Commentary Magazine

Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, by James MacGregor Burns

Wartime Leader

Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.
by James MacGregor Burns.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 722 pp. $10.00.

Is there really such a thing as contemporary history? Or does journalism stop and history begin when the concepts and emotions of the participants are no longer shared by those who write and read about them? It is tempting to contrast the historian’s imagination brooding over the evidence with the immediacy of the journalist busily chronicling contemporary events. But then one thinks of Thucydides and Trotsky and realizes that the natural historian can recreate the present as history just as well as he can the past. Whether a book is to be reckoned a work of history or the chronicle of a journalist depends not on when it was written or the period it deals with but simply and solely on its quality as literature and the impact it makes on the judgment of its readers.

Judged by this criterion I have no doubt in welcoming James MacGregor Burns as a fellow “academic-in-politics.” He belongs to that hybrid but select group—suspect among the professional politicians, the professional historians, and the professional journalists—who know that you can’t hope really to get inside contemporary politics and understand them if you remain a mere bystander in a university or in a newspaper office. The academic in politics is normally literate rather than numerate, with little aptitude for the exact sciences but with a strong desire to understand how the modern power structure works, how decisions are taken, how leaders are made—or arise. We discovered while we were at the university that though we could make a living by remaining dons we were not true academics for whom research (enlivened perhaps by a little teaching) is a sufficient way of life. Emotionally committed to the Left in the great controversies of the 1930′s, we were not content to become professional academic bystanders. Propelled by a sense of commitment, we were driven to participate in great events at the same time that we were seeking to record and understand them. It was during our war service overseas that most of us finally convinced ourselves that no one could write about politics, diplomacy, or war with any assurance that he really understands the motive forces of each unless he has, in however humble a capacity, participated in them. (To which I would now add that political experience without academic training provides almost as bad a background for the historian as academic training without political experience. The memoirs of the politicians and the generals and administrators provide rich material for the political scientist, but their authors rarely get beyond a personal apologia or achieve objective appraisal.)

This much introduction is necessary in order to define both the kind of book Professor Burns has given us and the kind of criticism he will get from this particular reviewer. He will not, I am sure, expect to be treated as a professional historian consciously writing for posterity and reserving himself a niche in the Pantheon alongside Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Instead he will be content if Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom is assessed as the wartime counterpart of the “warts and all” portrait of the New Deal politician which he gave us earlier in Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox.

When that remarkable book was published, I welcomed it as the first really understanding analysis of elitist “public-school morality” (in our English sense, of course, of that phrase) and Machiavellian cunning which was the secret of FDR’s political leadership. Because he was an extrovert patrician, not a middle-class intellectual (“a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament” was the penetrating comment of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes), he was able not only to consort with the city bosses but to adopt their standards without suffering any agonies of self-conscious guilt. He could tell lies, betray confidences, let down friends with a good conscience, sharing the serene conviction of a Cecil or a Cavendish that in matters of state the means justify the end.

What elevated him above all the other democratic politicians of the 1930′s was not his long-term vision—he had none—not his administrative talents—they did not exist—but the sheer virtuosity with which he played the game of American politics; the inner strength and buoyant courage which the conquest of his illness gave to his leadership; and the captivating joie de vivre with which he met his appointment with destiny. He was a politician who reveled in politics, a “happy warrior” who enjoyed every aspect of the power the Presidency gave him, including the ceremonial, the frivolous, and the seamy sides. In the first crisis since the Civil War when the United States was threatened with national disintegration, his personal leadership alone saved the nation and enabled the medley of talent he had gathered around him to rig up the ramshackle structure of the New Deal.



I can think of few occasions in history when the man matched the moment more perfectly than Roosevelt throughout his first term. The second term, while disclosing a tenacious grip on power and resilience in defeat, also confirmed the skeptical view of his limitations as an administrator and political strategist. When Hitler’s war began, the American economy was still perilously underemployed and, apart from a few exceptions such as labor relations and the TVA, the New Deal had thrown up very few new agencies of permanent value. It had precipitated an exhilarating movement of social change, but that movement had not solidified into a firm framework of economic planning and social security. In terms of structural reform the impersonal requirements of war production after Pearl Harbor produced more positive social changes than all the New Deal legislation put together.

What then of the third and fourth terms? What of Roosevelt as a war leader? To judge from the title he has chosen for his second volume, Professor Burns set to work on the assumption that Roosevelt’s main contribution to history was made in his role as Commander in Chief. Describing Roosevelt’s visit to the Pacific Front in the summer of 1944, Mr. Burns writes:

He had not invited Marshall or King or Arnold to take part in the Honolulu Conferences; this time the President wanted to deal with his Theater Commanders alone except for Leahy. He would be tested in the Fall as Chief Executive and Chief Politician; he also wanted—indeed he preferred—to be tested as Commander in Chief. He relished the title, according to Hull. . . . But it was more than that. Roosevelt not only assumed the role of Commander in Chief but he embraced it and lived it.

Actually, the evidence collected in this biography makes fair nonsense of this claim. No one is likely to emphasize the role of either Stalin or Churchill in controlling the conduct of the actual fighting in World War II. Nevertheless, each of them in his own way played a far more active part in the execution of military operations than FDR. As Mr. Burns himself admits, Roosevelt showed remarkable restraint in influencing the selection of generals, and he quotes Stimson’s comment that his record “was unique in American war history for its scrupulous abstention from personal and political pressure.” The truth seems to be that in defining his role as Commander in Chief Roosevelt very wisely put all the emphasis on the representational aspects.

To observe the superb coordination of arms and units in mock combat, to cause the face of a wounded soldier to light up with surprise and pleasure, to lie in his bunk in the skipper’s cabin and feel the engines of the great cruiser strain and pound underneath him, to find Pearl Harbor expanded with ships and docks back in service, to explore with Nimitz and MacArthur the imposing alternatives in the Pacific—never had Roosevelt assumed the role of Commander in Chief more intensely than in his days in the Pacific.

In this truthful and intensely revealing definition of the matters which properly concern a Commander in Chief, Mr. Burns finally surrenders his claim that any serious importance can be attributed to Roosevelt’s role as a practical soldier. Each of the activities he lists in this passage is something which in 1944 King George VI was doing with equal conscientiousness and effectiveness. He was playing the role not of active Commander in Chief but of a constitutional monarch who in war as in peace can do no wrong because he acts on the advice of his ministers.



But if “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom” is a misnomer, how is his statesmanship to be rated during these four years of war? Here Professor Burns makes no false claims. He frankly admits failure and seeks to explain it. In his preface he writes:

The proposition of this work is that FDR as war leader was a deeply divided man—divided between the man of principle . . . on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik. . . . It was because Roosevelt acted both as a soldier bent on a military victory at minimum cost to American lives and as an ideologue bent on achieving the four freedoms for people throughout the world that his grand strategy was flawed by contradictions that would poison American relations with Russia and Asia.

This is too simple—indeed too ideological—to fit the facts; and it is the great virtue of Professor Burns that when we have finished his book we realize the inadequacy of the theory with which it begins. Roosevelt was just as divided a personality when he displayed his superb leadership in 1933 as he was at Yalta when he played into Stalin’s hands. The question to be answered is why the contradictions which were fused into a living unity during the early New Deal period remained disastrous contradictions under the stresses of wartime leadership.

Part of the answer is surely that a style of leadership which was acceptable in American domestic politics became intolerable when carried into international relations. Roosevelt’s behavior to Henry Wallace in the intrigues which preceded the nomination of Harry Truman as the Vice Presidential candidate at the 1944 convention was mean even by the standards of the city bosses. Having promised him his support, the President quickly agreed to accept Truman as his running mate and then solemnly assured Wallace that he had not done so! Politicians are not loved for such double-dealing, but in the stress of an American political convention it is, I suspect, accepted as neither unusual nor intolerable conduct. Certainly Roosevelt did not suffer as a result, nor did the Democratic party.

But when he tried a similar trick on Mr. Molotov the result was very different. May 1942 was a desperate period of German victories in Russia and Japanese victories in the Far East. Stalin feared a collapse of his armies if the British and Americans failed to stage a second front in the fall. Churchill knew this was a sheer impossibility and the American Chiefs of Staff conceded his case for postponing the landings until 1943. At this point Roosevelt invited Stalin to send a representative to Washington and told Churchill:

I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better and I hope he will continue to do so.

Molotov arrived in Washington on May 29, having talked with Churchill on the way and heard his account of the situation. On the very same evening Roosevelt authorized him to tell his government that he could expect the formation of a second front “this year.” Professor Burns does not conceal the extent of the deception the President perpetrated. “All the discussions with Molotov clearly implied,” he writes, “a cross-Channel attack by all the ground and air power Britain and the United States could muster in August or September of 1942.” Despite British protests, the communiqué reporting the result of the conversation stated that “full understanding was reached with regard to the urgent tasks of creating a second front in Europe in 1942.” Roosevelt was delighted and wrote to Wynant, then American Ambassador in London, that his Russian visitor had “actually got chummy toward the end.” On his return via London, Churchill warned Molotov orally and in writing that he could not promise a second front in 1942. Nevertheless, when he flew back to Moscow, Molotov was able to quote the communiqué to a jubilant meeting of the Supreme Soviet. The damage had been done.



A second and even more flagrant example of Roosevelt’s double-dealing was his laborious effort first at Teheran and then at Yalta to get close to Stalin by abjuring his solidarity with Churchill. “I am inclined to say that at the meeting with Marshal Stalin and the Prime Minister, I can put things on a somewhat higher level than they have been for the past two or three months,” Roosevelt wrote to Harold Laski a few days before leaving for Yalta. Putting things on a higher level involved the President in breaking faith in order to woo Stalin. Here is the official record:

He would now tell the Marshal something indiscreet, the President went on, since he would not wish to say it in front of the Prime Minister, namely that the British for two years had had the idea of artificially building up France into a strong power that could maintain troops on the eastern border to hold the line long enough for Britain to assemble an army. . . . Stalin did not disagree. The mildly anti-British exchange must have seemed to Roosevelt an auspicious start to his effort to establish personal rapport with Stalin.

In American politics Roosevelt could indulge in this kind of disloyalty to an ally, but the effect of such crude dealing at Yalta was catastrophic. Sniffing disunity between the democracies, Stalin instinctively stiffened: he became more rigid than ever, and the main result of Yalta was to confirm the Russian determination to impose satellite governments on Poland and the other liberated nations of Eastern Europe.

Only one thing could have impressed Stalin—the realization that the Anglo-American alliance was unbreakable and that he would have to deal with it in terms of Realpolitik. Churchill understood this perfectly as he had shown when he offered the Russians a cynical deal a few months earlier:

Stating that London and Moscow must not get at cross purposes in the Balkans, he pushed across the table to Stalin a simple, stark list giving Russia 90% predominance in Rumania and 75% in Bulgaria, Britain 90% in Greece and dividing Yugoslavia and Hungary 50-50 between Russia and the West. Stalin had paused only a moment, then with his blue pencil made a large tick on the paper and passed it back to Churchill.

This was the only moment when it seemed conceivable that the West and the East could reach an intelligible, workable agreement. Yet when Churchill tried to enforce his share of the bargain by suppressing the Communists in Greece, he got no support from the White House, and when Roosevelt died the Russian strategy was clear, whereas the Western powers were in a complete disarray, from which they only recovered when Harry Truman finally announced the Truman Doctrine.

Roosevelt’s conduct is all the more puzzling when we remember that by far his greatest achievement as a war leader was the accord he reached with Churchill, first during the period when his country was neutral and Britain was fighting alone and then in the disastrous twelve months after Pearl Harbor. The Anglo-American alliance came naturally to him. It was both politically desirable and strategically sound: but it required real statesmanship after Pearl Harbor to defeat Mac-Arthur’s demand for a “Pacific first” policy. Roosevelt did not hesitate to veto this tempting plan and Professor Burns tells us that “watching him turn it down Marshall decided that all his doubts about the President were negated—here was a great man.” Then why, when a solid basis had been created for defeating Germany and Japan and then facing up to the Russians in the confrontation which was bound to ensue, did Roosevelt indulge in a flirtation with Stalin which contradicted decency, strategy, and common sense?

Is the explanation to be found in Roosevelt’s physical collapse? Professor Burns records a curious episode which occurred just after his return from Teheran when he succumbed to flu and was persuaded to submit to a check-up at Bethesda. The doctor’s findings were grim: hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure. But at the time this diagnosis was kept completely secret and Mr. Burns does not suggest that physical factors were decisive in this change of policy.

Instead he points to deeper reasons. In the first place, Roosevelt was obsessed by memories of Woodrow Wilson’s failure in 1918. Looking back at the Congressional repudiation of the League of Nations at Versailles, Roosevelt was determined to learn from Wilson’s mistakes. Under his leadership the United States would be the creator of the new world organization; and for this he felt it was essential that he win the support of Stalin, even if this involved a breach of Anglo-American solidarity.

And here the major obstacle in Roosevelt’s view was the existence of the British, French, and Dutch empires and Winston Churchill’s determination that their restoration should be one of the fruits of victory. Professor Burns gives a careful and fair account of the reasons for Roosevelt’s deep personal opposition to French colonialism in Indochina and British imperial policy in India, and I agree with him that they provided the internal justification for the President’s double-dealing:

Churchill’s strategy was Western-oriented; Roosevelt at least glimpsed the explosive energy lying dormant in the billion people of Asia, especially when that energy was released and focused by the call of freedom that the anti-fascist leaders were trumpeting throughout the world.

But much more than a “glimpse” was needed to make Roosevelt what he dreamed of becoming, the effective spokesman for the colonial peoples, the American creator of a World New Deal. The trouble with Roosevelt’s international policies was their negative vagueness. As a result, whenever decisions had to be taken the President’s determination to adhere to liberal principles faltered. Though he grumbled behind Churchill’s back, he failed to give any effective support to Gandhi or Nehru; and despite all his high-flown talk about the Chinese Republic as the Asian member of the Big Four, Chiang Kai-shek was denied the arms priority he had been promised.



One explanation for these failures was that on the central issue of race and color Roosevelt’s liberalism was fatally flawed by his patrician upbringing; in the hard test of action he showed himself scarcely more liberal than Churchill. Mr. Burns records three critical failures. The first was his support for the wholly indefensible evacuation on racial grounds of 160,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast into Midwestern concentration camps. Roosevelt compounded this violation of constitutional rights by the assurance he gave to Governor Lehman of New York. Asked whether this would affect the position of Italian- and German-Americans, the President replied that he was “keenly aware of the anxiety that German and Italian aliens living in the United States must feel as a result of the Japanese evacuation from the West Coast,” and he asked the Governor to assure them that “no collective evacuation of German or Italian aliens is contemplated at this time.” Roosevelt instinctively felt that German and Italian aliens were members of the white world, whose rights must be respected, whereas “little yellow men” were not, even if they could claim to be American citizens. In this respect he was on a par with General MacArthur, who when asked to explain how his invincible Philippine air-defense could have been pierced, remarked that “the Japanese planes had been brilliantly handled and he thought that some of them had perhaps been handled by white pilots.”

Roosevelt’s attitude to the American Negro was equally reactionary. Throughout the war the American navy remained an all-white service and, although Negroes were admitted into the army, they were grouped in segregated divisions in order to insure that no white American would serve under a black officer. At home the toleration of racial inequality was just as bad. Wherever Americans moved to war industries the President tolerated segregated federal housing. And when he was chided by Negro publishers, he replied: “It is perfectly true there is definite discrimination in the actual treatment of the colored engineering troops and others. And you are up against it as you know perfectly well. . . . The trouble lies fundamentally in the attitude of certain white people . . . and well you know the kind of person it is. We all do . . . it is a question of the personality of the individual and we are up against it, absolutely up against it.” As a statement of principle by a President seeking Stalin’s help in founding a World New Deal for the colonial peoples, this takes a lot of beating.

As usual Professor Burns exposes the weaknesses of his hero with candor:

The fact that his faith was more a set of attitudes than a firmly grounded moral code, that it embraced hope verging on utopianism and sentiment bordering on sentimentality, that it was heavily moralistic, to the point, at least in the view of some, of being hypocritical and sanctimonious—all this made his credo evocative but also soft and pasty. . . .

The mushiness of Roosevelt’s liberalism was revealed most tragically after his death. Mr. Burns tells the story of the decision to use the atomic bomb with punctilious fairness. Roosevelt had been frequently warned by some of his closest advisers as well as by the scientists of the fatal incompatibility between the concept of a new world organization based on a Russian-American consensus and an Anglo-American strategy which by concealing its development from the Russians sought to retain the atomic bomb as a Western military monopoly in the war against Japan. Actually, of course, the secrecy was ineffective. Russian espionage had successfully broken the secret so that Stalin was forewarned, and merely regarded Roosevelt’s behavior as proof of his unreliability. When Roosevelt died the cold war had already begun, and all that remained was for Harry Truman to show the statesmanlike ability to reconcile idealism and realism which eluded Roosevelt throughout the war.



Like its predecessor, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom manages to combine a staunch liberal support for FDR with a determination to leave nothing unfavorable unsaid about Mr. Burns’s hero. It is a very long and sometimes a very longwinded book, which lacks the sheer gusto of the first volume. But if the style becomes wearisome, this certainly matches the content. The sad truth is that the last traces of Roosevelt’s greatness faded away in the years after Pearl Harbor.


About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.