Roosevelt to Truman (Extracts)

· People

Roosevelt to Truman (Extracts)

An Insight into the Personality of Roosevelt


No single aide qualified to interpret his plans and designs authoritatively. Instead, Roosevelt’s various aides and advisers gave the new president conflicting views of his predecessor’s intentions.

In light of the considerable disagreements among the president’s advisers, it is hardly surprising that historians have differed fiercely over the broad direction of Roosevelt’s foreign policy and its sagacity and over his preferred course of action at the time of his death. The same policy maker warmly praised by  some historians as the “ultimate realist’ who never understood either ‘the Soviet or international relations.” The intensity of the debate over Roosevelt’s foreign policy shows little sign of abating as works continue to appear defending or criticizing his record.

Much of the disagreement regarding the state of American foreign policy at the time of Roosevelt’s death results from the fact that it was so integrally linked to and was indeed an expression of an elusive figure, namely Franklin Roosevelt himself. The squire of Hyde Park stands in many ways as a worthy rival to the master of Monticello for the title of “American Sphinx.” He is a “Protean figure,” as William Leuchtenburg would have it, whose various forms make him all at once “the best loved, most hated, most influential, most enigmatic” of modern American presidents. Yet Roosevelt’s place in American history rests secure and unshakable as a great leader in peace and war, an indisputable title, a brilliant political practitioner, and the measuring rod for all subsequent presidents. In the depths of depression, he helped restore to an almost despairing nation real hope and energy with his New Deal measures  and his memorable assurance that the only thing to be feared was fear itself. He overcame the powerful forces of American isolationism and unilateralism in the years from 1939 to 1941, and supported Great Britain and the Soviet Union in their deathly struggle against Hitler’s Germany. After Pearl Harbour, he convinced the American people that they faced a truly global challenge that required the defeat of both Germany and Japan. He led a unified nation through to the brink of ultimate victory in the greatest armed conflict in history and served in the words of his friend Felix Frankfurter as “a symbol of hope for liberty-loving people everywhere in resisting a seemingly invincible challenge to civilization.” His extraordinary confidence, optimism, and ebullience shone through like a beacon giving light to help lesser mortals find their way.

Yet, when examining Roosevelt’s portrait more closely and beyond the broad-brush strokes formed by his buoyant leadership of his nation through the Depression and the Second World War, his picture becomes more blurred, the exact nature of his accomplishments more debatable, and his enigmatic features impossible to avoid. Roosevelt might best be thought of as a remarkable exemplar of the ‘political fox” in action. He was never limited by any central conviction or purpose. Rather as a “magnificently resourceful improviser” and ” a virtuoso in the use of power,” he displayed during the New Deal a willingness to shift directions and to vary his methods without inhibition as circumstances required. FDR’s refusal to decide among various competing and in part contradictory approaches during the New Deal, such as vigorous enforcement of the anti-trust laws, or suspension of those laws and encouragement of business-government cooperation, or the creation of devices for centralized economic planning and management, illustrates well his mercurial style. He relied more heavily on the force of his personality than on the force or consistency of his ideas, and in this sense there resides some insight in the remark attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holm that Roosevelt possessed a first-class temperament but only a second-class intellect. FDR avoided arduous study of complex issues and chose not to outline detailed plans. Instead, a keen intuition and reliance on  his brilliant political instincts powered his pragmatism and helped him dominate the American domestic landscape for over a decade.

Even though FDR’s policy commitments and purposes at times proved difficult to pin down, no observer ever doubted his mastery of the White House and his complete comfort with and confidence of his user of presidential power. His image of the presidential office, Richard Neustadt once astutely noted, “was himself-in-office.” No setback, not even the court-packing fiasco in 1937, appears t have dimmed his faith in his own judgement. His decision to run for third and forth terms probably owed as much to his inability to conceive of another occupant of the Oval Office as i did to the dangerous circumstances that convinced him of his indispensability to guide the American ship-of-state through stormy seas. He dominated and sought to manipulate all those who served in his administration utilizing the practices of dividing authority and assigning overlapping responsibilities so as to pit subordinates against one another and so make himself the locus for all major decisions. He relished moving outside establishment channels, and in diplomacy he seemed especially to enjou overlooking State Department officials and foreign service professionals in favour of confidantes and personal emissaries like Harry Hopkins, Joseph Davies, and Averell Harriman.

Roosevelt’s keen desire to preserve his freedom of action led him often either to postpone decisions or to make them hastily without significant study regarding implications or consequences. Both approaches would be evident in his wartime diplomacy. His self-assurance fuelled by his dual triumphs over personal affliction and political opposition allowed a style of decision making largely unburdened by notable coherence and coordination. Roosevelt admitted as much when in 1942 he described himself as “a juggler” who never let his right hand know what his left hand did. “I may have on policy for Europe,” he explained, “and one diametrically opposite for North and South America.” Conceding that ” I may be entirely inconsistent,” he also admitted that he would “mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.” His wiliness and use of deliberate deception certainly served him well in maintaining domestic support for his administration before and during the war. He proved perfectly willing to tolerate a seizable disjunction between his private plans and his public policy expressions.

Roosevelt’s personalization of his office and of American foreign policy made his juggler’s act an especially difficult one to follow, Truman possessed non of his predecessor’s nimbleness, nor did he desire to be such a solo or dominating performer. Roosevelt’s death therefore immediately and inevitably prompted a major change in the way in which foreign policy was formulated. Truman……….

When Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov visited Washington in May of 1942, the president took the opportunity over cocktails and dinner to share details of his evolving design. He dismissed what he described as Churchill’s idea for a “revived League of Nations” as too “impractical” and instead suggested that after the war the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and (improbably) China would serve as “the policemen of the world.” The four powers would cooperate in the broad policing responsibilities but have special obligations to walk the beat in their own regional neighbourhoods.  In Roosevelt’s conception, it seemed acceptable that the defeat of German militarism would permit the extension of Soviet power into Eastern and Central Europe.

Roosevelt’s main effort aimed to preserve the wartime alliance as the key instrument for postwar cooperation. His vision bears some similarity to the concert  system established by the European powers in 1815 after defeating Napoleon. The victorious allies would form a consortium to oversee the behaviour of other states in a spirit of genuine collaboration. He distinguished this system from classic balance-of-power and sphere-of-influence arrangements, which inevitably involved significant competition among the major powers. In him formulation, the nations would not be rivals but would function like the directors of an international cartel working together for their mutual profit and well-being. Roosevelt even appears to have hoped that, under the benign general supervision of the four policemen, colonies might be brought forward to independence under enlightened trusteeship arrngements. Colonial empires and exclusive spheres of influence would be made redundant.

Roosevelt accorded the United States the central place in the postwar world order that he envisioned. It would be first among equals among the policemen and would accept fully its international responsibilities. He envisaged no American retreat as after World War I, although he firmly rejected as infeasible any permanent American political or military commitments in Europe. The United States would exercise real leadership, especially by reshaping the international system and economy more in its own image and likeness. He wanted to extend “Americanism,” as Warren Kimball would have it – the combination of American social, economic, and political liberalism – throughout the world. The United States would call other nations forth to a higher standard………….


indirect gold backing, American dollars became world money, the key international currency. America’s financial strength also was essential in the World Bank whose aims focused on more long-term economic measures. It would lend money to assist nations devastated by wars in their reconstruction and might also aid poorer countries on their road to development. The promise of “a ready source of capital to rebuild their economies and infrastructure” appealed to many war-torn nations and presumably served as the magnet that attracted the Soviets to participate in this gathering. American officials for the most part glossed over the contradictions between the nature of the Soviet system with its command economy and the Bretton Woods system they devised. Great power cooperation seemed to be on track.

The Dumbarton Oaks meeting demonstrated further the seeming healthy cooperation among the major powers. The conference participants reached agreement on a tentative draft for an international security organization. It proposed an eleven-member Security Council on which the Big Five, the four policemen joined by France (which was added at Churchill’s insistence), would have a permanent veto. This Security Council would be the real force in  the organization in FDR’s mind. The General Assembly in which all sovereign nations were represented would exercise a more modest role. Whatever his earlier reservations about a new international peacekeeping organization, Roosevelt seems to have warmed to the proposed United Nations. Its structures could provide a domestically acceptable venue, a cover of sorts, for the necessary great power collaboration as well as serving as the vehicle to guarantee American engagement in the world. He liked forward to the San Francisco Conference scheduled for April 1945, which would officially launch the new world body.

Other dimensions of the Rooseveltian vision remained more problematic. His hopes for China’s advance and colonialism’s demise seemed far from fruition in the early months of 1945. His cavalier elevation of China to major power status had not been match by any notable improvement in that nation’s political or military strength. Nonetheless, with a certain patronizing air FDR treated Chiang Kai-shek as a significant leader and met with him at Cairo in 1943. He still hoped tht China would emerge after the war as the significant regional power in Asia.

Roosevelt felt deeply his opposition to colonialism. Historian Warren Kimball insightfully noted that he held the “consistent position that colonialism, not communism, was the -ism that most threatened post war peace and stability.” This put him at significant odds with Winston Churchill. The two leaders most certainly “did not march to the same drumbeat” as Averell Harriman correctly recalled, for “Roosevelt enjoyed thinking aloud on the tremendous changes he saw ahead – the end of colonial empires and the rise of newly independent nations across the sweep of Africa and Asia,” a trend which he hoped to promote. Churchill had some success during the war in negating Roosevelt’s designs to dissolve the European colonial empires including that of his own nation. The American leader conceded ground on the issue while still hoping that the Europeans would move their colonies to eventual independence just as he planned to do with the Philippines. But Roosevelt never altered his deep dislike fr the reactionary character of European colonialism, and he especially maintained a deep animus against renewal of French conrol of Indochina. Whatever his setbacks in pursuing his anti-colonialist course during the war, his instincts and hopes remained strong. The tides of history were flowing his way, and the European colonial powers, while probably kicking and screaming all the way, would need to recognize it.

The keystone of Roosevelt’s postwar vision remained close collaboration with his major wartime allies, Britain and the Soviet Union. His crucial effort during the war was to build relationships with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, which would allow him to persuade or nudge or encourage them to share in overseeing the grand world of peace and prosperity of his dreams. He pursued these relationships quite differently and with quite different results.

Working with Churchill and Stalin.

The legend of the great democratic leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill, working together like true friends to vanquish the fascists forces is a powerfully appealing one. No one did more to promote it than Britain’s indomitable wartime prime minister both in his moving tribute at FDR’s death and in his influential memoirs with their splendid evocations of Anglo-American unity and their heroic portrait of the American president who had aided him in the darkest hours of Hitler’s onslaught. Roosevelt was “the greatest American friend we have ever known, ” who Churchill later deemed the “saviour of Europe.” The destroyer-for-bases deal, the Atlantic charter, Lend-Lease, the amazing Anglo-American military cooperation, and the unprecedented collaboration on the Manhattan Project revealed the substance behind the legend. The leaders’ extraordinary wartime correspondence revealed the extent of their partnership. The marvellous anecdotes told of the Roosevelt-Churchill friendship give it an almost magical quality. Rare (I think) are the episodes among international statesmen that would bring one to the bedroom of the other to share an inspiration aimed at expressing the common purpose of the allies only to find the other emerging from his bath. Yet in Harry Hopkin’s familiar story, Roosevelt came to Churchill’s room to share his phrase “United Nations” only to discover the newly bathed and cherubic Englishman “stark naked and gleaming pink.” He apologized and undertook to return later only to have Churchill assure him that there was no need to go because “the prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the president of the United States.”

The real character and outlook of Britain’s wartime leader is difficult to extract from the “historical aura” that surrounds him as one of the “greats” of the twentieth century and from the deeply ingrained image of the “the jowly face and cigar” defiantly exhorting his people to fight on. Yet it is the Churchill of the war years rather than the “Churchill of history” that we must seem to understand here. His portrait in the 1940s hardly constitutes an unblemished picture. Egotistical, erratic, histrionic, truculent, impulsive, and profoundly wrong-headed are just some of adjectives used to describe him even by sympathetic historians who, of course, also note his humanity, his courage, and his great gift with words. Burdened with his “Black Dog” of depression and given to fits of pessimism, he sought to revive his spirits (or deaden his pain) by consuming vast quantities of alcohol. The remedy appears to have worked at times! His career prior to the late 1930s reflected an ambitious desire to grasp for power and the capacity to invoke deep-rooted distrust in his political colleagues. Churchill was an inveterate defender of the |British Empire – an old fashioned imperialist – who gave no ground to the Indian independence movement. The great opponent of Hitler’s tyranny in Europe proved unable to see that Britain’s colonial subjects also deserved democracy or, at least, self-rule. Throughout the war, Churchill vigonously defended the empire and defined vital British interests to include the Mediterranean, the Persian gulf, and the Far East.

Whatever the complexities, contradictions, and limitations of Churchill’s personality and position, he recognized with profound clarity the danger that Hitler represented to Britain, to Western democracy, and to liberty. When circumstances led to his assuming the leadership of his nation in the dark hours of 1940, he rejected entreaties that he explore accommodation with the Nazis so as to obtain “peace” and preserve something of an empire. To his “imperishable credit,” as Simon Schama has noted, when “faced with the alternatives of hanging on to the scraps of empire, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, or fighting to the end, whatever long-term damage might accrue to British power, he unhesitatingly opted for the latter. He knew, almost instinctively it seems, that he must rouse his people to resist Hitler. He also understood the painful reality that British power by itself would never be sufficient to defeat his great foe. He recognized early on that the strength and resources of the United States would be needed to that end, and he eagerly sought American assistance and ultimately American participation in the war effort. He readily welcomed the emissaries that Roosevelt sent to him, foremost among them, Harry L Hopkins.

As Roosevelt’s closest wartime aide, Harry Hopkins played a crucial role in nurturing the Anglo-American partnership. A prominent New Dealer and one closely identified with the more liberal/progressive elements of Roosevelt’s domestic administration, Hopkins underwent a striking evolution into foreign policy emissary and adviser in the early 1940s. His unquestioned influence come not from any formal position but, unsurprisingly, from his access to and intimacy with FDR. The descriptions of Hopkins as Roosevelt’s “alter ego.” his “Sancho Panza,” his “deputy-president,” and his “Colonel House,” suggest his importance. Churchill later recalled for Robert Sherwood, Hopkin’s biographer. that his subject “was a vital spring in the whole machine” of the wortime operation. In carefully chosen and sincerely meant words, he observed that “no one can ever measure, and neither America nor England can ever rep[ay, what he did to make things go well. Hopkins journeyed to England in the midst of the Blitz and confirmed for Roosevelt that Churchill would fight on and must be supported, thus providing the green light for Lend-Lease. In January 1941, as his visit cam to an end, he forged an unbreakable bond with the British leader when he quoted to him “one verse from the Book of Books…..’Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodges, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and they God my God’ – even to the end.


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