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Roosevelt’s Strategic Dilemma

The news of Roosevelt’s death on 12 April 1945 had stirred a flicker of optimism in the Berlin bunker. Hitler had sustained his spirits during the last year of the war by two beliefs: that his secret weapons would break the will of the British; and that the contradictions of an alliance between a decadent capitalist republic, a moribund empire and a Marxist dictatorship must inevitably lead to the disintegration of that alliance. By March 1945, when his V-2 had been driven beyond the last sites from which Britain could be hit, he knew that his secret weapons had failed. Thereafter he clung all the more desperately to the hope of dissension among the Allies. Goebbels, the political philosopher of his court, had explained to some intimates in early April how such a falling-out might occur. According to the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, he had ‘developed his thesis that, for reasons of Historical Necessity and Justice, a change of fortune was inevitable, like the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg in the Seven Years War.’ When Frederick the Great of Prussia faced defeat by the combined armies of Russia, Austria and France in the Seven Years War, the tsarina Elisabeth had unexpectedly died, to be succeeded by a tsar who was Frederick’s admirer; the alliance then collapsed and Frederick’s Prussia survived. In April 1945, on hearing the news of the President’s passing, Goebbels exclaimed, ‘the tsarina is dead’, and telephoned Hitler ‘in an ecstasy’ to ‘congratulate’ him. ‘It is the turning-point,’ he said, ‘it is written in the stars.’

Hitler himself was briefly moved to share Goebbels’s euphoria. Throughout the latter years of the war he had come to identify closely with Frederick the Great and was even ready to believe that the evolution of his fortunes might mirror those of the Prussian king. He was particularly ready to believe that Roosevelt’s death would produce the disabling crack in the alliance that he predicted, since one of his fundamental misappreciations was that the American people were unwarlike and had been drawn into the conflict by the machinations of their President. ‘The arch-culprit for this war’, he had told a Spanish diplomat in August 1941, ‘is Roosevelt, with his freemasons, Jews and general Jewish-Bolshevism.’ He said, whether he believed it or not, that he had proof of Roosevelt’s ‘Jewish ancestry’. He was certainly obsessed by the number of Jews in American government, including Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury, whose plan to reduce defeated Germany to a nation of cultivators and pastoralists had been leaked and republished in the German press in September 1944, to the great benefit of Goebbels’s propaganda for a ‘total war’ effort.

Hitler’s understanding of America’s commitment to the war was almost exactly contrary to the truth. Isolationism was certainly a powerful force in American politics before December 1941, while America’s parents remained naturally reluctant to see their sons depart to a foreign war up to the moment of Pearl Harbor. Few Americans, however, objected to the measures of rearmament enacted in 1940, which doubled the size of the fleet, allocated funds for an air force of 7800 combat aircraft – three times the size of the Luftwaffe – and increased the size of the army from 200,000 to one million men, to be raised by conscription. When war came, moreover, the nation reacted enthusiastically. The sense of being ‘out of things’ had waxed powerfully in the United States during the eighteen months of the Blitz and the Battle of the Atlantic; so too had hostility to Hitler, as a paradigm of everything against which American civilisation stood. As in Europe in 1914, the coming of war was ultimately almost a relief, since Americans had been oppressed by indecision and inactivity and were untainted by any fear of defeat.

Roosevelt too saw Hitler as a tyrant and a malefactor. However, Hitler’s belief that Roosevelt dragged his people to war reluctantly behind him is at variance with the facts; more accurately, the facts of Roosevelt’s war policy, in the months before Pearl Harbor, defy objective arrangement or analysis. Roosevelt’s attitude to United States entry into the Second World War remains profoundly ambiguous, as do the aims and objectives of his war-making in the three and a half years in which he acted as commander-in-chief of the United States forces.

Roosevelt is by far the most enigmatic of the major figures of 1939-45. Stalin, though devious, double-dealing and treacherous in his methods, steadfastly pursued a quite limited set of aims: while determined to sustain his position as head of government, party and army, whomever he had to dismiss or even kill to maintain his power, he wanted, first, to save the Soviet Union from defeat, second, to expel the Wehrmacht from Soviet territory and, third, to extract the largest possible benefit – territorial, diplomatic, military and economic – from the Red Army’s eventual victory. Hitler, however mysterious the workings of his psyche, also held to a clear-cut if wildly over-ambitious strategy: he wanted revenge for Versailles, then German mastery of the continent, followed by the subjugation of Russia and the eventual exclusion of the Anglo-Saxon powers from any influence in European affairs. Churchill was transparently a patriot, a romantic and an imperialist: victory was his first and last desire; only secondarily did he consider how victory might be gained in a way that secured British interests in Europe and the survival of the British Empire overseas. His ‘naturally open and unsuspicious nature’, as his wife described it, automatically revealed his motives to all who treated with him during the war. Captious and contrary though he often was, he had no capacity for sustained dissimulation, grasped eagerly at the semblance of generosity in the statements of others and was as powerfully swayed as his listeners by the force and nobility of his own oratory.

Roosevelt too was a magnificent speaker; his range, indeed, was far greater than Churchill’s, for he was the master of not only the high-flown set-piece – his proclamation of the ‘Four Freedoms’ to Congress in January 1941, for example, or his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech after Pearl Harbor – but also the intimate radio appeal to families and individuals in his ‘fireside chats’, a medium of political communication which he himself invented, the ad hominem stump speech of the political campaign, subtly varied from place to place and audience to audience, the disingenuously frank news conference, the personal telephone call, above all the face-to-face conversation, flattering, funny, discursive, beguiling and ultimately almost wholly baffling to the interlocutor who sat mesmerised by the flow of words. Roosevelt was a magician with words. According to his biographer James McGregor Burns, he sent visitors away from the Oval Office entranced by his ‘expansiveness, openness, geniality’; but they rarely took back with them any answer to the problems or questions they had brought. For Roosevelt talked perhaps above all ‘to find bearings and moorings in his own experiences and recollections’. Roosevelt had dozens of attitudes and a few deeply held values, which were precisely those of Americans of his class and time: he believed in human dignity and freedom, in economic opportunity, in political compromise, he felt deeply for the hardships of the poor, and he detested recourse to violence; but he had few policies, either for peace or for war, while war itself he found utterly distasteful.

Hence his profoundly ambiguous attitude towards American involvement. Churchill had sustained his own spirits during the darkest hours of 1940 and 1941 by the belief that the New World would eventually come forth to redress the balance of the Old. Roosevelt had given him every reason to believe that such would be the outcome. He had erected an American armed neutrality against the Axis almost from the moment of Hitler’s opening of the war, selling arms to Britain and France which would certainly have been refused to Germany, then authorising unrestricted ‘cash and carry’ arms shipments and progressively extending American protection to Britain-bound convoys in the Atlantic. He first defined a neutrality zone which effectively denied the U-boats access to American waters, then in April 1941 extended the zone to the mid-ocean line and allowed American warships to act as convoy escorts, while in July he dispatched American Marines to replace British troops in the garrison of Iceland, which Britain had summarily occupied after the fall of Denmark in 1940. On 11 March 1941 Congress, at his persuasion, passed the Lend-Lease Act, which effectively allowed Britain to borrow war supplies from the United States against the promise of later repayment; in February he had sponsored Anglo-American staff talks in Washington (the ABC-1 conference) which agreed on most of the strategic fundamentals, including ‘Germany First’, which would in practice be implemented after December.

By every outward sign, therefore, Churchill had reason to believe that the President was leading his nation to intervention on Britain’s side; certainly Hitler was acutely aware of that danger and laid his U-boat commanders under strict orders not to provoke the Americans in any way at all – even after Roosevelt authorised the freezing of all German assets in the United States in June 1941. Churchill, in his private conversations with the President on the transatlantic scrambler telephone (erratically intercepted by the Germans), was given even more strongly to understand the warmth of the President’s commitment, while from the Placentia Bay meeting of August 1941 he brought back the agreement that the United States Navy would protect all ships in a convoy which included one American ship, in effect a means of defying Dönitz to sink an American warship. On his return from Placentia Bay, Churchill told the war cabinet that Roosevelt was ‘obviously determined that they should come in’; his concluding message had been that ‘he would wage war but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative’. If the Germans ‘did not like it’, Roosevelt said, ‘they could attack American forces.’

Churchill’s Chiefs of Staff were more suspicious and formed a different impression. A staff officer, Ian Jacob, noted in his diary that the United States Navy ‘seem to think that the war can be won by our simply not losing it at sea’, and that the army ‘sees no prospect of being able to do anything for a year or two’. He observed that not ‘a single American officer had shown the slightest keenness to be in the war on our side. They are a charming lot of individuals but they appear to be living in a different world from ourselves.’ Moreover, when on 31 October the Germans committed the ultimate provocation by sinking the destroyer USS Reuben James in the Atlantic with the loss of 115 American lives, Roosevelt chose not to regard it as a casus belli – though it was a far more flagrant act of aggression than, for example, the ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident used by President Johnson to authorise American military intervention in Vietnam in 1964.

Roosevelt’s inaction over the sinking of the Reuben James may be taken as the key to the ‘strategic enigma’ he remained during 1941, as his biographer James MacGregor Burns has characterised him.

Roosevelt was following a simple policy: all aid to Britain short of war. This policy was part of a long heritage of Anglo-American friendship; it was a practical way of blocking Hitler’s aspirations in the west; it could easily be implemented by two nations used to working with one another; it suited Roosevelt’s temperament, met the needs and pressures of the British, and was achieving a momentum of its own. But it was not a grand strategy . . . it did not emerge from clear-cut confrontation of political and military alternatives. . . . Above all this strategy was a negative one in that it could achieve its full effect – that is, joint military and political action with Britain – only if the Axis took action that would force the United States into war. It was a strategy neither of war nor of peace, but a strategy to take effect (aside from war supply to Britain and a few defensive actions in the Atlantic) only in the event of war. . . . [Roosevelt] was still waiting for a major provocation from Hitler even while recognising that it might not come at all. Above all, he was trusting to luck, to his long-tested flair for timing. . . . He had no plans. ‘I am waiting to be pushed into the situation,’ he told Morgenthau in May – and clearly it had to be a strong shove.

Trusting to luck and waiting to be shoved were to characterise Roosevelt’s conduct as commander-in-chief from Pearl Harbor almost to the very end of his life. Revisionist historians have argued that he was playing a deep game both before the United States entry into the war and during the years thereafter: that he saw in Britain’s isolation and desperate need for arms on any terms a means of liquidating her overseas investments (as they were indeed liquidated by ‘cash and carry’ sales), and thus of reducing the mistress of the world’s greatest empire – an institution he disliked as strongly as he did industrial trusts and financial cartels within his own country – to a state where she could not resist American pressure to divest herself of her colonies. This is surely to endow Roosevelt with a Machiavellianism he did not possess. War, Machiavelli said, is the only proper study for a prince; and Roosevelt was indeed princely in a distinctively Renaissance style, transacting much of his business through a court favourite, Harry Hopkins, permitting no official – not even the implacable Marshall – to establish himself as indispensable to him, dispensing charm and empty flattery with lordly largesse, operating a political oubliette for those who incurred his displeasure, maintaining a private country palace as a refuge from the heats and longueurs of Washington (no Camp David for FDR), even formally maintaining a mistress in the White House and treating his cousin-wife of thirty years as the honoured spouse of a dynastic marriage of convenience. None the less Roosevelt was not Machiavellian in strategy, for the simple reason that the wealth, power and ethos of the New World had liberated its rulers from the Old World’s narrow needs to dissemble and traduce. The United States had been founded on the principle of ‘no entangling alliances’; it had grown up to riches which absolved it from the temptation to pursue cheap and temporary advantages over weaker states.

As a result, Roosevelt was able to hold aloof from the business of directing war, an activity alien to his temperament. Such an aloofness was not granted to any of the other leaders. Churchill, of course, revelled in high command, dedicated his days (and nights) to war-making, had rooms, suites, even whole houses adapted to his needs as a wartime Prime Minister, preferred his ‘siren suit’ to any other garb (though he also kept handy his uniforms of an honorary air commodore and an honorary colonel of the Cinque Ports Battalion), demanded a constant diet of Ultra intelligence intercepts and lived in hour-to-hour intimacy with his military advisers. Hitler turned himself into a military hermit after the opening of Barbarossa, seeing few but his generals, even though he found their company grating. Stalin’s wartime routine conformed strangely in pattern to Hitler’s – secretive, nocturnal, troglodyte. Roosevelt scarcely altered his pattern of life at all after Pearl Harbor. Unthreatened by air attack, he continued to live at the White House, occasionally vacationing at Hyde Park, and there pursued a timetable that drove the methodical and purposeful almost to distraction. Marshall’s day was measured to the minute: his only relaxation was to visit his wife in his official quarters for lunch, which was served as he stepped on to the veranda from his staff car. Roosevelt lunched off a tray brought into the Oval Office, did not begin work until ten in the morning and took few telephone calls at night. According to Burns, there were a few fixed points in his week:

He saw the congressional Big Four – the Vice-President, the Speaker and the majority leader of each chamber – on Monday or Tuesday; met with the press on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings; and presided over a Cabinet meeting on Friday afternoons. [Otherwise] there seemed to be no pattern at all in the way that Roosevelt did his work. Sometimes he hurried through appointments on crucial matters and dawdled during lesser ones. He ignored most letters altogether. . . . He took many phone calls, refused others, saw inconsequential and dull people, and ignored others of apparently greater political or intellectual weight – all according to some mystifying structure of priorities known to no one, perhaps not even to himself.

This pattern, or lack of it, persisted from 7 December 1941 to 12 April 1945. Unlike Churchill, who was constantly on the move – to Paris (before the fall of France), to Cairo, to Moscow, to Athens (where he spent Christmas Day 1944 while the sound of gunfire between British troops and ELAS rebels rocked the city), to Rome, Naples, Normandy, the Rhine – Roosevelt travelled little. His mobility was, of course, limited by his physical disability, which was the result of poliomyelitis and which a discreet press disguised from its readership almost completely. Nevertheless he travelled when he chose, but during the war his travels took him only to Casablanca in January 1943, Quebec twice (August 1943 and September 1944), Hawaii and Alaska in the summer and Cairo and Tehran at the end of 1944 and Yalta, in the Russian Crimea, in February 1945. He saw nothing of the war at first hand, no bombed cities, no troops at the front, no prisoners, no after-effects of battle, and probably did not choose to; he directed American strategy as he had directed the New Deal – by lofty rhetoric and by rare but decisive strikes at the conjunctions of power.

There were effectively four decisive actions in all. The first was his endorsement of the ‘Germany First’ decision, advanced by Admiral Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, in November 1940, adopted by the Anglo-American ABC-1 conference of February-March 1941, agreed with Churchill at Placentia Bay in August, but enshrined as national policy only after Pearl Harbor, when Roosevelt, who might with his political heart so easily have yielded to the popular demand for vengeance on Japan, let his strategic head dictate that the greater should be beaten before the lesser enemy. The second was his settlement of the dispute between Marshall and the British in London in July 1942 on terms which authorised the Torch landing in North Africa, with all the dubious consequences that flowed from that expedition. The third was his insistence on the proclamation of ‘unconditional surrender’ at Casablanca in January 1943, a high-minded re-echoing of the terms on which the United States had conducted its war against the Confederacy. The last was his decision to distance himself from Churchill at the Yalta conference in February 1945 and deal directly with Stalin on the future of Europe.

There had been anticipations of Roosevelt’s Yalta initiative both at Placentia Bay, when Churchill had reluctantly accepted the more liberalising provisions of the Atlantic Charter – which in effect committed the British Empire to granting independence to its colonies – and at the Cairo conference, where Roosevelt had shown a typically ‘China lobby’ over-tenderness to Chiang Kai-shek. At Cairo the British had been persuaded to surrender their historic rights of extraterritoriality in China as a token of commitment to their belief in the nominal equality of Chiang’s leadership with that of the Western democracies.

Chiang Kai-shek was to let Roosevelt down. Contrary to the President’s expectations, he neither went through the motions to reform China’s political and economic structures – how could he have done, a realist might have asked, with the more productive half of his country in the hands of the enemy? – nor utilised American aid and American advice, supplied so liberally first by Stilwell and then, after Chiang had tired of Stilwell’s lecturing, by Wedemeyer, to maximise China’s fighting power.

By the time of Yalta, therefore, Roosevelt had privately written off Chiang; for form’s sake, China was elevated to permanent membership of the Security Council of the United Nations Organisation, whose institution and structure was decided at Yalta, but Chiang was accorded no fruits of the victory he had done so little to advance, certainly not the annexation of Indo-China he had been offered at Cairo. Poland too was written off at Yalta, though it had fought every day of the war since 1 September 1939, maintaining an army in exile which stood fourth in size among those opposed to the Wehrmacht, after the Russian, American and British; its eastern provinces, over-generously delimited in 1920, were permanently transferred to Russia at Yalta, though this Roosevelt-Stalin deal was an act less of political treachery than of political reality, since the Red Army already occupied the whole of Poland’s territory.

However, the most important of all decisions taken at Yalta, agreed directly between Roosevelt and Stalin, concerned the future conduct of the war in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s willingness to barter away the future of Poland and to finalise a division of Germany which accorded the Soviet Union an over-generous allocation of occupation territory was ultimately determined by his anxiety to engage the Red Army in the battle to defeat Japan. At the time of Yalta, the United States had neither yet assured itself that its nuclear-research programme would result in the successful test explosion of an atomic bomb nor advanced its forces to a point from which the land invasion of Japan might be undertaken. The amphibious assault on Iwo Jima was in preparation but had not been launched; the devastating fire-bombing of Japan had not begun. The Red Army’s commitment in Europe, on the other hand, was clearly almost at an end, and from western Russian the Trans-Siberian railway led directly to the border of Manchuria, where in 1904-5 Tsar Nicholas II’s army had suffered a humiliating defeat. The opportunity to avenge it stood high on the list of Stalin’s wartime priorities. When he might take the opportunity, however, was what preoccupied the American President. To ensure that he did so sooner rather than later motivated almost all Roosevelt’s initiatives at Yalta. The price he paid in the end was to discredit Churchill in the eyes of their joint Polish allies, to concede Russia rights over territory in sovereign China which were not America’s to grant, but ultimately to assure that the repossession of Japan’s conquests in the Pacific would not be bought at the cost of American lives alone. To a nation which had watched the heroic advance of the United States Navy, Marine Corps and MacArthur’s army divisions from New Guinea to the Philippines, the diplomatic price paid at Yalta – when the cost to a distant European state’s territory and to Britain’s good name was balanced against further American casualties – seemed a small one to pay.

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