Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom

by Conrad Black
ISBN: 1586481843

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A Review of: Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom
by Nathan M. Greenfield

It's hardly surprising that Conrad Black, who more than two decades ago wrote a 500-page study of Maurice Duplessis, the man Quebeckers still refer to as "le chef", believes in the Great Man' theory of history (Prime Minster Chretien's invocation of the 1919 Nickel Resolution to prevent Black's ascension as a Canadian citizen to the House of Lords, would, for Lord Black of Crossharbour, probably define "the Lesser Man theory of history"). What is surprising is that while he calls Winston Churchill the "co-saviour of Western Civilization" and has a soft spot for his sentimentality (Churchill's eyes filled with tears during de Gaulle's D-Day speech to France), Black's hero is not the most famous member of his own Tory party. An arch-conservative, founder of the National Post, and, through such operatives as Peter White, a backroom presence in conservative circles in Canada, Black argues that the greatest politician of the 20th Century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Unlike other conservatives, such as Thomas Fleming, whose The New Dealers' War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II (2001), asserts that the New Deal was at best a failure or at worst a crypto socialist takeover of America, Black concurs with FDR's characterization of himself as "the best friend the profit system ever had." In the three years following the 1929 Crash, as unemployment climbed toward 33% and Herbert Hoover's Administration made things worse by cutting government expenditures (which further reduced demand), Governor of New York, FDR acted. Black excoriates Hoover for thinking that the thousands selling apples on street corners had left their jobs "for the more profitable one of selling apples" and all but cheers as he charts Governor Roosevelt's path from "tepid" first steps-emergency relief, job-creation and public works activities-to the first of FDR's ubiquitous alphabet agencies: TETRA. Over six years, the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, financed by "not overly onerous" income tax surcharges, assisted five million people, 40% of the state's population, 70% of which was no longer on assistance by the program's end.
Black is not unrestrained in his praise. The National Recovery Administration didn't produce jobs because, by raising prices and wages in tandem, it failed to address the root of the problem-the collapse of demand. FDR erred at times by assuming that "the economy were a zero-sum game, and that the well-to-do put their money under their mattresses and no good came of it." As well, the quid pro quo by which United Mine Workers' president John L. Lewis took to the airways to support FDR's Court Packing plan (which would have allowed FDR to appoint justices "more in tune with the times" to a Supreme Court that otherwise had a nasty habit of ruling early New Deal legislation unconstitutional) was a "Faustian Bargain" that turned Lewis into a political "Frankenstein's monster."
Thus, it is a mark of Black's intellectual fairness that he doesn't just praise FDR's decision not to nationalize the banks and such legislation as Deposit Insurance, or write that the New Deal was a success. Instead, he provides his readers with long forgotten figures. In the winter of 1934 alone, the Civil Works Administration "built or upgraded 500,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,500 recreational grounds and parks and 1,000 airfields,"," in addition to employing 50,000 teachers with whom it reopened the nation's rural schools. The effort to "preserve the dignity of work" applies too to the 3,000 writers, musicians and artists employed by the CWA. Black objects to the Supreme Court's ruling that the Agricultural Adjustment Act gave the Federal government "uncontrolled police power in every state in the union," finding not only that production quotas raised farm incomes but, even more importantly, that subjecting quotas to a vote by affected farmers was "a noteworthy exercise in popular democracy," the most startling part of which was the fact that even in the deep South, African-American farmers were allowed to vote, many for the first time. Black returns to this last theme often, noting that in his election eve speeches FDR called on voters to vote for candidates "irrespective of race, colour or creed" and envisaged a showdown with Southern red necks when the war was over.
As much as history is the story of individuals and their tragedies and triumphs-Black writes of FDR's battle with polio with a novelist's gift for pathos-political history in a democracy is about winning nominations and elections. Revealing, perhaps, a bit of his own penchant for boardroom battles and shareholder meetings, Black presents a detailed explanation of Democratic conventions and American voting patterns. In 1924 it took 93 ballots to choose Alfred E. Smith; an Anti-Ku Klux Klan plank failed by 543.15 to 542.35 votes: "[s]ome delegate votes split into fractions, because several or more people shared the right to cast a single vote," Black helpfully inserts. In 1932, Roosevelt garnered 664 1/4 votes on the first ballot and 677 3/4 on the second-still not the 2/3 needed to win. That came only after Joseph P. Kennedy telephoned William R. Hearst, who delivered California's delegates. Things were easier in 1940 when FDR broke with tradition and ran for a third term; a voice from the basement bellowed "We Want Roosevelt!"-the stampede had started. In 1924, Alfred E. Smith won the nation's 19 largest cities by some 38,000 votes. In 1936, FDR won massive majorities in 102 of the nation's cities with 100,000 or more people; the Republican candidate won two. In 1932, FDR received 25% of the African-American vote; in 1938 87% supported the party that had once defended slavery, a shift Black credits in large measure to Eleanor Roosevelt's tireless efforts on behalf of African-Americans.
More than half of Black's 1280-page book is devoted to FDR's foreign policy and the two world wars. With respect to Germany, FDR was consistent. He dissented from President Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policy so strongly that, according to Black, he fed information to Wilson's opponents. Disgusted by Hitler's anti-Semitism (15% of FDR's appointees were Jewish-at the time, Jews constituted only 3% of the population), FDR early on considered the German Chancellor a "madman" who would have to be militarily defeated. The image Black sketches of FDR listening to one of Hitler's speeches and translating it to his advisors as they sat in the White House is telling. Such speeches and the timorousness of Chamberlain's and France's governments, which acquiesced to each of Hitler's land grabs, led FDR to turn the later part of the New Deal's industrial program into history's largest arms build up. Black's admiration for FDR's political acumen is nowhere more evident than in his telling of how the President defanged the "lobotomized isolationists" in Congress as well as the neo-Nazis, like Charles Lindbergh, who drew no moral distinction between England and Nazi Germany.
As important as individual battles are to Black's history, in this book the war is chiefly the story of how FDR's America emerges as the world's mightiest power. To be sure, Churchill gets his due; Black encourages his readers to marvel yet again at the rhetorical brilliance of the Fourth of June speech: "We shall fight them on the landing fields." But, as Churchill himself knew, and Black underscores, by 1942 the United Kingdom had become a junior partner. FDR's war aims, a source of great frustration for Churchill because they did not include the restoration of the British Empire, were more far-reaching than any leader's have ever been before. Destroying Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were necessary, but so too, Black argues, was drawing Soviet Russia out of sullen isolation, nurturing democracies and market economies, establishing an international organization led by the United States to enforce "the rule of law" among nations, and establishing the "requirement" of governments to improve the living standard of their citizens.
Two or three times Black's account falters: Black's suggestion that bombing the rail heads used to transport Jews to the Death Camps would have saved many lives runs counter to the evidence gathered by William Rubinstein in The Myth of the Rescue (1997). Equally questionable is Black's assertion that the UK and the US could have defeated Hitler without the hundreds of divisions supplied by Stalin's Russia. By contrast, Black's observation that the invasion of Europe could have gone ahead in 1943 (thousands of landing craft were already in use in the Pacific) when the "Atlantic Wall" was more myth than concrete is intriguing; he observes accurately that the delay to 1944 gave more time for Stalin's troops to enter central Europe (and thus establish the bases of several Communist dictatorships).
Readers familiar with Black's newspapers' strong pro-Bush editorial slant will, no doubt, be surprised to read Black's contention that George W. Bush was wrong to characterize the Yalta agreements as a sell-out of Eastern Europe by a tired, ill-advised, dying FDR. Black argues that despite FDR's infirmities, he achieved everything he set out to. In hindsight, allowing Russia to join the Pacific war might be construed as an error on FDR's part. However, according to Black, it's important to consider that at Yalta FDR did not know whether the A-bomb would work; estimates of casualties if Japan's home islands had to be invaded ran to 1,000,000 soldiers. Arranging for France to be recognized as an occupying power in Germany anchored de Gaulle firmly in the American camp, albeit as one who saw himself leading "the loyal opposition." The rejection of the Morgenthal plan to turn Germany into an agricultural nation gave the West a vibrant industrial and fervently anti-Communist front line in what FDR knew was the coming Cold War. Black is even positive on the Declaration on Liberated Europe, for it put the onus squarely on the Soviet Union to live up to its signed agreements. When six weeks after Yalta, Stalin installed a Communist puppet government in Poland, he handed the West the moral high ground for the duration of the Cold War. Black's book leaves little doubt that between 1932 and 1945, FDR shaped not just his America but the world that we live in today.

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