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F.D.R: The Last Journey
Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals.
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals. It might have been more dramatic if he had been assassinated by an ideological foe or had been stricken during a speech. But his decisions to aid Britain and Russia, his daring to take a position before the 1944 election against giving power to the Senate to sabotage America’s peace-enforcing efforts in the proposed council of the United Nations, his long, exhausting trips to Tehran and Yalta, his patient efforts to win Stalin’s personal friendship, his willingness to go out on a limb in his belief that the United States and the Soviet Union could work together in the postwar world—all this testified to the deoth of his conviction.
Yet he could believe with equal conviction that his prime duty was to defend his nation’s interests, safeguard its youth, win the war as quickly as possible, protect its postwar economy. With his unconquerable optimism he felt that he could do both things—pursue global ideals and national Realpolitik —simultaneously. So he tried to win Soviet friendship and confidence at the same time that he saved American lives by consenting to the delay in the cross-Channel invasion, thus letting the Red Army bleed. He paid tribute to the brotherly spirit of global science just before he died even while he was withholding atomic information from his partners the Russians. He wanted to unite liberal Democrats and internationalist Republicans in one progressive party, but he never did the spadework or took the personal political risks that such a strategy required. He yearned to help Indians and other Asiatic peoples gain their independence, but not at the risk of disrupting his military coalition with Britain and other Atlantic nations holding colonial possessions in Asia. He ardently hoped to bring a strong, united, and democratic China into the Big Four, but he refused to apply to Chungking the military resources and political pressure necessary to arrest the dry rot in that country. Above all, he wanted to build a strong postwar international organization, but he dared not surrender his country’s substantive veto in the proposed peace-keeping council, and as a practical matter he seemed more committed to Big Four, great-power peace-keeping than he did to a federation acting for the brotherhood of all mankind.
“I dream dreams but am, at the same time, an intensely practical person,” Roosevelt wrote to Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa during the war. Both his dreams and his practicality were admirable; the problem lay in the relation between the two. He failed to work out the intermediary ends and means necessary to accomplish his purposes. Partly because of his disbelief in planning far ahead, partly because he elevated short-run goals over long-run, and always because of his experience and temperament, he did not fashion the structure of action, the full array of mutually consistent means—political, economic, psychological, military—necessary to realize his paramount ends.
So the more he preached his lofty ends and practiced his limited means, the more he reflected and encouraged the old habit of the American democracy to “praise the Lord—and keep your powder dry,” and the more he widened the gap between popular expectations and actual possibilities. Not only did this derangement of ends and means lead to crushed hopes, disillusion, and cynicism at home, but it helped sow the seeds of the Cold War during World War II, as the Kremlin contrasted Roosevelt’s coalition rhetoric with his Atlantic First strategy and falsely suspected a bourgeois conspiracy to destroy Soviet Communism. And Indians and Chinese contrasted Roosevelt’s anticolonial words with his military concessions to colonial powers and falsely inferred that he was an imperialist at heart and a hypocrite to boot.
Roosevelt’s critics attacked him as naïve, ignorant, amateurish, in foreign affairs, but this man who had bested all his domestic enemies and most of his foreign ones was no innocent. His supreme difficulty lay not in his views as to what was —he had a Shakespearean appreciation of all the failings, vices, cruelties, and complexities of man—but of what could be . The last words he ever wrote, on the eve of his death, were the truest words he ever wrote. He had a strong and active faith, a huge and unprovable faith, in the possibilities of human understanding, trust, and love. He could say with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that love is the law of life even when people do not live by the law of love.
It was still dark when the train drew into Pennsylvania Station. New York had been alive with rumors that Jack Dempsey or Frank Sinatra or some other celebrity had died, too. At the time of Roosevelt’s funeral service in the White House, New York City news presses stopped rolling, radios went silent, subway trains came to a halt, police held up traffic. In Carnegie Hall the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Serge Koussevitzky, played Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Roosevelt’s train paused for a time at the Mott Haven railroad yards in the Bronx, then moved up the east bank of the Hudson— the route that Roosevelt had taken so often before.