Old Thoughts on FDR


Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945, by Robert Dallek, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, 657 pp., $19.95.

Robert Dallek makes clear at the outset of his book on Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy that he has little new to say. He has looked at all the new documents, and his bibliography indicates that he has looked at every important book on FDR's foreign policy, yet he does not change the conventional interpretation now given to FDR's actions.

This means, for example, that Dallek sees FDR, not as goading the Japanese into an attack on Pearl Harbor, but merely as reacting to events. Nor does he suggest that any significant change in American policy toward the Soviet Union, such as launching a second front in 1942 or 1943 to ease pressure on the Soviets, might have reduced Soviet apprehension toward the United States and thus prevented the Cold War.

Dallek is much too glib in this dismissal of the cumulative results of revisionist research on the origins of World War II and the Cold War. On the Japanese, he quotes George Kennan as saying:

Had FDR been determined to avoid war with the Japanese if at all possible, he would have conducted American policy quite differently…than he actually did. He would not, for example, have made an issue over Japanese policy in China, where the Japanese were preparing, anyway, to undertake a partial withdrawal…and where this sort of American pressure was not really essential. He would not have tried to starve the Japanese navy of oil. And he would have settled down to some hard and realistic dealings with the Japanese.

But Dallek goes on to defend Roosevelt's action on the grounds that domestic considerations forced him to act as he did. "To have acquiesced in Japan's domination of China," he says, "and allowed oil and other vital supplies to fuel Japan's war machine would have provoked an outcry in the United States against cynical power politics and weakened the national resolve to confront fascist power outside of the Western Hemisphere."

This is nonsense. As late as August 1941, 76 percent of the American people opposed war with Japan and 75 percent opposed war with Germany and Italy. Where was the pressure to be tough with the Japanese coming from? It must have been coming from Roosevelt himself, who wanted desperately to fight Hitler but could not get a casus belli from him. How else can one explain such Roosevelt actions as ordering three little ships into the path of an oncoming Japanese fleet a week before Pearl Harbor, knowing full well they would be blown out of the water? (See Adm. Kemp Tolley, Cruise of the Lanikai: Incitement to War.)

As to the Soviet Union, Dallek, like most historians, makes no effort to see the situation from the Soviet point of view. As far as the Soviets were concerned, they won the war. We were Johnny-come-lately's, whose timidity at forcing an invasion of Europe in 1942 or 1943 caused the Soviets to bear the full brunt of Hitler's forces for three years without relief, losing more men in the process than all other Allied armies combined. From their point of view, the West was playing both sides against the middle, hoping that Germany and the Soviet Union would destroy each other (as many in the United States were in fact advocating).

In Dallek's view, little if anything could have been done on the part of the US government to halt Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. This is true, but beside the point. Eastern Europe had been an object of Russian desire since the age of the tsars, and it fell like ripened fruit into Soviet hands.

The real question is whether US actions could have averted Soviet-American tensions. After all, the United States had no stake in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union's looking upon this area as within its sphere of influence was analogous to enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere. So America's reaction to the Soviets' occupation of Eastern Europe was interpreted by them as a pretext for open hostility.

In the end, Dallek's book is disappointing. There has been enough scholarship in the last 20 years to provide for a deeper analysis of FDR's foreign policy. Dallek has merely rehashed old hash.

Bruce Bartlett is the author of Cover-up: The Politics of Pearl Harbor, 1941–1946.