Fosfax, Issue 205, Part 1, Page 58


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Fosfax, Issue 205, Part 1, Page 58


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Fifty- Eighth page of Fosfax, Issue 205, Part One: Book reviews


Timothy Lane


Fosfax, Issue 205, Part 1, July 2002




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THE NEW DEALERS' WAR by Thomas Fleming (Basic Books, $35)
Review/Commentary by Timothy Lane

I received this half-price due to an unexpected discount offering at Laissez-Faire Books; it had been on my "to buy when affordable" list for some time. And well it should have been.
Fleming starts by looking at the December 4, 1941 publication of the top secret Rainbow-5 war plan by the isolationist press. This was a big embarrassment for the administration, but of course the attack on Pearl Harbor reversed the situation, and left the isolationists with egg on their face. In addition, the plan seems to have played a role in Hitler's decision to declare war in support of Japan; up to then he had carefully sought to keep Germany at peace with the US.
So how did the papers get the plan? They got it from isolationsist Democrat Burton Wheeler (1924 VP candidate for Progressive Robert LaFollette), who received it from an AAF officer acting as messenger — but who sent the officer? A good case can be made that it was the President himself, in his final effort to use every trick in the book to bring about war between the US and Germany. Unlike all the earlier lies and tricks, this one actually worked.
Roosevelt could, of course, have tried to persuade Americans to go to war to stop Hitler. In the end, we must be glad that this finally happened, certainly. But bad means have consequences, and FDR's scurrilous methods (especially Greer, Kearny, and Reuben James) laid the groundwork for the Gulf of Tonkin. This won't be the last time in the story that bad, even atrocious, means will do much to sully worth¬while ends.
Fleming then lays the groundwork for the leak by looking at how the New Deal largely crashed in the late 1930s. Part of the problem was hubris; massively re-elected in 1936 and irked by the fact that the Supreme Court refused to act as a rubber stamp (Roosevelt seems to have been rather autocratic in temperament), FDR attempted to pack the Court. When this failed, he tried to purge a group of Democrats who had opposed it (Jimmy Byrnes and Henry Wallace both thought this was the turning point). Not only did that effort fail (nearly all of them were renominated and re-elected), but economic collapse helped the Republicans devastate the New Dealers in Congress in 1938. (As it happens, one of the intended victims was Millard Tydings, who was later purged more successfully by Joseph McCarthy.) Roosevelt went into a class warfare spasm, convinced Big Business deliberately sabo¬taged the economy for political reasons. (Like many on the left, FDR was rather intolerant of opposition.) But never again did he control a reliable majority in Congress.
There is, Fleming suggests, a great dichotomy in politics between idealism and realism, especially in America. Too much realism and you end up with the stereotypical politician. Too much idealism and you end up with an impractical dreamer like Henry Wallace, who had many good points to make (especially about race and women’s rights) but no concept of political feasibility, combined with a grossly naive faith in the Soviet Union. You need a good balance between the two qualities.
Incidentally, I would suggest that this is closely related to another major dichotomy, between virtue and egocentricity. Most people do whatever is in their interests, but they also want to be virtuous, which limits the effects of selfishness somewhat. Too much selfishness is an obvious problem (that virtually defines the sociopath). But too little is often dangerous as well; it can easily lead to ideological fanaticism (as we have recently seen devastatingly).
Wallace’s view of Communism was very popular in liberal circles in general, even after the terror famine; Walter Duranty was a great hero to them. Staunch New Dealer Harold Ickes praised Communism for its "belief in the control of the government, including the econom¬ic system, by the people themselves." The YezhovshcJiina made no difference to them. The Nazi-Soviet temporarily derailed this adora¬tion for many (though Eleanor Roosevelt was ready to believe Stalin's claim that Finland had attacked the Soviet Union), but Hitler's attack on Stalin ended most such doubts.
Roosevelt was a consummate politician (which isn't necessarily a compliment), and also a lucky man in many ways. For one thing, he was lucky in his opponents. Willkie in 1940 had a winnable race, but threw it away by agreeing with the incumbent until late in the cam¬paign, when he pointed out (accurately) that Roosevelt was covertly leading the nation into war (a policy Willkie had supported until then, and would support again after the election).
Having won, Roosevelt proceeded to seek intervention. He gave increasing assistance to Britain, and sent US ships further and further to escort the supplies. When this led to three shoot-outs between US destroyers and German U-boats, he falsely claimed the Germans had shot first. But neither the country nor Congress joined him.
Meanwhile, a new option appeared: using a Pacific back door to entry in the war. Japan had taken over Manchuria in 1931, and fol¬lowed that over the next several years by taking over various parcels of Inner Mongolia outside the Great Wall. Finally, in 1937, they be¬gan open war againt China. To the Japanese, this was simply the sort of imperialism all the major Western powers had been doing for sev¬eral decades. The Westerners disagreed; they claimed it was because of a new pacifism, the Japanese claimed it was racism, and both were likely right. In any case, no one tried to stop them — until late 1941, when Roosevelt acted. He undoubtedly did disapprove of Japan's in¬vasion of China, and even more so of a Japanese attack on European colonies in the area that might happen; but he also wanted to get into the war one way or another.
Eventually Roosevelt got his wish with the attack on Pearl Harbor. To the end he may have been worried about the possibility that Japan would sensibly refrain from attacking US territory. (Fleming makes heavy use of the Hart/Tolley thesis regarding the Lanikai and a couple of other small boats sent out for "reconnaissance". This theory has a lot of skeptics, but they don't explain why else the boats were ordered on these peculiar missions by FDR personally.)
Once war came, Roosevelt behaved vindictively toward those who had opposed him. Charles Lindbergh offered his services to the AAF only to be refused (he did serve as a civilian volunteer). Many people suggested that Herbert Hoover might be useful fighting starvation (as he had done in the previous war); but resurrecting such a nice target was unacceptable. Joseph Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News, had supported re-election in 1940, but as a Great War veteran he opposed another slaughter. After Pearl Harbor he offered to serve anyway (he'd been a captain back then); Roosevelt suggested he read his anti-war editorials and savagely berated him. (In this case FDR’s vindictiveness came back on him: Patterson and his sister Cissy, who published the Washington Times-Herald, vowed to do what they could to make the President's remaining life a misery. They did, too.) In the meantime, he faced a serious problem: half a year after Roosevelt tried to get the US into the war by fighting U-boats, Operation Pau- kenschlag proved the US still couldn't do the job. So they used every dishonest means available to cover up this embarrassment.
War also brought an attack on the Bill of Rights, probably worse even than happened under Woodrow Wilson. To start with, there was the matter of the Japanese immigrants on the west coast. Those who were not citizens could, arguably, be hauled off to the concentration camps without violating the Constitution. But many citizens faced the same punishment without any process of law. Meanwhile, there was a war against serious dissent. The victims here, such as the German- American Bund and Charles Coughlin, weren't nice people; they may even have been traitors. But the Constitution has a specific definition of treason, and specific requirements of proof, that they lacked. So instead Roosevelt sought to punish them for their opinions, the First Amendment be damned. Coughlin was illegally prevented from send¬ing his magazine through the mail; when he threatened legal action, a more legitimate approach worked (persuading his church superior to stop him). Many others faced sedition charges that eventually failed a couple of years later.
Francis Biddle, the Attorney General (and Janet Reno precursor), knew that many of these actions violated the Constitution, and initially opposed them. But in the end, he lacked the moral courage to stand up for the law. This was a frequent problem through all four terms of the Roosevelt era. So was the feuding between left and right elements (Jimmy Byrnes and Jesse Jones vs. the staunch New Dealers); so was a tendency toward blackguarding all opponents in an excessive fashion that would later get Joseph McCarthy in trouble.
In fairness, I should note here that all these sins, though certainly real problems, also are quite common in politics. Discordant adminis-tration has been a problem since Hamilton and Jefferson served in the same cabinet. Moral courage has usually been far less common than sycophancy, particularly dealing with a powerful President. Vicious, hateftil campaign rhetoric is equally a regrettable norm.
One thing to note is that all these tactics didn't work very well. In 1942, the Republicans won 20 of 25 non-Southern Senate races, and nearly regained control of the House. They did well in state races as well (next year they won the Kentucky governorship, which wouldn't happen again until 1967 and hasn't happened again since). Many of these winners were old isolationists, though the pacifist Jeanette Ran¬kin (who voted against a declaration of war, just as she had in 1917 in her only other House term) wasn’t one of them.

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