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

Roosevelt had always doubted that the appeasement policy would succeed, and he considered the men of Munich, Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, to be morally bankrupt and discredited, along with their coteries of appeasers, still thick in the ranks of both governments. Nothing happened during Sumner Welles’s trip to alter that perception. Roosevelt considered Welles his best career foreign-policy aide, and he liked this fellow alumnus of Groton School (Welles, Harriman, Dean Acheson and the able ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, also were graduates of that school), but Welles was an executant of Roosevelt’s orders and not more.

As for Harriman, he was, as the author volunteers, a highly motivated but rather pedestrian son of a very wealthy man. He hung around the fringes of the Roosevelt administration for two terms reviewing parades of New Deal workfare participants and had to prevail upon his sister and friends to champion him to Roosevelt, who did not even wish him to attend the Atlantic Conference with Churchill in July 1941. Although perfectly adequate, by all accounts, as lend-lease coordinator in Britain and an improvement over Laurence Steinhardt as ambassador to the Soviet Union, Harriman was always a journeyman. He never achieved much in the Roosevelt administration, as Truman’s ambassador in London and commerce secretary, as one-term governor of New York, as Kennedy’s ambassador at large or as cochairman of Johnson’s Vietnam peace delegation. He may deserve some credit for the Limited Test Ban Treaty, but the Laotian neutrality agreement transformed that country into the infiltration super highway of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and he was not even able to negotiate the shape of the table at the Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

He was apparently a competent businessman and a diligent public servant who had an interesting career, but this effort to portray him as a “wise man” who played a seminal role in thirty years of successful American foreign policy is rubbish. There is no record that Roosevelt’s view of anything was altered by Harriman. The British lavished immense attention on him, as they did on any official American as part of Churchill’s desperate and perfervid campaign of ingratiation, waged with the conviction that U.S. entry into the war was the only imaginable deliverance for Britain. To this end, Churchill and his wife seemed not to notice the affair their daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, had with Harriman (and subsequently with the leading American media figure in London, Edward R. Murrow, guru to such future stars of American television news as Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid); or their daughter Sarah Churchill’s affair with Ambassador Winant. (As I observed on these relationships in my biography of FDR, Churchill was “an indulgent parent and a full-service ally.”)

AS AN Australian, Fullilove works in some interesting and relevant Australian material, which gives a refreshingly detached perspective, but he seems a little uncertain of the exact nature of American politics in this period. He refers to Roosevelt’s famous address in Boston on October 30, 1940, as “infamous,” presumably because he said: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Always before he had added the qualifier, “except in case of attack.” But he paid no price for this, as he made the point that if the United States were attacked it ceased to be a foreign war. Fullilove seems to have bought the idea that this was an impetuous commitment. He seems not to realize just how complicated Roosevelt’s path to war was. At the Atlantic Conference, Churchill urged Roosevelt to impose an absolute embargo on the sale of oil to Japan, which was at that point dependent on the United States for 80 percent of its oil, including aviation fuel. Roosevelt said he would retain the right to approve individual applications for export, tanker load by tanker load, so as not to put Japan absolutely to the wall, forcing it to choose between a humiliating exit from China and Indochina or going to war to assure an oil supply (from the Dutch East Indies, subsequently Indonesia). When he returned to Washington, he discovered that Dean Acheson, the assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, had laid down a practice, in the absence of a presidential policy, of declining to permit any exportation of oil to Japan. So Churchill was agitating for what was in fact the status quo, so desperate was he to get the United States into the war, even via the back door in the Pacific.

Roosevelt verbally outlined to the Japanese emissaries a modus vivendi in which the embargo on oil, scrap metal and rice would be partially lifted, while the Japanese would send no more forces to China or Indochina and some Japanese exports to the United States, such as silk, would be resumed. In the end, Roosevelt did not repeat this proposal or put it in writing. The Japanese were interested, as their decrypted diplomatic messages confirmed, but with the Germans at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad Roosevelt concluded it might be necessary for the United States to enter the war now, to assure that Stalin remained in the war. If Stalin made a separate peace with Hitler, it would require many hundreds of divisions and scores of thousands of aircraft to invade Hitler’s Europe successfully. Although Acheson wasn’t an envoy, the author would have done well to work him into his narrative. He was fired by Roosevelt as assistant treasury secretary in 1934 for indiscretions of which he was, in fact, innocent. But the president brought Acheson back into government after he publicly wrote during the 1940 election campaign that FDR had the constitutional authority to lend fifty destroyers to Britain without congressional approval. Roosevelt did so and recalled Acheson to government in consequence. Acheson, of course, remained in government and served with great distinction under President Harry Truman as George C. Marshall’s deputy secretary of state and later as secretary of state.

Fullilove sets a toe in these waters with his question, attributed to the compiler of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence, Warren Kimball: “Who was manipulating whom?” The answer, of course, was that Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt were all, to some degree, trying to manipulate each other. Churchill sought a resurrection of a power balance in Europe, reinforced by an alliance with America, in which Britain would play its centuries-old role as custodian of the fulcrum. Stalin sought the long-dreamed Russian advance into Western Europe. And Roosevelt sought the rout of the isolationists at home, the engagement of the United States in Europe and the Far East, and the gathering of most of the countries in those theaters into a gentle and cooperative subordinacy to the United States. America’s nature would be disguised by an international organization that the Western powers would dominate through their economic and military power and moral force, as well as through the votes of the quiescent Latin Americans and the commendably supportive British dominions.

None of these powerful men could win all he wanted, but Roosevelt was the big winner. Kimball only meant who, between Churchill and Roosevelt, was manipulating whom, and there the answer was neither. Both wanted America in the war and knew it had to happen for the war to end satisfactorily. The rest was tactics, well within Roosevelt’s purview. His judgment was accurate, his decisions correct, his execution brilliant. These five envoys were among the most prominent of his many helpers and well worth attention.

But it was these broader strategic questions that Roosevelt had to weigh. He retained Acheson’s complete embargo on oil exports to Japan; the Japanese responded by attacking the United States and other targets across the Pacific. By that time, Roosevelt already had advised Stalin that Japanese forces had moved south from the Siberian border, enabling Stalin to ship twenty divisions from the Far East across the Trans-Siberian railway as final reinforcements in the successful defense of his two largest cities. Of course, the Soviet Union remained in the war, though there were peace talks with the Germans in Stockholm in 1943. This is the same Roosevelt who stayed in the Soviet embassy at the Tehran Conference, rather than the British, although he assumed (correctly) that his rooms were bugged by the Soviets, because he needed to get Stalin’s support for the cross-channel landings in France, as opposed to Churchill’s hobbyhorse of moving up the Adriatic. Roosevelt was concerned that if the Western Allies did not invade northwestern Europe in 1944, either Stalin would make his peace with Hitler or he would advance so far into Europe that he would bag most of Germany and possibly be able to promote putsches by the powerful French and northern Italian Communist parties. Churchill and his advisers thought the cross-channel operation premature, and were convinced that Stalin supported that option only because he thought that the Germans would push the Allies into the sea, as they had at Dunkirk, Greece, Crete and Dieppe. Roosevelt thought that this might have been Stalin’s motive, but he had more confidence in the ability of the Allies to conduct a successful amphibious invasion and thought it the only way of winning the war strategically, by bringing most of Germany, as well as France, Italy and Japan, under Western occupation and back into the West as democratic allies, even though the Soviets were taking the vast majority of the casualties incurred in subduing Nazi Germany.

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