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The Man of the Century
Of all the Allied leaders, argues FDR's biographer, only Roosevelt saw clearly the shape of the new world they were fighting to create
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
We accepted war in 1941, as we had done in 1917, in part because, as Theodore Roosevelt had written in 1910, if Britain ever failed to preserve the European balance of power, “the United States would be obliged to get in … in order to restore the balance.” But restoration of the balance of power did not seem in 1941, any more than it had in 1917, sufficient reason to send young men to kill and die. In 1941 FDR provided higher and nobler aims by resurrecting the Wilsonian vision in the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter and by proceeding, while the war was on, to lay the foundations for the postwar reconstruction of the world along Wilsonian lines.
I assume that it will not be necessary to linger with a theory that had brief currency in the immediate postwar years, the theory that Roosevelt’s great failing was his subordination of political to military objectives, shoving long-term considerations aside in the narrow interest of victory. FDR was in fact the most political of politicians, political in every reflex and to his fingertips—and just as political in war as he had been in peace. As a virtuoso politician he perfectly understood that there could be no better cloak for the pursuit of political objectives in wartime than the claim of total absorption in winning the war. He had plenty of political objectives all the same.
The war, he believed, would lead to historic transformations around the world. “Roosevelt,” Harriman recalled, “enjoyed thinking aloud on the tremendous changes he saw ahead—the end of colonial empires and the rise of newly independent nations across the sweep of Africa and Asia.” FDR told Churchill, “A new period has opened in the world’s history, and you will have to adjust yourself to it.” He tried to persuade the British to leave India and to stop the French from returning to Indochina, and he pressed the idea of UN trusteeships as the means of dismantling empires and preparing colonies for independence.
Soviet Russia, he saw, would emerge as a major power. FDR has suffered much criticism in supposedly thinking he could charm Stalin into postwar collaboration. Perhaps FDR was not so naive after all in concentrating on Stalin. The Soviet dictator was hardly the helpless prisoner of Marxist-Leninist ideology. He saw himself not as a disciple of Marx and Lenin but as their fellow prophet. Only Stalin had the power to rewrite the Soviet approach to world affairs; after all, he had already rewritten Soviet ideology and Soviet history. FDR was surely right in seeing Stalin as the only lever capable of overturning the Leninist doctrine of irrevocable hostility between capitalism and communism. As Walter Lippmann once observed, Roosevelt was too cynical to think he could charm Stalin. “He distrusted everybody. What he thought he could do was to outwit Stalin, which is quite a different thing.”
Roosevelt failed to save Eastern Europe from communism, but that could not have been achieved by diplomatic methods alone. With the Red Army in control of Eastern Europe and a war still to be won against Japan, there was not much the West could do to prevent Stalin’s working his will in countries adjacent to the Soviet Union. But Roosevelt at Yalta persuaded Stalin to sign American-drafted Declarations on Liberated Europe and on Poland—declarations that laid down standards by which the world subsequently measured Stalin’s behavior in Eastern Europe and found it wanting. And FDR had prepared a fallback position in case things went wrong: not only tests that, if Stalin failed to meet them, would justify a change in policy but also a great army, a network of overseas bases, plans for peacetime universal military training, and the Anglo-American monopoly of the atomic bomb.
In the longer run Roosevelt anticipated that time would bring a narrowing of differences between democratic and Communist societies. He once told Sumner Welles that marking American democracy as one hundred and Soviet communism as zero, the American system, as it moved away from laissez-faire, might eventually reach sixty, and the Soviet system, as it moved toward democracy, might eventually reach forty. The theory of convergence provoked much derision in the Cold War years. Perhaps it looks better now.
So perhaps does his idea of making China one of the Four Policemen of the peace. Churchill, with his scorn for “the pigtails,” dismissed Roosevelt’s insistence on China as the “Great American Illusion.” But Roosevelt was not really deluded. As he said at Teheran, he wanted China there “not because he did not realize the weakness of China at present, but he was thinking farther into the future.” At Malta he told Churchill that it would take “three generations of education and training … before China could become a serious factor.” Today, two generations later, much rests on involving China in the global web of international institutions.
As for the United States, a great concern in the war years was that the country might revert to isolationism after the war just as it had done a quarter-century before— a vivid memory for FDR’s generation. Contemplating Republican gains in the 1942 midterm election, Cordell Hull told Henry Wallace that the country was “going in exactly the same steps it followed in 1918.” FDR himself said privately, “Anybody who thinks that isolationism is dead in this country is crazy.”