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Books: F.D.R. Under a Microscope

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THE ROOSEVELT LEADERSHIP: 1933-1945 (491 pp.)—Edgar Eugene Robinson—Lippincott ($6).

At his death four years ago, J. Brooks B. Parker, Philadelphia insurance man, left an unusual bequest. He set aside $25,000 for a “contemporary appraisement . . . without fear, favor or prejudice” of the influence of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the U.S. The appraiser chosen by the Parker executors: Edgar Eugene Robinson, now 68, longtime professor of American political history at Stanford, and founder of that university’s Institute of American History. Professor Robinson does more than fulfill the terms of the Parker will; he brings to his book the settling virtues of scholarship and cold common sense. The F.D.R. who emerges from The Roosevelt Leadership is supremely confident, politically astute and personally courageous, but he is also an ethical and ideological fantast, blithely writing IOUs on the U.S. future.

Devil Theory of History. At Roosevelt’s inaugural in 1933, says Biographer Robinson, the U.S. was suffering from a paralytic failure of nerve. F.D.R.’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” injected the adrenaline of confidence into the fluttering heart of the nation’s economy. It was followed by the wonder-and-blunder drugs—NRA, AAA, PWA, etc.—of the “First Hundred Days.” The New Deal was born more or less by executive fiat, but Will Rogers probably echoed the electorate when he wrote, “I don’t know what additional authority Roosevelt may ask, but give it to him, even if it’s to drown all the boy babies . . . It just shows you what a country can do when you take their affairs out of the hands of Congress.”

While the pattern of leadership which evolved in early New Deal days undoubtedly brought some measure of recovery, in Professor Robinson’s view it also grievously ruptured the orderly traditional processes of U.S. democracy. To tighten his grip on the mass imagination, the President relied shamelessly on the “devil” theory of history. “Wall Street,” “big businessmen,” “reactionaries,” “economic royalists” were tagged as villains. The logical legacy of the devil theory was the witch hunt. Professor Robinson implies that today’s political ” ‘primitives’ of limited intelligence,” e.g., the McCarthyites, are the spawn of Roosevelt’s intemperate labeling of political enemies. Equally damaging to the American policy, according to Robinson, was F.D.R.’s reliance on his intimate junta of nonelective braintrusters.

Of the President’s own mind, one close observer said to Robinson that it was “indolent, superficial, gay, deeply interested in the trivial—yet forced to deal with subjects and problems beyond its comprehension.”

Letter to Laski. Roosevelt’s second term—much of it frittered away in the Supreme Court-packing fight and would-be party purges—reveals to Historian Robinson a ravenously unconstitutional appetite for power. It also exposed F.D.R.’s advisers as radical innovators and not home-grown reformers on the lines of Teddy Roosevelt or Bob La Follette. In Robinson’s view, the maladjustments of the 20th century had convinced many of these men that the U.S. was no longer an “open society” offering the manifold opportunities that it had in previous centuries. Their slogan was “economic democracy.” Their tacitly admired model was the Russian experiment.

Without carrying party cards, they set out to achieve “many of the primary, leveling objectives of Communism.” To the end of his life the President relished his Administration’s socially revolutionary aims and regretted that World War II shunted them aside. As late as Jan. 16, 1945, he wrote to Far Left Socialist Harold Laski: “Our goal is, as you say, identical for the long-range objectives . . .”

Even before his third term began, war and the threat of war catapulted F.D.R. onto the international stage. As recently as 1933, Roosevelt had acted the willful isolationist himself in torpedoing the London Economic Conference, to the great glee of Europe’s dictators. The rise of Hitler of necessity made F.D.R. an internationalist. Professor Robinson absolves Roosevelt of any blame for the disaster at Pearl Harbor, except to note that something like Pearl Harbor was almost bound to happen once the U.S. stepped over the line of strict neutrality.

The Glue of Charm. Roosevelt’s costliest international errors in World War II were logical extensions of New Deal fallacies abroad. Applying the devil theory to the Germans, F.D.R. pressed for the policy of unconditional surrender—”a blunder of the first magnitude.” Bypassing normal channels of diplomacy, as he had in effect bypassed a submissive Congress, Roosevelt undertook to paste together lasting agreements between the great powers with the glue of personal charm. As early as March of 1942, he wrote to Churchill: “I think I can handle Stalin personally better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department.” This was partly the pride of a man with three remarkable U.S. election triumphs notched in his ego. But at a deeper and more dangerous level, he believed that he could win over Stalin “only because the President had such a tolerant view of the Russian government.” The high price of wooing Stalin has made an ignominious word out of Yalta.

In putting F.D.R. under the microscope of history, Professor Robinson carefully analyzes all his roles. In the economic rip tide of the Depression, Roosevelt was almost a conservative dike compared to the lunatic fringe of Huey Longs, Townsends and Coughlins. And Roosevelt “was able to formulate some of the needed changes and see them written into law. ” Yet “when he ceased to lead, the effect of his years in power was manifested in a weakened constitutional system, in imperiled national security, in diminished national morale, in deteriorated political morality, and in an overburdened economy.”

What was the tragic flaw? According to Professor Robinson, there were several. Policy and principle were sabotaged by personality and expediency. While F.D.R. proclaimed the bright future of the common man, mushrooming Government bureaus sapped self-reliance by nurturing security-consciousness. “The most powerful of American Presidents” chose to time vital actions of state on such cues as he could pick up at the keyhole of public opinion. Concludes Robinson: “Roosevelt’s failure lay in his unsuccessful attempt to justify the means or establish the ends he had in view. This was his personal tragedy. Inasmuch as on major decisions he had a majority support, it was also the tragedy of the American people.”

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