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Book Review: The New Dealers’ War

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The New Dealers’ War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II
by Thomas Fleming (New York: Basic Books, 2001); 628 pages; $35.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR is considered America’s “good war” of the 20th century.

The First World War is considered the tragic war, which need not have occurred, which could have been ended much earlier than the four years over which it was fought, and which set loose the political demons that plagued the world for most of the rest of the century. Woodrow Wilson said the war was meant to “make the world safe for democracy,” but instead it generated the rise of communism, fascism, and Nazism.

The Korean War cost the lives of more than 50,000 Americans but is the “forgotten war” of the Cold War. And the Vietnam War, which also took the lives of more than 50,000 Americans, is considered the immoral war, fought for the wrong reasons, for the wrong cause, with the wrong methods.

But World War II continues to be portrayed as the just war for a just cause that was fought with harsh but necessary and unavoidable methods. On their course for world domination, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had set Europe and Asia on fire with war and conquest. America had tried to steer a course for neutrality, hoping to remain above and outside the political whirlwind enveloping the globe.

But Japan forced war on the United States with its unprovoked and sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, followed the next day by the U.S. declaration of war against Japan, which in turn was followed by Germany’s declaration of war on the United States. Reluctantly and against their will, the American people were pulled into the Second World War.

But once a part of this world conflict, America took over the mantle of leadership against global tyranny. Cruel and unfortunate methods were used to ensure the victory of freedom over totalitarianism — the fire bombings of German and Japanese cities and finally the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The forces of evil could not be destroyed other than with these tactics. And, besides, this was merely fighting fire with fire, given the disregard for human life of the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists. Through America’s participation in World War II, the world was given a rebirth of freedom.

There are two aspects to this version of the story that are certainly true: The world following the First World War was threatened with the rise of political and economic tyranny, and the American people were brought into the Second World War against their will. Unfortunately, the rest of this story is deeply flawed and open to question.

Thomas Fleming’s new book, The New Dealers’ War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II, attempts to correct the narrative in a way more consistent with the reality of actual events.

Up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, in one political poll after another between 75 and 80 percent of the American people had expressed their desire to remain out of the wars in Europe and Asia. And when Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as president of the United States in 1940, he assured the American people,

While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. 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.

But in spite of the wishes of the American people and the public rhetoric that FDR used to win reelection, he and his administration were searching for a successful “back door to war” to bring the United States into the global conflict.

Roosevelt had first been elected president in 1932 at the bottom of the Great Depression. Once in office in 1933 he initiated his New Deal agenda of saving America through a massive growth and intrusion of the federal government into the political, social, and economic affairs of the nation. But despite the mythology found in most history textbooks, the New Deal did not end the depression; it lingered on until 1940 with unemployment remaining above 10 percent.

Furthermore, in 1935 the Supreme Court declared the more extreme collectivist elements of the New Deal programs to be unconstitutional. And even in the face of his reelection in 1936 with a large majority, his own Democratic Party turned against him when he attempted to “pack” the Supreme Court as a method for establishing centralized control and power over the United States without interference by the federal judiciary.

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, FDR saw an alternative avenue to power and fame: giving the world a New Deal through American leadership and participation in the war. As Fleming documents, in early 1941 Roosevelt had his military and political subordinates prepare plans for an American invasion of Europe in 1943 in conjunction with the British, in violation of the neutrality acts passed by Congress and signed by him.

When he could not find a way to justify asking Congress for a declaration of war against Nazi Germany, FDR turned to the Pacific and followed a diplomatic and military course that forced the Japanese into a tight corner. Tokyo could either accept American terms for peace in Asia or face economic strangulation when the United States froze Japanese assets in July 1941 and imposed an oil embargo on Japan in collaboration with the British and the Dutch (who controlled the oil supplies in Indonesia).

FDR’s rejection of all compromise gestures by the Japanese government in the autumn of 1941 then set the stage for Japan’s desperate attempt to force America into peace terms with its attack on Hawaii.

Fleming devotes most of his book to tracing the course of America’s domestic politics and foreign policy once the United States was in the war. While a master of political intrigue and pragmatism, FDR remained devoted to the ideology of the New Deal, with its assumptions and emphasis on federal paternalism, control, and redistribution. His selection of Henry Wallace as his vice presidential running mate in 1940 clearly showed, Fleming argues, that FDR was determined to see to it that the man who might follow him into the White House should be someone equally committed to political and economic collectivism.

In foreign policy FDR was determined to make the world over in his New Deal image through an alliance with the Soviet Union and the advocacy of increased government intervention and command over social and economic affairs as part of a postwar vision.

Imbued with a spirit of moral right against the forces of evil, FDR insisted upon unconditional surrender for both Germany and Japan. When it became clear that there was a large anti-Nazi movement at work in military and political circles in Germany, made up of people willing to risk their own lives to kill Hitler and end the war, FDR refused to recognize them or look for a way to end the war sooner, short of unconditional surrender.

And in spite of strong opposition among many American political and military leaders to instituting and continuing civilian terror bombings of German cities — which they called “baby killing” — Roosevelt insisted on intensifying the air campaign against Germany.

On the home front, Fleming explains, Republicans and conservative Democrats won larger numbers in the 1942 and 1944 congressional elections, placing barriers in the way of implementing an agenda for maintaining the wartime controls after the end of the war.

Democratic opposition also prevented FDR from winning Henry Wallace’s renomination as the vice presidential candidate in the 1944 presidential election.

And to win the war, Roosevelt had to tone down and reverse the strong anti-business rhetoric and attitudes of the 1930s. Instead, a wide variety of business interests now became even more entangled with government interventionist and regulatory policies as a way to maintain anti-competitive positions in the postwar period.

Fleming’s conclusion is that in spite of FDR’s best efforts, the New Deal course that he wanted America to follow after the Second World War was frustrated, with the United States set on a more moderate track after 1945. What he does not give sufficient emphasis to is the extent to which the New Deal mentality of intrusive and dominating government carried over and continued into the Truman administration and thereafter through the rest of the 20th century, and now into the 21st century.

FDR’s dream of a world set right by America has also remained a lasting legacy of the New Deal, with U.S. political, military, and economic intervention around the world for more than half a century. Indeed, the policies that led America into both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars, the Persian Gulf War, and the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia all have their origin in the precedents set by FDR and his New Dealers.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).