Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945
Franklin D. Roosevelt and his presidential policies have been the subject of intense controversy and speculation virtually from their inception. No president of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of Richard M. Nixon, has been more vehemently opposed as well as supported during his term of office, and the controversies have remained vibrant in academic circles nearly half a century after the fact.
Robert Dallek is, in one respect, simply another voice of analysis surveying the much-debated Roosevelt Administrations. Yet Dallek’s work here is a viable addition to the collection of FDR studies in that it offers a relatively compact, yet comprehensive, one-volume look at Roosevelt’s foreign policies. Beyond this, however, Dallek has also benefited from an advantage that previous Roosevelt scholars did not enjoy: namely, the 1970’s release of a vast quantity of United States and British records on foreign relations in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
One might have expected Dallek to employ this new information in pursuit of a radically revisionist view of traditional assumptions associated with Roosevelt and the motives at work in his policies. Instead, Dallek has consciously avoided any attempt to drastically reevaluate the Roosevelt personality and has similarly excluded frequent criticism or praise, preferring instead to let the course of events speak for itself. The author makes it clear early in the text that he accepts the fact, as others such as Rexford Tugwell did, that Roosevelt’s personal style of decisionmaking was without any underlying tow of patterned coherence. While Roosevelt has been said to have “brokered” the New Deal, much the same could be concluded from his foreign policy approaches. Although conscious of presenting a public image of determination, Roosevelt frequently annoyed his closest advisers with his reluctance to be frank and direct regarding his real views.
Interestingly, Dallek does devote an initial chapter to a fast-paced survey of Roosevelt’s prepresidential life. At first glance, the effort would seem to be a mere cosmetic gesture designed to familiarize the uninitiated with Roosevelt’s youth and early political experiences. On closer reading, particularly in conjunction with the main body of the text dealing with the presidential years, this opening sketch establishes many of the consistent features which do surface in Roosevelt’s foreign policy.
The more or less aristocratic nature of Roosevelt’s upbringing tailored him toward an appreciation of international relations based upon personal observation through overseas trips. As Dallek points out, of all previous presidents, only John Quincy Adams could claim to have such a firsthand familiarity with the foreign scene as an integral part of his impressionable youth. In addition, Roosevelt’s schooling at Groton under Endicott Peabody added a touch of classic liberalism bathed in Christian humanism. A deep sense of moral obligation to the world at large became a key component of the Roosevelt perspective. While Roosevelt demonstrated early a seemingly uncharacteristic tendency to emulate cousin Theodore’s public career and viewpoints, contact with the Woodrow Wilson Administrations left a more permanent mark.
From Wilson’s determined struggle for a League of Nations, Roosevelt rekindled the notion that America had a moral commitment in a chaotic world to offer its leadership and objective goodwill in search of a stable peace. That Wilson was unable to propagate this role and place the United States in the midst of international dealings was a lesson not lost on Roosevelt. While clearly supportive of the internationalist view, Roosevelt also witnessed the futility of the Wilson efforts to lead American opinion in a direction it did not wish to go. Dallek implies that Franklin Roosevelt’s abandonment of Teddy Roosevelt-style jingoism in favor of moral persuasion in world affairs had more to do with his appraisal of the political temperament of the American public than with any deep-seated conviction. When moral leadership ran aground during the latter days of the Wilson Presidency, Roosevelt became even more convinced that one eye fixed upon domestic moods was a vital necessity in any successful foreign policy.
Although his observation of the Wilson era had convinced Roosevelt that public opinion could never be ignored in the determination of national policy, he also had become more firm in his own convictions regarding the inherent wisdom of internationalism. On this point, Dallek’s presentation fails to steer a coherent course. Impressions are left which clearly suggest that Roosevelt was willing to recant any public statement in order to remain within the vanguard of public opinion. Yet strong implications are equally offered which present Roosevelt as a figure who repeatedly felt hemmed in by opinion from doing what he instinctively believed to be the national interest. It is entirely possible that Dallek’s seemingly inconsistent approach to Roosevelt in this regard is, in fact, a calculated effort on the author’s part to highlight the very truth of Roosevelt’s flexible style. Even the polio seizure from which Roosevelt suffered is treated by Dallek in much the same way that Roosevelt himself seems to have dealt with it—as an inconvenience. No suggestion is made that the handicap in any way manifestly altered Roosevelt’s views or demeanor.
Beyond this brief but insightful opening presentation, Dallek provides a chronological history...
(The entire section is 2263 words.)