Derek Leebaert’s New Book Shows Us the Real FDR - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Derek Leebaert’s New Book Shows Us the Real FDR

Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made
By Derek Leebaert
St. Martin’s Press/476 pages/$35

Derek Leebaert writes interesting and provocative books. In The Fifty-Year Wound, he assessed the triumphs but also the costs of America’s Cold War victory, which included the growing and seemingly permanent influence in Washington of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” and the “scientific-technological elite.” In Magic and Mayhem, Leebaert exposed the intellectual hubris and follies of our national security establishment in launching and fighting wars that we failed to win from Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Leebaert in Unlikely Heroes, provides complex portraits of President Franklin Roosevelt and arguably his most important and influential New Dealers — Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and Henry Wallace. It is a book that further undermines the conventional wisdom that Franklin Roosevelt was a great president.

If, as we are repeatedly told by the haters of Donald Trump, character is the most important quality in our presidents, Franklin Roosevelt should be ranked as one of our worst leaders. Leebaert provides us with a look into FDR’s character through the eyes and ears of his four longest serving advisers. Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace, of course, had their own character flaws (which Leebaert notes) and each in their own way contributed to the successes and failures of FDR’s domestic and foreign policies. Leebaert admires all four of his “unlikely heroes” and praises Roosevelt for preserving our democracy during the 1930s and protecting us from totalitarian aggressors in the 1940s. He even contends that New Deal programs helped prepare the United States for the mobilization efforts that were required to wage the Second World War — and in a bureaucratic sense there is some truth in that. But overall, the United States was woefully unprepared for war in 1941 and 1942 — as the disasters in the Pacific and the early fighting in North Africa revealed. And more historians and scholars are coming to the conclusion that the New Deal prolonged and worsened the Great Depression.

Army chief of staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried to warn FDR as early as 1933 that war clouds were gathering in Europe and in Asia, and that the best way to avert war was to prepare for it, but Roosevelt had different priorities. And, as Leebaert notes, FDR’s first priority was always politics. Roosevelt had, Leebaert writes, a “ruthlessly self-centered drive for power.” Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace all came to understand that. Wallace called Roosevelt “the most unscrupulous opportunist in the world,” and he once recalled hearing from politicos in Albany — who knew FDR as governor — “accounts of the governor’s shiftiness.” A Senate staffer recalled that it was Perkins (as Labor Secretary), not Roosevelt, who pushed for a Social Security bill. “I don’t think that President Roosevelt had the remotest interest in a Social Security bill or program,” the staffer remarked, “[h]e was simply pacifying Frances.” And, FDR saw that the Social Security program would benefit him politically — that’s what mattered to him.

Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace were the true believers in the New Deal, whereas for FDR it was just politics and power. In truth, he had no political philosophy or ideology. And you could never take him at his word. FDR had a habit, Leebaert writes, “of almost reflexively lying.” Ickes once remarked that FDR’s “word cannot be relied on,” and frequently lamented in his diary “how Roosevelt has double-crossed him once again.” Harry Truman, then a Senator, said of the president: “He lies.” Leebaert notes that FDR’s director of civil aviation wondered “why Roosevelt lied when there was no reason to do so.” After Roosevelt died, Douglas MacArthur remarked that he “was a man who would never tell the truth when a lie would serve him just as well.” Leebaert concludes that for FDR “[l]ying was a means of asserting [his] primacy.” “Powerful men,” Leebaert explains, “had to sit opposite him and listen to what both knew to be untrue, or at least they would soon enough recognize that they had been lied to…” Of course, Roosevelt lied repeatedly to his wife throughout their marriage. In time, Leebaert writes, each of his four unlikely heroes “recognized that anyone who trusted Roosevelt was a fool.”

And there was also a cruel and vindictive side to Roosevelt which sometimes led to an abuse of power and outright illegal behavior. FDR routinely used the Internal Revenue Service to retaliate against his political enemies. Leebaert notes that Roosevelt tried to have “his Justice Department prosecute former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon for tax fraud,” ordered the Attorney General to prosecute a Los Angeles businessman he disliked, then later suggested to his Hyde Park neighbor and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau that rising GOP star Thomas Dewey should be investigated for tax evasion.

FDR could be vindictive in politics, too. He had Hopkins and political fixer Tommy Corcoran (FDR’s “political assassin”) conduct a political “purge” of legislators who opposed his notorious court-packing scheme. It was above all politics that motivated the president. He refused to support anti-lynching legislation — promoted by Ickes — for fear of losing southern votes. He ignored Perkins’ efforts and pleas to ease immigration restrictions to help Jews trying to escape Hitler’s Germany for fear of offending organized labor and American isolationists. He ignored Wallace’s advice to aid Britain and other European countries in the face of Hitler’s aggression because polls showed that the American people overwhelmingly wanted to stay out of future European wars. Leebaert’s four heroes, Leebaert writes, understood that they had to promote their policy ideas “in the context of elections” because FDR usually thought “in terms of politics over policy.”

Leebaert notes that Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace were as blind as FDR to the nature and extent of Soviet infiltration of our government in the 1930s and 1940s. Hopkins, Ickes, and Wallace were at best Soviet sympathizers, though the Venona intercepts have been interpreted by some scholars as indicating that Hopkins — who served during the war as FDR’s envoy to Churchill and Stalin — may have been a willing “agent of influence” for the Soviets. There is stronger evidence that Harry Dexter White, the number two man at Treasury, Alger Hiss, a high level State Department official, and, Lauchlin Currie a White House staffer, worked on behalf of the Soviets. Leebaert shows that under what James Burnham called the “careless sceptre” of Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. government suffered “deep penetration” by Soviet agents “that had exposed the Republic to grievous, far-reaching Soviet espionage.”

Yet, for all of this, Leebaert calls FDR a great leader. “Franklin Roosevelt,” he writes, “was a hero in the simplest sense: he aroused devotion in order to confront the worst dangers of peace and war, though he also had a heroic capacity to cause harm.” Historians too frequently rank as great our war and crisis presidents. Woodrow Wilson was at first ranked as a great or near great president, yet with time his “greatness” has faded in the face of his domestic repression, ugly racism, and utopian notions of foreign policy. John F. Kennedy, whose blundering inexperience and naïveté nearly led to nuclear war and began the debacle that was Vietnam, still receives favorable rankings, though the luster of his “Camelot” has dimmed somewhat in the wake of revelations of character flaws that rival FDR’s.

It is long past time to begin to appreciate more our “peace and prosperity” presidents — George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and … Donald Trump. They, of course, had their own flaws (Trump more than the others) and policy failures but by and large they kept the nation at peace while also keeping us secure and prosperous. For all of his “greatness,” Franklin Roosevelt did not.

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