Usually, I post book reviews the 4th Tuesday of the month. But as you can see, I got a little carried away with this book. Grab a drink and learn some history … Post contains affiliate links.
FDR — er, Franklin Delano Roosevelt — hero, right? He brought us out of the Great Depression and presided over our successful involvement in WWII, right? Not so fast. Read FDR Goes to War and your opinion of FDR might change just a bit. FDR was quite anxious to go to war with Japan from the time he took office, but isolationist feeling among the general public reigned him in. Once Hitler invaded Poland and the US could no longer ignore the conflict, things began moving fast — and were more than a bit scary. While FDR originally favored war with Japan, US military forces were woefully unprepared and underfunded (FDR had preferred to spend on his massive New Deal government employment plans). He began courting private companies, “the malefactors of wealth,” to fund military innovations. This seemed strange coming from FDR, the premise of whose New Deal plan had been that private business had failed and that government should direct much of the economy out of the Depression.
Of course it’s easier to see all this in retrospect, but FDR’s opposition to taking in European immigrants seeking to flee the Nazis seems especially unforgivable. To her credit, his wife Eleanor wanted to take in the largely Jewish group, meeting with her husband about this for 20 minutes at the White House, and then threatening to urge other leaders to rent a ship to take on refugees: “if necessary the ship will cruise up and down the East Coast until the American people, out of shame and anger, force the President and the Congress to permit these victims of political persecution to land.” FDR apparently feared that many of those seeking to come to America “must be troublemakers — probably ‘Reds’ or Nazi spies.”
Another interesting tale, and tie-in to my life, was Wendell Willkie. He was a businessman who had been a Democrat, but became a Republican in response to FDR’s anti-business stance. He ended up running against FDR for President in 1940, which was shocking at the time because he had no political experience, only business success. He ran noting FDR’s failed New Deal policies (unemployement remained around 18%, 10 years after the Great Depression began, and the government had taken on massive debt to implement the New Deal). The whole thing reminded me a lot of the 2012 election of Obama vs. Romney. Also, this was interesting because as a freshman at IU I lived in Willkie dorm. Now I know the story behind the man!
Willkie argued that the government had never managed a business effectively, using the postal service as an example. “I say that we must substitute for the philosophy of distributed scarcity the philosophy of unlimited productivity,” he said. For a time, he was ahead in the polls, but as war loomed as a bigger possibility for the US, the populace veered back to the comfort of the familiar FDR. Also, FDR poured millions in WPA jobs and projects to districts that were shaky in their support of him (some things never change!). “In this country there are 18,000 on WPA. With an average of 3 in a family you have 54,000 potential Democratic votes. Can anyone beat that if it is properly mobilized?” asked a New Jersey congressman of the day. After the election — surprise! — many WPA workers were laid off because they were not needed until the next campaign, thereby cutting some federal spending and making the deficit appear smaller. Additionally, four days prior to the election, the secretary of agriculture revealed a new program offering free milk to the children in the swing state of New York. Honestly, so many parallels to today: I thought immediately of the Obamacare “perk” of allowing kids up to 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance policies (even if those policies won’t offer access to many doctors).
One key politician rewarded with money from FDR’s coffers was Lyndon Johnson, a young congressman from Texas.
This book reinforced many things I read in Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, which suggested that FDR tried to provoke Japan to push the US into WWII. “Everything was to be done to force an incident,” wrote Winston Churchill. To his credit, I suppose, FDR greatly underestimated Japan’s military power and never expected such a massive strike. He felt that the Japanese would not be able to attack US Navy ships by air (“My God! How did it happen? I will go down in disgrace,” a White House staffer recorded FDR’s reaction). When the Naval commander in Hawaii complained to FDR about the lack of resources at Pearl Harbor (in 1940), FDR replied, “You just don’t understand that this is an election year and there are certain things that can’t be done, no matter what, until the election is over and won.” After he won the election, FDR still failed to beef up resources — and he fired the commander as well.
Once the US was involved in the war, FDR used war developments as reasons to vastly expand his executive powers (similar to Obama’s “never let a crisis go to waste” mentality).
I hadn’t realized that the US military was so underfunded and ill-equipped to go to war back in 1941. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, it was bad news to US forces in the South Pacific as they then had no US backup anywhere nearby to help supply them. The press didn’t help either, trying to shore up the public by falsely leading to the belief that the US was doing better than it really was. For instance, each time a charge was dropped by a naval ship, the press reported that a German sub had been hit — even though that was rarely the case.
In war time, FDR found himself forced to change some policies. He needed businesses to cooperate for the war effort, but they were leery of his history of limiting their profits and slapping taxes on them. To his credit, he made concessions to business (albeit reluctantly). As the tide turned in 1943, it was interesting to read how many industries worked together voluntarily to ramp up production and innovation. “No central authority in Washington … could have integrated the various divisions of industry, large and small, simple and complex, as effectively as these free Americans did of their own volition,” said the head of the War Production Board. “Voluntarily — in opposition to the policy of coercion which had made our enemies strong — voluntarily, they consolidated their skills and their energies in the interest of the commonweal, and in the end they won, hands down.” I found myself wishing this could still happen.
Similar to Obama, FDR used the IRS for political purposes (FDR’s son Elliott said that FDR was the first to do this). After WWII, the president directed the IRS to fine businesses by levying back taxes. And WWII, 1942 specifically, was the beginning of mass taxation and withholding of taxes from paychecks. FDR saw the vast power he could garner for the federal government through tax revenue, and exploited this as far as he could. As the authors state, “If redistributing wealth is a major goal of public policy, then the tax code is bound to become a complex instrument for social engineering.” FDR’s high tax rates on individuals (over 90%), and businesses led to lobbying by those businesses for tax breaks and loopholes. The whole FDR era was the beginning of our incredibly complex tax code.
Check out this propaganda masterpiece, written by Irving Berlin (of “White Christmas” fame) and sung by Danny Kaye. It’s called “I Paid My Income Tax Today,” and the Treasury Dept. urged radio stations to play it frequently. Here’s one verse:
I paid my income tax today.
A thousand planes to bomb Berlin:
They’ll all be paid for, and I chipped in.
That certainly makes me feel okay.
Somehow, I feel compelled here to state that I am not making this up. It’s on page 189 of the book. That’s not all. The government persuaded Walt Disney to produce an 8-minute film to be shown before movies. It was called “The New Spirit,” and features Donald Duck filling out his tax forms, relieved that he can claim deductions for nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Democrat Wilbur Mills explained, “Only by collecting taxes — heavy taxes — can we do the job. Now that people have more money than ever before, — more than can be spent on the scarce available goods — is the time to collect taxes. To forgive taxes is to present the taxpayer with increased purchasing power. The public, with money in its pockets, will inevitably try to use this money to buy what it wants, what it needs.” Heaven forbid!
FDR also used wiretapping extensively, at first to keep tabs on enemies under the excuse of war, but eventually on his friends, and even on wife Eleanor. Sometimes the spying got him into trouble: one spy mission ended up finding a company financing Lyndon Johnson’s campaign for Senate had made some illegal dealings. Since Johnson was a supporter of FDR, no action was ever taken against the company, nor was Johnson’s involvement in the deal made public.
Roosevelt liked to keep a tight reign on the media as well. He could do this more effectively with radio than with newspapers. He put into force a law wherein radio stations had to renew their licenses every six months, versus the prior three years. This put stations on notice that they had better curtail their criticisms of the president or risk having their licenses suspended. By 1940, journalist Quincy Hower noted that “all regular radio news broadcasts gently, firmly, and consistently support Roosevelt to the exclusion of any other point of view.” I wonder if this was the beginning of journalism’s liberal tilt?
Perhaps FDR’s most grievous abuse of civil liberties was his decision to intern thousands of Japanese-Americans (many of them US citizens) in camps during WWII. Many have wondered: why did FDR intern Japanese in camps, but not Italians or Germans? The book posits that most Japanese Americans lived in one state, California. Since many native Californians supported the internment, FDR would retain his support there. However, German- and Italian-Americans were spread throughout many Eastern states, and FDR could not afford to lose all their support. Another point is that, if FDR truly feared Japanese Americans, it would have made more sense to intern those living in Hawaii than in California. Yet this was never considered, because Hawaiian officials needed these people to harvest crops, and there were also too many of them to confine. The California Japanese, according to spy John Franklin Carter, were “pathetically eager to show … loyalty.” Yet, in a move decried by the liberal ACLU as “the worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of American citizens in our history,” FDR sent 120,000 of them to relocation centers with no habeas corpus and no protection of property.
The book seems well-documented. Time after time, I’d have to wonder about some of FDR’s decisions. For instance, yes, he was anti-Hitler. But, he cozied up to Stalin. In fact, early in the book there was a quote that yes, the US helped bring down Hitler, but we did it at the expense of propping up Stalin. You don’t hear as much about Stalin, but he was a bad guy. Bad, bad, bad. As in, murdering thousands of his own and other people. One of FDR’s advisers counseled him against his courtship of Stalin (whom FDR called “Uncle Joe”), saying basically that hardly anyone supported Naziism. However, many did support Fascism because, at least at first, it seemed like a good thing (think of socialism, with all the “fairness” and “sharing”).
Stalin was particularly brutal against the Polish people, sending hundreds of thousands of them to labor camps in Siberia. He had over 10,000 Polish military officers executed in Katyn Forest by shooting them in the head and burying them in mass graves. This was hushed up, but a US spy informed FDR. FDR got another spy to give him a “second opinion.” When the second spy confirmed the massacre, FDR removed him from office and exiled him to Samoa. All this on FDR’s “hunch” that Stalin could be trusted: “I don’t dispute your facts,” said FDR. “They are accurate. I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man (a bad guy).”
Also interesting bits of trivia — did you know that FDR announced a change in the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday (thereby increasing the number of shopping days before Christmas)?
Did you know that fashions changed during WWII due to war rationing? Specifically, the book mentioned women’s clothes became slimmer and more form-fitting — less full skirts — because fabric was needed elsewhere. Interesting, although I’m wondering what war effort needed fabric. Uniforms? Just seems odd to think of fabric being in short supply.
FDR died in April 1945, just as the war was winding down. His VP, Harry Truman, was not up to speed on events and did not even know about the atomic bomb development going on. He did preside over the bomb’s use, though, and finally the war came to an end. Then, he tried to continue FDR’s big-government spending programs, proposing his “Fair Deal” as a continuation of FDR’s “New Deal.” Like FDR, he advocated an “economic bill of rights” which guaranteed all Americans housing, healthcare, a job — you name it. This would have been hugely expensive, and Congress vetoed it.
Despite all this, despite historians like Thomas Bailey saying, “Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor … He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good …” FDR continues to be highly rated as a President (a 1996 poll of historians ranked him as a “great President,” higher than even George Washington). FDR’s memorial in Washington, DC, is huge — a walk-through almost more like a small theme park than a simple edifice. This may be fitting, though, given FDR’s view that he “was always the hero of his own life.”
Do any of you have parents or grandparents who lived during the FDR era? I’m curious to hear what their opinions of him were. After reading this book, I asked my dad about the era, since his dad had fought at Okinawa as a marine during WWII. He said their family had lived in San Francisco for a few months around the time his dad was discharged, and that he had seen FDR go past in a convertible one day not long before he died, on his way to visit marines at their base.