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Robert H. Ferrell

December 2023
7min read

Among students of American diplomacy between the two world wars, Professor Robert H. Ferrell of Indiana University ranks as one of the most productive and provocative. His Peace in Their Time: The Origins of the Kellogg-Briand Pact and his American Diplomacy in the Great Depression: Hoover-Stimson Foreign Policy, 1929-1933 are each marked by solid scholarship and lively, colorful writing. Professor Ferrell is also editor of the series The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy and, with Howard H. Quint, of The Talkative President: The Off-the-Record Press Conferences of Calvin Coolidge . As the interview reveals, Professor Ferrell has some highly original and stimulating things to say about post-World War I foreign relations and the Presidents who made and earned out American policy.

PROFESSOR GARRATY: What is your opinion of the record in foreign relations of the post-World War I Presidents Hardmg, Coolidge, and Hoover?

PROFESSOR FERRELL: Harding was not greatly interested in foreign affairs. I don’t think he had any feeling for Europe at all. He was basically a small-town Ohioan—a person who liked to talk, who enjoyed the hustings, who liked to get out and—as he put it—"bloviate.” Foreign affairs were outside his understanding. … So Harding’s impress on foreign affairs was virtually nil.

Coolidge, however, deserves much more credit than historians have given him both in domestic and foreign policy. He did not advance any large policies beyond supporting Kellogg in the Kellogg-Briand Pact. His one personal essay was the Geneva Naval Conference in 1927, which ran for a few weeks in the summer and turned to nothing, and in fact embittered Coolidge about Europeans.

But if Coolidge was not much more adventuresome than Harding, he did understand the problems of the day. … There is one place where his opinions have been recorded—his press conferences. These were meetings with the Washington press corps, a group of perhaps a half-dozen persons in those days. … Whatever he said was not quotable unless he gave express permission. Verbatim transcripts of the conferences show that Coolidge expressed his views on all sorts of subjects in great detail, presumably without notes. I find extraordinary his knowledge of domestic and foreign affairs judging from these transcripts. … He realized that for Europe the latter igzo’s were a much better era than the early ig2o’s. It looked as though postwar European problems were on the way to solution. Germany was recovering and apparently peaceable. In Italy, Mussolini at that time did not seem the malign creature he later became—he appeared to be confining his attention to such things as clearing up the Roman streets and trying to solve the traffic problem. Coolidge, viewing Europe in this Indian summer of its life, felt that it wasn’t necessary to be much concerned with the Continent.

He certainly had a wonderful sense of knowing when to do nothing, which is not a typical American attribute. He assumed that many problems would solve themselves without action. This was his attitude in domestic affairs and likewise in foreign affairs. Maybe he was right with regard to the Europe of his time. …

Hoover, a distinctly different personality from his two predecessors, was equally interesting. … With all of his qualities of mind —he was a very intelligent man and with all of his experience not merely in American domestic politics but also in foreign affairs, he failed as President. He couldn’t deal with novelties when they suddenly came upon him. The Great Depression was of course his greatest failure, but he failed also in foreign relations because he lacked the appreciation of Europe that his wide travels might have been expected to give him. He had a profound dislike of foreigners, particularly Frenchmen but, I think, Europeans generally. He referred to Frenchmen, incidentally, as “frogs”—the World War I term. … He emerged from the [Versailles] Peace Conference feeling that the Europeans had tried to do us in. I think he believed firmly in that old cliché, “Americans always win wars and lose peace conferences.”

At any rate, when Hoover turned to foreign affairs he didn’t seem to have much imagination. He would “carry forward …” the policies of his predecessors. …

Would you comment now on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s conduct of foreign relations?

From 1933 to 1937, while the politics of Europe were moving in ways that hardly inspired confidence, there was still some hope that the peace of 1919 might prevail. In that period Roosevelt did almost nothing in foreign affairs other than to set on foot officially a policy toward Latin America that had been well in force prior to his accession.

Beginning in 1937, Roosevelt took a stiff position toward Japan’s resumption of the Far Eastern war. Later, at least verbally, he began to stand against Hitler when Hitler went first into Austria and then into Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. But … it’s possible to argue that until 1937 and perhaps even through 1939 Roosevelt’s German policy was largely like that of Great Britain.

One can sense even before the election of 1940 that Roosevelt had decided that as President he simply had to move into the European equation. Then—and historians have long pointed this out—with the Lend-Lease Act in the spring of 1941, he came down unmistakably on the side of the democracies. … And he followed Lend-Lease with a policy that, although pursued surreptitiously, was almost equally important: the business of convoying ships to Great Britain.

That convoying is an interesting phase of Roosevelt’s handling of foreign relations. It showed him, it seems to me, at his very worst as a President. … Roosevelt decided he had to convoy Lend-Lease materials. Otherwise they would simply be sunk in the Atlantic by German submarines. But he didn’t know how to get public support for convoying without lying about it. So he lied. He invented something that he called a “patrol,” which was, he told the American people, something quite different from convoying. …

He followed this up with a series of other deceptions, the most notable of which was his description of the attack by German submarines on the destroyer Créer in the early autumn of 1941. The Créer had been pursuing a submarine and broadcasting the submarine’s position. It was only in desperation that the submarine launched a torpedo or two at the destroyer. Nonetheless, Roosevelt then went on the radio. In this broadcast, which it almost hurts to read, he said that the Créer was carrying the mail to Iceland. He added some more irrelevancies and misrepresentations and then announced that he’d given the Navy orders to sink all German submarines on sight. It was, I think, the worst act of his twelve-odd years as President.

It may be that if Roosevelt had told the American people what he was doing they would not have supported him. But I like to think that on a great issue such as convoying they would have followed the right course had Roosevelt set that course out for them.

If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, is it possible that we would never have entered the war in Europe?

I think it’s entirely possible that we would not have gotten into the war until perhaps 1943, and perhaps we might have stayed out altogether. It’s an interesting question because had we not been dragged in by the debacle of Pearl Harbor, all of 1942 would have gone by without the sort of mobilization that we needed to exert our strength in Europe, and if we had entered in 1943, we would not have had any effective forces available until 1945. By that time the Russians probably would have rolled back the Germans. Perhaps somewhat slower than in fact they did, but nonetheless, they would have kept their juggernaut going, and they would have gone all the way to Gibraltar and taken over all of Europe, and presumably the British Isles with it. We would have been mobilized by that time, but would have been too late to save Europe. …

The question of Pearl Harbor is, of course, very controversial. Did Roosevelt want the Japanese to attack some American interest directly so that the question of getting into the war would solve itself? …

Charles C. Tansill, who was a writer of quality on nineteenth-century American foreign policy, wrote a book, Back Door to War, which had as its theme the notion that Roosevelt, unable to open the front door to war, then tried the back door. He took on the Japanese, who were not as clever as the Germans, and he maneuvered them into starting a war with the United States.

This is an ingenious but an unbelievable thesis. … I think it’s quite true that Roosevelt was ready for an attack by the Japanese somewhere. The first place he thought that they might attack was Malaya; the second place, Thailand; the third place, the Dutch East Indies; the fourth place, the Philippines; and the fifth—Pearl Harbor. The situation was like that of President Polk in the Mexican War. Polk was glad the Mexicans attacked because he wanted war. I think Roosevelt by December, 1941, was convinced that the Japanese had to be put down—that it was impossible to try to prop the British up in Europe while the British Empire was disintegrating in the Far East. … The administration was ready for a Japanese war and perhaps even invited one. …

The fact that they chose Pearl Harbor was not the first nor was it to be the last Japanese stupidity. They did it in a fit of logic. They figured that the Pearl Harbor fleet represented the largest and most dangerous force in the Far East that was hostile to them. They felt it had to be eliminated. It was a marvellous piece of logic, but it was very bad politics because even had there been an attack on the Philippines, Roosevelt would have had a devil of a time persuading Congress to declare war. But I think that by late 1941 Roosevelt was willing to go to the Congress and ask for war even if it did not involve American territory. The Japanese, with extraordinary foolishness, bailed him out by attacking Pearl Harbor.

Can responsibility for the defeat at Pearl Harbor be laid on the shoulders of anyone “higher up” than Admiral Kimmel and General Short?

Some years ago I wrote an article appraising the literature of Pearl Harbor, in which I defended Admiral Kimmel, who was still living. I sent a copy of the article to Kimmel and the old man wrote back a rather primitively typed and spelled letter, in which he reiterated his feeling that the blame for the destruction of the fleet rested, as he put it, in Washington. He believed this, so far as I know, down until the time of his death. His book, Admiral Kimmel’s Story , did not receive good reviews, but what is important is that he pointed out, cleverly and I believe truthfully, that Pearl Harbor was indefensible in 1941; that his predecessor, Admiral Richardson, had told Roosevelt this, and that Roosevelt had fired Richardson as a result. Kimmel was doing his best to make the place defensible, but almost no American position in the Pacific was defensible in December, 1941. It was Kimmel’s bad fortune that the Japanese chose Pearl Harbor.

General MacArthur in Manila was much more culpable than the commanders in Pearl Harbor, because MacArthur had several hours of warning and, despite this warning, lost his touted 6-17 bombers, sitting on the ground. MacArthur in a rather undignified manner passed the blame to subordinates, and the question of responsibility was fudged, but it was not fudged at Pearl Harbor. Kimmel and Short were virtually forced into retirement. It was a disgraceful episode, and General Marshall later admitted manfully that he bore some of the responsibility for what happened. Roosevelt never did admit to any responsibility. I feel very sorry for Kimmel. I think the responsibility ran all up and down the chain of command, and it probably reached well beyond that, into Congress, and to the American people.

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