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.

BY MAKING his book effectively a snapshot of America starting in early 1940, Fullilove inadvertently incites the inference that Franklin D. Roosevelt entered this critical phase of the war with unformed ideas about the correlation of forces in the world. In fact, Roosevelt knew Western Europe well and spoke French and German fluently. He attended school in Germany, and from his first visit to a performance of the “Ring” cycle at Wagner’s Festspielhaus at Bayreuth with his mother in 1896 he considered Germany to be a nation of delusional warmongers. As soon as Hitler was installed as chancellor, while he was preparing for his own inauguration, he said to his entourage that it would be impossible to maintain peace with him on satisfactory terms. This view was bolstered in May 1933 when he met with Hitler’s finance minister, Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, whom FDR considered “extremely arrogant.” The president listened to Hitler’s speeches with his staff in his office and translated them for the others. When Albert Einstein visited Roosevelt, they spoke in German.

Thus, Roosevelt saw the war coming as early as 1933 and came to his conclusions about Hitler even before Churchill did. It is inconceivable that after the outbreak of the war in Europe, Roosevelt intended to retire, though he was determined to try to make it look like he was a reluctant draftee to a third-term nomination, as he was breaking a tradition as old as the Republic. Based on the votes in Congress on peacetime conscription, increased defense spending, lend-lease aid and protection of arms shipments to Britain through 1941, it is clear that no one but Roosevelt would have thought in such terms and no one else could have brought congressional and public opinion with him. While unctuously claiming to be neutral, he gave the British and Canadians anything they wanted with an indefinite repayment, and he extended U.S. claims on territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles into the Atlantic and ordered the U.S. Navy to attack on detection any German ship. This was a novel definition of neutrality, and no one else—certainly not the well-disposed amateur Willkie—would have thought of, much less accomplished, such a thing. So artfully conceived and brilliantly executed a plan of genius was not the distillation of the findings of talented special envoys; they each had a part to play but had no idea what their leader thought or what his overall design was.

Roosevelt knew that if Germany were able to consolidate its hold on all that it had conquered by the summer of 1940—including most of France, Poland and Scandinavia, plus Benelux, Bohemia and Moravia—it would have a population as great as America’s and an economic strength almost as great. Within a generation, this greater Germany would dominate Europe and be a mortal threat to the position of the United States as the world’s most powerful country. FDR had warned the French not to allow the remilitarization of the Rhineland by Germany in 1936 and had warned Stalin in the last week of August 1939 not to sign a nonaggression pact with Hitler. He had admonished the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay, against “this ‘We who are about to die, salute thee’ attitude,” and asked the British king and queen to visit the United States as an add-on to their trip to Canada in June 1939, partly to warm relations between the two countries and partly because he considered successive British prime ministers—Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain—to be hopelessly irresolute. This caused him to welcome the return of Churchill to government in 1939 and to enter into direct contact with him, even though his recollection of their one previous meeting, in 1919, was not a happy one.

From the time of his 1937 “quarantine” speech in Chicago, in which the president posited the idea of resisting the Axis powers through economic sanctions, Roosevelt tried to prod the British and French into being more resistant to German and Italian aggression. He laboriously explained when importuned by the leaders of those countries that it was hard for him to be as purposeful as they might wish when they, Hitler’s immediate neighbors, were so steeped in passivity and addicted to appeasement. For the next four years after the quarantine speech, he steadily ratcheted up American opinion, but after each oratorical escalation he deftly insisted that nothing had changed. Strangely, King George VI understood Roosevelt’s technique better than Churchill or many of Roosevelt’s own circle. He wrote Roosevelt on June 3, 1941: “I have been so struck by the way you have led public opinion by allowing it to get ahead of you.”

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