When the United States entered the First World War, in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced his policy. It would be, “Force! Force to the utmost! Force without stint or limit!” That it would be force directed against the American people themselves soon became evident.
On the economic front, as Murray Rothbard wrote, World War I was “the critical watershed for the American business system.” A war-collectivism was instituted which “served as the model, the precedent, and the inspiration for state corporate capitalism for the remainder of the century.” The Lever Act alone put Washington in charge of the production and distribution of all food and fuel in the country. One of the chief progressives, Herbert Hoover, was appointed food administrator of the United States. As such, among his many initiatives, Hoover — afterwards a revered “conservative” elder statesman — had the government purchase the entire U.S. and Cuban sugar crops. Another progressive, Bernard Baruch, head of the War Industries Board, fixed prices and allocated priorities throughout much of the economy.
Robert Higgs, in Crisis and Leviathan, lists some of the major statist intrusions in the course of the war:
“By the time of the armistice, the government had taken over the ocean-shipping, railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered hundreds of manufacturing plants; entered into massive enterprises on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding, wheat trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend huge sums to business directly or indirectly and to regulate the private issuance of securities; established official priorities for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many raw materials; fixed the prices of dozens of important commodities; intervened in hundreds of labor disputes; and conscripted millions of men for service in the armed forces.”
Shrewdly, the Washington planners assured themselves of the collaboration of big business and organized labor by guaranteeing high profit margins and by pushing wherever possible for unionization of the sectors of the economy they now controlled.
Franklin Roosevelt, the dynamic young assistant secretary of the Navy, who already cherished presidential ambitions, was an avid spectator of this statist tidal wave. Hoover and Baruch were among his close friends; the latter was to remain so to the end of FDR’s life. Much in Roosevelt’s early New Deal, especially the National Recovery Administration (NRA), was copied from what he himself called “the great cooperation of 1917 and 1918.”
Besides wholesale violations of economic freedom, the war years saw the brutal suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, especially by means of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Anyone who voiced dissent from the government’s line was branded a traitor and treated accordingly. This, too, was noted by the young Navy bureaucrat, as was the supine acquiescence of the U.S. Supreme Court in these blatant infringements of the constitutional rights of Americans.
Over at the Navy Department, when Roosevelt wasn’t conspiring against his boss, Josephus Daniels, he was coming up with one brainstorm after another. If one scheme didn’t pan out, he would go off in a different direction. The main thing was just to keep on doing things — the model for his conduct in the New Deal. Of course, the U.S. Navy lent its full support to Britain in tightening the hunger-blockade around Germany, with the aim, and result, of starving the civilian population. Roosevelt’s pet project was the building of a barrage of mines across the entrance to the North Sea, between Scotland and Norway, to prevent U-boats from reaching the Atlantic. The cost was $80 million. But the U-boat commanders found it easy to maneuver under and around the barrage. At most, it cost the Germans six submarines. It had no effect whatever on the course of the war in the North Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Eleanor had her hands full, raising five children and learning the social graces required by the Washington set she and her husband were obliged to travel in. She was given to occasional gaffes. When a reporter asked her how she was managing her household under wartime conditions, she replied that her ten servants were very good at coming up with cost-cutting suggestions. It didn’t help that Eleanor was under the constant eye of her first cousin, the wonderfully bitchy Alice Roosevelt Longworth (her most famous quip, to an unattached lady at a dinner party: “Well, if you don’t have anything good to say about anyone here — come sit by me”). “Alice of Malice,” as Bill Kauffman called her, in one of the best essays in his brilliant collection, America First!, was Teddy’s daughter and a matron of Washington high society. A carping critic and constant thorn in the side of the Hyde Park Roosevelts, she would outlive them all, dying in 1980. Not by chance, Alice played a role in the dreadful predicament that confronted Franklin and Eleanor in 1917.
Three years earlier, Eleanor had engaged a social secretary, Lucy Mercer, who was charming, poised, lovely, and 22 years old. When Eleanor was out of town with the children, as during the summers spent at Campobello, Lucy remained in the capital. It was obvious that Franklin was attracted to Lucy and that she returned his interest. Alice Roosevelt Longworth fueled the fire by inviting them to dinners when Eleanor was away. As Alice of Malice later put it: “It was good for Franklin. He deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor.” Now very much in love, Franklin had Lucy commissioned a yeoman in the Navy, and transferred to his office. One day, going through some of her husband’s papers, Eleanor discovered love letters from Lucy. Further evidence of the affair came to light in the register of a motel in Virginia Beach, where Franklin and Lucy had checked in as husband and wife.
Eleanor was devastated. She raised the possibility of divorce. But divorce would, it was thought, harm the children; it would certainly have ended Franklin’s political career. Through the mediation of Louis Howe and other intimates, a modus vivendi was arrived at. Roosevelt had to give up Lucy, but as far as Eleanor was concerned, marital relations were over. In any case, she was tired of childbearing, and, as she later confided to her daughter, Anna, she was totally ignorant of contraceptive methods and too bashful to inquire about them. Their son James wrote: “Father and mother had an armed truce that endured to the day he died, despite several occasions I was to observe in which he in one way or another held out his arms to mother, and she flatly refused to enter his embrace.” According to James, for Eleanor the episode “left a residue of bitterness that remained with her all her life.”
Unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt turned increasingly to political affairs, lecturing anybody who would listen on everything under the sun. As for Franklin, though he ended his liaison, he and Lucy remained close friends. The portrait he was sitting for in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945, had been commissioned by Lucy Mercer.
In the summer of 1918, Roosevelt left on an official visit to Europe. His plan was to hobnob with the elite in the Allied countries, travel to the blood-drenched Western Front, and inspect units of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that had seen combat. FDR looked on it all as a grand adventure. Crossing the Atlantic, he was practically bursting with excitement, despite the danger of German submarines. In Britain, he met with the top echelon of the military and political establishment, including King George V. For a fervent Anglophile like Roosevelt, it was like coming home. He conferred with Clemenceau and the chief French generals in Paris.
Touring the Western Front, Franklin witnessed combat, viewed the remains of the men and horses on the battlefield, and saw the shattered survivors. Yet, as a highly sympathetic biographer, Frank Freidel, wrote, “He was fascinated rather than repelled.” In fact, FDR was as boyishly delighted by the sights and sounds of war as the man who would later become his friend, Winston Churchill. Of course, patriotism played its part, as well. It was so inspiring to experience the might of America being deployed for the first time on European killing-fields. The AEF had been instrumental in halting the last German offensive and turning the tide of battle. In high spirits, Roosevelt wrote to Eleanor: “The counter-attack in the Rheims salient [by American forces] has heartened everybody enormously. Our men have undoubtedly done well. One of my Marine regiments has lost 1200 and another 800 men.”
FDR’s euphoria continued after his return to Washington. He even decided to apply for a commission. This would put him on a par with his cousin Teddy, who had fought in the Spanish-American War, and even one-up old TR, whose request to serve in the European War had been refused by Wilson. But Franklin’s appeal for a combat role was belated — the war was nearly over, and Wilson turned him down. Still, the excitement of it all remained with him — the thrill of mingling with the other masters of men, the dark yet alluring drama of warfare, and, not least, the exhilaration of wielding power over the lives, liberties, and property of the great American people. To William Castle, a friend and State Department official, Roosevelt confided: “It would be wonderful to be a war President of the United States.”
The Germans finally surrendered on November 11, 1918. It was argued by some that the war-collectivism imposed by Wilson on the United States was a major reason for the splendid victory. Roosevelt certainly believed so. But considering that Germany was in the forefront of the countries that embraced war-collectivism, that would be a hard argument to sustain.
In early 1919, the Peace Conference convened in Paris. Here America and the world finally would reap the harvest of eternal peace and justice for which so much had been sacrificed. But the British, French, Italian, and other foreign leaders had their own agendas. Wilson, woefully ignorant of the realities of European politics and befuddled by his own high-sounding rhetoric, floundered helplessly. One thing he held on to, the prize that was supposed to make up for all his deceptions of the American people and of himself — the League of Nations. The League Covenant was added to the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson brought back to the United States for ratification by the Senate. In the end, the Senate rejected it.
In retrospect — and contrary to what countless globalists have insisted — it is clear that American participation in the League would have been a disaster for our country. According to the Covenant, the United States pledged itself to join in punishing “aggressors” against world peace — by military means, if necessary. An aggressor was defined as any power that attempted to use force to change international boundaries as they existed in 1919. Thus, America would have been obligated to defend the international order created at Paris, the order of Anglo-French world hegemony. (By 1922, Germany and Soviet Russia were already collaborating to undermine that order.) Joining the League would have instantly plunged America into the midst of the seething hatreds and rivalries of the Old World. But, in submitting the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate, that is precisely what Woodrow Wilson intended to do. Perhaps needless to say, Franklin Roosevelt was a passionate enthusiast of Wilson’s League of Nations.