Roosevelt, President Franklin Delano, 1882-1945

Roosevelt had been President of the United States for nine years before Pearl Harbor, years which he had devoted chiefly to leading America out of economic collapse. His political interests were domestic, his instincts pacific, and he was conscious of the extent and intensity of American unwillingness to become involved in the European war of 1939-41. He nevertheless felt it of vital interest to the United States that Britain and her Allies be saved from defeat and he was able, notably by the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941, to assure her supplies of whatever war material she needed. He also began to agree with Winston CHURCHILL, an old acquaintance, on a common set of war aims, formalized by their meeting in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, in August 1941, and known as the Atlantic Charter. When war came, through Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, America was materially unprepared for it, but Roosevelt at any rate had decided the broad lines on which it should be fought. Germany was to be defeated first, since only she among the Axis powers possessed the industrial and technical capability to win a victory single-handed; Britain was to be preserved from defeat at all costs, since her territory provided the essential springboard for an invasion of Europe; America would support all enemies of the Axis, whatever their political creed; she would make a massive military effort on land, sea and in the air, but would principally work for victory by making herself the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ Roosevelt, crippled by polio, seemed physically unfitted for the effort of a war Presidency, but he sustained the burdens with remarkable vitality. He won a fourth Presidential election in 1944, by a vast majority, and devoted much time to maintaining effective relations with Congress. But he also traveled to meet Churchill and the other wartime leaders at a succession of exhausting and widely-scattered conferences: Casablanca in January 1943, Quebec in August, Cairo in November, Teheran in December, Quebec again in September 1944, and Yalta in February 1945. Roosevelt played an independent role throughout, often at odds with Churchill over means, if not over long-term ends. His diplomacy was, in particular, designed to diminish the scope of the colonial system in the postwar world, and to tame the USSR by the administration of sympathy and concessions. Churchill felt, but did not say, that he found Roosevelt’s estimation of Soviet intentions naive. Postwar opinion in the west has tended to support Churchill’s point of view. There was a generosity in Roosevelt’s philosophy of international relations which nevertheless commands respect, and he was clearly more farsighted on the colonial issue, particularly in the Far East, than the British leader. His worldwide appeal was enormous, his character, opinions and achievements in themselves a demonstration to neutral opinion that right was on the Allied side. When he died, on 12 April 1945, he was mourned throughout the Allied and neutral nations, and perhaps nowhere more than in Britain.

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