The War Within the War
"Inside he was the coldest man I ever met," said Harry S. Truman, at eighty-six years of age. "But he was a great president. He brought this country into the twentieth century."1 Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of the most recognized and admired of all American presidents. From his New Deal policies, which pushed norms in order to help society during the Great Depression, to his leadership during the Second World War, such as his famous fireside chats, Roosevelt displayed himself as an ingenious man concerned for the common good. A hero to many, this man holds a magnificent and immaculate reputation - except in Thomas Fleming's account of the Roosevelt administration during WWII. In The New Dealers' War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and The War Within World War II, Fleming explores the most unstable time of the acclaimed FDR presidency that tested Roosevelt's ability as both a politician and an honest man. Diving deep into the troubles of Washington and the challenges abroad, Fleming paints a completely new picture of the popular president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR was a great man with a great flaw: hubris. First elected in 1932, he responded diligently to the Great Depression and the economic crisis, for "even conservative tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst...supported the New Deal."2 The success of Roosevelt's programs and the enthusiastic responses from the media made him "the most powerful political figure on the globe" when he began his second term.3 However his tight control over the economy led many to step around the president cautiously. Some of his fellow cabinet members and employees personally witnessed the considerably less attractive traits of their president. Though the manipulative side of Franklin Roosevelt made him a great politician, those who suffered an extra dose found him uncaring and untrustworthy. Fulton Oursler, who was accused of mistreating Mrs. Eleanor Franklin, gradually realized that FDR "had a bad habit of using his power to treat people in the most cavalier fashion, relying on his enormous charm to make amends later."4 Fleming describes him as a "juggler who seldom let his right hand know where his left hand was wandering."5 Deceiving and clever, the president liked everyone to know that he was the one in charge and had no intention of letting anyone know the entirety of his plans.
"Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," FDR declared during his third campaign.6 Under this assurance, the public elected him for a third presidential term, breaking the unwritten constitution set up by George Washington. When World War II rolled around, Roosevelt originally wished to stay out of the conflict. However, he became convinced that the future history of the world was swinging in balance, and if Germany, Russia, and England were the only ones involved, they would be so powerful that they would greatly threaten the ability of the United States to defend itself. Under this belief, he provoked Japan and Germany into declaring war on America with "further deceptions for most of 1941." Such deceptions included the leak of Rainbow Five, the USS Lanikai, and the Japanese oil embargo. Also in 1941, several of the New Deal's "alphabet soup" programs were broken down because they, "in Congress's opinion, outlived their usefulness."7 The internal disagreements between Roosevelt's closest and most faithful friends, employees, and confidants in Washington spun a fragile web around FDR, who soon grew tired of the bickering and had much more pressing matters to deal in regard to the war. Roosevelt sacrificed some of his most faithful friends in his administration, such as Henry Wallace, unintentionally breaking apart the New Deal and setting old companions against him. Liberalism and war were not a good match. Due to his deceitful and arrogant personality, FDR's own followers were jostled from one side to the other, unable to predict what he would do next. There was an explosion of criticism from the sidelines; due to the rubber shortage, the gasoline and oil shortage, and rationings, when Cissy Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, printed the extravagant menu that was served for the guests at the dinner dance of Harry Hopkins's wedding, "Roosevelt's cup of 1942 woe was filled to overflowing." The hypocrisy "bolstered widespread conservative opinion."8 As the New Deal was attacked by domestic enemies and from within their own party, Roosevelt was too occupied with finding a way to further inspire the war effort and create a moral cause.
This ironically moral cause, the policy of unconditional surrender, was the ultimate undoing of the New Deal. Roosevelt's unrelenting grip on the idea of world peace and his nauseating hatred of all Germans led to his acquiescence of the abuse of the Jews and the Polish and of the plight of German civilians. His insistence to ignore the Front of Decent People in Germany and their desperate pleas was part of his resolute determination to keep American morale up. After all, in a poll, less than one in ten soldiers said he wanted to kill a German soldier. Roosevelt was "uneasily aware of the fragility of the people's commitment to the war."9 If Roosevelt demonized all Germans, both soldiers and civilians, American armies might be more enthusiastic to defeat Hitler, the main enemy, before Japan. At Casablanca, Churchill was "dumbfounded" by Roosevelt's decisions and "dismayed" by its probable impact on the "conduct and outcome of the war."10 Unconditional surrender also showed the ruthlessness of the Democratic Party, and pinned Germany as the ultimate enemy, ignoring the threat of "the great Soviet experiment" of communism, which was actually praised during the time. In Italy, there was a good chance of the Italians surrendering without force. Eisenhower wished for it to be a bloodless victory, but FDR ignored the obviously better choice and announced that unconditional surrender applied not only to Germany and Japan but Italy as well. When Roosevelt became friends with Stalin (at the expense of his friendship with Churchill), the Russian intellects in America disagreed wholeheartedly with his actions. Russians and Americans were compared as "peas in the same pod," and the truth about the Katyn incident, in Poland, was suppressed.11 Roosevelt proudly proclaimed that he had "got it" with Stalin, meaning that he believed Stalin was completely under his control and world peace would ensue soon from this devastating worldwide war. There are suggestions that Roosevelt was misguided, even though the media repudiated his beliefs and the public called Stalin "Uncle Joe." In contrast to widely held beliefs, in the army and air force, the Russians were in fact uncooperative and indifferent. They were indifferent to Allied casualties and often did not keep their words or follow directions in order to conserve their own forces. Meanwhile, the United States realized that, though Japan was "rapidly becoming a hopeless mismatch" for them, the Japanese's determination and "readiness to die rather than surrender" made them lethal foes.12 To stop this, U.S. air force dropped 1,165 tons of incendiary bombs on the Asian island. This terror bombing was silenced by the Office of War Information in advance, an example of how unconditional surrender led the United States into causing seemingly unnecessary hurt and hiding the truth from public to maintain a moral cause.
After the conference in Teheran, it was apparent that Roosevelt's health was declining. However, he decided to run for a fourth term of presidency; for although he "was a very sick man" he was still the "master manipulator."13 To keep himself alive for as long as possible, Roosevelt was restricted to a 20-hour work week and had to appear with vitality while campaigning. Even as he was battling cardiac illness, Roosevelt had trickster plans to keep one of his most ardent admirers, Henry Wallace, from becoming vice president in order to satisfy the rest of his New Dealers. In the end, Roosevelt wrote a letter, also referred to as "the kiss of death," revealing his preference for Bill Douglas over Wallace as vice president. In the end, he had to, however grudgingly, accept Harry Truman as his vice president, and he spoke personally to Wallace to make amends. Eighty-two days after his fourth term began, FDR died; as the nation grieved, President Truman picked up the pieces and developed a "prickly relationship" with the Roosevelt administration, which was lost and found no purpose without their leader. Truman's Potsdam Declaration and the atomic bombs that incinerated Japan led to the abrupt ending of the war in Europe. Roosevelt's cursed policy of unconditional surrender dominated much of Truman's early decisions as president.
In The New Dealers' War, Thomas Fleming teaches his readers that memory is not history. Memory "is too clotted with sentiment, with the kind of retrospect distortion that we all inflict on the past."14 We who see history uncluttered are more sympathetic to present situation and politicians and understand the meaning and life of past characters. Flemin rips apart Roosevelt's government and the proud members of the New Deal, but he does not intend to discredit Roosevelt. In his introduction, Fleming names Roosevelt as his hero, but expresses his wish to examine FDR, the Democrats, and WWII "not as sacred entities but as historical experiences...eventually understood."15 Unafraid to zoom into the flaws of FDR, he openly criticizes the ex-president's treatment towards Churchill during the conferences of WWII with Stalin in Teheran. He also discusses numerable incidences when disagreements in the government went awry, such as the incident with Jesse Jones and Henry Wallace. Fleming concludes that history and memory of World War II "underwent a remarkable transformation" as they mixed together. The reluctance to take up arms, the "double-talk" used by the trickster FDR, the "provocative polices that lured Japan" to attack Pearl Harbor, and the ferocious schisms within Washington were all forgotten in the midst of the atomic bomb and the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps.16 Fleming does a good job with isolating sentiment from the truth, daring to challenge the modern public opinion of the beloved president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Born on July 5th, 1927, in Jersey City, New Jersey, military historian and historical novelist Thomas Fleming was influenced by his Irish-American heritage. He wrote about his predominantly Catholic, Irish childhood neighborhood, receiving recognition for his poignant portrayals of the virtues and flaws in an era when the Irish immigrant’s power waned. However, he wanted to be an American writer. To cross this figurative bridge of nationality and ethnicity, he plunged into American history and found an interest in the American Revolution of 1776. As a result, Fleming has written critically acclaimed biographies about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Fleming believes in the idea that history must be separated from memory, examined by "the eyes, the voices, the hearts and minds of the men and women who lived through a particular time, as they experienced it." This perspective came from his firsthand experience as sailor aboard the USS Topeka near the end of the Second World War. Fleming combined this belief with Roosevelt, "the hero of [his] youth...on whom my father, leader of the gritty working-class Sixth Ward, a vital cog in the city's powerful political machine, depended," for his book The New Dealer’s War.17 He studied Roosevelt with a naked eye, stripping away the glorious haze of reputation and memory. His belief in what he calls "the great dichotomy” is also acknowledged and analyzed in the context of the New Deal and their hope of controlling government during WWII and after. 18
Fleming began this work in 1950's, while he was working with Fulton Oursler. This was a time that Fleming characterized as "one of those primary moments that challenged me to think" of the New Deal in a way that was distant from memory or sentiment.19 Published in 2001, The New Dealers' War was affected by Fleming's personal man-to-man meeting with Truman, which destroyed his blind acceptance of his childhood hero, FDR.
A review by William D. Pederson of this particular account of Roosevelt and the New Deal during the Second World War criticizes the extremist perspective of Thomas Fleming. Noting that "Fleming has transformed his youthful Roosevelt worship into a full-fledged case of anti-Rooseveltism," Pederson proclaims that it would also "be fair [to] measure [Roosevelt] against his contemporaries," such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, who, in comparison to FDR, cast much darker shadows. He was "shocked and disenchanted" by Fleming's notion that Roosevelt "manipulated the Asian situation" and characterization of Roosevelt as "a conniving, inept lair." Pederson ends with the final thought that the book is "an optional addition" to specialized collections.20
Critic Jeff Zaleski has a similar view to Pederson. Starting off on the note that Fleming attempts even more absurd revisionism" in comparison to his past publications, he counters the belief that Roosevelt was "an inefficient and oafish warmonger spoiling for battle" by speculating that Fleming fails to see what FDR and Churchill had in the midst of war. He points out a few errors in Fleming’s study of Roosevelt, that though "Stalin posed an even larger threat to culture and history" and some New Dealers in the government "were not disposed to see his evil," Roosevelt had clearly known what he was doing in relation to the Soviets. The book sparks controversy "that will undoubtedly ensue on this book’s publication" and should increase market success. 21
On the surface, the resulting anger from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s acquiescence in the German-Jewish situation and the Front of Decent People dominates the emotions roused from the book. However, later, skepticism, reflection, and careful interpretation play into the ultimate comprehension and conclusion of Fleming's volume. The opinions of Roosevelt as a heroic politician and the democratic New Deal may be shaken or reconsidered, and further research is necessary for readers who are not historical specialists. Accusation of misinterpretation and analysis of this the New Deal and WWII are indeed unavoidable and inevitable because of Fleming's extreme position and vehement discussion. His argument is effective, and his purpose, to erase that "almost mythical figure" of Roosevelt. is achieved.22 Through persuasive, straightforward storytelling, Fleming is engaging and provides sufficient evidence to defend his case.
Thomas Fleming clearly portrays the 1940s as a watershed in American history. The Roosevelt administration fell apart during the Second World War and was kaput by the end. As Fleming explains, "In the war within the war, the New Dealers were suffering catastrophic defeats. They had been routed from the agency in which they had pictured themselves controlling the ideas of the global conflict." The "glory days" were gone.23 The U.S. emerged as the dominant leader in European affairs, replacing Great Britain. Roosevelt was credited forthis grand achievement and hailed, again, as a political hero, but the New Deal had lost the war within the war to a new era, torn between the great dichotomy of dreamy idealism and harsh reality. Republicans were soon "trumpeting the repeal of 77,000 government regulations left over from the Democrats' days of power."24 The terror of fascism also disappeared in the mid-40's, replaced by a renewed surge of the Red Scare and a conservative era that would last for nearly fifty years. The Cold War spurred the foreign policy of containment and intervention, spilling into the twenty-first century before it terminated.
Thomas Fleming's The New Dealers' War serves not to bash the FDR administration, but to show how the New Deal crumbled from the inside out during the stress and pressures of World War II. The separation from fondness and facts makes the volume a hard read, but the truth brings new understanding to the legacy of America's most popular president and the "supreme irony in the web of ironies that surround the New Dealers' War."25
1. Fleming, Thomas. The New Dealers' War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and The War Within World War II. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 560.
2. Fleming, Thomas. 53.
3. Fleming, Thomas. 58.
4. Fleming, Thomas. 55.
5. Fleming, Thomas. 405.
6. Fleming, Thomas. 2.
7. Fleming, Thomas. 298.
8. Fleming, Thomas.161-163.
9. Fleming, Thomas. 257.
10. Fleming, Thomas. 174.
11. Fleming, Thomas. 294.
12. Fleming, Thomas. 506.
13. Fleming, Thomas. 405.
14. Fleming, Thomas. XI.
15. Fleming, Thomas. XII.
16. Fleming, Thomas. 558.
17. Fleming, Thomas. XI-XII.
18. Fleming, Thomas. 92.
19. Fleming, Thomas. XII.
20. Pederson, William D. Library Journal. Jun. 2001. Vol. 126 Issue 10, p 184.
21. Zaleski, Jeff. Publishers Weekly. Mar. 2001. Vol. 248 Issue 18, p 73.
22. Fleming, Thomas. XI.
23. Fleming, Thomas. 213.
24. Fleming, Thomas. 549.
25. Fleming, Thomas. 558.