FDR The Politician

Conservatives after World War II came after FDR by saying that he had meddled too much in military affairs and that he was a terrible administrator, never letting his subordinates know what he wanted from them. Liberals defended the legacy of FDR by saying he meddled in military affairs only very rarely, such as when he decided to delay the invasion of France for, at first, one year, and then for two, even though his top military advisors wanted him to invade France in 1942. He also intervened when, to the surprise of Churchill, sitting beside him, he announced at the Tehran Conference in 1943, that he was demanding the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis forces, everyone knowing that the Axis would therefore fight the war to its bitter end. And FDR proved not such a bad administrator. What he did was just appoint one new commision after another, with new leadership, to compete with the other governmental agencies, and just see which one was the more successful. He turned over war production to the captains of industry he had for so long excoriated, and they delivered vast quantities of armament and so the Allies won the battle of the Atlantic because they were producing more new  tonnage of ships every month than the Nazi U-boats were able to sink.

Now along comes Nigel Hamilton’s three volume assessment of FDR as Commander in Chief that wants to turn FDR’s supposed vices into virtues. Yes, FDR did indeed intrude a lot on what might seem to be the prerogatives of the military, but he was canny as a fox, knowing how wrong their forecasts had been as to Axis intentions, and so not trusting their military judgments and, yes, keeping even his top military men befuddled about his plans so that they would not organize themselves to thwart them. FDR was smarter and more insightful about military matters than were his military advisors, who were flabbergasted by his penchant for secrecy.

I want to go back to the older liberal position, which is that FDR was no master strategist of military matters but that he was a genius at understanding just how far he could push the American people. His calculations were political rather than military. That is why he did not move towards war when he met Churchill off Newfoundland in 1941. The American people would not have put up with a move to declare war at that point. Instead, he and Churchill announced the Four Freedoms, a grandeliquent gesture however much it did strike home as an argument for why we fight (or might have to). Politics was also the basis for him deciding to invade North Africa. That theatre of operations was by that time strategically insignificant in that Hitler had refused to send Rommel the resources he needed to push through Cairo and beyond and capture the Iran oil fields, which would indeed have been a very major blow to the Allies. Instead North Africa was a sideshow, a place where Allied troops could be bloodied and seasoned, something that very much needed doing, in preparation for future operations, and, even more important, it would show American troops in action and that was important to an American people who might have gotten bored with a war in which there was no action across the Atlantic in 1942. (Americans closely followed the dispatches from Guadalcanal but that was in the Pacific and, anyway, FDR had not known that battle would be raging when some six months before it began he decided to invade North Africa.) So the reason why FDR did what he did was to cultivate the electorate to continue to support the war. That is also why he was careful not to make this a war to save the Jews because that would not have played too well in the heartland of America.

Hamilton makes too much of the fact that his army and navy brass disagreed with FDR on his decision to invade North Africa rather than Europe. Civilian control of the military is a very old military tradition, McClennen not so much insubordinate as playing what he thought would be the long game to achieve a compromise peace with the Confederacy and accepting being fired when Lincoln decided he could get away with it and so McClennen turned himself into a civilian opponent of the President, running against him in 1864, which was his right. Similarly, FDR’s generals and admirals might not have liked his grand strategy, but it was not an unreasonable one, just dillatory and not focussed on the main and inevitable objective of a fight across France. It might turn out to be a disaster, giving Hitler too much breathing room, but any big decision runs that risk of being wrong and it was the President’s call, just as invading Russia had been the Fuhrer’s call, however much some top generals might have found it very troublesome, but there was no arguing that Hitler’s calls in the Thirties and into early 1940, giving the Third Reich command of the European continent, and Britain reduced to sheltering behind the Royal Navy and the RAF, had been on the money, the British Army committed to too many places and, as Hamilton reminds us, losing regularly.  Don’t argue with success.

In my view, the whole European operation until D-Day was only a delaying tactic and not a very successful one. The German General Kesselring conducted a brilliant campaign while retreating, moving back very slowly from one defensive line to the next and holding off the much stronger allied armies under British General Alexander for over a year as they worked themselves up the Italian Peninsula, not reaching Rome, much less further on, until the day before D-Day. In fact, Alexander didn’t reach the Po until April of 1945, by which time the war had been all but settled with the Allied move into the German heartland. And so, contrary to Nigel Hamilton, the North Africa and the Italian campaigns were a long sideshow that had no impact on the war however many lives they ate up rather than being a necessary route to the final victory.

But no matter. FDR had arranged it so that the only battle that the Allies could not loose, all others manageable, was the invasion of France. If that had gone wrong, it would have taken a year or more to mount a new invasion, FDR might have been voted out of office, and the Germans might have had time to produce enough jet planes to make a difference in the war. As it was, even after all that preparation, D-Day was touch and go. If Rommel had the tanks he wanted to serve as entrenched artillery, it might have been enough to knock the invaders back into the sea. FDR did not like to have so much hang in the balance on one roll of the dice, but sooner or later there was no way to finesse an invasion of France, on which almost as much was riding as had been the case in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, when Churchill showed his mettle, just as FDR did his own to the very last days of his service when at Yalta he made the best deal he could which wasn’t very good because Stalin was not going to live up to his promises for a freely elected Polish government in that wherever his armies conquered he installed a government of his liking. How FDR might have handled a post war Stalin is hard to say, though the most important thing he did was nominate Harry Truman as his Vice President, a man who he didn’t bother to consult about whether he wanted the job but just had others tell Harry that the President wanted him to do it, and so in awe was everyone of even the health diminished Commander in Chief, that everyone did his bidding, including Truman. It turned out that Truman turned out to be a good war President and a good Cold War President, acting decisively on a number of issues, including when he had to oppose his own military commanders. He had their support when he fired General MacArthur but he  pushed George Marshall, the architect of victory in World War II, to the brink of resigning as Secretary of State when he opposed him on the recognition of Israel.

Making Truman Vice President had also been a political decision. FDR’s party would no longer support Henry Wallace as Vice President because he was too Radical and a FDR favorite, Jimmy Burns, was an arch segregationist and so that would not do, and so Harry, a machine politician who had made a name for himself in the Senate by combatting wartime wasteful spending, was the man. FDR was a political man down to the bone, and the lesson to learn from his career is not to trust the military leadership to have good sense, even now when we rely on them to provide a steady hand to a foreign policy that is in the hands of a President who knows nothing about it.

I was reminded recently by book on grand strategy of Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog, who has one big idea, and the fox, who jumps around solving one discrete problem after another. Berlin has a well deserved reputation as an intellectual historian (and is less well known for his penetrating reports to England about the state of the American mind during the years of World War II) but his distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is lost on me. Which was FDR? He certainly was a fox in that he stuck his finger in any number of pies and acted decisively in the short range, whether that was empowering those whom he had recently called “economic royalists” to be the czars of war production or getting the United States, ever so slowly, engaged in the war against Hitler. But he was also a hedgehog, his big idea that the American people had to be engaged in this war while the munitions makers did their work and placed the Allies in a position where they would not help but win the war. And this he did. The United States had three aircraft carriers in the Pacific at the time of Pearl Harbor. In 1945, they had, altogether, 27 aircraft carriers. It was an unbeatable recipe.