Herbert Hoover’s long buried assessment of Franklin Roosevelt and “The Good War.”
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Hoover’s criticism of Lend-Lease has a very modern ring. Congress had become a “rubber stamp,” he said, surrendering to the President “the power to make war.” We have heard identical complaints about our more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress, now even more than 70 years ago, is willing to do almost anything, as long as it doesn’t have to exercise to its constitutionally mandated war-making power.
Much of what Hoover said in opposition to FDR’s (and Churchill’s) war policies can be summarized this way: Stalin was every bit as bad as Hitler. So let them fight it out. FDR certainly didn’t see things that way. Domestic politics provides a partial explanation. Communist (or at least Marxist) sympathy in this country and in Europe was strong at the time, whereas Nazi sympathizers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Socialism has long been (and continues to be) a far greater temptation in the Western world than Nazism (National Socialism) ever was.
Hoover said: “The greatest loss of statesmanship in all American history was the tacit American alliance and support of Communist Russia when Hitler made his attack in June 1941.… American aid to Russia meant victory for Stalin and the spread of Communism to the world.”
Hoover was also highly critical of George Marshall, who became Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. Hoover got on well with Truman (in contrast to Roosevelt). Still, Truman had sacrificed “all China” to the Communists, “by insistence of his left-wing advisors and his appointment of General Marshall to execute their will.”
As for Hoover’s own stance, he was unrepentant. “I was opposed to the war and every step in it,” he wrote in 1953. “I have no apologies and no regrets.”
A Yale University economics instructor named Arthur Kemp became a Hoover confidante after the war. If Hoover had published his “Lost Statesmanship” more or less in its 1953 form, Kemp wrote, its “emotional impact” would have been “tremendous.” It would have appeared during the Korean War and the ascendancy of Senator Joseph McCarthy. George Nash continues:
Amid the clamorous debates over Roosevelt’s conduct at Yalta and the question of “who lost China,” such a book might indeed have electrified the nation. Surprisingly — considering the intensity of his convictions — Hoover continued to hold back. He had already indicated privately in 1950 and 1951 that his Magnum Opus would not be published “for some years.”… Instead of racing to publish his sizzling manuscript while the political iron was hot [he turned it over to an aide] for still more editing and feedback.
Ten years later, after further revisions, interest among publishers remained high by 1963. The Chicago Tribune was eager to serialize the book, the Reader’s Digest was enthusiastic and apparently ready to do a condensed version; and Henry Regnery — the father of Al Regnery, The American Spectator’s publisher today — “asked to publish Hoover’s study.”
INEVITABLY, WE RUN INTO the problem of counterfactual history. We don’t know what would have happened if different choices had been made; especially if Britain had not declared war in 1939 or if FDR had accepted Japan’s peace offer in 1941. But we do know this. Those who are “comfortable with the established account,” to quote John Earl Haynes, have already fought their own counterfactual battles and won, to their own satisfaction. World War II was “the good war.”
Measured by its mortality rate, World War II (with 9.4 million deaths per year) was by far the deadliest in history; with over three times the mortality rate of the second deadliest. That was the First World War (with 3 million deaths per year). More than 400,000 American died in World War II. Communism and its accompanying poverty and oppression came to Eastern Europe and stayed for 45 years after Hitler and Nazism were dead and buried. China was overwhelmed by fanaticism, horror, and famine for 30 years. North Korea remains in that condition to this day.
Then again, we know with hindsight (as Hoover did not) that Communism could not be made to work, no matter how numerous its Western sympathizers. In Russia and China, it was the Communist leaders themselves, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Deng Xiao Ping, who brought the system to an end. It may have been better for the world that it ended that way.
A generation after his death, the state of the world looked much better than it did to Hoover in 1964. The sixty million people who died in the war can be excused if they dissent from the grave. In the end, however, counterfactual history involves calculations that are forever uncertain. Still, in its sharp dissent from the conventional understanding of the mid-twentieth century, Herbert Hoover’s book succeeds in bringing that history back to life and in forcing us to think about it in ways that will surely be unfamiliar to many.
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