I spent a beautiful autumn weekend at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, not long ago at a conference of diplomatic historians examining FDR’s legacy in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition–FDR as “Commander-in-Chief”–at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. The one point of agreement was that FDR’s legacy is both ambiguous and inescapable. Steve Gillon of the University of Oklahoma terms Roosevelt “the father of modern America” and argues, “You can’t understand America without coming to terms with him and his legacy.” And yet that legacy is one of a “juggler”–in historian Warren Kimball’s term–who, as FDR himself put it, “never let my right hand know what my left hand does.”
Roosevelt’s masterminding of the battle against Nazism and Japanese militarism is indeed inspirational. His ability to navigate the crosscurrents of leading America industrially, militarily and politically–simultaneously careening among an unreasonable Churchill, a murderous Stalin and later (at Churchill’s insistence) a vainglorious De Gaulle–leaves one’s head spinning like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. It was a complex, frequently contradictory, task to maintain what he always insisted was a clear path to victory and a stable, peaceful postwar world. But many of the problems that arose–and ended up killing tens of millions of people in decolonization struggles overlaid with US-Soviet proxy warfare–can be attributed to FDR’s unwillingness either to follow through on his announced policies, to place competent people in positions to implement them or to level with the public about what he was trying to do. FDR behaved like a savvy nineteenth-century European realpolitician at Yalta, smartly playing the weak diplomatic hand that battlefield realities had bequeathed him before returning home and pretending he’d achieved a Wilsonian “We Are the World”-style solution. And since he died shortly thereafter, leaving little indication of how he planned to manage the various contradictions he’d created, it fell to an unbriefed and inexperienced Harry Truman to hazard more than a few unhappy guesses. As Walter LaFeber wondered at the conference’s end: “How did the Good War end with [such] tragic conclusions?”
I’ve got my own theories, which is why I devoted so much attention to FDR’s Yalta bargain in my book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. But the accepted answer of almost all those who attended the conference is that while FDR did many things brilliantly, his belief that he could handle everything by juggling ends and means in ways that he alone understood, together with his untimely death on April 12, 1945, probably undermined whatever chances, however unlikely, there may have been for lasting postwar peace.
Outrageous even by his own considerable standards, George W. Bush has tried to hijack Roosevelt’s World War II legacy for his own, most recently at a speech in San Diego commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of V-J Day. The obvious difference between FDR’s and Bush’s wars is necessity. True, FDR led the nation into war by less than forthright means, but he did so because he knew that Germany and Japan were genuine and unavoidable threats to American security and prosperity. Bush chose war for reasons of ideological fanaticism, coupled with personal pique and historical ignorance rather than any verifiable threat. The Administration’s repeated demonstration of dishonesty and incompetence vis-à-vis Iraq helps explain why, despite desperate propaganda efforts–and little Democratic opposition–a mere 33 percent of Americans currently voice support for his handling of the war.
Second, while superpowers fighting wars do a lot of things that most of us wish they wouldn’t, FDR managed to do them while advancing the image of America as the world’s protector and defender of freedom and democracy. This perception grew tarnished during the cold war, particularly at the time of the war in Vietnam, but never to the point that our allies questioned the fundamental arrangements upon which world security and economic prosperity rested. Bush’s war, on the other hand, has destroyed much of the good will that America built up among our allies during two world wars and afterward. In the late 1990s the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, symbol and spokesperson for a humane, social-democratic liberal Europe, told me in unequivocal terms that America’s protection of European democracy had been necessary and valuable during the last half-century. (He would not extend the argument into the Third World.) And yet under Bush, America’s image has fallen so far, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, that totalitarian China is more admired than we are by most European nations, and we are more isolated than at any time since perhaps the end of slavery.
Bush’s ability to deceive the nation into an unnecessary war rested in part on his willingness to lie but also on war agitators’ deployment of the discourse of Wilsonian internationalism. Rutgers historian Lloyd Gardner notes that Americans are used to hearing that democracy travels well, that democratic institutions can be established easily, that other people want to be like Americans “once the bad people are removed.” The phenomenon leads LaFeber to term US politicians’ linguistic attachment to Wilsonianism less “a policy than a disease.”
Bush has had a great deal of help in this endeavor, from the right-wing punditocracy as well as from politically naïve and ahistorical liberal hawks. Few gave much thought to the likely consequences of “democracy promotion” in Iraq: greater hatred for America and Israel, coupled with a strategic coup for the theocratic ambitions of Iran’s medieval mullahs. As the Administration’s incompetence slowly transforms Iraq into an ungovernable terrorist training camp, we may be forgiven our nostalgia for a “juggler” who, for all his flaws, had the good sense to address genuine threats with the kind of creativity and competence that right-wing Republicans these days seem to reserve only for criminal enterprise.