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Book Review: Roosevelt and World War II


FDR Goes to War by Burton W. Folsom Jr. and Anita Folsom (Threshold Editions, 2011); 386 pages.

 Hillsdale College history professor Burton Folsom and his wife, Anita, have given us in this book a much-needed counterweight to the standard view that Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the greatest American presidents. After reading FDR Goes to War anyone who isn’t an utter zealot for America’s welfare-warfare state will have to conclude that Roosevelt’s years of control over the nation were nothing short of cataclysmic.

Folsom’s earlier book, New Deal or Raw Deal?, focused on the damage Roosevelt’s economic policies did. This new book examines Roosevelt and his ad-ministration from 1939 on as war engulfed Europe, an event that gave him an opportunity to reinvent himself as a wartime leader. The war was truly a godsend for Roosevelt, since many Americans had grown tired of the Depression (which his statist policies had greatly prolonged) and the election of 1940 looked to be very difficult for the president.

Roosevelt was as deceptive and conniving as any politician ever. As war raged, he had to walk a tightrope. Most American citizens did not want the country to be drawn into conflicts that did not threaten their shores. Therefore, Roosevelt had to pretend that he desired to maintain U.S. neutrality, while at the same time he was doing all he could to aid Britain and was desperately seeking an excuse to enter the war. In his speeches and avuncular “Fireside Chats” Roosevelt reassured Americans that he was not going to get the country involved in the war. “But behind the scenes,” the authors write, “Roosevelt wanted the United States involved in the war,” and they quote his speechwriter, Robert Sherwood, admitting that his statements “may be denounced as deliberately misleading or at best wishful thinking.” Roosevelt’s policy was one of quietly preparing for war and putting American naval forces in danger, hoping that Germany would be provoked into creating a casus belli.

At the same time his administration refused to help refugees escaping from the Nazis. The authors recount the terrible SS St. Louis incident of the spring of 1939, when a ship carrying several hundred Jewish refugees fleeing from the likelihood of death at the hands of Nazi killers was forced by the State Department to return to Europe with its despairing human cargo. The ship eventually landed in Antwerp and many of its passengers later perished under Nazi rule.

 That fateful decision was made by Breckinridge Long, an old friend and political supporter whom Roosevelt had appointed as assistant secretary of State. The xenophobic Long did all he could to keep people who were not, in his opinion, “the kind of immigrants that America wanted.” It tells us much about Roosevelt that he tolerated a man such as Long, who also used his authority to obstruct other Americans who were trying to help people escape the Nazis. While Roosevelt always paid lip service to humanitarianism, he was in perfect agreement with Long that the nation had to keep out “undesirables.”

Roosevelt’s lawlessness

A key, recurring theme in the book is the way Roosevelt would ignore the law — even the Constitution — when doing so helped him accomplish his goals. One example is the deal he struck with the British in September 1940, wherein the United States would trade Navy ships (50 destroyers) in exchange for British military bases from the Caribbean to Newfoundland.

There were, however, two legal problems with that deal: the Constitution gives the president no authority to make such deals unilaterally; and making this one clearly violated a federal statute, the Neutrality Act. Roosevelt was fully aware of the illegality involved but went ahead anyway through an “executive agreement.” He admitted to his close confidant Bernard Baruch, “I might get impeached for it.” The famed constitutional lawyer Edward Corwin found the deal to be a flagrant violation of the law, but that simply did not matter to the president. The destructive idea that the president must be allowed to do whatever he thinks best no matter what the law says is one of Roosevelt’s most lasting and harmful legacies.

Again and again, Roosevelt used the prospect of war to seize more power for himself. In May 1941 he declared that the Germans were about to invade the Cape Verde Islands (which lie just off the west coast of Africa), which could then lead to an invasion of South America, which in turn justified him in declaring an unlimited “national emergency” that expanded his powers. There was no actual threat to the Cape Verde Islands, much less any possibility that the Germans would use them as a base to invade South America; it was all just a deceptive ploy to move closer to the imperial presidency Roo-sevelt wanted for himself.

Throughout the presidential campaign of 1940, Roosevelt’s allies in the bureaucracy steered government contracts into swing states with great fanfare and the implication that if the president were defeated, the federal goodies would stop. In a particularly brazen vote-buying scheme, just four days before the election, Roosevelt’s secretary of Agriculture announced the creation of a free-milk-for-children program in the key state of New York. Roosevelt, readers learn, would say and do almost anything for political advantage. He perfected the nasty tactic of using taxpayer dollars to buy votes from interest groups. America’s massive federal budget and looming debt avalanche today are a result of that.

The war

Pearl Harbor is a topic that has to come up in any book about Roosevelt and World War II. Some apologists for him say that the Japanese attack took him completely by surprise, but the Folsoms present a much more complicated picture. First, Pearl Harbor had not been the base for the American Pacific Fleet until Roosevelt (who had been undersecretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s administration and fancied himself something of a naval expert) had ordered it there late in 1940. The fleet commander, Adm. James O. Richardson, protested that the fleet would be vulnerable there, so Roosevelt relieved him of command shortly after the November election had been won. (That shows another of his characteristics — unwillingness to listen to those who disagreed with him.)

Second, he refused to heed the counsel of military men who said that the nation’s armed forces were terribly ill-prepared for war and that America should not underestimate the capabilities of the Japanese. Nevertheless, Roosevelt kept on with his bellicose policies while doing little to make the armed forces ready for the war he desired. Also, he continued to believe that a war with Japan would be over in a mere six months.

Third, Roosevelt’s administration had been playing a highly aggressive game with the Japanese regarding trade. In June 1941 he ordered all petroleum products to be placed under “export controls” and then employed what the authors call the “devious strategy of hindering all oil exports to Japan by adding layers of red tape and freezing Japanese financial assets in the United States.” The president knew that he was provoking the Japanese, with war the likely result.

With regard to the attack on Pearl Harbor itself, the authors don’t go so far as to say that Roosevelt knew ahead of time, from the Japanese diplomatic transmissions that U.S. officials had intercepted and decoded, that an attack on the base would occur on December 7. They do say, however, that from those intercepts, he must have known that war was imminent on December 6 and that Pearl Harbor was a possible target. (For an in-depth treatment of Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor, I strongly recommend Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy, edited by Bettina Bien Greaves, which I reviewed in the June 2011 Freedom Daily.)

The war years included many attacks by the administration on Americans’ liberty and property, but none so egregious as the internment of Japanese-Americans under another of Roosevelt’s many executive orders. Tens of thousands of them were forced into detention camps without the slightest pretense of due process of law. There was no evidence that any of those people would or could aid the Japanese military. But with anti-Japanese hysteria raging after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt did not hesitate to order that a great number of innocent men, women, and children be imprisoned under his “emergency powers.” Not coincidentally, the order helped Democrats in California, where Japanese farmers and businessmen were often hated by their white competitors because of their industriousness.

Why was there no internment of German-Americans or Italian-Americans? Once again, as the authors make clear, Roosevelt’s decision was purely political: “In Roosevelt’s political calculation, he wanted votes from German-Americans and Italian-Americans. He also wanted to carry California and the western states. By relocating only the Japanese-Americans, he could please native Californians and not offend the many ethnic Germans and Italians he would need to win reelection in 1944.”

By 1944, Roosevelt was very ill. Despite his failing health, he resolved to run again and managed to keep his condition hidden from the populace. During the campaign he gave a speech that has often been praised by statists, a speech in which he proposed an “economic bill of rights” that would put the federal government in the business of ensuring every American’s “right to medical care,” “right to decent housing,” “right to a good education,” and so on. That speech indicated Roosevelt’s intention to revive his New Deal domestic agenda with a great expansion of entitlement programs after the end of the war. He did not live to push that agenda through, however. He died in the spring of 1945, but the fact that he yearned for more of the collectivistic policies that had prolonged the Depression is revealing. He was an arrogant authoritarian who was devoted to the mega-state and was utterly blind or indifferent to the damage it was doing to the liberty and prosperity of the people.

From the beginning of his presidency to its end, Roosevelt worked steadily to expand the federal government’s power, never understanding or caring that he was wrecking the nation’s foundation of freedom. Far from the brilliant and almost saintly leader that most historians and politicians see, he was a devious man of limited intellect who was really good at only one thing — winning elections.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.