Roosevelt and His Diplomatic Pawns

Roosevelt and His Diplomatic Pawns

Mini Teaser: FDR masterfully maneuvered the United States into the Second World War without appearing to do so. His corps of envoys and advisers did little to shape the agenda of a strategic and political mastermind.

by Author(s): Conrad Black

Michael Fullilove , Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World (New York: Penguin, 2013), 480 pp., $29.95.

THIS IS certainly an interesting and meticulously researched book, agreeably written and rigorous in its assertion of historical facts. The only reservation that arises is that the basic premise seems to confer too much importance on the five people who are its subjects, in their shared roles as special envoys for President Franklin D. Roosevelt between March 1940 and July 1941. This was a terribly complicated and intense period in international relations, in which the United States moved to confirm President Roosevelt’s prediction (in his speech accepting renomination in Philadelphia on June 27, 1936), that “this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Roosevelt led it to that rendezvous with astonishing agility and both tactical and strategic brilliance. The contention of this book appears to be that the five men featured—Sumner Welles, William J. Donovan, Harry Hopkins, Wendell Willkie and W. Averell Harriman—were indispensable to making it to the encounter with destiny and making the experience a national and international success.

Unfortunately, that case is not really made, and I don’t think it is accurate. The author generally grasps Roosevelt’s methods and recognizes him for the deft cynic that he was, almost always in the service of broadly good objectives. He also was ultimately, at the summit of his career, the indispensable man to the victory of democracy, though he shared that honor, at least in 1940 and 1941, with Winston Churchill. And on the last page of the book, Michael Fullilove writes, “For the most part, [Roosevelt] moved his envoys around the globe with great skill and élan.” His envoys “were instruments of his will.” But Fullilove also declares, “Sometimes, especially in his moments of irresolution, they shifted his thinking.” There is not a jot of evidence, here or anywhere, that any of these five ever shifted his thinking at all. It is undoubtedly true that Harry Hopkins was an informative observer of the determination of the British to persevere and of the high qualities of Churchill as a war leader, but these were not exactly revelations when Hopkins made his first visit to Britain in January 1941. Indeed, as the author records, Hopkins advised Churchill and his entourage, “The President is determined that we shall win the war together. Make no mistake about it. He has sent me here to tell you that at all costs and by all means he will carry you through, no matter what happens to him.” Roosevelt sent Hopkins with that message; he did not adopt that policy after listening to Hopkins tell him about the state of British morale and war capability and Churchill’s strong personality.

Even before Hopkins arrived in London, the United Kingdom had won the Battle of Britain, smashed the Italian navy, sunk the Bismarck and was threatening to sweep the Italians out of North Africa. Hopkins’s role was to buck up the British and assure them that help was coming, as Roosevelt had already conceived the lend-lease program and it was proceeding through Congress. Even Roosevelt, inscrutable though he was behind his apparently guileless bonhomie and overwhelming charm, liked company, and he sought it from women less opinionated and more deferential (and physically alluring) than Eleanor (Missy LeHand, Margaret Suckley, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd), and from his senior political loyalist and adviser, Louis McHenry Howe, until he died in 1936. Three years later, Roosevelt invited the unhealthy widower, Hopkins, who had been a remarkably capable welfare and workfare administrator for Roosevelt when he was governor of New York and in the New Deal, to take Howe’s place as a resident of the White House and confidential sounding board. The night before the Pearl Harbor attack, he reviewed with Hopkins the decrypted Japanese message, scheduled for delivery the following day, and said, “This means war.” There is no known instance where Hopkins did more than carry out missions for his chief, very important though those assignments sometimes were. As this book recounts, when Willkie, the industrialist and 1940 Republican presidential candidate, asked Roosevelt why he employed such a controversial man as Hopkins, FDR said that it was important to have someone around who wasn’t asking for anything and only wanted to serve, which Howe and Hopkins did. But when Hopkins remarried and moved out of the White House, he lost access to Roosevelt, and they were not close again. It was Roosevelt’s nature to use people and discard them, with a smile and a joke and a kind word, but absolutely ruthlessly. His mentor Al Smith, party chairman Jim Farley, fixer Thomas Corcoran, all of the original so-called brain trust, nearly all those who supposedly had any influence with him—all departed eventually as if through the trapdoor on a gallows.

Pullquote: It was Roosevelt's nature to use people and discard them, with a smile and a joke and a kind word, but absolutely ruthlessly.Image: Essay Types: Book Review