“Let no one believe that children a hundred years from now in the future of America will not be sick for what our fools and unconscious criminals are doing today.”

—Robinson Jeffers

Who has not heard David McCullough pontificate on the “greatness” of Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and now John Adams, or watched James McPherson bow before the demigod Lincoln? Who has not suffered the sycophantic puerility of Stephen Ambrose as he dilates on the greatness of “Ike and his boys,” whose mere appearance on the battlefield caused the Germans to quake in fear before throwing up their hands in surrender? And then there is the cult of St. Franklin, whose chief priestess and idolater is the ubiquitous Doris Kearns Goodwin, recently seen grinning like a Cheshire cat as she gushed about how FDR knew that “we just had to get into that war.” Into the midst of this farrago of lies, idolatry, and downright stupidity, the historian Thomas Fleming (not the editor of this magazine) has thrown a grenade. Fleming has ripped the regal clothes off Franklin to reveal him as a rather sinister conspirator and bungler whose presidency was a catastrophe for European civilization.

Reading Fleming’s book, I was struck by how much the author of the New Deal and the Good War had in common with our most recent ex-president. Like Clinton, Roosevelt had great personal charm, a glibness with words, an unerring instinct for political survival, an effortless ability to deceive, a willingness to sacrifice both principles and friends in the pursuit of political advancement, a vindictive streak, a Manichacan worldview, and a strong ease of megalomania. Fleming offers more than enough evidence to support the comparison.

When the country relapsed into deep depression in 1937-38, Roosevelt blamed the economic disaster not on the failure of his policies but on a conspiracy of big business and concentrated wealth designed to ruin him politically. Although it was good politics for Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to repeat this charge publicly, Fleming makes it clear that Roosevelt actually believed it, just as Clinton may have believed that the scandals besetting his presidency were all due to a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Furthermore, Roosevelt was convinced that he was the indispensable man. In 1940, he really believed that he was the only Democrat who could save the New Deal from fascists at home and abroad. Thus, even though the majority of Democratic leaders wanted him to step aside, he insisted on running for an unprecedented third term. Like Clinton, Roosevelt viewed opposition to himself and his policies as morally illegitimate. As the 1940 election returns came in, he remarked to a friend that “we seem to have avoided a putsch”—thus equating constitutional opposition to his reelection for a third term with a violent and illegal seizure of power. His vice president once referred to the Republican opposition as a form of “American Fascism.” Both by implication and direct charge, Roosevelt and his people claimed that anyone who opposed entry into the war was on the side of the Nazis, just as anyone who opposed the New Deal was a fascist.

After Pearl Harbor, Joe Patterson, the anti-interventionist editor of the New York Daily News, offered Roosevelt his services, believing that Americans should put aside political differences and past quarrels while the country was at war. Patterson had been a captain in the previous war and hoped to receive an army commission. Roosevelt treated him rudely and rejected his help: “There is one thing you can do, Joe. Go back and read your editorials for the past six months. Read every one of them and think what you’ve done.”

Fleming begins his book with one of the most famous government leaks of all time, the December 4, 1941, publication in both the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald of the text of Rainbow Five, FDR’s top-secret war plan that called for the creation of a ten-million- man army, including a five-million-man expeditionary force designed to invade Europe in 1943. The leak of Rainbow Five caused uproar and furor in the United States. Not only did 80 percent of the public remain steadfast in their opposition to American intervention in the European war, FDR had assured them on the eve of the 1940 election that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” He even persuaded Joseph P. Kennedy, the American ambassador to England and a strong anti-interventionist, to endorse him for the presidency and to deny Republican charges that he was conspiring with England to involve the country in a world war. Although Kennedy knew that the charges were true, he assured the public on a nationwide radio address that Republican claims were “false.” (Roosevelt had promised his support for Joseph Kennedy, Jr.’s run for the governorship of Massachusetts.)

The leak of Rainbow Five proved Roosevelt to be a liar, as well as a man utterly contemptuous of the expressed will of the American people. For this reason, most assumed that a patriotic and noninterventionist member of the War Department had leaked the plan. But Fleming provides strong evidence to suggest that Roosevelt himself authorized the leak. The master “juggler” hoped that the revelation that the United States was planning to wage total war against Germans would provoke Hitler into declaring war on the United States. The ruse worked. On December 11, 1941, a week after the leak and four days after Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States.

The leak was the final step in a series of provocations that Roosevelt had initiated in the hope of either goading the American public into demanding war with Germany, or provoking Germany into declaring war on the United States. During 1941, Roosevelt increasingly involved the United States as an active belligerent on the side of England. In August at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, Roosevelt told Churchill that he was determined that the United States would enter the war. He “planned to wage war but not declare it” and to be more and more “provocative.” Just weeks later, the U.S. destroyer Greer joined a British attack on a German submarine. By the fall, U.S. destroyers were exchanging fire with the German navy. As Fleming points out, Roosevelt consistently lied to the public about these incidents, claiming that each was an unprovoked attack by a German submarine when, in fact, the American Navy initiated hostilities in every case. However, to Roosevelt’s increasing frustration, even the sinking of an American destroyer was not enough to spur the public to demand war. As a result, Roosevelt and his circle saw war with Japan as the only way to get into the war in Europe, and a Japanese attack as the only way of setting these events in motion.

Just as FDR was waging an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic and shipping armaments to Great Britain, he was pursuing a similar strategy of provocation against the Japanese. In particular, he orchestrated a combined Anglo-American-Dutch oil embargo against Japan which began in the summer of 1941. Yet, while Fleming cites a mountain of evidence to prove that FDR goaded Japan into becoming his “back door to war” and demonstrates beyond any doubt that the President knew that the Japanese were going to strike U.S. forces in early December, he shrinks from charging him with either welcoming or having foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Fleming, Roosevelt expected the blow to fall in the Far East, probably the Philippines, but not in Hawaii. He cites as evidence the remark made by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that Roosevelt expected “to get hit but not hurt.”

Fleming should know better. His whole narrative is full of evidence of Roosevelt’s capacity for deceit and betrayal, as well as his ruthlessness and lack of scruple in pursuit of his ends. Furthermore, Fleming’s own evidence indicates Roosevelt’s complicity. Fleming points out that Roosevelt removed Admiral James O. Richardson from command of the Pacific fleet precisely because Richardson protested that the fleet was vulnerable to a Japanese attack while based at Pearl Harbor. Fleming is also aware of FDR’s rather suspicious emotional reaction to the “surprise” attack. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins observed that, while FDR had seemed “tense, worried” on Friday night (before the attack], on Sunday evening he seemed to have “a much calmer air. His terrible moral problem had been solved by the event.” He finally had his war. And, of course, Knox’s statement could simply mean that Roosevelt did not expect that a Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor would do as much damage as it did. Fleming simply ignores the compelling case for FDR’s foreknowledge made by revisionist historians. He makes no reference to either John Toland’s Infamy (1982) or Robert Stinnett’s Day of Deceit (2000). (To be fair, Fleming’s book may have gone to press before the latter’s publication.)

Fleming does not neglect the important question of why Roosevelt was so determined to involve the United States in a world war when her strategic situation and the sentiments of her people allowed for peace. Many Republicans claimed that Roosevelt turned to war out of desperation. He could think of no other way to end the Depression than by a transition to a war economy with its central planning, massive military expenditures, conscription, price controls, and rationing. While this was true at some level, Roosevelt’s motivation appears to have been more prosaic. He was bored and frustrated battling the Depression, and his policies had failed. Why not turn his attention to saying the world from fascism? Fleming’s evidence indicates that Roosevelt was a the hard Wilsonian who saw the war as an epic struggle between progressive democracy and the forces of dark reaction. In his mind, it was a conflict of good and evil in which no compromise or peaceful resolution was possible, and the victorious side would impose its system on the world. Moreover, as a megalomaniac, FDR realized that war offered him power on a scale far exceeding what he had so far possessed and granted him the opportunity of joining the ranks of the “great” American war presidents, Lincoln and Wilson.

To make his case for an ideological war, Fleming summarizes a revealing 1942 speech by “Vice President Henry Wallace, who characterized the war as the climactic moment in a 150-year-old “people’s revolution” that had begun at Lexington and Concord. In Wallace’s mind, the American, French, and Russian Resolutions were all part of the same unfolding movement, and World War II was its denouement. Wallace thundered that “the people’s revolution is on the march and the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it. They cannot prevail. For on the side of the people is the Lord.” Upton Sinclair made the same point, though less bombastically, when he wrote, “Either the war is a New Deal War or it is not worth winning.” In the same vein, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closest advisor, explained that the “New Deal of Mr. Roosevelt” was the archenemy of the “New Order of Hitler.” The latter could never be defeated by “the old order of democracy” (meaning France and Great Britain), but only “by the new-order of democracy, which is the New Deal universally extended and applied.”

Ironically, Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1940 presidential election, shared the messianic vision of the New Dealers, both at home and abroad. In his 1943 book, One World, Willkie insisted that the United States should use the war to impose democracy and freedom on the entire world. According to Willkie, the British and French empires had to go, but the Soviet Union was a force for progress and justice. Willkie was the John McCain of his day, a rabid warmonger and internationalist with a tendency to attack his party from the left. He once castigated fellow Republicans for failing to adopt the New Deal before the Democrats. Fleming dismisses him as a “political incompetent, out for nobody but himself,” “secretly in bed with FDR,” and a “covert New Dealer in Republican costume.”

As devastating as Fleming’s account of FDR’s machinations and betrayals before the war is, it pales in comparison to his revelations of FDR’s follies and crimes dining the conflict. Fleming condemns Roosevelt for insisting upon the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan and for his pro-Soviet sympathies and policies. Roosevelt thought that insisting upon unconditional surrender gave a moral purpose to the war, but Fleming finds the policy anything but moral. Instead, he describes it as motivated by “a hate-tinged determination to destroy.” Fleming explains that Roosevelt had a deep-seated and almost pathological “hatred of Germany” and the German people, much like his mentor Woodrow Wilson. FDR regarded the Germans as innately militaristic and aggressive, naturally autocratic, and solely responsible not only for the current war but for the two previous European wars. (Fleming notes sardonically that FDR’s understanding of history had not improved since his C- days at Harvard.) Roosevelt made no distinction whatever between the Nazi leadership and the German people, or between pro-Nazi officers and those who hoped to overthrow them. In his mind, the entire German nation deserved to be punished, bled dry, crushed, and even “castrated” (FDR’s own term). He had no qualms about the carpet-bombing of German cities or about the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths that resulted from this policy of terror. He even endorsed the infamous Morgenthau Plan (drawn up by his secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau), which called for the postwar dismemberment of Germany into four vassal states, the destruction of its industrial plant, the emptying of its cities, and the transformation of the Germans into primitive agriculturists. When warned that his plan could lead to mass starvation in Germany, with millions of dead, Morgenthau replied: “I don’t care what happens to the population”—a genocidal sentiment clearly shared by the President. Roosevelt did not hesitate to approve the murderous policy of terror-bombing Japanese and German cities with the intention of killing as many civilians as possible.

Churchill, Eisenhower, and other high-ranking officers opposed the policy of unconditional surrender because they correctly deduced that it would motivate the Germans to fight harder, thereby increasing Allied casualties and needlessly prolonging the war. For Fleming, its worst consequence was that it demoralized and hampered the anti-Nazi resistance movement within the German officer corps. Led by Adm. William Canaris, the head of the Abwehr (the German intelligence service), and including other high-ranking officers such as Gen. Ludwig Beck (former chief of staff of the Wehrmacht) and Gen. Henning von Tresckow (chief of staff of Army Group Center), these patriotic Germans plotted throughout the war to overthrow the Nazi regime. They attempted not once but four times to kill Hitler. As Menning explains, they would have gained even more support, including that of Gen. Hans Guderian and Gen. Alfred Jodl, were it not for the U.S. policy of unconditional surrender. Many anti-Nazi officers argued that, as long as the Allies were determined to crush Germany no matter who was in power, they might as well fight on to the end.

Lest you think that Roosevelt was simply a bungler, Fleming proves that, in many cases, he knew where his policies would lead and simply didn’t care. Fleming provides abundant evidence that Roosevelt viewed Stalin as a more progressive and genuinely democratic leader than Churchill, the Soviet Union as a “constructive force” in the world, and communism as simply a harmless variant on the New Deal. Fleming’s description of Roosevelt’s pro-Soviet sympathies and policies makes almost unbelievable reading. Here is just a partial list: The United States shipped military hardware and supplies at no charge to the Soviets via Lend-Lease. FDR once admitted that he did not care if all of Eastern Europe went communist. He agreed with Stalin on the need for Soviet-style revolutions in British and French colonial possessions. He ordered the OSS to return an NKVD (Soviet secret police) codebook that the Americans had acquired. He instructed the Army Air Corps to turn over their top secret Norden bombsight to the Soviets. He refused to believe that the Soviets were responsible for the 1939 Kahn massacre of the Polish officer corps, terming it Nazi propaganda. (When presented with irrefutable proof of Soviet guilt by an insistent American officer, he grew angry, ordered the offending officer to keep quiet, and had him transferred to Samoa for the duration of the war.) He ridiculed and denigrated Churchill and England in the presence of both the English leader and Stalin, to the latter’s great amusement and the former’s humiliation. Roosevelt also presided over a government literally brimming with Soviet spies and agents of influence (329 in all), including many of his closest advisors.

One particularly despicable episode was his deal with Stalin over Poland. At Teheran, he agreed that the Soviets could annex the eastern third of Poland and impose a communist government on the rest as long as Stalin kept their agreement secret until after the war. (FDR did not want to lose the domestic Polish vote in 1944.) It was vintage Roosevelt. Not surprisingly, Stalin was delighted to have such a fellow traveler in the White House. Fleming records that, after Teheran, Stalin boasted to a Yugoslav communist that the Slavs would soon rule Europe and Asia.

The historical establishment will inevitably ignore or downplay Fleming’s revisionist blockbuster. One reviewer claims Fleming is only mildly critical of Roosevelt and that the author’s research need not be taken seriously since it is largely based on secondary sources. Perhaps Fleming’s biggest sin, in the eyes of the establishment, is that he seems not to be interested in theory, fashion, or extolling the greatness of certain figures who are perceived as harbingers of the glorious present. On the contrary, he is a real historian who has an old-fashioned concern with what actually happened in the past, with causes and effects, and with the true motivations and words of actual participants.


[The New Dealers’ War: F.D.R. and the War Within World War II, by Thomas Fleming (New York: Basic Books) 561 pp., $35.00]