Friday, January 6, 2017

Roosevelt’s challenge – Hitler’s blunder

On January 6, 1942 – less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor devastated America’s Pacific fleet, Franklin D. Roosevelt slowly approached the rostrum to deliver his State of the Union address. The United States was at war with not only the Empire of Japan, but with Italy and Germany. The news for the Allies was bad on nearly every front, but one would never believe it based on the confidence in Roosevelt’s demeanor. Roosevelt believed, just as Churchill did, that with America in the war victory come down to the “proper application of overwhelming force”. That meant not just the conscription of the highest number of able bodied soldiers, sailors, marines, and pilots; it meant out-producing the Axis powers – by orders of magnitude – in creating the weapons of war.


Hitler, when informed of the contents of this speech, derisively laughed at the numbers Roosevelt outlined, referring to them as the fantasies of a man he described as “mentally unsound, just was Wilson was.” Some have tried to paint Hitler as a kind of diabolical genius - but outside of diabolical matters, Hitler was nothing of the sort. He was neither well educated nor well-traveled. In his entire life, Hitler never traveled more than a few hundred miles beyond Germany’s borders. (Roosevelt had seen more of the world by the time he was ten years old.) Hitler’s knowledge of the United States was based on a series of Old West novels by Karl May which he’d read - in translation of course. In Hitler’s view, there was no way a nation “contaminated” by Negros, Jews, and racial mongrels could unite to meet Roosevelt’s production goals – let alone beat the Master Race in a war. Further, Hitler believed Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese descent would undermine their adopted country at every turn. Hitler was, of course, very wrong. Roosevelt’s production goals were not only met but exceeded. And American men of German, Italian, and Japanese descent served with distinction in the fighting forces – even though many of them, particularly Japanese-Americans, were treated shabbily by their fellow Americans. 

Roosevelt’s experience and temperament were the opposite of Hitler’s. Roosevelt was publicly modest about his intelligence – remarking that “I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I sure know how to pick smart people.” He self-deprecatingly remarked that he received “Gentleman C’s” while a student at Harvard, tactfully omitting that he passed the four year program in only three years. (What a contrast to the incoming President, who feels the need to boast of his intelligence on Twitter.) FDR was naturally shocked upon hearing the initial reports that Pearl Harbor was been attacked – at one point, during a phone conversation with an officer in Hawaii, the President exclaimed to an aide, “My God, there’s squadron of Jap planes flying overhead right now!” Unlike Hitler, FDR did not engage in temper tantrums, blame his Generals/Admirals for all his problems, and feel sorry for himself. The dark lessons of polio had taught him patience. This Roosevelt became, as his wife observed, “an iceberg” - the calm at the center of the storm. American needed calm, steady hands at the tiller in 1942. I fear for America in 2017, given the small and unsteady hands, jittering to send out the latest offensive Tweet, which will take the helm in two short weeks.

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