Friday, June 14, 2013

second thoughts on FDR

Earlier this year, I had a change of view on WWI war guilt after reading some new books on the start of that tragic conflict, and I now believe the Russians were also significantly to blame along with the Germans.
I’m now wondering whether I misanalyzed FDR’s policy of rearmament and aid to the allies in 1939-41. For years, and after much research, I accepted the conventional view that FDR worked hard to build public support for rearmament and aid, but never acted beyond the constraints of public opinion, which evolved especially after the fall of France. He also let Gen. Marshall take the public lead on the draft and aid because that seemed most likely to work and least risky to his own political standing. That’s the view I express in my FDR chapter in Warriors & Politicians.

Now I’m re-thinking because of what I read in Lynne Olson’s new book on that period. [To my  surprise, since Olson is not an academic and Susan Dunn is, and has done other fine books on FDR, Olson’s book is much better, livelier, broader in scope, with more telling details and anecdotes than Dunn’s 1940.]
Olson has details of the “Century Group,” a mostly Republican eastern establishment group, and its numerous efforts to build public support for support for the allies and U.S. intervention. She suggests that members directly orchestrated not only the introduction of the draft bill in Congress but also the timing and selection of Henry Stimson’s nomination to be secretary of war. I’m generally dubious of conspiracy theories even to accomplish desirable ends; maybe these folks were just bragging about actions that might have happened anyway.

Olson makes a more significant point as she quotes contemporaneous diary and other documents where administration officials express dismay at FDR’s vacillation. She argues that his fireside chats seemed to promise action that the president was then reluctant to take. I had always excused FDR’s behavior as politically necessary until public opinion caught up with him. Maybe I should see this more as a failure of leadership, since support for various escalatory actions did increase whenever the president openly endorsed them.

She also builds a case that many senior military officers were against aid and intervention, were convinced of German military superiority, and were conspiring with anti-interventionist press and members of Congress by leaking information to support their views. She even has evidence that Gen. Marshall failed to rein in these officers when he found out about their activities and would speak disparagingly of FDR behind his back. I think I need to reassess the FDR-military relationship with this new evidence.

In short, U.S. rearmament before Pearl Harbor may not have been the steady progress I previously described but instead was a halting process, partly aided by a well-placed pressure group and partly hindered by a vacillating president. Moreover, maybe the U.S. military leadership did more than I realized to undercut and slow administration policy of supporting the British. Hmmmm.

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