances in which America and the other democracies could win the peace...." But then, rather endearingly, Black returns to the fray and concludes that sentence with a challenging new claim: ".... and lead the world to a happier time than it had ever known before." Discuss, as they say in academic examinations. This is one final reminder why Black's book is not just the best Roosevelt biography so far, but also by far the most enjoyable, even though the author's love of argument can at times make it feel like going 15 rounds with a heavyweight boxing champ.

Martin Walker is editor in chief of UPI and author of The Cold War: A History, (Holt, 1995).

Essay Types: Book Review