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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
He regarded American membership in a permanent international organization, in Charles Bohlen’s words, as “the only device that could keep the United States from slipping back into isolationism.” And true to the Wilsonian vision, he saw such an organization even more significantly as the only device that could keep the world from slipping back into war. He proposed the Declaration of the United Nations three weeks after Pearl Harbor, and by 1944 he was grappling with the problem that had defeated Wilson: how to reconcile peace enforcement by an international organization with the American Constitution. For international peace enforcement requires armed force ready to act swiftly on the command of the organization, while the Constitution requires (or, in better days, required) the consent of Congress before American troops can be sent into combat against a sovereign state. Roosevelt probably had confidence that the special agreements provided for in Article 43 of the UN Charter would strike a balance between the UN’s need for prompt action and Congress’s need to retain its war-making power and that the great-power veto would further protect American interests.
He moved in other ways to accustom the American people to a larger international role—and at the same time to assure American predominance in the postwar world. By the end of 1944 he had sponsored a series of international conferences designed to plan vital aspects of the future. These conferences, held mostly at American initiative and dominated mostly by American agendas, offered the postwar blueprints for international organization (Dumbarton Oaks), for world finance, trade, and development (Bretton Woods), for food and agriculture (Hot Springs), for relief and rehabilitation (Washington), for civil aviation (Chicago). In his sweeping and sometimes grandiose asides, FDR envisaged plans for regional development with environmental protection in the Middle East and elsewhere, and his Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs pioneered economic and technical assistance to developing countries. Upon his death in 1945 FDR left an imaginative and comprehensive framework for American leadership in making a better world—an interesting achievement for a President who was supposed to subordinate political to military goals.
New times bring new perspectives. In the harsh light of the Cold War some of FDR’s policies and expectations were condemned as naive or absurd or otherwise misguided. The end of the Cold War may cast those policies and expectations in a somewhat different light.
FDR’s purpose, I take it, was to find ways to safeguard the historic life-interests of the Republic—national security at home and a democratic environment abroad—in a world undergoing vast and fundamental transformations. This required policies based on a grasp of the currents of history and directed to the protection of U.S. interests and to the promotion of democracy elsewhere. From the vantage point of 1994, FDR met this challenge fairly well.
Take a look at the Atlantic Charter fifty years after. Is not the world therein outlined by Roosevelt and Churchill at last coming to pass? Consider the goals of August 1941—“the right.of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” equal access “to the trade and to the raw materials of the world,” “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security,” assurance that all “may live their lives in freedom from fear and want,” relief from “the crushing burden of armaments,” establishment of a community of nations. Is this not the agenda on which most nations today are at last agreed?
Does not most of the world now aspire to FDR’s Four Freedoms? Has not what used to be the Soviet Union carried its movement toward the West even more rapidly than FDR dared contemplate? Has not China emerged as the “serious factor” FDR predicted? Did not the Yalta accords call for precisely the democratic freedoms to which Eastern Europe aspires today? Has not the UN, at last liberated by the end of the Cold War to pursue the goals of the founders, achieved new salience as the world’s best hope for peace and cooperation?
Consider the world of 1994. It is manifestly not Adolf Hitler’s world. The thousand-year Reich turned out to have a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. It is manifestly not Joseph Stalin’s world. That world disintegrated before our eyes, rather like the Deacon’s one-hoss shay. Nor is it Winston Churchill’s world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into the past.
The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt’s world. Of the figures who, for good or for evil, bestrode the narrow world half a century ago, he would be the least surprised by the shape of things at the end of the century. Far more than the rest, he possessed what William James called a “sense of futurity.” For all his manifold foibles, flaws, follies, and there was a sufficiency of all of those, FDR deserves supreme credit as the twentieth-century statesman who saw most deeply into the grand movements of history.