FDR, the President whom nobody knew

Robert Dallek's biography adds very little that is new to our knowledge of an almost totally inscrutable President

Conrad Black

This book is a pastiche of extracts from other secondary sources, extracts from some of FDR’s more noteworthy speeches, and relies excessively on letters with Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret (known as Daisy) Suckley (which were bought by this reviewer when Ms Suckley died). It is a rather straight chronology and there is not much to guide the reader to insightful conclusions about Roosevelt’s life or presidency that a person already fairly conversant with the subject would not already know.

There are some good anecdotes few would have seen before. But there is too much mind-reading — again and again we read that Roosevelt thought or believed something which is just unsubstantiated speculation. As Dallek regularly acknowledges, Roosevelt was almost completely inscrutable, presented a different exterior to everyone, according to criteria other than being frank and guileless, even up to a point including Ms. Suckley with whom he never discussed policy. Roosevelt put little of importance to paper, confided in no one, and no one has any idea what Roosevelt thought at any time and can only judge by his actions. Dallek manages this well when detailing how he sought a third term, where there is no reason to believe that Roosevelt ever had any real intention of retiring after two terms, though he finessed it deftly and managed a facsimile of a spontaneous draft when the convention came. For all his bunk about longing “to go back to my home on the Hudson”, if that were what he really wanted, he would have done it. For once, his second Vice President, Henry Wallace, had it right when he said: “No one knows him; no one knows anything about him.”

This is billed as a political biography, but is pretty sketchy about how Roosevelt managed to corral the progressive Left for his domestic programmes, and then, as the Depression receded and the war scare arose, he shifted his workfare programmes that alleviated unemployment from conservation and public works — what would today be called infrastructure — to defence production, including the soon to be famous aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. Dallek frequently comments on voter discontent, between references to his always high public approval ratings. Roosevelt never had a lower approval rating than 55 per cent, and on the day of his third inauguration, an astounding 71 per cent of the country approved of his performance in office. Except to a slight degree in 1940, there was never much suspense about the outcome of his election campaigns.

Recovery from the Great Depression was obviously the yardstick for his early performance. Unemployment was about 30 per cent of the workforce (17 million people) when Roosevelt was inaugurated, and there was no direct relief for them, but Dallek doesn’t shed much light on what happened to their numbers in Roosevelt’s first two terms. He states that there were still ten million unemployed when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the Republic and ran for a third term in 1940. In fact, unemployment was somewhat under ten million in a larger workforce, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament programme Roosevelt had put in place, and to the country’s first peacetime conscription, which he called a “muster”, that he had just enacted.

It is bizarre that pro-Roosevelt historians like Dallek, James MacGregor Burns, Arthur Schlesinger, William Leuchtenberg and Doris Goodwin, allow Roosevelt’s critics and hostile historians to get away with this unjust denigration of the New Deal, that its conservation and public works and specialised programmes (including for writers and artists) had only reduced unemployment from 30 to 15 per cent.

This canard of unquenchable unemployment has been authoritatively debunked by Roosevelt biographers of the last 15 years. The workfare programmes kept between five and eight million people usefully employed for Roosevelt’s first two terms building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages, until defence requirements and the reviving private sector completed the extermination of unemployment. The workfare participants were just as much, and more usefully, employed as the millions of conscripts and defence workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared. Those unable to work received Social Security unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on; one need not look much farther to see the principal source of Roosevelt’s political success, apart from his overpowering public and private personality, infallible intuition about American public opinion, skill at political tactics and skullduggery, and formidable oratorical talents. Some of these factors get a fair airing in this book, but some do not.

There is nothing about the great New Deal parades and spectacles involving show business people (who almost all were militant Roosevelt supporters); as economics, it was a pass, but as a morale booster and as catastrophe-abatement and avoidance, it was brilliant. There is no real focus on FDR’s guaranty of bank deposits, trusteeship of insolvent banks merged and refloated with preferred share issues (the entire financial system had collapsed by March  1933 and almost all the banks and stock and commodity exchanges were closed). There is little about promotion of both collective bargaining and cartelism to raise wages and prices, and, with the partial demonetisation of gold, to induce modest inflation, the refinancing of millions of mortgages and rebuilding farm prices by having farmers vote democratically, by category of agriculture, on production levels, to assure sustainable price levels and an adequate national food supply, while maintaining unharvested capacity in what was called a soil bank. His public works schemes massively advanced rural electrification and flood and drought control. It was all very innovative and 1936 was the only election in history when a Democratic president carried every farm state (with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, because his opponent, Barry Goldwater, was deemed an extremist).

Dallek’s coverage of Roosevelt as a war leader is more informative. But someone relying entirely on this book for an assessment of Roosevelt would not realise how imaginative his senior military promotions were. George Marshall was promoted over many others to be army chief of staff, Chester W. Nimitz was a personal selection as Pacific Fleet commander after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, the almost unknown Dwight Eisenhower was the president’s choice to command in Africa and Western Europe, and he reactivated Douglas MacArthur in the south-west Pacific after six years of retirement, despite the political animosity between the two. All performed brilliantly in their roles.

This book should have been clearer than it was in explaining that Roosevelt extended US territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles and ordered the US Navy to attack on detection any German ship discovered in that vast area, while, through Lend-Lease, extending the British and Canadians, and later the USSR, anything they asked on very lax deferred payment terms. It was, to say the least, an idiosyncratic definition of neutrality, and those powers could not have continued in the war without it.

There is minimal presentation of the competing strategies for pursuing the war, and underestimation of British scepticism about the invasion of France. There is no mention of why Roosevelt stayed in the Soviet legation at Tehran, apart from the remoteness of the US mission (and it was Roosevelt’s emissary, Republican general Patrick Hurley, not Stalin as Dallek writes, who recommended it), in order to ensure that Stalin was lined up in advance to advocate the cross-Channel invasion rather than Churchill’s plan for attacking in the Balkans and counting on Turkey joining the war. This was a diplomatic stroke of genius, and Dallek seems completely unaware of it. The scepticism of Churchill and the chief of staff, Brooke, to the invasion persisted until about six weeks before D-Day.

Dallek doesn’t focus on British grievances that the cost of Lend-Lease was excessive (which, in all the circumstances, was rather ungrateful and which American historians generally ignore), though he does describe Roosevelt’s generosity in dealing with Britain’s straitened financial circumstances by 1944. There is no mention here that the Churchill-Stalin spheres of influence agreement (October 1944) included Hungary, and no mention — not a word — of the Battle of the Ardennes, which delayed the crossing of the Rhine by three months and cost the Americans 60,000 casualties. There is not a hint even of the existence of the European Advisory Council, which set the Allied occupation zones in Germany. There is not a word about the fate of Czechoslovakia, as it was not mentioned at either of the tripartite summit conferences or in the Churchill-Stalin agreement. Dallek ignores the fact that Roosevelt opposed any demarcation of spheres of influence or German occupation zones, because he correctly foresaw that once the Western Allies were across the Rhine, the Germans would fight with their customary ferocity in the savage war with the Russians in the East, but give way quickly in the West to put themselves in the hands of the more generous Anglo-Americans. For the same reasons, Stalin wanted the demarcation, and so did Churchill, but that was because of his concerns about the Western front and his consciousness that Britain would only have 16 divisions in Germany, to about 75 for the US, and the UK might end up with a small zone.

Dallek does debunk the egregious falsehood peddled by Roosevelt’s critics, especially disgruntled British imperialists and oft-defeated Republican opponents, that he was fooled and swindled by Stalin into giving away Eastern Europe. On balance, Dallek underplays the genius and fortitude of Churchill and Roosevelt in transforming the world of late 1940, when four of the great powers, Germany, Japan, Italy and France, were dictatorships hostile to the Anglo-Saxons, in five years to the Anglo-American liberation or occupation of those countries and the beginning of fruitful alliances with all of them as prospering democracies, while the Russians, as between the big three, suffered 95 per cent of the casualties in subduing Nazi Germany and 99 per cent of the physical damage. Dallek certainly credits Roosevelt as a great president and leader, but is a bit imprecise about his accomplishments, apart from political longevity.

His official reason for adding a book that doesn’t tell us anything new or even reaffirm important parts of the Roosevelt story is that it contains more information about his declining health. It doesn’t; it just tiresomely repeats that Roosevelt explained to Daisy Suckley that he was generally more tired after late 1943. We knew that, and Dallek does confirm that his increasing exhaustion didn’t seem to affect his judgment of the major issues and personalities. We read too often that Roosevelt “fled” Washington for breaks from it — so do all presidents. Dallek is a little hard on Roosevelt’s record in saving Jews. He did admit more Jews than all other country outside Nazi occupation, and, as Dallek does admit, faced very difficult problems with public and congressional opinion. The sad saga of the liner St Louis is not mentioned.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life has the air of Dallek, octogenarian and rabidly partisan Democratic biographer of modern Democratic presidents, checking the FDR box, having written biographies of Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, as well as a dutiful and clumsy sandbag job on Republicans Nixon and Kissinger. The credibility of the author is not raised by his flat assertion in the preface of the book that Nixon rigged the 1968 election by violating the Logan Act of 1799 and inciting South Vietnamese non-participation in Lyndon Johnson’s peace negotiations. This is a complete fabrication.Johnson pretended that there had been a breakthrough in the Paris talks, and that peace could be imminent. The president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, did not need any help figuring out which presidential candidate would be preferable from his viewpoint. This is just rank partisan propaganda, of a piece with a column Robert Dallek published in November on NBC’s website, likening President Trump to rabble-rouser Huey P. Long, red-baiter Joseph R. McCarthy, and arch-segregationist George C. Wallace: not history and not a serious perspective on history.

This isn’t a bad book, and is a passable read, but there are better books on the subject.

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