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Revisionist History That Matters

Herbert Hoover's long buried assessment of Franklin Roosevelt and "The Good War."

By 11.18.11

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Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath
Edited by George H. Nash
(Hoover Institution Press, 920 pages, $49.95)

Within the past two weeks, an astonishing new book has been published. Freedom Betrayed, written by President Herbert Hoover in his retirement, is a wide-ranging attack on the decisions made by his White House successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover worked on it for 20 years and regarded it as his magnum opus. The manuscript was edited by Hoover's principal biographer, George H. Nash, who also wrote a lengthy introduction. I can do no better than to quote from the book's dust jacket:

Following Hoover's death in 1964, his heirs decided to place his manuscript in storage, where for nearly half a century it has remained unread -- until now.

In this book, perhaps the most ambitious and systematic work of World War II revisionism ever attempted, Hoover offers his frank evaluation of President Roosevelt's foreign policies before Pearl Harbor and during the war, as well as an examination of the war's consequences, including the expansion of the Soviet empire at war's end and the eruption of the Cold War against the Communists.

John Earl Haynes, the author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, writes that even readers who are "comfortable with the established account will find themselves thinking that on some points the accepted history should be reconsidered and perhaps revised."

Just 60 years ago, in November 1951, Herbert Hoover told an acquaintance, John W. Hill: "When Roosevelt put America in to help Russia as Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, we should have let those two bastards annihilate themselves."

Hill replied: "That would be a great book. Why don't you write it, Mr. Hoover?"

Hoover said he didn't have the time. In fact, he had been working on such a book since 1944.

Now it has been published, by the Hoover Institution Press.

As new books about World War II and its aftermath appeared in print, including those by Winston Churchill, Hoover would revise what he had written, sometimes softening his earlier opinions. One of the merits of the published book is that George Nash includes as appendices memoranda from Hoover showing his thinking at earlier stages.

As his book stood in 1953, for example -- when it was titled "Lost Statesmanship" -- Hoover listed 19 "gigantic blunders" by U.S. and British policymakers. These began in 1933 with FDR's diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union and continued with the British and French guarantee to Poland in 1939. George Nash told me in an email that Hoover considered the Polish guarantee to have been "the greatest blunder in the history of British statesmanship."

Even Churchill saw (later) that it had been a mistake. But he supported it at the time. But in The Gathering Storm (1948), Churchill demonstrated the futility of Chamberlain's declaration of war. (Chamberlain was stung by the charges of appeasement after Munich and with Hitler's Poland invasion he tried to recover.)

Hoover was quite critical of Churchill. He had a "surpassing power of oratory and word pictures," Hoover wrote, but "intellectual integrity was not his strong point." The Gathering Storm was "a mass of bitter attacks upon [Stanley] Baldwin and [Neville] Chamberlain who had kept him out of office for years."

Another "major blunder," Hoover thought, was FDR's decision in 1941 to throw the U.S. into an "undeclared war with Germany and Japan, in total violation of promises upon which he had been elected a few weeks before." Roosevelt's "total economic sanctions" against Japan in the summer of 1941, and his "contemptuous refusal" of the Japanese prime minister's peace proposals in September, Hoover saw as the crucial precursors to Pearl Harbor. The day after the attack, Hoover told a friend that FDR's "continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes finally got this country bitten."

In the weeks before Lend-Lease (enacted in March 1941 and allowing the president to place war equipment at the disposal of foreign powers), Hoover charged that Roosevelt "knew definitely of Hitler's determination to attack Russia," and did so by early 1941. Hoover repeatedly said that if Hitler couldn't get the German army across the 22-mile wide British channel, he had no chance whatever with the Atlantic Ocean. Germany didn't threaten the United States.

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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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).