When Franklin Roosevelt entered politics, it was in the shadow of his distant cousin Theodore. In early adulthood, FDR patterned himself on Teddy: wearing pince-nez spectacles, using terms like “bully” and “dee-lighted”. He was also proudly interventionist and in favor of American expansionism. This was especially the case when he served as Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Early in World War I, an associate recalled FDR bursting into the office of a senior Administration official and declaring “We MUST get into this war!” Teddy, who famously charged up San Juan Hill, thought war was a glorious thing, and the young Franklin thought so as well. When the United States finally entered the war, Franklin planned to enlist in the Navy. President Wilson learned of FDR’s plans, and sternly ordered his junior cabinet member to stay at his post where he could do the most good. The most FDR saw of action was in 1918, when he travelled to the front in Europe.
FDR at the front in 1918.
When FDR’s 1918 trip is discussed, it’s usually in the context of how it ended: he contracted either a strain of influenza (possibly the Spanish Flu) or pneumonia, and was brought home on a stretcher. While he was recovering, his wife Eleanor unpacked his luggage and discovered a series of love letters that her own social secretary, Lucy Mercer, had written to Franklin. The affair brought on a near break up of their marriage, which would surely have ended FDR’s political career.
But another aspect of FDR’s trip had a profound influence on him, haunting him to the extent that he referenced it during his 1936 campaign for reelection – an unusual speech in that FDR spoke of war during a campaign that was focused on economic recovery:
I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.
I have passed unnumbered hours, I shall pass unnumbered hours, thinking and planning how war may be kept from this Nation.
I wish I could keep war from all Nations; but that is beyond my power. I can at least make certain that no act of the United States helps to produce or to promote war. I can at least make clear that the conscience of America revolts against war and that any Nation which provokes war forfeits the sympathy of the people of the United States.
That last sentence, about aggressor nations losing the support of the American people, must have been on FDR’s mind in September, 1939. With the outbreak of war brought on by Germany’s invasion of Poland, FDR was careful to avoid Wilson’s mistakes. While Wilson encouraged all Americans to remain neutral in thought and action, FDR differed: “ I cannot ask every American to remain neutral in thought…Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or to close his conscience.” It was shortly thereafter that FDR proposed scrapping the Neutrality Act and selling arms to England, coupled with steep increases in domestic military spending. The controversy that erupted resulted in the two most difficult years of FDR’s presidency.
Much has been made over the decades of how FDR dealt with isolationism from 1939 until December 7, 1941. I believe by following Occam’s Razor we can arrive at the truest solution: By mid-1941, FDR knew that the United States would have to enter the war. But he also knew the military was not ready – Congress had proved reluctant to appropriate the expenditures FDR felt necessary to build up the military and America was desperately short of equipment. With Lend-Lease, FDR felt he could keep the allies going long enough while the United States built up to full strength. By autumn of 1941, the tide of public opinion in America was turning toward intervention, and FDR could probably have gotten a Declaration of War against Germany through Congress. But the notion that FDR schemed to provoke the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which would bring war on the wrong front at the wrong time and distract America from German aggression, is absolutely ludicrous. The historical record demonstrates that FDR’s primary foreign policy goal, in peace or war, was to protect America’s interests. Thus, he would have wanted American participation in any war to result in maximum gain with minimal sacrifice. I would guestimate that, had the attack on Pearl Harbor not occurred, FDR would probably have gone to the Congress and asked for a declaration of war sometime around mid-1942.
Indeed, even though FDR’s hand was forced by the Japanese, the United States paid the least in blood sacrifice among the major antagonists. This is not to denigrate the real and terrible cost of the war, but strictly as a matter of mathematics, the United States suffered the smallest number of casualties in terms of percentage of its population. Nor did we face widespread destruction of our homeland as did much of Europe and Asia. Nor was our economy wrecked by the war – indeed, American workers benefitted as America experienced full employment for the first time since before the Great Depression began. And thanks to the rationing of various goods like gasoline, clothing, and food, Americans on the home front were forced into saving money. The pent up consumer demand and ample savings helped launch an unprecedented and sustained postwar economic boom. But even that paled compared to our status in the postwar world, as America had emerged as the de facto leader of the Western powers. Much of that is the result of the decisions that Franklin Roosevelt – haunted by what he saw in 1918 – made from 1939 onward.