A new book, Where They Stand, written by National Interest editor Robert W. Merry, shows that American historians consistently list Franklin Delano Roosevelt just behind Lincoln and Washington on their ratings of American presidents. A recent issue of Newsweek lists FDR as the top modern president. Years ago, the Schlesinger Presidential Poll even rated FDR first among all presidents.
I believe these judgments cannot be sustained. Correcting them might help Americans clarify what kind of character they want in the presidents they elect.
FDR was certainly influential. After all, even if economists on the right and left debate whether it was his stimulus policies or World War II rearmament that finally ended depression era unemployment, FDR certainly bolstered American confidence after the Depression and during World War Two, while greatly extending the scope of American government.
My quarrel with FDR’s high rating is that in judging a president, it is not just achievements or influence—the criteria used by most historians–that matter. One must also consider whether a President’s conduct is based on moral principles and lives up to such American ideals as truth, dignity and compassion.
Some might argue that President Nixon’s opening to China or founding of the Environmental Protection Agency were great achievements, but historians consistently rate Nixon near the bottom. Why? Because of his terrible abuse of power. Similarly, no one rates President James Buchanan highly. Buchanan did preserve a pre-Civil War peace, but only by acquiescing in the continuation and protection of the immoral institution of slavery. And Warren Harding always appears at or near the bottom of presidential rankings, despite presiding over the great economic recovery of 1921. Why?Because the Teapot Dome and other ethical failings of his administration that came to light after his death, while not attributed directly to Harding, still have stained his moral standing with historians.
In that light, it is time to take another look at FDR. Whatever one may think of his overall domestic and foreign policies, FDR made two—and perhaps four–of the most cowardly, immoral decisions by any president in our history.
First was FDR’s executive order at the beginning of World War Two to intern—by modern definitions one could use the word “enslave”–over a hundred thousand west coast American citizens and aliens with one-sixteenth or more Japanese blood. This action was later criticized in the Yale Law Journal by Eugene Rostow as similar to “the pseudo-genetics of the Nazis.”
It’s not as if FDR acted in ignorance. He ignored his own Attorney General, Frances Biddle, who initially ridiculed the “Armchair strategists and Junior G-men” pushing for internment with no evidence of sabotage. He also ignored his FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover—not usually known as a defender of civil liberties—who, referring to “public hysteria,” stated “The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data.”
Instead, FDR sided with Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy, who, referring to the American citizens involved, believed “we can … cover the legal situation … in spite of the Constitution.” Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson weighed in, citing military necessity, although General Mark Clark, in a report to Chief of Staff George Marshall, found “mass evacuation was unnecessary.”
The internment of thousands continued into 1945, and while the war was by then clearly decided and thousands of Japanese-American young men had served with distinction on the European front, FDR did not back off, reconsider, apologize, or offer compensation. These tasks would be left to successors Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, and the 1988 Congress and Ronald Reagan.
It’s one thing to accept the historic institution of slavery, as our founding fathers did, and ponder how to get rid of it. It’s another to initiate racial internment as FDR did, almost a century after Lincoln brought about the abolition of racial slavery.
Along with this act of immoral commission came a disgraceful act of omission. That was FDR’s failure to take the most obvious steps to mitigate or stop the worst genocide in history: the Holocaust.
Roosevelt was silent in the thirties as Hitler began his anti–Semitic policies. FDR was silent in 1940 as the ship St. Louis hovered off the coast of Florida with almost a thousand German Jews unsuccessfully looking for refuge. FDR was silent in 1941 as his State Department refused to apply unused quotas to Jewish refugees seeking entrance to the U.S. FDR was silent in 1942 as news arrived of the deaths of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps.
Roosevelt turned down meetings with those Jewish leaders who pressed for action. He personally refused to even consider a request from his Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, to use the Virgin Islands as a refuge for Jews fleeing Europe.
Again, as shown in Christian minister David Wyman’s book Abandonment of the Jews, it was not because FDR did not hear arguments to act. Treasury Department officials under Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. pushed hard for rescue of Jews through Switzerland. One treasury lawyer, Randolph Paul, commented, “I don’t know how we can blame the Germans for killing them when we are doing this. The law calls [it] para-delicto, of equal guilt…”
At a public rally in 1943 honoring the far greater efforts of Sweden and Denmark to rescue Jews, the former head of the Office of Price Administration, Leon Henderson, called the allied governments and their leaders guilty of “moral cowardice” for failing to offer refuge from the Nazi extermination efforts. The problem, said Henderson, has been “avoided, submerged, postponed, played down, and resisted with all the forms of political force available to powerful governments.”
Many newspapers editorialized, demanding action. The Hearst papers repeated the refrain “This is not a Christian or Jewish question. It is a human question and concerns men and women of all creeds.” But until way too late, all these pleas were to no avail.
Our first president, George Washington, to whom historians compare Roosevelt, spoke incessantly of how America must offer refuge for those suffering religious persecution. It was a message that FDR ignored—or just forgot.
FDR’s inaction was capped by his refusal in 1944 to order the bombing of the Auschwitz gas chambers and railroads leading there despite the pleas of the Slovak Jewish underground leaders, the Polish and Czech governments in exile, and the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People. FDR followed the advice of his Assistant Secretary of War McCloy and his Department, which, without consulting European Air Force commanders, called this action “impracticable” because it would divert resources from the war effort. Yet with allied control of the skies and hundreds of planes bombing the area all around Auschwitz, including oil and rubber installations adjoining Auschwitz, one plane dropping a few bombs, while killing hundreds, could have prevented the extermination of thousands.
There is still a third immoral decision that FDR made, involving the cover up of the Soviet massacre in Katyn, Poland. This cover up has come to light with the release just recently of thousands of declassified documents from the National Archives. According to scholars and press reports, these documents show that secret coded messages from American POWs during 1943 to the highest levels of American military intelligence, made clear that the Soviets had murdered 22,000 Polish officers in 1940 and tried to blame the deaths on the Nazis. The information coincided with the known direct communication to FDR by his Special Emissary to the Balkans, George Earle, reaching the same conclusion. The cover-up, including suppressing broadcasts of Polish-Americans during the war, and squelching Special Emissary Earle’s efforts to publish his views while exiling him to Samoa, was either designed to win the Polish-American vote in 1944 or affect American policies toward the Soviet Union and post war Poland, or, more likely, both. It can be said that in this case FDR did not initiate action such as the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans, or refuse to take action, such as stopping the loss of thousands of Jewish lives, since he learned of the massacre well after it occurred, and could not have stopped it. Yet the cover up decision had grave future consequences and does not show great moral character.
The fourth issue regarding FDR’s morality or lack thereof, involves his spotty record in the fight against racial segregation. To his credit, FDR signed an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industry, but at the same time he reneged on a promise to African-American leader Philip Randolph to desegregate the armed forces, leaving that to his successor, Harry Truman. Truman became the first president to address the NAACP, the first president to send a full scale civil rights message to Congress and the first Democratic President to stand up to the Southern Democrats by accepting a civil rights plank at the 1948 convention. Just to make sure the message was received, Truman two weeks after the convention issued an executive order mandating equal opportunity in the armed forces and federal civil service, thus insuring that Democratic segregationists would run their own candidate and greatly risking Truman’s reelection. FDR in a far more commanding political position, expended no political capital on desegregation during his four election campaigns. As with the Katyn massacre, we can say that FDR did not initiate segregation nor could he have completely stopped it. He just didn’t exercise great moral leadership.
Of course, FDR’s apologists can blame the intense anti-Japanese sentiments, anti-Semitism, pro-Soviet feelings, and the power of segregationists in Congress for these four actions or non-actions. But that is precisely the point: great moral leadership sometimes means going against the baser elements of public feeling, and on that score, despite numerous opportunities, FDR failed. Lincoln stood against widespread anti-Negro feelings during the Civil War, and Washington led a revolution against British rule which until the end, commanded much but probably never overwhelming popular support.
One would think a listing of American presidents should measure not only their achievements but their commitment, in the face of hostility, to American ideals and morality. Lists of our greatest presidents typically don’t include those with great moral failings.
American historians might do well to consider morality in all their presidential rankings, even if it means downgrading one of their political favorites.
John R. Miller is a former United States Ambassador at Large on Modern Slavery, former Congressman from Seattle, a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.