Like many people my age (62), I was taught both at home and in school that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president. FDR, I was taught, saved American democracy in the 1930s with the New Deal and led the nation to victory against Hitlerism in the 1940s. That view of FDR was reinforced by many television documentaries and history books. And virtually every poll of historians — including the most recent C-Span poll — places FDR in the top five of all U.S. presidents (usually in third place behind Lincoln and Washington). This is so despite persuasive revisionist historical works that paint a very different picture of FDR’s presidency.
Let’s start with the New Deal. In her book The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes shows that the New Deal — so lionized by liberal historians and Democrats — did not restore the U.S. economy as promised by FDR and his “brain trust,” but instead extended the sufferings of the Great Depression for seven more years. Unemployment remained well beyond 10 percent throughout the 1930s, only subsiding with the coming of World War II. “The cause of the duration of the Depression,” she writes, “was Washington’s persistent intervention” in the economy. The end result of the New Deal’s “bold persistent experimentation” was “inflexible statism” that has evolved into a gargantuan federal government exercising nearly unlimited powers to a degree that would have shocked the Founders of our country.
But an even greater failure of FDR’s administration in the 1930s was the nation’s lack of preparedness for the Second World War. This is detailed most recently in Arthur Herman’s biography of General Douglas MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior). MacArthur was kept on as the Army’s chief of staff by FDR, and the two repeatedly clashed over the size of the military budget. MacArthur sensed as early as 1934 that another war was on the horizon, but FDR’s budget director proposed to cut the Army’s budget by half and to reduce War Department expenditures by $80 million. MacArthur called the proposed budget “a stunning blow to national defense,” and later told the graduating class at West Point that the “necessity of national defense” was being “sacrificed in the name of economy.”
At one White House meeting between the secretary of war, MacArthur, and FDR, the president repeatedly resisted with harsh and bitter words the war secretary’s pleadings to provide more money for the armed forces. MacArthur interjected by telling FDR: “When we lose the next war and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spits out his last curse, I want the name to be Roosevelt, not MacArthur.”
By 1939, the U.S. Army ranked 19th in the world with 174,000 personnel, less than Portugal’s army. The Army Air Corps had 26,000 airmen and about 1,200 planes, many of them obsolete. The U.S. Navy was in a little better shape, with 15 battleships, five carriers, 18 heavy cruisers, and 19 light cruisers, but was still unprepared for global war. As late as the summer of 1941, some American troops were training for combat with wooden broomsticks instead of rifles.
FDR’s defenders usually note that while FDR sensed the gathering storm of war abroad, the American people and Congress were wholeheartedly opposed to war preparation, and FDR would not move forward in this area without public and political support. That may be so, but really great leaders — like Lincoln and Washington and Britain’s Winston Churchill — took political risks when their nation’s security was at stake. FDR was unwilling to take such risks. He was above all a political animal — and a deceptive, devious one. General MacArthur once described FDR as “a man who would never tell the truth when a lie would serve him just as well.” Even as FDR covertly began involving the United States as a belligerent in the wars in Asia and Europe, he promised the American people in the 1940 campaign that their sons would not be sent overseas to fight in foreign wars. Even as he tightened sanctions against Japan in the late 1930s, he left our forces unprepared in the Philippines and elsewhere when Japan attacked.
During the war, FDR’s deceptions continued. He ordered General MacArthur to abandon the Philippines with a promise that an army awaited him in Australia to retake the Philippines — there was no such Army ready; FDR had (correctly) decided on a Europe-first strategy but he thought it better to lie to MacArthur and our troops in the Philippines. FDR repeatedly led his top military adviser General George Marshall to believe that he fully supported Marshall’s and the U.S. Chiefs’ commitment to an invasion of northwest Europe, only to later side with Britain’s Mediterranean strategy (North Africa, Sicily, and Italy).
More detrimentally, as the war progressed Roosevelt gradually sided with Stalin vis-a-vis Churchill on postwar issues, and engaged in what Robert Nisbet accurately described as a “failed courtship” of Stalin in an effort to gain Stalin’s trust (as if that were possible). This had serious repercussions for the postwar world and set the stage for the communization of parts of central and eastern Europe and the Cold War.
One aspect of FDR’s courtship was an agreement made at Yalta to repatriate Soviet citizens to Stalin’s Russia — even those who for understandable reasons did not want to return. This resulted in the repatriation — in many instances by force — of at least two million Russians, White Russians, Cossacks, Slovenians, Croats, and Serbs to Stalin’s rule. Many of what Nikolai Tolstoy called these “victims of Yalta” (the title of his book on the subject) ended up in the Gulag or worse. Churchill and Britain shared in this lamentable decision, as Brian Crozier, Jeremy Murray-Brown, and Drew Middleton noted in their book This War Called Peace.
He trampled civil liberties at home, showed a stunning indifference to crimes against humanity committed abroad, and left the nation ill-equipped to deal with internal subversion.
And then there was Roosevelt’s seeming indifference to the plight of Europe’s Jews. Jay Winik in his book 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History decries what he calls FDR’s “silence, his seeming refusal to see, hear, or speak evil of the death camps” in Hitler’s Reich. Escapees from Auschwitz-Birkenau, German industrialist Eduard Schulte, Swiss journalist Benno Sagalowitz, Geneva lawyer Gerhart Riegner, Polish underground leader Jan Karski, and American Jewish leaders informed the Roosevelt administration of details of the extermination apparatus in Nazi-controlled Europe. When American planes gained the capacity to attack the Nazi infrastructure of death, FDR’s administration opposed all recommendations to do so, and FDR personally remained circumspect. Winik writes: “And now, it was the president’s circumspection . . . that set the tone of administration policy . . . and every month, every week, tens of thousands of more innocent lives were lost in Hitler’s machinery of death.”
And finally, any fair judgment of Roosevelt’s presidency needs to deal with the disastrous internal security lapses of that administration which through indifference, incompetence, and in some cases outright treachery allowed communists to infiltrate many agencies of the federal government before, during, and after the Second World War. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the Roosevelt administration on this score appears in Diana West’s American Betrayal, but there are a plethora of books (Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, James Burnham’s The Web of Subversion, M. Stanton Evans’ and Herbert Romerstein’s Stalin’s Secret Agents, John Earl Haynes’ and Harvey Klehr’s Venona, Herbert Romerstein’s and Eric Breindel’s The Venona Secrets, to name only a few) that have revealed the fellow travelers and Soviet agents — Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, and so many others — who, in James Burnham’s words, “assembled in Washington under the careless scepter of Franklin Roosevelt.” (Ironically, Roosevelt failed to take any steps to remove such internal threats when he was provided with evidence of disloyalty and subversion, but signed an executive order forcibly removing person of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps without any evidence of disloyalty).
Our longest-serving president led the nation during two major crises — the domestic economic depression and the Second World War. But greatness should not be judged simply by years of service or the events that occurred during that service. FDR’s economic policies made the Great Depression last longer and set the nation on a course of virtually unlimited federal power. He failed to take the political risks required to awaken the nation to the gathering storm abroad and left the nation ill-prepared for the war that came. He trampled civil liberties at home, showed a stunning indifference to crimes against humanity committed abroad, and left the nation ill-equipped to deal with internal subversion. And while it is true that under his leadership the United States won the war (though the Soviet Union deserves the most credit for defeating Germany), the geopolitical danger of Hitler’s Germany was replaced by the even more dangerous Soviet Union.
That FDR’s was a failed presidency — for that is what it was — will never be accepted by academia or the mainstream media who glory in the exercise of federal power for supposed liberal ends. They are willing to ignore or excuse the many failings recounted in this article — failings for which they would unreservedly condemn conservatives — because they worship at the altar of government power.