Remembering Franklin D. Roosevelt After 75 Years

April 14, 2020 Updated: April 14, 2020

Commentary

Almost unnoticed on Easter Sunday was the 75th anniversary of the death of the greatest American president since Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By the left, he is manipulated like prayer beads, to legitimize everything they wish to accomplish, from universal government-operated (“free”) medical care to open borders, (both of which he would have militantly opposed).

On the right, he is still mindlessly lambasted as the creator of every aspect of government that is overweening, oppressive, and extravagant.

To the historically knowledgeable members of the centrist majority, he is the man who brought the country out of the Great Depression while preserving 95 per cent of the economic and political system that was in extremis on the day he was inaugurated (March 4, 1933); and as the leader who conducted America to victory in Western Europe and across the Pacific.

Workfare

He was not a leftist by contemporary standards. He opposed cash payments to the unemployed if they were capable of participating in his vast workfare programs, which produced drought control, flood control, rural electrification, immense works of reforestation, establishment of national parks, roads, public works, and much of what remains, in its now bedraggled state, of the infrastructure of America, (such as the Lincoln Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge).

He has suffered historically in comparison with contemporary regimes in Europe and Japan for having high unemployment rates in the late thirties. But that is because the huge numbers of unemployed absorbed in the military and in defense production work in Germany, Japan, France, Italy and Great Britain are counted as employed, while the many millions (more usefully) employed in Roosevelt’s public works and conservation projects are considered unemployed.

All of Roosevelt’s sympathetic biographers prior to Jean Edward Smith and myself, fell for this. (Comparatives with the Soviet Union are difficult, both because its published figures cannot be trusted, and because of Stalin’s liquidations and imprisonment of millions of productive members of the workforce.)

European Diplomacy

The ancient myth that Roosevelt gave away Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union is rebutted by all official accounts of the proceedings of the relevant conferences at Teheran and Yalta. It was explicitly agreed that all liberated countries would be governed by those chosen in absolutely free elections to do so. The Western Allies abided by that in France, Italy, West Germany and the rest of the countries they liberated, and Stalin ignored it in Eastern Europe, precipitating the Cold War which was won by the containment strategy devised by the strategic team Roosevelt bequeathed, (Truman, Marshall, Acheson, Kennan, and Bohlen).

Roosevelt wanted no demarcation of zones of occupation in Germany because he believed (correctly) that once the Western Allies were across the Rhine, Germany would see it was defeated and would continue to fight like tigers in the east but would fold quickly in the west to get most of their country into the hands of comparatively civilized occupiers.

Churchill agreed with Stalin on pre-set zones because he was afraid that with only 16 divisions in and near Germany, (to 75 American and about 160 Russian), Britain would end up with an embarrassingly small zone. Roosevelt’s plan was to wait for the development of (an American monopoly of) atomic weapons to use that and a very large reconstruction aid package as the stick and carrot in persuading Stalin to adhere to his commitments.

Even though Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans were elected in 1952 partly to be more assertive in relations with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower opened the first post-war summit conference at Geneva in 1955 by demanding that the USSR honor its Teheran and Yalta commitments.

Benign Genius

After these 75 years, Roosevelt should be recognized for several acts of benign genius. In leading the country out of the Great Depression, he ascribed all blame to non-existent categories of public enemies: “monopolists, war-profiteers, economic royalists, and the malefactors of great wealth.”

There were no such people but it was against this fiction that he mobilized public anger; if he had ever said something like “The Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, will pay for this,” their homes would have been burned down with the occupants in them. He got the country out of the Depression as unrancorously as possible.

He gradually shifted his base of support through his astonishing four presidential election victories: from the progressives who liked the New Deal but were isolationists, and as war clouds darkened, to the southern Democrats, who didn’t like the equal treatment in welfare terms of the African-Americans (though they remained segregated) but who supported strong armed forces and were traditionally favorable to Britain and France.

He realized that if the United States did not become engaged in Western Europe and the Far East, both those critical regions could be overrun by anti-democratic powers that would isolate and threaten the Americas, and democratic civilization could be at risk every generation. He did the necessary to maintain Britain and Canada in the war through Lend-Lease, which gave them everything they needed for the lease of bases in the Americas and deferred payment, while enacting the greatest arms build-up in world history and impeding the aggressions of Germany and Japan as much as he could without actually initiating war on them.

When he cut off oil to Japan, (which imported 85 per cent of its oil from the U.S.), unless Japan desisted from its aggression in China and Indochina, he reasoned correctly that eventually Japan would attack the United States. Thus did he bring a united nation into the war, which could not have been won without the United States.

He ultimately defeated the domestic isolationists by inventing the United Nations as a way of making internationalism less threatening while somewhat disguising from the rest of the world, in collective action, the overwhelming post-war ascendancy of the United States, which in addition to its atomic monopoly, had half the economic product of the entire war-ravaged world.

Invading Normandy

Like all Western statesmen starting with Richelieu, he saw that the winner of the war was whoever controlled Germany. And he saw that to be sure that that was the Anglo-Americans, he had to prevail over Churchill’s preference for continuation in Italy and the Balkans and up the Adriatic and resistance to a cross-Channel attack.

To gain approval of the Normandy invasion, he stayed in the Russian legation in Teheran in November 1943, though he knew the rooms would be bugged, rather than the British embassy, (the U.S. legation was outside the city and there were security risks in moving between them). He did so to concert in advance with Stalin that he would prefer a cross-channel operation to anything in southern Europe, and Stalin was by now entitled to a major western invasion of Hitler’s Europe—the Italian campaign was too easily contained to qualify.

The British thought they would likely be defeated on the beaches by the Germans and thought Stalin believed the same thing and had swindled Roosevelt. FDR agreed with them about Stalin’s motives but was confident the invasion would succeed and that Germany would be unable to stall the allied offensive in northern France as they had in World War I.

Thus Roosevelt gained adoption of the best policy for Britain and least favorable to Russia, by persuading the Russian leader to assure its adoption over British objections. The Western Allies regained France, Italy, and Germany, and added Japan, and Russia had only temporary and illicit occupation of eastern Europe after absorbing, as between the Big Three, 95 per cent of the casualties in subduing Nazi Germany, and ending up with just a fifth of Germany. It was the greatest triumph of American diplomacy since Franklin persuaded the French to go to war for republican democracy and secession from empire.

In domestic and international politics, and in personal relations, (even with his wife and his mother), Roosevelt was an artistic maneuverer. He was impersonal, ruthless, and enigmatic, behind his over-powering charm and appearance of joviality.

As his distinguished chosen successor, Harry Truman said: “He was the coldest man I ever knew; he didn’t give a damn about you or me or anyone else, but he was a great leader.” That he achieved what he did while as heavily handicapped by polio as he was, made his life somewhat miraculous. Americans should bury the polarized memories and myths about FDR, and recognize him with his faults, for what he achieved, as they have Lincoln and Washington. And if the space and talent can be found to do it, FDR (and Ronald Reagan) should be added to Mount Rushmore.

Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He is the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.