Harry Truman once said that the main job of being President is to make decisions.
History judges Presidents primarily on the decisions they make. Relatively few remember that President Kennedy was not spectacularly successful legislatively. But nearly everyone knows he almost single-handedly prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from devolving into a nuclear war; simultaneously facing down Khrushchev, his most hawkish advisors, and a nearly mutinous military.
No President in history had to make more decisions than Franklin Roosevelt. It wasn’t merely the extraordinary length of his tenure: 12 years, one month, eight days. It was also the nature of the times he lived in: The Great Depression; World War II.
Historical revisionists engage Monday morning quarterbacking of Presidential decisions, and FDR is hardly immune from their wrath. One economist has claimed that Roosevelt’s jobs programs and other attempts to stimulate the collapsed economy made the Depression worse, and amounted to FDR’s Folly. Other economists counter that FDR didn’t do enough to turn the economy around and should have been bolder – citing as their evidence the 1937-38 recession that was brought on when FDR, antsy about deficits, throttled back on spending. Then there was his decision to intern Japanese-Americans, which no one who grasps the concept of civil rights and Constitutional justice can defend (I will address that decision in a future post).
Today, I will address two decisions – one famous, the other well-known but seldom discussed, that saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American Servicemen – which collectively ensured the births of many of the baby-boom generation.
In August 1939 – one month before war broke out in Europe, President Roosevelt was presented with a letter from Albert Einstein, advising that German scientists were experimenting with Uranium and that such experiments could result in the creation of a bomb far more devastating than any made before. Roosevelt, no scientist, nevertheless immediately grasped the implications of Einstein’s letter and told “Pa” Watson, his military advisor, “This requires action.” Thus, the Manhattan project was born, the United States developed atomic weapons, making an armed invasion of Japan unnecessary, and shortening the war by months – perhaps years. For those who would turn this decision on its head, and blame FDR for the development of nuclear weapons, I would respond by pointing out that the Germans and Soviets were working on atomic programs of their own, and without our nuclear deterrent, the U.S. may well have been cooked. As stated in a previous post, FDR fully understood the potential power of the atomic bomb, remarking to an aide that such a bomb, if dropped in Times Square, “would lay New York low”. FDR would certainly have used it to end the war.
Fast forward to December, 1941. Pearl Harbor lay in ruins, with much of America’s Pacific Fleet, following a sneak attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy. One day after “a date which will live in infamy”, the United States has formally declared war on Japan – yet still tenuously remains at peace with the two other Axis powers: Germany and Italy. The next evening, December 9th, Roosevelt addresses the nation in a Fireside Chat (see below for an abridged version). During his speech, Roosevelt summarizes the previous ten years of Axis military aggression – which long predated the “official” outbreak of World War II: Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchukuo; Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia; Germany’s pre-war invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Roosevelt could have taken the easy way out with rhetorical home runs against the Japanese. Instead, he spoke plainly, advising his fellow citizens that every man, woman, and child would have to contribute to “the most tremendous undertaking of our American history”, would “share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories” and that so far, “the news has been all bad”. He sternly warned his fellow Americans that “we shall have to give up many things entirely” and that he expected them to “cheerfully help to pay a large part of its financial cost while it goes on.”
This is tough talk – of the kind I can’t imagine any politician having the guts to meter out today. It’s the very antithesis, in fact, of George W. Bush’s approach in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, where he told American’s to “go about your business” and spend money.
But the bravest part of Roosevelt’s speech was in the closing measures: “We expect to eliminate the danger from Japan, but it would serve us ill if we accomplished that and found that the rest of the world was dominated by Hitler and Mussolini.”
Remember, there had been no declaration of war from Germany or Italy. But Roosevelt was already hinting toward a Europe first policy that he would put into official action just days later when Hitler addressed the Reichstag, where he referred to President Roosevelt as “the man who is primarily responsible for this war”, whined that Roosevelt, unlike Hitler, “came from an extremely wealthy family” and concluded that “ I regard him, like his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, as mentally unsound.” Roosevelt anticipated that Hitler would move against the U.S. FDR could well have held his cards close, said nothing, and watched while Europe continued to fall. Instead, he was willing to buck the enormous pressure at home demanding immediate blood revenge against Japan. In addition to cementing an alliance with Soviet Russia, which forced Hitler to continue concentrating his Army on the Eastern Front, FDR relieved the British, and bought the scientists time to complete the Atomic bomb.
These two decisions were the most important in FDR’s time in office because hundreds of thousands of American lives were in the balance, and the decisions shortened the war by as much as two years. Any American born since 1945 should be unceasingly grateful that FDR made the right decisions.