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Just Another FDR Biography

Yalta summit in February 1945 with (from left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. (public domain)

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek, Viking, 704 pages.

I always try to be as generous as possible to a fellow biographer of the same subject, but I cannot claim that this book brings much that is new to the extensive FDR literature. It is in fact a pastiche of extracts from other secondary sources, apart from an exaggerated reliance on letters with one of Roosevelt’s cousins, Margaret (Daisey) Suckley (which were bought when they became available by this reviewer). It is essentially a chronology, and between the Suckley correspondence and extracts from some of Roosevelt’s better known speeches, there is not much to guide the reader to insightful conclusions about Roosevelt’s life or presidency that the interested reader would not already know. The procession of events is unexceptionable, and the range of the author’s canvass of secondary sources is commendable.

There are some good anecdotes that only the most energetic Roosevelt devotees would know. At the Tehran Conference, for example, when Churchill showed his cigar case engraved by fellow Conservatives in 1925, and Roosevelt produced his silver cigarette case engraved by Harvard graduates of 1904, Stalin showed his silver cigarette case from Count Karoli, given by the Budapest Jockey Club in 1910. But there is altogether too much unrigorous mind-reading. Again and again we read that Roosevelt thought or believed something that is just unsubstantiated speculation on the subject’s innermost thoughts. As Dallek regularly acknowledges, Roosevelt was almost completely inscrutable, presenting a different exterior to everyone, according to criteria other than being frank and guileless. This may even have affected some of his comments to Ms. Suckley. 

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of TAC.

Neither Dallek nor the rest of us who have had a crack at it have any idea what Roosevelt thought at any time and can only judge by his actions. He manages this well on seeking a third term, where there is no reason to believe he ever had any real intention of retiring after two terms, though he finessed it deftly and managed a facsimile of a spontaneous draft when the convention came. For once, his second vice president, Henry Wallace, had it right when he said: “No one knows him; no one knows anything about him.”

For what purports to be a political biography, Dallek is pretty sketchy about how Roosevelt managed to corral the progressive left for his domestic programs, and then, as the Depression receded and the war scare arose, shifted his workfare programs that alleviated unemployment from conservation and public works—what today would be called infrastructure—to defense production and munitions, including the soon-to-be-famous aircraft carriers, Enterprise and Yorktown. Dallek regularly reports rising public disillusionment with FDR’s administration, interspersed with statements of his high public approval ratings. Roosevelt’s poll numbers never registered an approval rating lower than 55 percent, and on the day of his inauguration for the unprecedented presidential third term, an astounding 71 percent of the country approved of his performance in office. Except to a slight degree in 1940, there was never much suspense about how his elections would go.

It is clear from his prologue that Dallek has read the other major books about FDR and mentions some of them in his text and almost all of them in his endnotes, but he does not lift the principal insights from many of them. Thus, although there were 13 to 17 million unemployed in the country when Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933 (about 22-33 percent of the work force; the statistics were compiled by the states and were not complete or entirely reliable), and there was no direct relief for them, Dallek doesn’t shed much light on what happens to their numbers in Roosevelt’s first two terms, an indicator that obviously had a decisive impact on his level of approval in the country. And he states that the unemployed stood at 10 million in 1940 when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the republic and went after his third term.

In fact, unemployment was somewhat under 10 million, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament program Roosevelt had initiated, and to the country’s first peacetime conscription, which he called a “muster.” But Dallek completely ignores, for purposes of calculating unemployment, the many millions of participants in his workfare programs, who were just as much employed as, and more usefully than, the millions of conscripts and defense workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared.

It is bizarre that pro-Roosevelt historians such as Dallek, James MacGregor Burns, Arthur Schlesinger, William Leuchtenburg, and Doris Goodwin allow Roosevelt’s critics and hostile historians to get away with this unjust denigration of the New Deal, even though this anomaly has been authoritatively debunked (initially by me in 2003, but well seconded by Jean Edward Smith, whose book Dallek rightly praises, in 2007, and by many people since). These programs kept between five million and nearly eight million people usefully employed at any time building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages for Roosevelt’s first two terms, until defense requirements and the private sector took over and completed the extermination of unemployment. Those unable to work received Social Security unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on.

One need not look much further to see the principal source of Roosevelt’s political success, apart from his overpowering public and private personality, infallible intuition about American public opinion, skill at political tactics and skullduggery, and formidable oratorical talents. Some of these factors get a fair airing in this book, but some do not.

There was nothing about President Herbert Hoover’s agonized efforts to sign Roosevelt onto his deflationary policies. The New Deal is bandied about here as a name, but the contents of it as a program are incompletely presented. There is nothing about the meteoric career of the National Recovery Administration director General Hugh Johnson, his Blue Eagles initiative, or the great parades and spectacles involving show-business people (who almost all were militant Roosevelt supporters). As economics, it was questionable, but economics is half psychology, and it rebuilt morale.

It is not really clear in this book that the basis of the New Deal was emergency workfare, reduced workweeks, promotion of both collective bargaining and cartelism to raise wages and prices and, with the partial demonetization of gold, to induce modest inflation. There is no real focus on FDR’s guaranty of bank deposits or the trusteeship of insolvent banks merged and refloated with preferred share issues. The entire financial system had collapsed by March of 1933 and almost all the banks and stock and commodity exchanges were closed. There is little about refinancing millions of mortgages and rebuilding farm prices by having farmers vote democratically, by category of agriculture, on production levels, to assure sustainable price levels and an adequate national food supply, while maintaining unharvested capacity in what was called a soil bank. His public works schemes massively advanced rural electrification and flood and drought control. It was all very innovative, and 1936 was the only election in history (except 1964 with Lyndon Johnson) when a Democratic president carried every farm state.

Dallek’s coverage of Roosevelt as war leader is more consistent and informative. But someone relying entirely on this book for an assessment of Roosevelt would not realize how imaginative his senior military promotions were. George C. Marshall was promoted over many others to be army chief of staff; Chester W. Nimitz was a personal selection as Pacific Fleet commander after the debacle at Pearl Harbor; and Douglas MacArthur was reactivated after about four years of retirement despite the political animosity between him and Roosevelt. The book should have been clearer in explaining that Roosevelt extended U.S. territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles and ordered the U.S. Navy to attack on detection any German ship discovered in that vast area. Meanwhile, through Lend-Lease, the president extended to the British and Canadians, and later the Soviet Union, anything they asked for on very lax, deferred-payment terms. It was, to say the least, an idiosyncratic definition of neutrality, and those powers could not have continued in the war without it.

There is minimal presentation of the competing strategies for pursuing the war and underestimation of British skepticism about the cross-channel invasion of France right up to about six weeks before D-Day. There is no mention of why Roosevelt stayed in the Soviet legation at Tehran, apart from the distance from the U.S. mission (and it was Roosevelt’s emissary, Republican general Patrick Hurley, not Stalin as Dallek writes, who recommended it). The purpose was to assure that Stalin was lined up in advance to advocate the cross-channel attack over Churchill’s plan for attacking in the Balkans and counting on Turkey joining the war. This was a diplomatic stroke of genius. There is no mention here that the Churchill-Stalin spheres-of-influence agreement of October 1944 included Hungary, and no mention of the Battle of the Bulge that delayed the crossing of the Rhine by three months and cost the Americans 60,000 casualties. There is not a hint even of the existence of the European Advisory Council, which set the Allied occupation zones in Germany. There is not a word about the fate of Czechoslovakia, as it was not mentioned at either of the tripartite summit conferences or in the Churchill-Stalin agreement.

Dallek certainly gives credit to Roosevelt as a great president and leader and does debunk the most egregious falsehoods of his enemies: that the New Deal was a complete failure and that he was fooled and swindled by Stalin into giving him Eastern Europe. His official reason for adding a book that doesn’t tell us anything new or even reaffirm important parts of the Roosevelt story is that it contains more information about his declining health. It doesn’t. It merely repeats that FDR explained to Daisy Suckley that he was generally more tired after late 1943. We knew that, and Dallek does confirm that his increasing exhaustion didn’t seem to affect his judgment on major issues and personalities. We read too often that Roosevelt “fled” Washington—so do all presidents. Dallek is a little hard on Roosevelt’s record in saving Jews. He did admit more Jews than any other country outside Nazi occupation, and, as Dallek acknowledges, faced very difficult problems with public and congressional opinion. The very sad saga of the liner St. Louis was not mentioned.

This isn’t a bad book, and it’s a passable read. But it has the air of Dallek, octogenarian and rabidly partisan Democratic biographer of modern Democratic presidents, checking the FDR box, having written biographies of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as a dutiful and clumsy sandbag job on Republicans Nixon and Kissinger. The credibility of the author is not raised by his flat assertion in the preface of the Nixon-Kissinger book that Nixon rigged the 1968 election by violating the Logan Act of 1799 and inciting South Vietnamese nonparticipation in Lyndon Johnson’s peace negotiations. This is false, and the real scoundrel in trying to steal the election was Johnson (whitewashed in Dallek’s life of him), who pretended that there had been a breakthrough in the Paris Vietnam talks and that peace could be imminent. The co-chair of Republican Women for Nixon, Anna Chenault, gave her opinion to the South Vietnamese, but Nixon did not, nor is there any evidence that any of his people did (despite massive phone-tapping by Johnson). And the president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, did not need any help figuring out which presidential candidate would be preferable from his viewpoint. This is just rank partisan propaganda, of a piece with a column Dallek published on November 11 on NBC’s website likening President Trump to rabble-rouser Huey P. Long, red-baiter Joseph R. McCarthy, and arch-segregationist George C. Wallace: not history and not a serious perspective on history.

Yellow-dog Democrats have their place and their rights, but they aren’t reliable historians, and even this book about the greatest Democratic leader of all doesn’t do Franklin D. Roosevelt full justice, though it makes a respectable stab at it.

Conrad Black has written biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, a strategic history of the United States, and TheHistory of Canada, is a weekly contributor to the National Review Online, frequently appears elsewhere in American, Canadian, and British publications, was the chairman of the Telegraph Newspaper group in the UK, 1987-2004, founded the National Post (Canada), and is a member of the British House of Lords.

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