FDR and GWB: Unlearned Lessons of a Wartime Presidency

George W. Bush claimed the attacks of September 11, 2001, would transform American thinking about the world. His model was Pearl Harbor, and he and his supporters routinely summoned the analogy to muster popular support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the effect of 9/11 has faded, at least as it pertains to Iraq. The comparative quiet in that country during the past several months—combined with the mortgage debacle in this country and incipient recession—has tilted the weight of complaints against the Bush administration from the Iraq War to the economy.

The failure of 9/11 to generate the kind of lasting change in public attitudes wrought by Pearl Harbor reveals something important about the political culture of wartime America. High casualty rates aren’t the central issue. More Americans died in single days during World War II than have died altogether in Iraq. Yet support for the antifascist war never faltered. Nor did it diminish even in hindsight, when the Cold War revealed that victory over Germany and Japan hadn’t solved America’s problems after all. No other American war has had such staying power; sixty years later, the bloodiest war Americans fought against foreign foes remains, as ever, the “good war.”

To point out that the critical component here is leadership may be to repeat a cliché, but it is nonetheless true. America can be led to war with remarkable ease. But it can be kept at war—kept wholeheartedly, in the face of mounting casualties—only if the American people have been persuaded that the war bears a direct relation to their security. World War II passed the test, largely because Franklin D. Roosevelt devoted substantial effort to bracing Americans for the coming challenge. Roosevelt, in turn, had paid close attention to the experiences of two earlier wartime presidents, whose failures he observed at close range. Bush, choosing to emulate the wrong Roosevelt, has repeated nearly all of them.

“I have been so struck by the way you have led public opinion by allowing it to get ahead of you,” George VI of Britain wrote Roosevelt in June 1941. The king was complimenting the president for guiding the American people toward an acknowledgment that Hitler and the fascists of Europe presented a mortal danger to the United States, even though the fighting remained thousands of miles from American shores. George and Queen Elizabeth had visited America two years earlier, and they had been Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s guests at Hyde Park, New York. Europe was on the brink of war, and George was justifiably concerned. FDR conducted a tour d’horizon more perceptive than any the king had ever received at home. “Why don’t my ministers talk to me as the president did tonight?” he asked the Canadian prime minister, who had joined the group. “I feel exactly as though a father were giving me his most careful and wise policy advice.”

Among the other facts Roosevelt explained that weekend was how his hands were bound by isolationist sentiment in the United States. He perceived acutely a fundamental problem every president confronts regarding foreign policy: the overwhelming domestic bias of American politics. The tendency is hardly unique to the United States; people in every country pay more attention to events near at hand than to those far away. But because the countries of Europe crowd right next to one another, the radius of attention of a Belgian or a Czech or an Italian invariably encompasses foreign as well as domestic affairs. Historically, Americans could ignore most of the world, taking comfort from the observation of the French diplomat who described America’s peculiar blessing as being bounded on the north and south by non-threatening countries and on the east and west by fish.

Two of FDR’s predecessors had tried to shake their countrymen out of their provincial prejudices. As it happened, he enjoyed unusual access to both. Theodore Roosevelt was Franklin’s fifth cousin by blood and his uncle by marriage. (Theodore congratulated Franklin at the latter’s wedding to Eleanor: “There’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.”) TR was president at the time, and Franklin soon began modeling himself on Uncle Ted and taking mental notes on his performance in the White House.

TR’s vehicle to the presidency had been the Spanish-American War, which he and a small group of political intellectuals instigated by methods that would be copied a century later in Iraq. TR and the war wing of the Republican party decried the brutality of the Spanish colonial government of Cuba; they fretted that instability in the Caribbean would endanger American interests, including the canal they demanded be built across Central America; they promised the blessings of democracy to Cubans released from oppression.

They got their war, whereupon TR resigned his post as assistant navy secretary to go fight in Cuba. He performed with gallantry and returned to a hero’s welcome. The Republican boss of New York, Tom Platt, nominated him for governor but grew disenchanted after Roosevelt won election and began acting more like a real governor than a placeman. Platt engineered Roosevelt’s elevation to the vice presidency, which led to his becoming president upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.

By then the true costs of the war with Spain were growing clear. The conflict had ended with a peace treaty transferring the Philippines to American control, to the dismay of Philippine nationalists, who launched an insurgency against the U.S. occupation force. The war lasted much longer than the American war against Spain, it claimed more casualties, and it involved the United States in tactics morally indistinguishable from those TR and the war hawks had condemned the Spanish for employing in Cuba. The “water cure” was the name applied to an interrogation technique similar to one the United States would employ a century later; when word of these and other actions reached Washington, Congress launched investigations that turned up additional instances of unseemly behavior which eroded American support for the war.

Luckily for TR and the imperialists, the insurgents’ will to fight expired before that of the American people did. Most parts of the Philippines acquiesced to American rule (although insurgent activity continued in the southern part of the archipelago, where it persists even today). But the dirty war in the Philippines scarred the American psyche for decades. It shattered America’s imperial fantasies; Washington would require half a century to figure out how to unload the Philippines, and Americans were never again tempted to colonize distant lands. (Puerto Rico, that other child of America’s tryst with empire, decided it liked its American home.)
The acquisition of the Philippines gravely complicated American relations with East Asia, especially with Japan, which was even then fashioning an empire of its own. Theodore Roosevelt, among others, considered Japan to be on a collision course with the United States, and he urged Congress to appropriate funds to bolster the American position in the Philippines ahead of the crash. But Congress and the American electorate, having been misled by the expansionists once before, refused to grant what TR thought necessary. He was left to lament the result. “In the excitement of the Spanish War, people wanted to take the islands,” he said. “They had an idea they would be a valuable possession. Now they think they are of no value.” He concluded grimly: “The Philippines form our heel of Achilles. They are all that makes the present situation with Japan dangerous.”

They were still making America’s situation with Japan dangerous when Franklin Roosevelt hosted King George. By then, FDR had added yet another cautionary lesson to his notebook of presidential studies. The younger Roosevelt retraced TR’s footsteps, winning election to the New York state legislature before landing an appointment as assistant navy secretary. FDR’s side of the family were Democrats; hence it was a Democratic administration—the only one, it turned out, of his adult lifetime before his own—in which he served. Woodrow Wilson didn’t expect foreign affairs to figure much in his administration; the world appeared as quiescent in 1912 as it would in 2000, when George W. Bush would be elected on a domestic agenda. “It would be the irony of fate,” Wilson mused, just before being inaugurated, “if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”

The irony set in with a vengeance in 1914. Wilson had to determine what Europe’s conflagration meant for America. His first response was to declare official neutrality and to ask Americans to refrain from taking sides, even emotionally. The equipoise lasted less than a year. The German sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 killed more than one hundred Americans and disposed most of their compatriots to consider Germany the aggressor in the European conflict. Meanwhile, Wilson allowed the French and British to sell war bonds in the United States, linking New York to Paris and London by ties of finance. At the two-year mark of the war, Wilson concluded that a German victory must be prevented at nearly any cost. But he declined to share his thinking with the American people. His reelection campaign employed the slogan “He kept us out of war,” which sufficed, albeit barely, to return Wilson to the White House.

He hadn’t even been reinaugurated when Germany declared war on American shipping near Britain. Wilson waited long enough to let Germany’s submarines put the policy into effect; after American vessels began going down he went to Congress with a request for a war declaration.

Franklin Roosevelt watched the march to war with rapt attention. He criticized Wilson to friends, wondering why it took the president so long to acknowledge the extent of the German menace. But he had to admire Wilson’s political finesse, for by the time the president instructed Congress that the world must be made “safe for democracy,” the overwhelming antiwar majority of 1914 had been converted in favor of war.

Yet that majority turned out to be more fragile than either Wilson or Roosevelt realized. Enthusiasm for the war persisted throughout the conflict, despite the deaths of more than one hundred thousand Americans. But the sentiment dissipated during the peace conference, which delivered both more and less than what Wilson had promised and what Americans had counted on. The war for democracy proved to be a war for empire, at least as the outcome applied to Britain and France, and Wilson’s hope for a system of postwar security, embodied by the League of Nations and premised on collective action, seemed to guarantee an endless round of future wars. The Senate rejected the Versailles treaty, and Americans reverted to their suspicion of foreign entanglements.

FDR personally felt the sting of America’s inward turn. Nominated for vice president on the 1920 Democratic ticket, he joined presidential nominee James Cox in defending Wilson’s internationalist vision—and in suffering the worst electoral defeat in decades.

The lesson FDR took from the experience was not that American involvement with the world was doomed to political failure—he was too much the internationalist, in the mold of both TR and Wilson, for that—but that the American people must be more thoroughly educated than either TR or Wilson had managed. The Rough Rider and the minister’s son were each, in his own way, inspirational leaders, but that was exactly the problem. They led public opinion without transforming it. And when the wars into which they led the public turned out to be bloodier and longer than Americans had expected, opinion retreated, leaving TR and Wilson alone.

Franklin Roosevelt determined by 1937 that the United States must confront the fascists. Hitler was rebuilding the German war machine, Mussolini had ravaged Ethiopia, and the Japanese were raping China. FDR took the temperature of American opinion with a speech at Chicago in which he called for a “quarantine” of aggression. The tepid response prompted him to step back. “It is a terrible thing,” he told speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, “to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and to find no one there.”

Subsequent steps forward came slowly. He lectured Hitler by letter and in public statements, and he offered quarter-hearted support to Britain and France in their half-hearted efforts to keep the Nazi Reich from swallowing Czechoslovakia. After appeasement failed and war commenced in September 1939, FDR made clear that America sided morally, if not militarily, with the British and French. “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger,” he declared. During the summer of 1940, following the collapse of France, he transferred American destroyers to Britain. He persuaded Congress to institute conscription. “America stands at the crossroads of its destiny,” he told the American people. “We must and will marshal our great potential strength to fend off war.” In early 1941, after his historic third election victory, he prompted the legislature to approve the Lend-Lease program of American military aid to the countries fighting the Axis powers. The United States, he explained, would henceforth become the “arsenal of democracy.”

His Lend-Lease success was what King George was congratulating him on in June 1941, just before Hitler widened the war by double-crossing Stalin and invading the Soviet Union. Roosevelt thereupon dubbed Stalin a de facto ally and included Russia among the beneficiaries of American arms. He met with Churchill to produce the Atlantic Charter, a statement, in effect, of Anglo-American war aims. He embargoed oil and steel to Japan and froze Japanese assets, thereby launching an economic war against Tokyo. And he authorized American naval operations against German submarines, which he called the “rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” “The ultimate fate of the western hemisphere lies in the balance,” he said.

He did everything but ask Congress for a war declaration. The isolationists were on the defensive but hardly defeated. Amid Roosevelt’s conference with Churchill, Congress voted on extending the term of service of draftees; the measure passed the House by a single vote.

Roosevelt was playing a longer game than merely getting America to war. TR and Wilson had done that. FDR intended to ensure that America won the peace that followed. Americans as a people needed to be so convinced of the bankruptcy of isolationism that they wouldn’t falter when the war proved more costly than anyone expected, as it surely would, and when the peace proved to be less than ideal, which was equally inevitable.

He pushed things almost too far. While goading Germany to commit an act of war on the Atlantic, he maneuvered Japan into a Pacific corner from which Tokyo felt obliged to strike out. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, was no surprise to Roosevelt; what was a surprise was where it occurred. He had expected a blow against Thailand or British Malaya, or conceivably the Philippines. The raid on Pearl Harbor wasn’t simply a casus belli, which Roosevelt welcomed; it was a debacle of the first order. Within two hours Japanese bombs and torpedoes gutted America’s Pacific Fleet and killed 2,400 Americans.

Another president might have been forced to pay a steep political price for the catastrophe. Roosevelt didn’t escape entirely; almost at once the conspiracy-minded decided that the Japanese attack was simply too supportive of the president’s broader agenda to have been unexpected. (The subsequent revelation that American cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese code provided the conspiracy theorists further ammunition.) But FDR’s meticulous cultivation of public opinion allowed him to weather the criticism and concentrate American attention on the aggressors. Hitler joined his Axis ally and declared war on the United States, fulfilling Roosevelt’s repeated predictions that the Nazis would train sights on America.

FDR didn’t live long enough to witness the full measure of his success in transforming American opinion. Amid a costly war, he laid the groundwork for the United Nations, the permanent organization that grew out of the anti-fascist alliance of the same name, and he secured advance Senate approval of America’s participation. But he died two weeks before the inaugural meeting of the UN at San Francisco in the spring of 1945. He had done his work so well, however, that despite recurrent frustration with the international body, Americans during the next six decades never seriously reconsidered either the leading role Roosevelt had envisioned for the United States at the UN or the broader responsibility for international security that the organization embodied.

George W. Bush might have been expected to engage in some of the same kind of pre-presidential note-taking FDR did. After all, Bush’s father, not merely his uncle-in-law, put the family name on the White House stationery. But the younger Bush devoted his youthful energies to other pursuits. If Bush had studied FDR, he would have realized that the Pearl Harbor analogy would have little staying power after the initial shock of 9/11 wore off. He would have understood that Pearl Harbor marked the end, not the beginning, of a long process of public education. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could have furnished Bush with the credibility to transform American attitudes for the long-term. But they didn’t, and he hasn’t. Pearl Harbor made a prophet out of FDR; September 11 simply caught Bush off guard.

Nor has he helped himself by choosing the wrong Roosevelt as a model. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Bush talked Americans into a war against a foe—Iraq—most of them hadn’t considered especially threatening. Bush got his war, but it was widely seen as his rather than America’s. Had the conflict been swift and short, like the Spanish-American War, the distinction probably wouldn’t have mattered. But as the fighting dragged on, the way the war in the Philippines did, Americans began dropping away.

As with the Philippine war before it, the Iraq War may yet be won, after a fashion. But any triumph in Iraq will hardly be what Bush imagined at the outset, or what he led the American people to expect. Whether Achilles’ heel qualifies as the most apt description for the American predicament in Iraq remains to be seen, but the troubles there—again to reference TR on the Philippines—are much of what makes the region dangerous for the United States.

What Bush has discovered is what distinguished FDR from TR, and what constitutes a basic principle of presidential leadership in a time of war: that a commander-in-chief, unlike a colonel of Rough Riders, sometimes leads best when he leads from the rear. A war the American people don’t make their own is a war they can easily abandon, and probably shouldn’t be fighting.

H. W. Brands is professor of history at the University of Texas. He is the author of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times and The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, among other books.

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