I fear our author, Thomas Fleming, is of the opinion that he has laid down a modern anti-Roosevelt screed on the order of the great works of such anti-Roosevelt masters as John T. Flynn, circa the 1940s. In truth, Fleming’s The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II (Basic Books, 628 pages, $35; click here to order), a history of Roosevelt and the New Dealers’ erratic execution of WWII, exposes the assembled world-savers as more inept, brutal, and devious than college students have been taught these past fifty years. Fleming’s amply sourced chronicle, encompassing the best historical analysis of recent years (including that of my graduate adviser Professor Robert H. Ferrell), shows the founder of political liberalism to be steadily in decline from the beginning of the war in Europe to his sad and lonely death on April 12, 1945. One wonders how did all this bungling and imperiousness escape the historians’ eyes, and why have conservative scholars been so feeble in exposing the real FDR?
Nonetheless, I came away from Fleming’s demolition job with unexpected admiration for the president whom my grandfathers hated. His anesthetizing charm, his relish for the rough and tumble of politics, his little known impatience with the evangelical New Dealers as war’s disciplines bore down on their dreams to bring TVA projects to Africa and New Deal zealotry to the exotic Orient, make him far more interesting than his hagiographers have left him. Now I see that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton had a model on which to base their failed presidencies. Count me a Roosevelt admirer.
Yes, the 32nd president was a reckless statist. He had no regard for the prudent restraints placed on government by the Constitution. He, as with all his liberal cousins, invested oily and incendiary moralism into every disagreement. Yet after reading Fleming’s chronicle of FDR’s last momentous and tumultuous years I am convinced he was a great man. He was a role model, and a great one.
Though crippled by polio since middle age, FDR lived life with cheerful gusto. He smoked forty cigarettes a day, enjoyed a cocktail hour at the White House with the best of company, where he mixed his own martinis (though I have it from no less an authority than Judge Robert Bork that FDR’s martinis were soggy with vermouth), and enjoyed both hot gossip and witty jokes — the jokes being of the derisive sort almost always aimed at his opponents or imagined opponents. Furthermore, he surpassed all succeeding national political leaders in certain characteristics that have become essential traits of the modern pol. He was exceedingly self-centered, duplicitous, dependent on flattery and pollsters (his reliance on polls explains why he had to manipulate Americans into World War II rather than lead us, thus setting a precedent that blew up in our presidents’ faces during Vietnam). He was a Herculean conniver, and a master of the double cross.
In fact I can think of no post-Roosevelt president who so frequently double-crossed associates at the highest levels of government: for instance, his “assistant president” and future Secretary of State James Byrnes, his own long-time Secretary of State Cordell Hull (who tried to warn him of impending attack on Pearl Harbor), Senator Harry Truman (who reported on the mismanagement of the war effort), Vice President Henry Wallace, Wendell Willkie (the Republicans’ first John McCain), and even Winston Churchill. FDR double-crossed them all! Sometimes it seems he did it for the sheer fun of bringing them to confusion — Fleming notes that Roosevelt always had to dominate those around him. Other times he did it to pursue policy as when he double-crossed Churchill pursuant to pleasing Stalin, a pol whom he never double-crossed. FDR believed that he had won Stalin over to the New Deal’s progressive vision. Almost always our President was just having a hell of a good time.
His White House was surely as gay and “bold” as his court historians insist it was, for instance, Arthur Schlesinger and Frank Freidel, both of whom have failed to finish their multi-volume histories of the Age of Roosevelt. Is this because the last years, chronicled here, are years devoid of New Deal idealism? Fleming argues that the New Deal was dead by early 1940 and he demonstrates that liberalism’s founding father’s power and popularity were in steady decline from 1938, another matter that college history courses fail to report. Yet FDR slogged on smiling and conniving.
I would add that, contrary to the claims of his latter day fans in the Clinton administration, it is unthinkable that the suave patrician from Hyde Park was being Lewinskied in the White House. He enjoyed the company of women. He enjoyed the White House cocktail hour. He did spend some of his last hours on earth with an old inamorata, just as the Clintonites argue. But by 1940, as heart disease and vascular collapse added to his paralysis, he could no more enter into an active sex life than Bill Clinton could enter into celibacy. Claiming otherwise as the Clintons have is another of their blatant lies, tailored for ignoramuses.
If anything about Roosevelt summoned my genuine admiration for him (unleavened by the above irony) it is that Franklin Roosevelt was a brave, head strong man, unafraid of his approaching death, an approaching death that his loyalists brilliantly covered up. Sure he was one of American politics’ great liars. He was vindictive and manipulative. But in his physical decline he remained a master politician, with a sense of timing that only Ronald Reagan could match — though Reagan was from a different presidential mold, a more normal mold.
Unfortunately the master played politics all the time. He never paused to develop a coherent sense of statecraft even when civilizations were in collision in the vast drama of world war. As with all New Dealers, he was fetched by the urge to reform the whole wide world. Like them he eschewed diplomacy’s best tools: balance of power, national interest, a capacity to discern ideological enemies such as Stalin’s Communists. He would not rid his administration of the New Deal’s fruitcakes and settle down with the more sensible sorts such as Adolf Berle for the world struggle that he was in with Nazis and Communists. His government as time went on was interlarded with conservative Democrats and captains of industry. Some of the latter fleeced the government with contracts for their old corporations. Senator Truman tried to tell him and others tried to warn him about subversives in his government, but to Roosevelt it was politics as usual, us against them.
In fact the Roosevelt administration from 1936 on was increasingly a hodgepodge of competing forces that Roosevelt never fully recognized or dealt with. Now from recent scholarship in the Russian and American intelligence archives we know that a significant number of New Dealers high in government were Communist spies or sympathizers. Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie were but three. Fleming notes that more than a hundred others worked in the New Deal’s most critical branches. Even in the 1940s and later controversies of the 1950s the evidence against them was probative. For years I have wondered why anyone would doubt there was a problem with Communist subversion in Roosevelt’s government. The evidence was clear in the 1940s, and with the work done in archives it is incontestable today.
How did these Communists escape and more importantly why did so many liberal Democrats subsequently argue their innocence and charge their accusers with “hysteria”? Fleming provides evidence that supports a theory I developed some years ago. The New Deal abounded with nuts. There were idiotic mystics quivering to the insights of gimcrack seers so preposterous that not even modern-day Marin County, California, would fall for them. I have in mind Henry Wallace. There were more conventional religious nuts, for instance, Milo Perkins. There was a famous nudist, Maurice Parmalee. Then there were the bizarre figures around FDR’s wife, Eleanor, who herself rarely had all four wheels on the road. There were the misanthropes such as Harold Ickes, father of the Clintons’ own Harold Ickes, Jr. There was even a chap claiming to have uncovered a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” John Roy Carlson; he wrote a book. Possibly Hillary read it. With all these cranks and misanthropes around the government doubtless New Dealers became inured to the presence of the Communists or “liberals in a hurry,” led by White in the Department of Treasury and Hiss at Yalta.
Then by 1945 Stalin and the gang revealed Communism’s distinctly ungentlemanly side. Protests were heard in Washington from Republicans and conservative Democrats. Suddenly Communism seemed to be a more serious matter than mere Nudism or Henry Wallace’s zany nutty letters to his guru. It was time to close ranks. All good New Dealers and even many non-New Dealers in the Roosevelt administration and in the increasingly homogeneous media denied the obvious, to wit, that the Reds were red. They all came down hard on the anti-Communists and the McCarthyites whose demagogic eponym was an easy target.
Thus began the myth that Americans were unjustifiably concerned — “hysterical” — about Communist subversion. As late as the Carter administration Jimmy was denouncing America’s “inordinate fear of Communism.” Gorbachev and Yeltsin knew otherwise, as did a few aging New Dealers. They and their party-line Democrats had brought a new element into American politics. They had successfully imposed a Big Lie on the country. Other pols in our history had lied, but no faction had ever been able to impose one Big Lie on the whole society. It was a breakthrough. From then on left-wing Democrats found that they could impose Big Lies on the polity and successfully smear their opponents. Anti-Communists were “red-baiters,” welfare reformers “hated the poor” and wished to “starve children,” advocates of strong foreign policy were “war mongers.” Oh yes, and anyone who said it was impeachable for a president to lie under oath and obstruct justice was a “hater,” a “Clinton hater,” ignorant of the Founding Fathers’ conception of the law. The cover-up of those New Deal eccentrics who happened to be Communists was the first successful imposition of the Big Lie and the Beneficial Smear on America. Since then the lie has played a terrific role in our public discourse.
Of course, FDR was dead by the time his supporters devised this modern innovation. It changed the way politics is argued in America. Would FDR approve? I am not sure, but I think he would.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is editor in chief of The American Spectator.