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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
FDR’s Presidency has commanded the attention of eminent historians at home and abroad for fifty years or more. Yet no consensus emerges, especially in the field of foreign affairs. Scholars at one time or another have portrayed him at every point across a broad spectrum: as an isolationist, as an internationalist, as an appeaser, as a warmonger, as an impulsive decision maker, as an incorrigible vacillator, as the savior of capitalism, as a closet socialist, as a Machiavellian intriguer plotting to embroil his country in foreign wars, as a Machiavellian intriguer avoiding war in order to let other nations bear the brunt of the fighting, as a gullible dreamer who thought he could charm Stalin into postwar collaboration and ended by selling Eastern Europe down the river into slavery, as a tightfisted creditor sending Britain down the road toward bankruptcy, as a crafty imperialist serving the interests of American capitalist hegemony, as a high-minded prophet whose vision shaped the world’s future. Will the real FDR please stand up?
Two relatively recent books illustrate the chronically unsettled state of FDR historiography—and the continuing vitality of the FDR debate. In Wind Over Sand (1988) Frederick W. Marks III finds a presidential record marked by ignorance, superficiality, inconsistency, random prejudice, erratic impulse, a man out of his depth, not waving but drowning, practicing a diplomacy as insubstantial and fleeting as wind blowing over sand. In The Juggler (1991), Warren F. Kimball finds a record marked by intelligent understanding of world forces, astute maneuver, and a remarkable consistency of purpose, a farsighted statesman facing dilemmas that defied quick or easy solutions. One-third of each book is given over to endnotes and bibliography, which suggests that each portrait is based on meticulous research. Yet the two historians arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions.
So the debate goes on. Someone should write a book entitled FDR: For and Against, modeled on Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against. “It is impossible,” the great Dutch historian observed, “that two historians, especially two historians living in different periods, should see any historical personality in the same light. The greater the political importance of a historical character, the more impossible this is.” History, Geyl (rightly) concluded, is an “argument without end.”
I suppose we must accept that human beings are in the last analysis beyond analysis. In the case of FDR, no one can be really sure what was going on in that affable, welcoming, reserved, elusive, teasing, spontaneous, calculating, cold, warm, humorous, devious, mendacious, manipulative, petty, magnanimous, superficially casual, ultimately decent, highly camouflaged, finally impenetrable mind. Still, if we can’t as historians puzzle out what he was , we surely must as historians try to make sense out of what he did . If his personality escapes us, his policies must have some sort of pattern.
What Roosevelt wrote (or Sam Rosenman wrote for him) in the introduction to the first volume of his Public Papers about his record as governor of New York goes, I believe, for his foreign policy too: “Those who seek inconsistencies will find them. There were inconsistencies of methods, inconsistencies caused by ceaseless efforts to find ways to solve problems for the future as well as for the present. There were inconsistencies born of insufficient knowledge. There were inconsistencies springing from the need of experimentation. But through them all, I trust that there also will be found a consistency and continuity of broad purpose.”
Now purpose can be very broad indeed. To say that a statesman is in favor of peace, freedom, and security does not narrow things down very much. Meaning resides in the details, and in FDR’s case the details often contradict each other. If I may invoke still another cliché, FDR’s foreign policy seems to fit Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” However, we too often forget what Churchill said next: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” German domination of Eastern Europe, Churchill continued, “would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.” Here, I suggest, may be the key to FDR, the figure in his carpet: his sense of the historic life-interests of the United States.