Friday, April 17, 2009

Unrealistic Heroes 1 - Roosevelt

There have been a number of quite annoying articles on radio recently, mostly focused on making negative comments about the place of President Bush in US history.

Don't get me wrong, I think President Bush was a buffoon: at best, a well-meaning, good old boy, with some rather strange ideological preconceptions. However it is a bit rich to paint him as an Anti-Christ, when he genuinely did prevent any further attacks on US soil; genuinely did have an excellent foreign relations program through most of Asia; genuinely did make significant efforts to promote free trade, particularly with countries like Australia; and genuinely did try to rein back the Democrat inspired excesses of Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae which led to a significant component of the current economic crisis.

Given his basic personality weaknesses, it would be fair to say that I'm quite surprised at how well President Bush did. Speaking as an Australian, with our own embarrassing stock of political leaders, I find it of little hard to waive the examples of Malcolm Fraser (one of Frasers greatest legacies in international affairs was being pivotal in installing Robert Mugabe as President/Dictator of Zimbabwe - nice one), or Paul Keating (a relative non-entity internationally, except for his abuse of European and Asian political leaders - usually when he needed to distract the Australian media and voters from something), as somehow significantly better political leaders. In fact the closest Australian comparison, is our own well-meaning, good old boy, with some rather strange ideological preconceptions: Bob Hawke. (Personally, although not very impressed by his beer guzzling populist swagger, I still consider Bob Hawke to be one of the better Prime Minister's the last half century... Damning with faint praise perhaps?)

Yet for me, the annoying thing has not been the discussion of President Bush's personal failings. Rather, it has been the comparison is made with his predecessors. In particular, several presenters have listed at top 10 US President, and the names they have listed have been somewhat worrying.

Teddy Roosevelt was a well-meaning, good old boy, with some very very strange ideological preconceptions. (Let's face it, he was an aggressive, obnoxious,militaristic, fruitcake.) Putting him firmly in the top 10 US presidents is probably correct, but that says a lot about the average quality of US presidents. (It also makes you wonder whether the long-term historical view of President Bush will be nearly as negative as many people currently believe.)

Woodrow Wilson is a stranger choice. I am not particularly familiar with his domestic policies, except for his ridiculous "too proud to fight" statement during his Great War election campaign, and his racist clean-outs of blacks from government posts. But I am very familiar with his effect on the world as a whole. Wilson's irrational and unrealistic worldview torpedoed the Versailles peace conference, and made a just peace completely impossible (particularly as Clemenceau took advantage of his gullibility to feed in quite a bit of French vengeance). His idealistic 14 points, and the incompetence with which they were pursued, made sure that the defeated powers would be out for revenge as soon as possible. His impractical League of Nations seemed designed to destabilise any attempt at Balance of Power politics in the future. His failure to get his own Congress to ratify any of his promises, undercut any chance of international cooperation to prevent future conflict. Woodrow Wilson's total impact on world history could be summarised as World War II. If that is what makes a great president, I would hate to think what makes a poor one.

Perhaps the problem is that too many people confuse a high profile with some sort of effectiveness. Wilson and the two Roosevelt's were undoubtedly high profile, but were they anything to be proud of?

Which brings us to the greatest fantasy of all, Franklin Delanore Roosevelt.

Biographers of FDR make great claims about his place as one of the greatest American presidents. In particular they comment on his initiatives during the Great Depression, particularly his New Deal; and on his role in getting the United States involved in the Second World War, and leaving it successfully through it.

Unfortunately, all of these claims of success are bollocks.

The first claim, that Roosevelt had a great effect on the depression, is essentially true, but not for the reasons that his supporters might hope. In fact it was his interaction with the international community, particularly his response to the international economic conference - and the way that he reneged on his promises to that group of world leaders - which converted what could have been a small depression, into a much more significant global crisis. Roosevelt did have a significant effect, he helped cause and expand the Great Depression worldwide.

His New Deal, also had a great effect, but again, not the one that his supporters would like to think. Any good statistical analysis of the long-term effects of his Keynsian economics, and protectionist reactions, clearly demonstrates how far behind most of the rest of the developed world United States fell when it came to recovery. Indeed, unlike most of the rest of the world, the the United States still had significant unemployment until the Second World War solved that problem for them.

Then comes the fantasy that Roosevelt successfully steered the United States into the war. It is true that he'd made significant attempts to assist the allies, because he genuinely believed in their cause. However it would be unrealistic to claim that he actually steered the United States into the conflict. He may have involved a few destroyers in some shooting matches with U-boats in the North Atlantic, but that was far as his efforts ever went. The United States joined the war when the Japanese kicked their teeth down their throat at Pearl Harbor. Even then President Roosevelt did not actually manage to declare war on Germany, he waited until Hitler decided to declare war on the United States.

His statesmanship in leading the United States through the war, is also highly suspect. Possibly the worst thing he did, was to announce "unconditional surrender" without consulting his allies or considering the implications. Many Germans in the post-war period made it clear that they had been willing to fight longer and harder to avoid unconditional surrender ("I may as well die fighting as spend the rest of my life chopping wood in Canada"), and many thousands of Americans and other allies paid with their lives for another well intentioned but naive and foolish statement by an American president.

His relations with the French, particularly the Free French, were not good, with significant effects post-war. His attitude to many other free governments, particularly the Poles, Greeks, and later on the Italians, were also unimpressive. In fact his betrayal of the Polish nation, while confessing to Stalin that he needed to keep it quiet until after getting the Polish-American vote in his next domestic election, is unforgivable.

Which brings us to Stalin. President Roosevelt's innocence and ignorance, led him to believe that he could deal with Stalin. In reality, Stalin played President Roosevelt like a cheap instrument. He did not even have to be careful. In fact it could be claimed that President Franklin Delanore Roosevelt's biggest foreign policy achievement is called the Cold War.

Finally we should comment on the private life of a man who pretended to be moral. Or perhaps not. (Yuck.)

Yes, President Roosevelt was a well-meaning, energetic and enthusiastic president. He made significant efforts to improve the lives of his own people, and the world. But he failed. He made it the world wide depression worse; he kept his own country in depression longer than most other countries; he failed to enter the Second World War on his own terms; and he failed to achieve almost any of his long term objectives from the war. In fact the closest thing to a success in these four cases, would be the achievement of provoking the Japanese to sink his fleet, and Hitler to disdainfully declare war. He then abandoned significant portions of the world to communist dictatorship.

In summary he lied, he cheated, he undermined, he betrayed. I know much the same could be said of many politicians, but great ones? If this is the measure of a great president, let's hope for more non-entities.

Why, oh why, do democracies constantly mistake loud and flashy for competent and impressive?

Why do we believe that a high profile equals greatness?


  1. First, thank you for presenting your entertaining and insightful blog. Very much appreciated.
    Regarding FDR, I agree with your judgment. A much overrated President. Probably indeed a President who wreaked more damage on the US than most others combined, and whose legacy for both western Europe and Asia was atrocious.
    But I suggest that there was a mitigating factor in assigning individual responsibility to FDR for his disastrous misjudgments, both domestic and foreign. Excessively influenced by his activist wife and by Harry Hopkins, FDR allowed his mushrooming governmental agencies to be deeply and broadly penetrated by ideological traitors operating under orders from the Soviet Union. They multiplied like rats, quickly coming to dominate the upper echelons of several departments, especially Treasury and State. From their lofty platforms these traitors manipulated the policies being proposed to FDR. From, at latest, 1943 onwards, FDR was being fed only the misinformation that Stalin wanted him to get. Little wonder that he made such a hash of everything he touched. He had become little more than an unwitting puppet.

    1. Well, I find your comments fair, but no less damning. In reality of course by mid 1944 Roosevelt had little idea what was going on, and by 1945 most of his officials were getting on with whatever they felt like without much consulting him. Considering he wasn't bothering to tell them what deals he had done with various allies, this was ridiculous.

      If you want a comparison with an all too similar system where chaos emerged from complete inability to control everything under one man, you have to go beyond even Stalin. The best comparison - of how not to do things - to Roosevelt, was running Germany!