A Brief Review of H.W. Brands’ Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
H.W. Brands has written a good, solid, engaging biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, quite interesting in and of itself, yet somehow more of an hors d’oeuvre – despite its 616 pages – than a main course. Both in his discussion of the Depression years and also the years of the Second World War, Brands leaves you hungering for more, with crucial questions not quite answered, and on occasion left unposed.
Brands writes lucidly, frequently incisively, and yet . . .
This biography is at its strongest when discussing – however briefly – Roosevelt’s origins, early life, and development, weakest in its appraisal of his handling of the Great Depression, and somewhat better than average when discussing Roosevelt’s crucial role during the war years.
Traitor to His Class is a very good book, worth every minute you invest in it. I recommend, however, that you read it in conjunction with other substantial works on Roosevelt’s life, times and presidency.
Repeal of the Arms Embargo . . . and the Quest for a Third Term
“Roosevelt’s victory brought joy to Britain. ‘The repeal of the arms embargo, which has been so anxiously awaited in this country, is not only an assurance that we and our French Allies may draw on the great reservoir of American resources,’ Neville Chamberlain wrote Roosevelt. ‘It is also a profound moral encouragement to us in the struggle in which we are engaged. . . . I am convinced that it will have a devastating effect on German morale.’
“Repeal brought joy to particular groups in America as well. The same edition of the New York Times that bannered the congressional turnaround tucked a two-inch article on an inside page. ‘Los Angeles aircraft manufacturers looked forward tonight to the greatest boom in the history of their industry as a result of the arms embargo repeal,’ the paper’s California correspondent noted. ‘Douglas, Lockheed and North American, the principal factories here, hold more than $110,000,000 worth of foreign and domestic orders, and expect them to be doubled.’
“At the time the war in Europe began, the depression in America was nearly a decade old. Nine million men and women remained unemployed, and the nation’s output was still below its 1929 level. Thousands of factories were idle or half staffed; mines produced at far below capacity; ships, barges, and trains begged for traffic. The arms embargo hadn’t figured centrally in stifling growth, but its lifting, combined with the anticipated demand by the American military for armaments, brought new hope to American heavy industry. The aircraft sector responded first, from an expectation that this war, to a greater degree than any before, would be fought in and from the skies. Yet if the war lasted, everything associated with fighting – trucks, tanks, ships, rifles, bullets, boots, blankets, uniforms, foodstuffs – would be in tremendous demand. Such was the lesson, at any rate, of the First World War, which had set the American economy humming. Such was the hope of American manufacturers, American workers, and American farmers as the war in Europe commenced.
“Roosevelt encouraged the hope, which had a double meaning for him. Precisely when he determined to try for a third term is unclear. He never revealed his thinking on the subject. Perhaps there was no single moment of decision. Perhaps the possibility of doing what no other president had done took shape in his unconscious mind and emerged only slowly in his consciousness. But at some level, unconscious or otherwise, he weighed his options and their relative merits. To retire would free him of the strain of executive responsibility. Four years as governor and eight years as president made for a long time in charge. His personal constitution seemed to be standing the strain fairly well, but the machinery would start creaking sooner or later.
“But what would he retire to? His memoirs, perhaps, which doubtless would earn him a sizable advance and allow him to bolster the family finances. Yet he had never written more than twenty pages in his life. His stamp collection? That was a mindless diversion from work, not anything to pursue for its own sake. The Warm Springs Foundation? It was thriving without him. To a genteel life at Hyde Park? There he would be back under his mother’s roof and his mother’s attempted domination. Sara was grudgingly pleased that he had become president, but she wasn’t inordinately impressed. And Hyde Park was her home before it was his. He had gone into politics partly to get away from Sara, and he had returned to politics after polio to stay away from her. He would be fifty-nine a week and a half after leaving the White House in 1941, if he did leave then. The thought of moving back with his mother scarcely inspired him.
“Neither did the thought of retiring to a life with Eleanor. The life they currently shared revolved almost entirely around politics. The children were adults and had lives of their own. The rationale of holding the marriage together for their sake had vanished. They had given Franklin and Eleanor several grandchildren, but even persons far more devoted to domesticity than Franklin and Eleanor didn’t find grandchildren sufficient grounds for sustaining a loveless marriage.
“The love indeed had gone out of their marriage. A certain fondness survived – a remnant warmth resulting from long familiarity, shared experiences, and similar values. But if Eleanor’s thoughts tarried more than briefly on her husband’s happiness – or his unhappiness, his frustration, his satisfaction, his fear, his anger – she didn’t reveal it to him. And if he wondered, in his odd idle moment, how she was faring – or even where she was, on those very many days when she wasn’t in Washington – he didn’t let on.
“Retire? As at so many other junctures in his career, Roosevelt looked to Uncle Ted – and what he saw disposed him to remain in the arena. Theodore hadn’t known what to do with himself after the presidency. He frantically slaughtered the wildlife of the African veld [sic] on a year-long safari, but even the blood of the lions and elephants hadn’t slaked his ambition, and he returned to politics, only to be rebuffed by the party he had led. He again sought release by physical action: an ill-conceived expedition to the darkest heart of the Amazon. He nearly died, and the experience ruined his health permanently. He became a bitter partisan, reviling Wilson in language he would have considered seditious had the attacks been leveled against him when he was president. Franklin’s personality differed from Theodore’s, and Franklin knew it. But the Rough Rider decade didn’t speak well for voluntary retirement from the presidency.
“Nor did the experience of other recent presidents. In Franklin’s adulthood, only Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Coolidge left the White House other than by death or defeat. Wilson was broken in health and spirit during his last eighteen months in office, and he never recovered. Coolidge’s retirement was graceful enough, but Roosevelt didn’t consider Silent Cal a role model for much of anything. Besides, even the quiet confines of rural Vermont proved more than Coolidge could handle; he expired before the term he chose not to run for did.
“There was another reason not to retire. Although Roosevelt lacked the organized understanding of history possessed by Uncle Ted, he knew what made for greatness in American history, if only because he had seen how the same knowledge in Theodore had eaten away at the Colonel’s soul during the First World War. Theodore knew – and Franklin learned – that presidential greatness required rising to a historic challenge. George Washington was accounted great for leading America to independence in the Revolutionary War. Abraham Lincoln was reckoned great for having held the country together during the Civil War. The war that broke out in Europe in 1914 had presented Wilson with the opportunity for comparable greatness. Theodore Roosevelt recognized this, and the recognition, combined with the knowledge that he, not Wilson, would have been the one to benefit from the opportunity had the Republican nomination in 1912 not been stolen by the Taft forces, rankled him mercilessly. The fact that Wilson, at war’s end, fumbled the opportunity rankled him the more.
“Franklin Roosevelt knew the story well, having observed it from the unique position of being at once inside the Wilson administration and inside the Roosevelt family. And he understood that the war that was now beginning in Europe afforded him an opportunity at least comparable to what Theodore had coveted and Wilson mishandled. He himself had had one historic opportunity to rise to greatness – and he had fallen short. In public he was politician enough to proclaim the successes of the New Deal in treating the symptoms of the Great Depression; in private he was honest enough to recognize the New Deal’s central failure – to end the depression itself.
“But now fate threw him another opportunity, one that might allow him to remedy his failure even as it gave him a chance to write his name in bold letters across the history of the world. Whether as peacemaker or warmaker, the American president at this moment of crisis would hold the balance of global power in his hands. The United states had tipped the balance in the First World War but then retreated from responsibility for the result. It could tip the balance again – and it certainly would, if Franklin Roosevelt was in command. The stakes were higher than ever. Not merely Europe but Asia was at risk. And the challenge was more profound than ever. Fascism threatened the very existence of democracy. The freedoms on which America had been established might survive or they might be extinguished. Whether it was the one or the other could well rest with the man who held the American presidency during the next few years. A side effect of the fighting abroad would almost certainly be the recovery of the American economy. Whoever was president at the time would get the credit.
“Such a chance at greatness had been given to no president in American history. It was an opportunity the like of which few persons in the long course of human history had ever faced.
“Managing passions toward the Japanese, however, proved beyond the capacity of the bureau, and beyond the political will of the president. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor naturally provoked alarm at the possibility of additional attacks against Americans and American soil. This alarm, combined with the puzzlement that the United States had been caught so unprepared, primed Americans to imagine espionage or sabotage among Japanese nationals living in America. The hoary concept of the ‘yellow peril’ reemerged, coloring attitudes toward anyone of Japanese ancestry. The American intelligence apparatus, having snoozed through Pearl Harbor, grew suddenly insomniac, and like other insomniacs, it conjured nightmares from fragments of fact, worst-case scenarios, and whole cloth. Rumors were accepted as truth, or at least as working approximations of truth, by those charged with preventing another Pearl Harbor.
“General John DeWitt headed the army’s Western Defense Command, with responsibility for the West Coast. Determined not to be California’s counterpart to Admiral Husband Kimmel or General Walter Short – two officers already under investigation for failing to defend Pearl Harbor – DeWitt took every report most seriously. Stray radio signals became secret transmissions from Japanese spies to ships offshore. When the signals fell silent, their very silence indicated the insidious guile of the enemy.
“The material interests of others inflamed DeWitt’s suspicions. For decades the neighbors and economic competitors of the Chinese and Japanese in California and nearby states had resented the Asians’ willingness to work long and hard for low wages and modest profit margins; at every opportunity some of those competitors had tried to elbow them aside legally or physically. Pearl Harbor provided a new opportunity, and demands at once arose to drive the Japanese from their homes, their farms, and their businesses. The more forthright didn’t disguise their intentions. ‘We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons,’ a spokesman for the California Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association said. ‘We might as well be honest. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific coast or the brown man.’
“Elected officials followed the popular mood and sometimes led it. California’s attorney general, Earl Warren, called for the imposition of martial law. ‘In view of the circumstances, the problem becomes a military problem rather than one in civil government,’ Warren said. The mayor of Los Angeles demanded the removal of Japanese from the ‘combat zone,’ meaning most of the West Coast. Several members of the city council endorsed the mayor’s demand.
“Pundits joined the calls for removal. Walter Lippmann insisted that security preempted civil liberties. In an essay written from San Francisco and titled ‘The Fifth Column on the Coast,’ Lippmann asserted, ‘The Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and from without. . . . It is a fact that the Japanese navy has been reconnoitering the Pacific Coast more or less continually and for a considerable period of time, testing and feeling out the American defenses. It is a fact that communication takes place between the enemy at sea and enemy agents on land.’ Americans ignored these facts at their peril, Lippmann said. He denied that removal of Japanese Americans from the coastal zone would violate their constitutional rights. ‘Nobody’s constitutional rights include the right to reside and do business on a battlefield. And nobody ought to be on a battlefield who has no good reason for being there. There is plenty of room elsewhere for him to exercise his rights.’ Westbrook Pegler rarely agreed with Lippmann, but on this subject the outspokenly conservative columnist did. ‘We are so damned dumb and considerate of the minute Constitutional rights and even of the political feelings and influence of people whom we have every reason to anticipate with preventive action!’ Pegler said. ‘The Japanese in California should be under armed guard to the last man and woman right now, and to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.’
“Confident of public support, De Witt requested authority to remove the Japanese – including American citizens of Japanese descent – from the West coast. His request at first divided the Roosevelt administration. Henry Morgenthau thought things were proceeding too fast. ‘When it comes to suddenly mopping up 150,000 Japanese and putting them behind barbed wire . . . ,’ the Treasury secretary said, ‘I want at some time to have caught my breath.’ Attorney General Francis Biddle initially opposed removal, vowing that ‘the Department of Justice would not under any circumstances evacuate American citizens.’
“Henry Stimson was torn. ‘The second generation Japanese can only be evacuated either as part of a total evacuation, giving access to the areas only by permits,’ the war secretary wrote in his diary, ‘or by frankly trying to put them out on the ground that their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese. This latter is the fact but I am afraid it will make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system to apply it.’ Yet Stimson, as head of the War Department, had to consider the alternatives. ‘It is quite within the bounds of possibility that if the Japanese should get naval dominance in the Pacific, they would try an invasion of this country; and if they did, we would have a tough job meeting them.’ He added, ‘The people of the United States have made an enormous mistake in underestimating the Japanese.’ Stimson was determined that this mistake not be repeated, and so he recommended to Roosevelt that DeWitt’s evacuation request be approved.
“Roosevelt, of course, had the final decision. The president could have overridden Stimson, and perhaps his conscience urged him to. But its urgings were neither loud nor strong, and they had to compete with his political sensibilities. Even less than DeWitt or Stimson could Roosevelt afford another Pearl Harbor, and at a moment of ignorance as to Japan’s capabilities, he couldn’t say with confidence that the Japanese community in California did not harbor spies and saboteurs. During peacetime he was as staunch an advocate as the next person of the principle that individuals should be treated as individuals and not as part of a suspect class, but during wartime he thought this principle might be modified in the larger national interest.
“Roosevelt chose not to inquire too deeply into the War Department’s reasoning. Stimson sought an interview with Roosevelt to discuss relocation, but the president declined, saying he was busy. This was true enough, given the unprecedented demands on his time, but it also reflected his wish to avoid a face-to-face airing of the issues involved. Stimson had to settle for speaking to Roosevelt by telephone. The president told the war secretary to do what he thought best. John McCloy, Stimson’s assistant, recalled Roosevelt saying, ‘There will probably be some repercussions, but it has got to be dictated by military necessity.’ Roosevelt added, ‘Be as reasonable as you can.’
“On February 19, the president issued Executive Order 9066 asserting that ‘the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities’ and authorizing the secretary of war ‘to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate military commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.’ The order did not single out either the West Coast or the Japanese, but it was universally understood to apply peculiarly to that region and those people.
“And it was widely applauded, especially when, just four days later, the Japanese submarine shelled the California coast near Santa Barbara. The evacuation began within weeks; ultimately some 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were removed to internment camps in the desert regions east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. Seventy percent of the internees were American citizens. By most evidence, the great majority of those removed had been enthusiastic about living in America before the war began. Some, not surprisingly, had second thoughts in their bleak new homes.”