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Book Review: Hard Bargain

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Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill’s Arm, Evaded the Law and Changed the Role of the American Presidency
by Robert Shogan (New York: Scribner, 1995); 329 pages; $24.

Franklin Roosevelt was a master of manipulation and intrigue. His entire New Deal was presented to the American public as a scheme to save the American system of free enterprise, when it actually undermined the very principles of individual freedom and free-market capitalism upon which the country was founded. In the name of saving American democracy from radical revolution, FDR subverted the entire constitutional order upon which the United States was based.

But it was the Second World War that gave an international dimension to Roosevelt’s manipulations and intrigues. Indeed, they were now raised to a fine art. This is the theme of Robert Shogan’s recent book, Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill’s Arm, Evaded the Law and Changed the Role of the American Presidency. The focus of Mr. Shogan’s story is the “destroyers-for-bases” deal that FDR made with Winston Churchill in August 1940.

In 1937, shortly after his reelection to a second term to the presidency, Franklin Roosevelt was already thinking about running for a third term. But the domestic situation in 1938 did not make his prospects for reelection promising. The American economy, still not recovered from the Great Depression years of the early 1930s, went into a new downturn. A growing number of people began talking about “the Roosevelt recession.”

In 1939, the answer to Roosevelt’s domestic problems emerged: the war in Europe between Nazi Germany and Great Britain and France. FDR soon convinced himself that he was the only person in America who could prepare the United States for the new emergency.

The year 1940 brought spectacular Nazi victories on the European continent. After half a year of a “phony war” on the Western Front, the German army and navy invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940. This was followed in May by the German invasion of Holland, Belgium, and France. In June, the French signed an armistice that resulted in more than half of France being permanently occupied by Germany.

In the face of this military debacle, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as British prime minister in May. He immediately began bombarding Roosevelt with appeals for military assistance, especially for the United States to sell or give fifty destroyers to the British to help ward off a German invasion of England and to use as escorts for merchant vessels that were bringing war material to Britain. Roosevelt replied that he could not fulfill Churchill’s request because he was prevented from doing so by neutrality laws passed by Congress (and signed by him) that denied him the authority to either sell or give warships to a belligerent power.

However, in late May, FDR agreed to transfer twenty torpedo boats to the British without informing Congress. When Navy Secretary Charles Edison objected, Roosevelt told him: “Forget it and do what I told you to do.”

But leading noninterventionists in the Congress got wind of FDR’s subterfuge, and the resulting outcry caused Roosevelt to revoke the transfer.

The president realized that any further attempts along these lines would threaten a public conflict with Congress and endanger his chances for reelection to a third term. He, therefore, turned to indirection and intrigue to accomplish his goal.

The “hard bargain” that Mr. Shogan refers to in the title of his book is the deal FDR offered to Churchill-American destroyers given to Britain in exchange for Britain’s leasing property in the West Indies and Canada — for ninety-nine years — for American military bases. Churchill replied that such an agreement would be a threat to British sovereignty. But Roosevelt insisted that this was the only way that he could evade Congress and the neutrality acts. With destroyers-for-bases, he could argue, after the fact, that he was acting in the interests of national security by providing a more secure defense of the U.S.

FDR and Churchill signed letters of agreement. FDR announced the destroyers-for-bases agreement during the Labor Day weekend in 1940. When reporters asked him if congressional approval was required, he replied: “It is all over; it is all done.” When the reporters asked him for details about the agreement, Roosevelt answered that it involved “all kinds of things that nobody here would understand, so I won’t mention them. It is a fait accompli ; it is done this way.”

An uproar resulted among the noninterventionists. Constitutional expert and political scientist Edward Corwin asked: “Why not any and all of Congress’s specifically delegated powers be set aside by the President’s ‘executive power’ and the country be put on a totalitarian basis without further ado?” Senator Arthur Vandenberg called Roosevelt’s deal “the most arbitrary and dictatorial action ever taken by any President in the history of the United States.” Congressman George Tinkham said, “There is no difference between his [FDR’s] action from either Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.”

In his concluding chapter, Mr. Shogan argues that Roosevelt’s destroyer-for-bases deal resulted in:

. . . a high price [being] paid in undermining the rule of law. . . . In implementing the destroyer deal, Roosevelt followed a pattern of manipulation and concealment that breached trust of the American citizenry. To avoid being held accountable, he relied whenever he could on proxies, at the cost of delay and confusion. . . . The most pertinent question about the destroyer deal and Roosevelt’s other actions was the extent to which they created circumstances in which attack [upon the U.S.] became inevitable. And this was an issue which the President dealt with through evasion and obfuscation. . . . After expanding presidential power to forge the New Deal’s domestic reforms, Roosevelt demonstrated how this same power could also be used to work his will abroad.

With this precedent, Mr. Shogan argues, the door was opened for every president after FDR to use the same executive power to rationalize and justify the sending of American troops to Korea, the Middle East, Vietnam, Somalia, and Haiti. After half a century of foreign intervention and over a hundred thousand slain Americans in foreign wars since 1945, the destroyer-for-bases deal of 1940 has truly turned out to be a “hard bargain.”

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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).