Many Americans would be horrified at the thought of discussing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Benito Mussolini as anything but moral and political antipodes: democrat versus dictator, peacemaker versus aggressive bully, good versus bad. Fifty-five years of bipartisan hagiography have placed FDR in the pantheon of American saints, roughly at number two between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and way ahead of the slaveholding Founding Fathers. It is not surprising that he is a role model to a liberal establishment that also reveres “Dr.” King and John Brown. But the fact that Republicans such as Newt Gingrich also invoke Roosevelt as a role model indicates the extent to which his legacy is unthinkingly accepted across the political spectrum.
Genuine conservatives, on the other hand, may argue that FDR and Mussolini were in fact rather similar. They will point out both men’s obsessive focus on strong, centralized government structures, their demagoguery, and especially their attempt to overcome the dynamics of social and economic conflict through the institutions of the corporate state.
For all their apparent similarities, however, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a more deleterious figure than Benito Mussolini, and his legacy proved to be more damaging to America than Il Duce’s was to Italy. This is not a case of good versus bad, or of two equal evils, but of bad versus even worse: Roosevelt was a more efficient, and certainly more successful, fascist than Mussolini.
Although he seemed to be a prime candidate for Bolshevism, and in fact became a leading socialist agitator and journalist in the years prior to the Great War, there was no hard ideological core to Mussolini—except, ultimately, his nationalism. This core loyalty prompted him to reject the socialists’ internationalism, pacifism, and neutrality at the beginning of the war in 1914 and to join other nationalists in demanding Italy’s entry into the war. About to be expelled from the Socialist Party for belligerence, he defiantly declared: “My cry is a word that I would never have pronounced in normal times, and that today I raise loudly, with my full voice, with no attempt at simulation, with a firm faith, a fearful and fascinating word: WAR!”
It was all there: the passion, the theater, the martial bravado, the burning heart. His parting shot, before being drafted, was the birth cry of fascism: “Now that steel has met steel, one single cry comes from our hearts: Viva l’Italia!” By early 1918, as a wounded veteran and the influential editor of the anti-socialist Popolo d’Italia, Mussolini exclaimed: “We, the survivors, we who have returned, demand the right of governing Italy!” As a wave of revolutionary aftershocks swept across Europe following the Bolshevik coup in Russia, Mussolini was increasingly seen as a Man of Destiny who could fit his own demand for a dictator “ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep.”
A “clean sweep” against what? Against the establishment, the mediocre middle-class, middle-of-the-road liberals and democrats, the political heirs to the Risorgimento, long devoid of moral fiber and convictions, who allowed Italy’s “victory” against Austria to be “mutilated” when Dalmatia went to the newly created Yugoslavia at Versailles. But also against the left, whose instincts and whose frame of mind none understand so intimately, and none can hate so passionately, as its former initiates.
In early 1919, Mussolini started turning his rhetoric into political action by creating the nucleus of a party in Milan. It consisted of disillusioned war veterans, republicans, and former socialists and anarchists. Mussolini called his force Fasci di Combattimento, invoking a symbol of ancient Roman togetherness and authority. At rallies, surrounded by fascist supporters wearing the black shirts that had been adopted originally by anarchists, Mussolini caught the Italians’ collective imagination. His physique was impressive, his style of oratory superb, his attitudes highly theatrical. His ideas were contradictory, his facts often wrong, but his words were dramatic and his metaphors so apt and striking that he captivated the crowds.
Fascism grew and provided an antidote to the looming threat of Bolshevism, but by its abandonment of traditional codes of behavior in the struggle against socialism it came close to its red opponent, using not only its ideas of social justice and its vocabulary of simplified cliches but also its social base. The ecstatic Naples crowd that responded to Mussolini’s threat to march on Rome in 1922 with the chant of “Roma, Roma, Roma” was largely proletarian.
The die was cast a week later when fascist militias advanced upon the Eternal City. The biggest gamble of Mussolini’s career paid off when the liberal-democratic government collapsed and King Victor Emmanuel III sent the longed-for telegram. But the ease with which Mussolini took power reflected the weakness of the liberal system rather than his own strength. There was no real “march on Rome”: The city was there for the taking.
The rise of Mussolini was welcomed by many Italians not because of the ideological appeal of fascism—still vaguely defined at the time—but because it seemed to offer practical solutions to two specific problems: the “red menace” at home and the “mutilated victory” abroad. From the outset, Italy’s international status was perceived as the criterion by which the fascist experiment would stand or fall. Mussolini freely acknowledged this, but his activist foreign policy reflected a faulty grasp of foreign affairs that went beyond impatience with the old diplomacy. He confused strategy and policy. His emphasis on “action” conflated ends and means in semantic imprecision until the means, the acquisition of strength, became an end in itself. When the rhetoric of the regime became identified with a statement of ends, Italian policy became the prisoner of that rhetoric.
This became obvious in 1935 with the stupid and unnecessary Ethiopian adventure, which reflected Mussolini’s vanity and his lack of true statesmanship. Italy’s alliance with Germany was made possible, and in a sense unavoidable, by the Abyssinian war. This affair preoccupied the Western powers and Italy for more than a year, and it helped conceal the nature of the real threat to peace in Europe. Unwittingly, Mussolini did a favor to Hitler by drawing attention away from him. In the end, the split between Italy and her former allies could not be repaired—and Hitler was the beneficiary. The withdrawal of Germany and Italy from the League of Nations marked the final abandonment of the Europe of Versailles, Not only was the style of Italian foreign policy changed, but its substance as well, which was reflected in Mussolini’s (not Hitler’s) coining of the term “Rome-Berlin Axis.” The Spanish civil war infused an ideological element into the picture. By pitting Germany and Italy against the left and against the Western democracies, it created an impression of ideological solidarity.
The presumed strategic community of interests between Italy and Germany remained unclarified, and this ambiguity had sweeping consequences in later years. Mussolini was prepared to fight to secure a resurrected Mediterranean Roman Empire and gain access to the oceans; Hitler ultimately strove for nothing short of Weltmacht. Italy’s aims were “rational” and limited, but in their pursuit Mussolini was erratic and inconsistent. He eventually limited his options to the point where he had to make an alliance with the infinitely stronger German dictator, whose goals were unlimited —and therefore irrational—but who displayed great skill and “rationality” in their execution.
This was Italy’s calamity and Mussolini’s personal doom. He did not trust Hitler (as his frequent outbursts to his foreign minister and son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano amply testify), but he allowed himself to be bullied and cajoled into obedience time and again. Mussolini’s greatest failure as a statesman and as an Italian was his abandonment of autonomy to Hitler. He entered a war he could never win, and he did so for eminently unfascist reasons, afraid that the spoils would be Germany’s alone. Even if Hitler had been successful, Italy would have existed on Germany’s sufferance, not on its own strength.
With his senseless, infantile dream of imperial glory—on which he finally parted company with his hitherto supportive subjects—Mussolini painted himself into a corner. The only exit was into German captivity—in Otto Skorzeny’s plane in the summer of 1943, and into that retreating Wehrmacht column in the spring of 1945, from which he was taken to a communist firing squad and the Milanese meat hook. But for his dreams of imperial expansion, Il Duce, Italy’s man of destiny, could have remained a hero at home and abroad until his death.
Until Abyssinia, Mussolini was hailed as a genius and a superman on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily because of his economic and social policies. When FDR was inaugurated in March 1953, the world was praising Mussolini’s success in avoiding the Great Depression. Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust,” the architects of the New Deal, were fascinated by Italy’s fascism—a term which was not pejorative at the time. In America, it was seen as a form of economic nationalism built around consensus planning by the established elites in government, business, and labor.
American leaders were not very concerned with the undemocratic character of Mussolini’s regime. Fascism had “effectively stifled hostile elements in restricting the right of free assembly, in abolishing freedom of the press and in having at its command a large military organization,” the U.S. Embassy in Rome reported in 1925. But Mussolini remained a “moderate,” confronting the Bolsheviks while fending off extremists on the right. Ambassador Henry Fletcher saw only a choice between Mussolini and socialism, and the Italian people preferred fascist “peace and prosperity” to the “free speech and loose administration” that risked bringing Bolshevism to power. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg joined Fletcher in labeling all opposition groups as “communists, socialists, and anarchists.” The chief of the State Department’s Western European Division, William Castle, declared in 1926 that “the methods of the Duce are not by any means American methods,” but “methods which would certainly not appeal to this country might easily appeal to a people so differently constituted as are the Italians.”
As the political and social effects of the Great Depression hit Europe, Italy received mounting praise as a bastion of order and stability. “The wops are unwopping themselves,” Fortune magazine noted with awe in 1934. State Department roving Ambassador Norman Davis praised the successes of Italy in remarks before the Council on Foreign Relations in 1933, speaking after the Italian ambassador had drawn applause from his distinguished audience for his description of how Italy had put its “own house in order . . . A class war was put down.” Roosevelt’s ambassador to Italy, Breckenridge Long, was also full of enthusiasm for the “new experiment in government” which “works most successfully.” Henry Stimson (secretary of state under Hoover, secretary of war under Roosevelt) recalled that he and Hoover had found Mussolini to be “a sound and useful leader.” Roosevelt shared many of these positive views of “that admirable Italian gentleman,” as he termed Mussolini in 1933.
The most radical aspect of the New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in June 1933, which set up the National Recovery Administration. Most industries were forced into cartels. Codes that regulated prices and terms of sale transformed much of the American economy. The industrial and agricultural life of the country was to be organized by government into vast farm and industrial cartels. T’his was corporatism, the essence of fascism.
It may be argued that Roosevelt simply did what seemed politically expedient. But contemporaries knew what was in the making. Some liked it: Charles Beard freely admitted that “FDR accepts the inexorable collectivism of the American economy . . . national planning in industry, business, agriculture and government.” But detractors existed even within his own party. Democratic Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia denounced the NRA as “the utterly dangerous effort of the federal government at Washington to transplant Hitlerism to every corner of this nation.”
FDR’s New Deal united communists and fascists. Union leader Sidney Hillman praised Lenin as “one of the few great men that the human race has produced, one of the greatest statesmen of our age and perhaps of all ages.” Big-business partisan Gen. Hugh Johnson wanted America to imitate the “dynamic pragmatism” of Mussolini. Together, Hillman and Johnson developed the National Labor Relations Board. They shared a collectivist and authoritarian aversion for historical American principles of liberty.
Like fascist and communist dictators, Roosevelt relied on his own charisma, carefully and deceitfully developed, and the executive power of his office to stroke the electorate into compliance and to bludgeon his critics. His welfare projects went far beyond aid to the poor and wound up bribing whole sectors of American society—farmers, businessmen, banks, intellectuals — into dependence on him and the state he created. Through subsidies, wrote Richard Hofstadter, “a generation of artists and intellectuals became wedded to the New Deal and devoted to Rooseveltian liberalism.” Their corrupted descendants still thrive through federal endowments for the arts and humanities and in politically correct, federally funded academia. The only practical difference between FDR and fascist dictators was that he was far less successful in resolving the economic crisis. He made the Depression worse and even prolonged it. When he was elected, there were 11.6 million unemployed; seven years later, there were still 11.3 million out of work. In 1932, there were 16.6 million on relief; in 1939, there were 19.6 million. Only the war eventually ended the depression.
Ah, the war. During the campaign of 1940, FDR repeatedly promised to keep the country out of war and then did everything in his power to push America into the mayhem. In March 1941, he rammed the Lend-Lease Act through Congress, although selling munitions to belligerents and conveying them were acts of war and contrary to international law. During the Atlantic conference, FDR entered into an illegal and unconstitutional agreement with Churchill that America would go to war if Japan attacked British territory in the Far Fast. He said, “I may never declare war; I may make war. If I were to ask Congress to declare war they might argue about it for three months.” This was an impeachable offense. He allowed undercover British agents to operate freely and illegalK within the United States. His unprovoked belligerency toward the Japanese as well as the Germans helped cause the attack on Pearl Harbor—which he may well have been fully aware of in advance—even as he vilified and persecuted the critics of his policies as “Nazis” and “traitors.”
World War II nevertheless remains “the holy war of the American establishment,” as Joe Sobran has called it. It legitimized the emergence of the United States as a global superpower, contrary to the Constitution and to the American tradition. Between 1941 and 1945, Washington became the command-and-control center of the ultra-centralized, unitary state that today seeks “benevolent global hegemony.” Just as the New Deal created the bureaucratic Leviathan and destroyed those vestiges of the Old Republic that had survived Lincoln, FDR’s war turned America into a “superpower” obliged to carry the burdens of democracy and human rights forever—first to Seoul and Saigon, then to Bosnia and Kosovo, and on to missions yet unimagined, to new Hitlers and “victims of genocide” still unknown, until it destroys itself.
“It seems to me,” wrote H.L. Mencken in his private diary on April 13, 1945, the day after FDR’s death, “to be very likely that Roosevelt will take a high place in American popular history—maybe even alongside Washington and Lincoln . . . He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes.” FDR built a cult of personality just as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin did. Power depends on such a cult. His current sainthood would have appalled many of his contemporaries, even if it would not have surprised them. “He was the first American,” wrote Mencken, “to penetrate to the real depths of vulgar stupidity. He never made the mistake of overestimating the intelligence of the American mob.” For those Americans who love the Old Republic, Franklin Roosevelt—not an irrelevant Mussolini—was and remains the enemy.
When Mussolini left the stage 55 years ago, the Italian nation was still its old self. Over two decades of fascism had left Italian society and its key institutions—family, Church, education, arts, culture, local communities—largely intact, or even strengthened. Il Duce was, in the end, all smoke and little fire, too humane to murder people on any large scale or to re-engineer seriously the country which he did love, albeit in a flawed way.
FDR left the stage only weeks earlier, but his legacy is alive and well in the destruction of America’s families, faith, tradition, education, arts, culture, and local communities, and in the burgeoning globalist empire embodied in Dr. Albright.
FDR’s “vision thing” has become a global bane. It leaves no country unscathed, Italy included, as the rubbish on Italian TV and radio, the newly arrived alien multitudes in bad and even not-so-bad parts of Milan, and the dismally few bambini in its maternity wards attest. This bane will just as surely destroy Italy as it will destroy America unless the supporters of truth, faith, and tradition on both sides of the Atlantic organize and fight to recover their neighborhoods, their schools, and their families for the sake of themselves, their nations, and our common civilization.