Commentary Magazine

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Conrad Black

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom
by Conrad Black
Public Affairs. 1,280 pp. $39.95

Reading Conrad Black’s massive new biography of Roosevelt brought to mind a conversation with my father, now ninety, who came of age under FDR, admired him intensely, and during World War II worked for his administration. In the course of our discussion I ventured that I now had “more and more problems” with the career of the 32nd President. My father’s surprising answer: “So do I.” Thus does time gradually erode and reshape our understanding of even the greatest of our contemporaries.

Conrad Black’s response would assuredly be quite different. The Canadian-born author, now Lord Black of Crossharbour and the embattled publisher of the London Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, and other newspapers, is a tremendous Roosevelt enthusiast. As his biography makes clear, he has few if any “problems” with him.

This book is impressive both as a labor of love and as a labor of labor: in a single huge volume, it covers FDR’s entire lifetime, from his birth in 1882 to his schooling at Groton and Harvard and thence into politics at every level up to the presidency, through Depression and war, all the way to the quiet end at Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945. Black writes forcefully and at times with real eloquence, deploys a genuine gift for evocation of character and scene, and has crammed his pages with fascinating details that reflect the depth of his long immersion in the subject. Some of these details are profoundly moving. One of the most affecting, for me, captures in an image the emotional state of Eleanor Roosevelt after she learned of her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer; for decades thereafter, she would pay regular visits to St. Gaudens’s haunting sculpture, Grief, commissioned by Henry Adams for the memorial to his wife, a suicide.

Black’s greatest strength lies in his grasp of Roosevelt as a political tactician. If, for example, you want a compellingly intricate account of the deals and promises and betrayals that secured four nominations for the presidency, this is the place to turn. Unfortunately, the marvelous attention to detail in this book is sometimes purchased at the cost of overall thematic control. Thus, although the Great Depression threads its way through chapter after chapter, nowhere does Black give a focused account of how modern economists understand that watershed event, an omission that makes it almost impossible for a reader without specialized knowledge to form an opinion of how FDR handled it.

The book is divided into short, two-to-three-page treatments of discrete events and topics, strung together more or less chronologically. In one obvious sense, these manageable doses of material contribute to making the book easier for a reader to take in. But one finds oneself wishing for something more substantial to hold on to in making one’s way through the blizzard of detail—something, that is, in addition to the force of Black’s enormous admiration for his subject. Although he is capable of being highly critical—of, for example, FDR’s vindictive treatment of the tycoon Moses Annenberg—by and large he seems to feel that to narrate Roosevelt’s career well and fully should suffice to establish the man’s greatness.

If the word means anything at all, Roosevelt was, of course, a “great” man. But just how he achieved this greatness was, at the time, a puzzle even to his closest associates—he had few, if any, intimates—and it has become an even more difficult puzzle to resolve with the passage of years and the researches of several generations of scholars. A host of perduring questions begins with the enigma of Roosevelt’s inner life: his attachment to his mother, his odd marriage, his connections with other women. Then come his dealings with colleagues, captured in the image of the presidential cocktail hour, with the great man himself mixing the martinis (following, Black informs us, the old patrician recipe featuring plenty of sweet and dry vermouth) and exuding a charm so potent as to draw from his courtiers every last drop of love and devotion—only to discard them, often with the utmost callousness, when the need suited. And then there are the substantive matters: his muddled economic policies, his assault on the Supreme Court, even his decision to seek four presidential terms. And finally come the truly contentious questions about international relations: our entry into World War II, the relationship with Stalin and Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, and Roosevelt’s postwar plans, about which we can only speculate given that he did not live to see either VE or VJ day.

Any evaluation of Conrad Black’s book—whose subtitle, “Champion of Freedom,” is highly significant—will depend very much on what we make of his arguments on this last cluster of subjects especially. Insistently, Black defends nearly everything that occurred in foreign policy on Roosevelt’s watch, from his dealings with Stalin, to the Yalta agreement governing the postwar division of Europe, to the rise of Communism in East Asia. But it is on just these issues that Roosevelt has been convincingly faulted by many students of his presidency.



Consider the cold war that commenced in 1945. This was, as Black points out, waged in Europe effectively, with scarcely an exchange of gunfire throughout its decades-long duration. Why? The answer is that peace had been carefully planned: good fences made neighbors who could coexist in relative peace. But what about Asia? There the cold war was frequently hot, and from the very beginning. The Chinese civil war was gathering steam in the mid-1940’s just as Japan was being brought to its knees, and while that particular conflict entailed few American casualties, its successors in Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to mention only three, took the lives of well over 100,000 Americans and Europeans.

Why this bloody contrast between the two theaters? Again the answer is planning—or rather, in the case of Asia, the absence of planning. As a result of that absence, more than a billion Asians—a far greater population than in all of Europe—have continued to this day to live under dictatorships that were installed as World War II ended. This number is arguably larger than the number of people who lived under tyranny before the war.

Could the “champion of freedom” have made a difference? The answer is yes—but only if he had possessed the ability to plan strategically for the aftermath of war. This would have required gifts far different from the sure tactical instincts that, as Black demonstrates, served him so brilliantly at home.

The defeat of an important state inevitably creates a vacuum and disorders the balance of power; how and by whom that vacuum will be filled, and how balance will be restored, are questions at least as critical as how to defeat the existing enemy. By all accounts, Roosevelt saw the postwar world as one in which order would be maintained by the same “four policemen”—the United States, Britain, the USSR, and China—that were fighting against Germany and Japan. Evidently, cooperation among those four states themselves would be ensured as much by his consummate political skill and charm as by shared interests.

Even at the time, some grasped the unrealistic nature of this vision. Washington and London disagreed between themselves over the future course of the British Empire. China was weak and disunited. The Soviet Union operated on entirely different principles from its two Western allies. Roosevelt, who might have been expected to understand all this, apparently did not. Black quotes the diplomat Charles Bohlen, for whom Roosevelt lacked “any real comprehension of the great gulf that separated a Bolshevik from a non-Bolshevik, and particularly from an American. . . . What he did not understand was that Stalin’s enmity was based on profound ideological convictions.”

Had Roosevelt possessed a keener sense of these realities, he would have understood that Washington’s alliance with Moscow had to be strictly tactical, and that the war had to be waged in such a way as to help free regimes, and not Soviet power, fill the gap to be created by the Nazis’ defeat. That, admittedly, would have been a difficult task, but the first step in undertaking it was to realize with whom one was dealing.

Black’s treatment of this issue is of a piece with his handling of nearly every “problem” presented by his hero. Bohlen’s rather devastating depiction of FDR’s incomprehension of Soviet Communism he finds “surely right.” But the idea that this ignorance adversely affected postwar planning he rejects out of hand. The problem, he writes, was not FDR’s ignorance but “Stalin’s broken promises.”

True enough, Stalin broke promises—regularly. But the fact that the United States, failing to anticipate this, strove instead to draw the Soviet dictator ever more deeply both into the war and the plans for postwar peace reflects very badly on FDR’s fundamental strategic judgment. The most that can be said for his “vision” is that the postwar arrangements agreed upon at Yalta, even after all the Soviet violations, did indeed bring a measure of calm to Europe—though not freedom. Alas, even this much cannot be said for Asia.



Roosevelt was at least as ignorant of Asia as of the Soviet Union. In conversation, he sometimes disparaged the fighting abilities of Asian people, and he certainly underestimated the Japanese, whom, as Black observes, he “considered an irritant . . . and a sideshow.” Although Black has Roosevelt effectively pushing the Japanese to attack (as a means of getting America into the European war), that does not square with the President’s decision to put his beloved fleet at Pearl Harbor, from which it could not be supported effectively in case of a real war. A more plausible interpretation is that Roosevelt and his advisers, focused as they were on Europe, did not grasp either the military capabilities or the state of mind of the Japanese. In the event, he was genuinely shocked by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the United States and Britain, war with Japan meant striking an alliance with China. (The USSR stayed neutral in the Pacific war until almost the end.) Nowhere than here is Roosevelt’s superficiality more amply displayed—or Conrad Black’s admirably resourceful ability to excuse it. Given the President’s belief in China as one of the “four policemen,” the best way forward would have been to attack Japan through China, with reorganized Chinese and American troops systematically advancing northward, securing airbases, and carrying out the bombing of Japan from there. Had we done that, the power vacuum in China created by Japanese defeat would have been filled, step by step, by a robust Chinese army allied with the United States.

We did not do that. Instead, we adopted the “island-hopping” strategy that eventually, after the nuclear bombings of 1945, brought about the defeat of Japan. This abruptly created an immense power vacuum, from Southeast Asia to China and Manchuria and Korea, which we and our allies were in no position to fill. Even as the Soviets entered the war, we had no agreed plans on paper of where their armies or ours would stop, or how Korea and Indochina—not to mention China itself—would be dealt with. Roosevelt spoke vaguely of “trusteeships” in some places, but never got down to detail.

The result of this uncertainty among the great powers was that their Asian clients dominated them. Whereas, in Europe, local Communists like Togliatti, Thorez, and others listened to Stalin, deferred the seizure of power they might otherwise have attempted at war’s end, and died in bed without ever triumphing, Kim Il Sung and Ho Chi Minh managed to drag both the USSR and Communist China into wars they did not need while Chiang Kai-shek manipulated the Americans with impressive skill.

Following a venerable tradition tracing back to General Joseph Stilwell, and largely discredited by more recent scholarship, Black asserts that Chiang Kai-shek was hopeless as a leader and was uninterested in fighting the Japanese. He also assures us that Roosevelt understood this but, for domestic political reasons, could not do what it would have made sense for him to do: namely, link the U.S. with the Chinese Communists who were at the time widely regarded as the “real” fighters in China. (In fact, along with their leader, Mao Zedong, they spent most of the war as far away from the front as they could get, engaging in discussions of literature and art and undertaking a massive political purge.)

In short, and rather astonishingly for a man of his acuity, Black accepts the demonstrably impossible idea—the so-called “lost chance in China” thesis—that the U.S. should have backed the Communists in 1945, making allies of Mao and Zhou Enlai and thus ushering in a benign, America-leaning East Asia. As he puts it:

Assisting the Communists in effectively ceasing to be Communists and integrating China into the world would be an exacting process. This somewhat resembled Roosevelt’s intended policy to the Soviet Union. More than 25 years would have to go by before President Richard Nixon would pick up the threads of America’s China policy where Roosevelt’s successor would leave them.

To this, one is tempted to reply: if America could really have assisted the postwar Soviets and Chinese in “effectively ceasing to be Communists” by some ineffable Rooseveltian process of suasion, why could it not have used the same power of suasion to assist the Nazis in Germany in effectively ceasing to be Nazis, or the Japanese in ceasing to be militarists? Why go to war in the first place?



For all its genuinely illuminating moments, Conrad Black’s monumental biography is repeatedly undone by its own relentless determination to vindicate its hero as a “champion of freedom” in every possible respect and at every possible turn. Ironically, a less omniscient approach, one that did not celebrate every act of FDR’s as a triumph but rather faced more forthrightly not only his humanity and his foibles but also his failures, would almost certainly have brought us closer to understanding his real but elusive greatness. For, in spite of it all, few will contest that he was indeed a great President, or that the country he led has striven devotedly to advance the cause of freedom in the world; about this, Conrad Black is assuredly right, and right again to remind us.


About the Author

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.

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