My friend whom I’ll call “Carl Ortona” sent me, amidst much recent email traffic, a “mini-review” of Conrad Black’s recent biography Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. Since my occasional favorable comments about FDR on this blog have provoked so much (admittedly thoughtful, articulate) outrage, I decided to pass it on. (OK, I admit it is a little like trolling on my own blog, but what the Hell):
Black’s FDR is very good. Black can seem precious, and in places, his precocious, arrogant yet eager-to-impress schoolboy attitude comes through; e.g., he latches onto the word “pulchritudinous” and uses it throughout in place of fetching, pretty, elegant, etc. — ditto for saturnine, and latin legal phrases — when he describes FDRs sisters dress as p., I said, that’s it, make a mental note and mention it to everybody. Having said all of that, it is a good book and Black demonstrates his thesis amply, that FDR is one of the greatest, arguably the greatest American president, ever.
Black does a good job of demonstrating both FDRs innate sense of genuine compassion and “folksiness” (like the story Allan Bloom loved to tell about Roosevelt addressing the DAR as “we fellow immigrants”). FDRs cold, almost inhuman political utility and cunning, his “almost feminine” sensitivities to personalities, character flaws, strengths, weaknesses, etc. and his ability to seemingly blissfully, callously outwait a crisis until the moment presented itself for striking (for example, keeping Kennedy in the embassy in London despite his pro-Nazi/pro-appeasement attitudes because he needed him to get re-elected; not taking sides in the Spanish civil war because there was nothing to gain by doing so and a lot to gain by staying out even at the expense of appearing inhuman, uncompassionate, etc). Black gives an account in this respect of what a democratic, ‘res publica’ republican Machiavellian really is (yes, a positive usage of Machiavellian). Black’s account of FDR and Stalin and (his claim, not without merit) of FDRs mastery of high-stakes poker is interesting counterpoint to the more common images of FDR being “duped” at Tehran and Yalta. After reading Black’s book I was talking with my parents and my dad made the interesting point that even as a kid he remembered pretty vividly the horrific dread that with FDR dead, “how the hell do we get out of this?” that hit almost everybody. Vis-a-vis De Gaulle, Black also provides one of the best accounts of why the French are the French and so damned infuriating (pp. 957-62,There’s your mini-review. I made it my bed-time/Sunday afternoon reading and got throught it in two months.
I responded as follows:
One of my long-time pet peeves has been the utter failure of big-C Conservatives to see that it was the small-c conservative FDR who saved our bacon. The 1930s and ’40s were times of utter catastrophe, and FDR got us through it with our basic institutions intact, and with the greatest aggregation of military, economic and political power the world has ever seen. Good. It is foolhardy to think this happened by accident. On a related point, there is a lot of whining about the “betrayal” of Eastern Europe, as if FDR could have gone to Yalta and told Stalin what to do. The Red Army captured Eastern Europe. On this issue FDR played a weak, almost non-existent, hand very well. And, as you say, he had utter callousness about abandoning hopeless positions, or people who were no longer of use, with a wave of his cigarette holder. As a follow-up, you should read the relevant portions of AJP Taylor’s good but idiosyncratic book English History, 1914-45. Taylor’s portrait of FDR, as I recall it, is of a man who knew what he wanted, and did and said what he needed to do and say to get it. This is consistent with what you say about Black’s depiction. FDR went after his political and military goals with a focus and cunning which amounted on many occasions to brutality. Again, good. He was not a nice man. In the ’30s and ’40s nice men in positions of authority would have been consumed and destroyed along with everything they were responsible for protecting. Not FDR. Another book which praises FDR, but backs it up with evidence, is Commander In Chief: Franklin Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War by Eric Larrabee. Larrabee demonstrates, among other things, that FDR possessed one of the greatest gifts any executive can have – he knew how to select excellent men, work around their defects to get the most from them, and to delegate what needed to be delegated.
Mr. Ortona went last with this:
There’s always more to add in praise and criticism, but that’s why you read the book and not the critics. I was going to put a comment on your blog about Eastern Europe when the topic came up at a little while ago because it was such an improbable, impossible situation — even to refer to as the Augean Stables is to suggest that there was some Herculean solution that was overlooked or muffed. My only criticism is that Bohemia and Prague were within the 3rd Army’s grasp and that it made some strategic and grand strategic sense to hold it. And that is small fry; It was a 90 year war, and FDR was right (about how to ultimately defeat Stalin). Like Pericles or Lincoln, the only solution would have been for him to not die, serve a fifth or sixth term (highly unlikely) and/or live to be 90 (like Solzehnytsin has Stalin claim in the First Circle, “because the work is not finished…” so many people still need to be eradicated, and humanity have its face shoved into a bowl of milk like a blind, new-born puppy, “there, there’s your happiness, drink up”). It is also now almost entirely forgotten that the Republicans and conservatives were rabidly isolationist and “militantly” anti-militant — any effort to even re-arm was interpreted as a return to pie-eyed Wilsonian “engagement” and was treacherous turf pre-1938 — and that FDR had to rely on the South and put up with their antics (including not pushing too hard against even efforts to stonewall “anti-lynching laws”) while trying to solve real, as opposed to imaginary, racial problems.
I’ll add here that David Frum’s interview with Conrad Black was very good. If this topic interests you, do please read it. Black put one thing very well, describing FDR’s “economic and social programs” as “second or third class economics but first class catastrophe avoidance.” That is precisely correct. Catastrophe was very much in the air in those days.
Michael Barone’s assessment (from his masterpiece, Our Country) is worth citing at length. He notes that his study of American politics from 1928-1988, he focuses on the role of “pivotal politicians”, and that:
Towering above them all, in my view, is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just as Lincoln remade his country in the crucible of the Civil War, so Roosevelt remade his country in the crucibles of the Depression and World War II. … [E]ven in the direst moments he exuded an absolute confidence in the American future that was an essential ingredient of economic recovery and military victory. Roosevelt had his political setbacks, he had his share of silly ideas and perhaps more, his modus operandi was so on occasion so devious as to be dishonest, and in his love of his countrymen he tolerated some failings that later generations would find intolerable. To some he appeared disorganized, slapdash, cheerful to the point of flippancy.
Yet under that carefree exterior was … an iron self-discipline, and beneath his seeming penchant for disorganization was a determination to see that the important goals were achieved. It was not inevitable … that the dizzying downward spiral of the economy be stopped in March 1933, nor was it inevitable in December 1941 that we would win the war – it was inevitable that we not lose but to win we had to go forward and do some very difficult things. But Franklin Roosevelt led his country out of the downward spiral and to total victory, and part of the secret of his success was that through the air of confidence he always maintained, in private and in public, he made recovery and victory seem inevitable even though they were not.
A.J.P. Taylor summed up FDR’s achievement from the British perspective: “Of the three great men at the top, Roosevelt was the only one who knew what he was doing. He made the United States the greatest power in the world at virtually no cost.” Taylor, in a famous footnote, lists Churchill resume, and concludes “saviour of his country”. FDR would be entitled to that, plus others even grander.