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F.D.R: The Last Journey
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
After all his delays and evasions Lincoln had won standing as a world hero, through emancipation and victory and martyrdom; but Roosevelt—what kind of hero was Roosevelt? Some close observers felt that people exaggerated Roosevelt’s political courage. Clare Boothe Luce remarked that every great leader had his typical gesture—Hitler the upraised arm, Churchill the V sign. Roosevelt? She wet her index finger and held it up. Many others noted Roosevelt’s cautiousness, even timidity. Instead of appealing to the people directly on great developing issues and taking clear and forthright action to anticipate emergencies, he typically allowed problems to fester and come to a head in the form of dramatic issues before acting with decision. He often took bold positions only to retreat from them in subsequent words or actions. He seemed unduly sensitive to both congressional and public opinion; he used public-opinion polls much more systematically than was realized at the time, even to the point one time of polling people on the question of who should succeed Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy (Harold Stassen lost). His arresting speeches gave him a reputation as the fearless leader, but he spent far more time feinting and parrying in everyday politics than in mobilizing the country behind crucial decisions.
Around 2 A.M. the train crossed into New Jersey, the state where Woodrow Wilson had plunged into politics as a reformer, while young Roosevelt, impressed, watched from Hyde Park and Albany. Old Wilsonians later had compared Roosevelt unfavorably to the great idealist who had gone down fighting for his dream. Roosevelt, too, had watched that performance—had been part of it—and had drawn his conclusions from it. Robert Sherwood remembered him sitting at the end of the long table in the Cabinet room and looking up at the portrait of his onetime chief over the mantlepiece; the tragedy of Wilson, Sherwood said, was always somewhere within the rim of Roosevelt’s consciousness.
“The tragedy of Wilson …” There were some who said that this was merely a personal tragedy for the man and a temporary tragedy for the nation and the world, that the prophetic warnings of the great crusader had been vindicated so dramatically by the collapse of the balance of power twenty years later, that Wilson’s very defeat had made possible American commitment to a new international organization. Roosevelt did not share this view. He had no wish to be a martyr, to be vindicated only a generation later. He believed in moving on a wide, short front, pushing ahead here, retreating there, temporizing elsewhere, moving audaciously only when forces were leaning his way, so that one quick stroke— perhaps only a symbolic stroke, like a speech—would start in his direction the movement of press and public opinion, of Congress, his own administration, foreign peoples and governments. All this he could do only from a position of power, from the pulpit of the Presidency. To gain power meant winning elections; and to win elections required endless concessions to expediency and compromises with his own ideals.
Projected onto the international plane this strategy demanded of Roosevelt not only the usual expediency and opportunism but also a willingness to compromise with men and forces antagonistic to the ideals of Endicott Peabody and Woodrow Wilson. Again and again, self-consciously and indeed with bravado, he “walked with the devil” of the far right or far left, in his deals with France’s Darlan and Italy’s Badoglio, his toleration of Franco, his concessions to Stalin. Yet this self-confessed, if temporary, companion of Satan was also a Christian soldier striving for principles of democracy and freedom that he set forth with unsurpassed eloquence and persistence.
Did he then not “mean it”? So Roosevelt’s enemies charged. It was all a trick, they said, to bamboozle the American people or their allies, to perpetuate himself in power, or to achieve some other sinister purpose. But it seems clear that Roosevelt did mean it, if meaning it is defined as intensity of personal conviction rooted in an ideological commitment. “Oh—he sometimes tries to appear tough and cynical and flippant, but that’s an act he likes to put on, especially at press conferences,” Harry Hopkins said to Sherwood. “He wants to make the boys think he’s hardboiled. Maybe he fools some of them, now and then—but don’t ever let him fool you, or you won’t be any use to him. You can see the real Roosevelt when he comes out with something like the Four Freedoms. And don’t get the idea that those are only catch phrases. He believes them . …”