Defaming FDR

by Conrad Black
And other great men besides.

The strange plague of psycho-Roosevelt-ementia, which suddenly springs to life and infects factions of the Left and Right, has been reported in several severely afflicted cases recently. Diana West, a right-wing loopy who has occasionally aroused cautious hopefulness that she has been house-trained, has published a novel presented as a non-fiction work, entitled “American Betrayal,” which holds that the United States under Roosevelt and Truman was “an occupied country” governed by robotic agents and stooges of Josef Stalin. In producing this volume, Ms. West has eased out Oliver Stone himself, who inspired and lent his name to the Oliver Stone Mythmaker Trophy, as this year’s recipient of it, albeit after fierce competition. Many readers will recall the Oliver Stone/Peter Kuznick television chronicle that claimed that after Henry A. Wallace was sacked as vice president in 1944 in favor of that infamous warmonger Harry S. Truman, Truman started the Cold War and propagated the false allegation that Stalin had any interest in oppressing Eastern Europe (or anywhere else), subverting democracy, or creating a state of international tension.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Truman — then a U.S. senator from Missouri — said that this was a war between two equivalently evil men, and that although the human devastation that would result from their conflict was tragic, the mutual enervation of two such wicked and ghastly regimes as those of Hitler and Stalin and their adherents was a useful phenomenon. He spoke from compassion for the agonies inflicted on Britain and her affiliated states, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in facing without the support of any other Great Power the full weight of the formidable German war machine.

Even allowing for the superlative public-relations talents of Churchillian Britain —  claiming to be David to a goose-stepping Goliath with greasy hair and a Charlie Chaplin mustache, and shrieking “Sieg heil” while hurling his straight right arm compulsively into the air — Great Britain and the Commonwealth were underdogs against Germany. Churchill exaggerated for his own purposes when he said that the Royal Air Force had won the Battle of Britain “at odds of seven or eight to one.” It was more like three to two, which became one to one when the comparative ease of the refueling and return to the skies for the home air force is taken into account, but it was a great victory and Mr. Churchill spoke nothing but the truth when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

But Germany had all the Eurasian land mass as occupied, satellite, or friendly territory, to the deserts of Araby and the gates of India. The Greater Reich then included most of France and Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, and Benelux, a combined population about as great as that of the United States and with an almost equivalent industrial capacity. Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Horthy (Hungary), and Antonescu (Romania) were in varying but extensive states of compliance with the German lead, and Stalin was a cordial non-aggression contractant, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with four million well-trained soldiers, preceded by the aerial well-wishing of the German air force and bringing the Gestapo in their wake.

The victory of Hitler would have made it extremely difficult for the Anglo-Americans ever to dislodge him in foreseeable time from control of Europe. Roosevelt had extended American territorial waters from three miles to 1,800 miles, ordered the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to fire on detection at any German ship, and at the same time had offered to “lend” the sinews of war to the British and Canadians, with soft eventual repayment, and compared this to lending your neighbor your garden hose when his house is on fire. It was an idiosyncratic definition of neutrality. Hitler concluded, with some reason, that Roosevelt was going to bring the U.S. into war with Germany eventually, and he gambled that he could knock Stalin out of the war before Roosevelt could fairly enter it, and thus have an impregnable position in Europe. It was a huge gamble, but he had built his whole career on gambles and they had always succeeded. Roosevelt also condemned the Soviet invasion of Finland and told a meeting of American socialists that Stalin was no better than Hitler, doubtless to disguise the status that Ms. West imputes to him of being a Stalin puppet. The West farrago of lies has been thoroughly debunked, especially by Ron Radosh in his FrontPageMag piece titled “McCarthy on Steroids.”

Rather than dwelling on the falsehoods of the West or Stone accounts, I hope it is useful to recount the salient facts, so obscured have they become in cant and emotionalism. The much-maligned Roosevelt was the only leader of a major power in the Thirties not to be ashamed of: neither a totalitarian dictator (Hitler, Stalin), nor a strutting mountebank of a dictator (Mussolini), nor an appeaser of dictators (Baldwin, Chamberlain, Daladier, et al.). He warned the French not to allow German remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, and was skeptical about Munich: He instructed his ambassador in London, the unfortunately selected Joseph Kennedy, that he could not congratulate Chamberlain on Munich, other than personally and verbally only. He warned Stalin in August 1939 not to make a non-aggression pact with Germany. He told Stalin in 1941 (a couple of months before Pearl Harbor) that the Japanese were moving their forces south to secure their oil supply in the face of the American oil embargo, which enabled Stalin to move 20 divisions from the Far East for the final and successful defense of Moscow and Leningrad.

Roosevelt was concerned that if the Western Allies did not seriously open a second front in Europe, Stalin would negotiate a separate peace with Hitler. Because Churchill and his senior generals feared becoming mired again in northeast France as in the hecatomb of World War I, Roosevelt had to enlist Stalin at the Tehran Conference to support cross-channel landings. Churchill and his staff believed that Stalin agreed to this only because he thought that such landings would distract Hitler but enable further Soviet penetration into Western Europe. This was probably true, but Roosevelt had more faith than Churchill or Stalin in the possibilities of a successful 1944 Allied landing in France, and, once again, he was right. This Ms. West decries as ignoring General Mark Clark’s advice, prompted by Churchill, to surge up the Adriatic and through the Ljubljana Gap and take Vienna. Eisenhower and Marshall advised that there was no such gap and it was a choice between Vienna and Paris. Because Churchill had generously had Austria designated a German-conquered state at Tehran, and therefore entitled to Four Power occupation like the rest of Germany but under gentler ruleswe ended up without Soviet occupation of either of those capitals.

In 1940, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan had all been in the hands of dictators hostile to the Anglo-Americans; in 1945, all were entirely, or in the case of Germany, largely, occupied by the Western armies and were brought into or back into the West as flourishing democracies and allies of the Anglo-Americans, and the Russians had taken over 90 percent of the casualties in subduing the Germans. At Yalta, Stalin pledged that there would be free elections and that the Soviets would depart from the Eastern European countries. Roosevelt was advised by his military chiefs that the carnage on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where the U.S. took 70,000 casualties on small islands, indicated that conquering the home islands of Japan would cost a million casualties — and that he should therefore try to secure Soviet cooperation in invading Japan until they were sure atomic weapons would be effective (they were tested successfully only at Los Alamos in July, three months after Roosevelt died).

Roosevelt had said to Churchill, Anthony Eden, Henry Stimson, Archbishop Spellman, Lord Keynes, and Admiral Leahy, among others, that Stalin could be a real post-war problem. He planned to offer demilitarization of Germany (the power Stalin feared, for obvious reasons), a $6.5 billion reconstruction program, and an unspecific brandishing of atomic weapons (if they worked) as incentives to Stalin to honor his Yalta commitments on Eastern Europe. The strategic team he assembled — Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, Acheson, Kennan, Bohlen, and others — devised the containment strategy and applied it, and their successors applied it, nine administrations of both parties, until the Soviet Union disintegrated and international Communism imploded, without a shot being exchanged between the United States and the USSR. It was the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the world; Roosevelt’s aid to the democracies in the first two years of World War II and his strategic conduct during that war were a historic masterpiece, entirely consistent with the military direction provided by Roosevelt’s personal selections of Marshall as army chief of staff and of Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Nimitz as theater commanders.

Henry Wallace was a flake, a mad choice for vice president; FDR made such choices occasionally, as with Kennedy for London and Joseph Davies for the embassy in Moscow. Wallace opposed the Marshall Plan and opposed NATO, and opposed atomic development. If he had succeeded to the presidency, he would have done a 180-degree turn or been impeached for incompetence on such a scale that it would be deemed a high crime, and for once, the impeachers would have been correct (which they were not with Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, who never should have been threatened with impeachment as they were). The seven terms of Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were a golden age of the American presidency. All three had their faults, but FDR took over a completely economically and psychologically depressed country in 1933 and — as Mr. Churchill said in his parliamentary eulogy of him, FDR “raised the strength, might, and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history”; and his successors, both of whom he elevated from comparative obscurity, raised it higher.

These conspiratorialists are idiots: pernicious, destructive, fatuous idiots. West and Stone and Kuznick are entitled to freedom of expression, though they abuse it with their unutterable myth-making and jejune dementedness, as they hurl the vitriol of the silly and the deranged at people who should be on Mount Rushmore. The Yalta myth, inflated by Ms. West with the unfounded new flourish that Harry Hopkins was a Commie spy, like the unspeakable fraud that Truman, not Stalin, started the Cold War, is a revenance of the psycho-Roosevelte-mentia virus, like the pestilence of collaboration described by Camus in The Plague. “Only the mute effigies of great men . . . conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been.” That is the problem.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].