Franklin Roosevelt and the Nazi Threat
From: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom
By Conrad Black-
Comments by RJ Garfunkel
“Roosevelt had recognized from the earliest moments of the Third Reich that Western democracy could not coexist with it. He came to believe, by early 1939 at the latest, that the United States would be required to be the indispensable force to rid the world of Nazism and it would emerge not only as a post isolationist country bat as the pre imminent nation on earth. 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.
British historian D.C. Watts wrote ‘His personality was overpoweringly regal; his advisors constituted a court rather than a cabinet. His closest supporters complained that he deliberately concealed the processes of his mind, and that he never talked frankly, even with the people who were loyal to him. He displayed to them a mass of conflicting characteristics, not so much ill balanced as constantly shifting in balance*
*In consistent in his inconsistencies, cold and distant behind the warmth of personality with which he could overwhelm even the most hardened visitor, listening always to some private voice whose tones we can recognize but never overhear, and whose advice we can imagine but never verify, his protean, almost chameleon like changes, his hesitancies, his willingness to leave initiative to others, the freedom with which he abused others for not acting with the strength he was not prepared to display himself, all this is difficult to reconcile with the reputation he has enjoyed as the great leader of the democracies. And yet a great leader he certainly was.
Like an agile predator, he knew when to emerge, reveal his design, and execute it. And once determined to lead opinion and implement a policy, he was unflappable, devious, utterly determined, an unusually inspiring. Now, in early 1939, his course, though indiscernible to others, was clear to him. It could be summarized in six points.
First, he had to complete the conquest of the Depression by arming America.
Second, he would arrange a virtual draft to a third term as the candidate of peace through strength.
Third, he would complete the acquisition of an overwhelming level of military might.
Fourth, and assuming a new world war was already in progress, he would engineer righteous hostilities with Germany and the lesser dictatorships, ensuring that the dictators would be seen as the aggressors.
The fifth stage would be winning the war and leading the world to a post imperial Pax Americana, in which, sixth, Woodrow Wilson’s goals of safety for democracy and international legality would be established in some sort of American-led international organization.
Nothing less can explain Roosevelt’s conduct from Munich on. No other American leader has ever conceived an immensely ambitious plan for making over the world.
Hans Dieckhoff, the German ambassador in Washington up into late 1938, recognized that Roosevelt had a ‘pathological hatred’ of Hitler, and was ‘Hitler’s most dangerous opponent,’ The President had persuaded the ‘credulous and mentally dull American people’ that Germany was ‘America’s enemy number one.’ The observant chargee Hans Thomsen headed the Embassy after the withdrawal of Dieckhoff. Thomsen constantly warned the Wilhelmstrasse and the Reichsfuerher himself that Roosevelt sought the ‘annihilation of Nazi Germany and the nullification of the New Order in Europe.’ Thomsen also predicted that Roosevelt would, in the event of war, try ‘creating the conditions for, and a skillful timing of, the entry in to war on their side (Germany’s enemies’) side.’ He cleverly foresaw that ‘Roosevelt will not neglect the possibility that as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces he has the power to issue orders which in the course of execution might lead to the creation of a state of war. In the face of this Congress is powerless.’ Thomsen told Berlin that Roosevelt has ‘pathological hatred’ of Hitler and Mussolini, and even predicted that Roosevelt, in furtherance of his goals, might seek a third term as president.
The duel between Roosevelt and Hitler would become increasingly elaborate, like a primeval war dance, until the two mortal enemies came to grips with each other.”
Comments by Richard J. Garfunkel:
I selected these passages from Lord Black’s marvelous book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt because I felt it summed up quite well the complexity of his character, his underlying goals that were well masked, and his determination to find a way to lead the world in eliminating the scourge of Hitlerism.
Many have tried to capture the elusive personality of the great man. James MacGregor Burns in his seminal histories of FDR, The Lion and the Fox, and the Soldier of Freedom, attempted to capture the essence of his underlying strategy of both weathering and conquering the Depression and bringing a lethargic, isolationist America into the mindset of becoming the Arsenal of Democracy. America always had been a haven for escapists that were able to runaway from the political, social and religious ravages of the Old World. America had always been able, in a simpler time, able to rely on two vast oceans to protect it from foreign threats. But be that as it may, the threat to the stability of Europe, the specter of war and its possible impact on the Americas started to emerge with the rise of dictators across Europe. As a result of the First World War, old empires and dynasties had crashed and new states in this post royal age emerged with fragile semi-democratic governments. The struggles of nationhood, along with the onset of the worldwide Depression brought in a new age of strongman rule. Eventually the model of the corporate or fascist state that had emerged in Italy with Mussolini started to be replicated throughout Eastern Europe. Some were amalgams of various peoples like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and others were more homogenous states like Hungary and Bulgaria that were carved from old empires. But whether they were fascist, or semi-fascist or Kingdoms that struggled to keep its warring and contentious minorities separated they were all vulnerable to the greater desires and objectives or the larger totalitarian states, Germany and the Soviet Union.
Franklin Roosevelt, like few other western leaders, was able to see the threat of this trend. He attempted, against great odds, to craft a position contrary to the conventional Western trend of know-nothingness. That thinking set the stage for his famous, but ill-fated speech in Chicago. In Roosevelt’s famous “Quarantine Speech” of October 5,1937, the President said:
‘The epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.”
This was delivered almost two years before the outbreak of the Second World War and it brought almost universal condemnation by a vast number of America’s editorial pages. It stimulated cries from the isolationist right for his impeachment and American Liberty Lobbyists and other xenophobic groups criticized it as warmongering. His remarks and their reaction reflected his future uphill battle in alerting America to the threat from overseas, the difficulty of repealing or working around the Neutrality Act, and the challenge of re-arming the country and building up its preparedness. It was another difficult lesson that FDR learned in his difficult second term. He had always said that a leader must be careful not to get so far ahead of his constituency so that when he looks back he can see none of his followers. FDR learned that harsh lesson with the Federal Court Re-Organization Plan, known as the Court Packing, and his attempt to intervene in Democratic Primaries before the 1938 mid-term elections. His attempt to rid the party of its right wing Neanderthals in both the north and south backfired badly.
As we all know too well, the 20th century and its age of invention brought the world much closer together. The malevolent forces, that had always been out there, and for a long time were insurmountable distances away, started to encroach on the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt understood more then anyone that it would take great personal skills to keep this country armed, unified and motivated in order to protect and defend not only itself, but also, its friends, fellow democracies, and allies from being overwhelmed.
Of course his deception, and seemingly subtle and not so subtle half-truths masked his plan to arm America, help our allies and keep his political friends and enemies guessing.
As it was said by James MacGregor Burns, “while he never formalized his highly personal methods of political administration, and indeed ignored all abstract formulations of administrative problems, he probably was well aware of the justification of his methods in terms of his need to keep control of his establishment. Certainly he hid not embrace unorthodox managerial techniques out of ignorance of orthodox ones.”
Basically much of the criticism of FDR’s style of management came from people who misunderstood the complexity of the political world that he was dealing with. Harold Smith, who became budget director in 1939, had difficulty with FDR as an administrator. At first he was disconcerted, along with many of subordinates over what he and others saw as erratic methods. Years later, as the size and immensity of the job Roosevelt faced, fell into a more focused view and retrospective, Smith told Robert Sherwood that Roosevelt “may have been one of history’s greatest administrative geniuses, ‘He was a real artist in government,’ Smith had concluded.
Of course on the other hand, FDR engendered much frustration over his methodology with the closest of his associates. As the world hurtled toward international fratricide in the last year of peace in 1939, Harold Ickes, one of his most loyal soldiers (The father of Clinton advisor Harold Ickes Jr., who, lived from1874-1952, was Secretary of the Interior from 1933-46 and was cum laude from the 2nd graduating class from the University of Chicago, was an independent progressive that supported Republicans and others but was drawn to Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. He remained closely aligned with the Progressive movement through the 1920’s, but grew frustrated at trying to “progressivise” Republicans and eventually headed up the Western Independent Republican Committee for Roosevelt in 1932.), who was known as “Honest Harold,” blurted to FDR’s face, “You are a wonderful person but you are one of the most difficult men to work with that I ever known!” FDR answered, “Because I get too hard at times?” Ickes answered, “No, you never get too hard but you won’t talk frankly even with the people who are loyal to you and of whose loyalty you are fully convinced. You keep your cards close up against your belly…” If the President would confide in his advisers, Ickes went on, their advice would prevent him from making mistakes. Roosevelt took the criticism with good humor- but did not change his methods. (The Lion and the Fox, James MacGregor Burns)
Of course this reflects part of FDR’s strength and weaknesses. FDR was able to depend on a coterie of extremely loyal and discreet people were part of his inner circle and team. But he was always quite cautious about revealing his intentions or complete plans. Maybe he was innately distrustful. He was brought up as an only child and kept his thoughts to himself. He was not a complainer and at an early age he had a broken tooth and an exposed root and refused to tell his mother. Though vulnerable throughout his life to numerous attacks of poor health, his strength of mind and body always helped him to rebound quickly. When after years of being around adults, (he did not go to Groton until he was 14 years old), he came in contact with his own peers in school and made a great effort to ingratiate himself. Quite often, as part of the hurly-burley of youthful expressiveness, his classmates rebuffed him. Many of his fellow classmates had already established friendships years before young Franklin entered Groton. It seemed that his difficulty with his peers extended to college, and it was there he was blackballed in his attempt to get into the exclusive eating club Porcellian. But he did get along with young fellows at school. He had sensitivity towards them as a young man and many appreciated that concern. One younger boy at Groton, Sumner Welles, adored FDR and later on he became his valued Under Secretary of State. FDR had a stubborn “Dutch” streak as he liked to say, and he established early on in his social; and political career a strong sense of secrecy. Even his engagement to the young Eleanor Roosevelt was kept secret for a year. He did not confide in people normally and if he did it was “off the record,” a political idiom that he coined. Throughout his career FDR had a penchant for secrecy and veiled his true purposes with guile, duplicity, and charm. Many left his office convinced that they had “captured” his ear. But of course he had a tendency to say to his guest the he “understood,” their positions. Most assumed that he had them with the impression that he “agreed” with them, but in fact Roosevelt was saying that he understood their positions.
To be continued… rjg