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Commentary

FDR Goes to War
How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America


     
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With the passage of time Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historical shrine has eroded somewhat, and here and there its foundations have been undermined by researchers who reject the idolatry that long marked historical scholarship about the 32nd president. Hillsdale College history professor Burton W. Folsom, Jr., made an important contribution to such historical revisionism with his book New Deal or Raw Deal? (2008). Now, in collaboration with his wife Anita, Folsom has written a sequel, FDR Goes to War, which traces FDR’s actions during the 1940s, as the preceding book did for the 1930s.

Once Roosevelt had decided that he would, by hook or by crook, lead the country into the great European war that had burst into flames in 1939 after 21 years of smoldering, he made a major change in the political course he had followed since 1935. He caged the dogs he had loosed to torment business people and investors. The Folsoms write: “Roosevelt had to have their cooperation. He could not win the war without them. Thus, he was finally ready for a truce with businessmen.” This truce brought many businessmen into positions of great authority in the wartime command economy, smoothed the enmity between business people and the government that had helped to prolong the Depression, and set the scene for the successful functioning of the civilian economy after the war.

The Folsoms trace the Roosevelt administration’s major diplomatic and related maneuvers before the war, including its policy of turning away Jews seeking refuge from the impending catastrophe in Europe. They remark: “Roosevelt could quietly exclude Jews and cite national security over and over again, whether or not the international crisis really warranted such a response.” Many of the people Roosevelt excluded later perished in the death camps during the war.

FDR’s pose as a peace-seeker before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has long been recognized as a thin disguise for his actual aims. Even as he promised voters shortly before the election of 1940 that he was not going to send their boys “into any foreign wars,” he was fully committed to U.S. engagement in the war. “Behind the scenes he was working with Churchill . . . to prepare for war,” the authors write.

Major diplomatic and military developments during the war receive workmanlike attention from the Folsoms, but the details of their account are in the main already known to scholars and serious lay readers. In regard to Roosevelt’s responsibility for and foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Folsoms give the President a conventional pass: They blame him and the military leadership only for incompetence. Here the authors might well have benefited from two sources they neglect—Day of Deceit (2000) by Robert B. Stinnett and The Pearl Harbor Myth (2007) by George Victor.

Like Burt Folsom’s previous book, FDR Goes to War shines brightest in its portrayal of Roosevelt the political animal. The authors reveal the extent to which FDR’s well-known vindictiveness led him to use the IRS, the FBI, and even the attorney general to go after scores of his political enemies. Illegal wiretaps of telephones, presidentially ordered tax audits, and farfetched prosecutions were all in a political day’s work for the sainted President. FDR also engaged a personal spy group, headed by John Franklin Carter, to collect incriminating information about his political enemies.

He used similarly underhanded tactics to get political friends and allies off the hook. Thus, “Communists Roosevelt tended to ignore because the United States was allied with Russia”—not to mention that the administration was riddled with communists and their sympathizers. When the IRS went after Brown & Root, the political sugar daddy of rising New Dealer Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President heeded Johnson’s plea and “intervened with the IRS in 1944 to squelch the case.”

FDR’s political instincts also guided his order for the forced relocation and confinement of people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. He calculated that the internment order would help him carry California and other western states, where hostility to the Japanese-Americans was strong. (German-Americans and Italian-Americans were not interned because Roosevelt wanted their numerous votes.) Even as late as March 1944, when the relocation clearly lacked a plausible military excuse, “Roosevelt wanted to keep the Japanese confined because their return to California would upset voters there and create a possible backlash against him in the 1944 elections,” the Folsoms write.

Thus, as the book shows, Roosevelt was above all a conniving, ruthless politician. The legions who have idolized him as America’s savior in the 1930s and the world’s savior in the 1940s have been worshiping a false god.

Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 2012, Foundation for Economic Education.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


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