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The Transatlantic Duel: Hitler Vs. Roosevelt
In 1941 the President understood better than many Americans the man who was running Germany, and Hitler understood Roosevelt and his country better than we knew
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Four years earlier his transatlantic enemy had made a decision that contributed greatly to Hitler’s defeat. It was Rainbow 1, the strategic war plan adopted by Roosevelt and his military advisers in March 1941. It meant that in case of a two-front war against Germany and Japan, the priority of the American effort would be directed against Germany, after whose defeat the fall of Japan would inevitably follow. It was the right decision strategically. Politically too. Roosevelt’s view of Hitler as his main enemy was the principal element of his foreign policy. He was wrong in certain matters: in his belief (going back to his youth and to his assistant secretaryship of the Navy in World War I) that naval power was still the decisive element in history when—at least in Europe—Hitler recognized how motorization had brought about the new ascendancy of power on land, since for the first time in centuries armies could move faster over the ground than by sea. Roosevelt was also wrong in his thoughtless acceptance of the so-called Morgenthau Plan, which called for the dismantling of Germany’s industries base; perhaps in his preferred phraseology of “unconditional surrender”; surely in his tendency to postpone (and often even to deny the necessity of) questioning Stalin about the latter’s Eastern European plans. But all of this pales in importance before his decisions in 1940. Had the United States had an isolationist President then, Hitler would have won the war.
Not long after Roosevelt’s death the isolationists had their revenge. Let me repeat: The word isolationist may be a misnomer. Most of them soon became advocates of an anti-Communist crusade, domestic and foreign. Underneath the powerful national tide of popular sentiment from which such different men as John Foster Dulles and Joseph McCarthy were to profit, at least for a while, ran a current of opinion to the effect that Roosevelt’s alliances against Germany may have been a mistake, since the Evil Empire of the century was the Soviet Union. The reaction against Roosevelt’s memory led to the Twenty-second Amendment (passed by Congress in 1947, ratified in 1951), prohibiting a future President from serving for more than two terms. It is another irony of history that the only future President so far to be hampered by this was Ronald Reagan, who in the 1980s represented many things that would have been anathema to Franklin Roosevelt. Yet even Ronald Reagan found it politic to pay lip service to the heritage of Franklin Roosevelt. There are not many people in the world who will pay lip service to the heritage of Adolf Hitler. Now that the reunification of a divided Germany (whose division Hitler’s war had brought about) has come, there is another ironical circumstance worth considering. Toward the end of the war Hitler said that he was “Europe’s last chance,” for if Germany were to be defeated, the weakness and the corruption of liberal democracy would inevitably lead to the triumph of Communism. What is happening in Europe now is a living denial of the vitality of Communism—but also of the validity of the ideology of an anticommunism that has been so often and so wrongly equated with traditional patriotism, which had helped Hitler into power and with the help of which he had tried to divide the West and even the American people. Thanks, at least in part, to Franklin Roosevelt, he failed.