FDR: The President on Two Fronts
In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for an unprecedented third term in office. Despite being crippled by polio, details assiduously withheld from the general public, his winsome grin and outgoing optimism had endeared him to the American voter. He won easily.
FDR had managed to tread the waters of the Great Depression for eight tumultuous years. Nothing completely cured the chronic unemployment and energy-sapping hard times, although the finger-in-the-dike, plug-up-the-holes, fight the fires “alphabet soup” programs had helped to a degree. But the people truly believed the President cared, and was trying to help them. He was.
Coinciding with the still dragging Depression was a new and ominous threat from overseas. The rise of Nazism and fascism was rattling sabers and making warlike sounds yet again. It had only been twenty years since the War to End All Wars had decimated a huge part of the world.
The Unwarlike USA
Despite the fact the United States had fought in a half dozen or more wars and skirmishes during its brief 150-year history, the American people as a whole, were peace loving folks. Yes, of course there were always some who thrived on conflict and bloodshed, but it was a very small minority. Poll after poll, survey after survey, man-on-the-street comments all resonated with the opinion that we would be best served by staying out of any European mess, and minding our own business.
That had been the sage advice of George Washington. And we duly followed that course – until 1917. Even then, it was with many misgivings and little to gain from the outcome – not that we were looking for anything.
But these developments were different. They were not only warlike, they were brutal. European attempts to mediate aggression met with ridicule and deceit.
By 1940, the only “empire” remaining after the Great War was Great Britain and it had been tottering since 1918.
Roosevelt had a very broad worldwide outlook, which made many of his countrymen uneasy. But Roosevelt had always claimed that “politics was the art of the possible,” and when things appear to be impossible (despite a prescient world view), one sometimes needs to tread water until the obvious becomes truly obvious.
A growing personal friendship had begun between President FDR and currently out-of-office Winston Churchill, who had been a voice in the wilderness about the fascist threats in Europe. Everyone knew him – after all, he came from the Marlborough line. But many thought him rash and unstable.
The correspondence between the President and Churchill was one of depth and insight. Churchill always claimed that Great Britain was a target of aggression, and that assistance was desperately needed. FDR agreed, but knew instinctively that the US would not actively assist – especially supplying arms and munitions. Unless of course, if the Brits paid for it. Cash on delivery. The Brits did not have the funds.
Roosevelt, being a master politician with a long history of dissemblance in his personality, discussed the situation obliquely with several key aides and politicians. They all advised against any involvement. Unless of course, if the Brits paid for it. Cash on delivery.
Even the 1939 official visit from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the first of any sitting British monarch) did not bring the hoped for results. FDR liked the royals immensely and sincerely wanted to help, but his hands were tied. It was getting desperate.
Imagination, and perhaps an end run was needed.
The United States had a large fleet of antiquated ships of various sizes and functions sitting in “mothballs.” England, for centuries the “ruler of the waves,” could certainly fix them up and use them to their best advantage. But without cash, how could they “purchase” them? A loan? A rental? What if they were destroyed? Who could assure that they would be returned? Or paid for? FDR and his “team” suggested an exchange. Our outdated and unused mothball fleet in exchange for long term leases in various British held territories around the world. Sounded fair.
But no matter how appealing the swap sounded, cold hard cash sounded better to Congress, and they were balking. FDR, masterful as ever, bided his time. It was the only thing he could do.
In 1941, the Battle of Britain firebombed London night after night for months, depleting its dwindling resources. Daily radio reports and newspaper stories were heard and read by all Americans. Even those who had been supportive of Germany were having a change of heart as they heard of the vicious destruction – and the new trickle of information about the vicious decimation of humanity in “conquered” territory.
Selling the Story
FDR had a fine speaking voice and writing style. Using the medium of radio, he could actually “talk” to the American people directly – and they did not need to know that he was wheelchair bound. His “Fireside Chats” began shortly after he was elected – and everybody tuned in.
This was the time to explain Lend-Lease. He likened it to a man whose house was on fire, and believed it could be controlled if he had a rubber hose. He didn’t have one. So he went to his neighbor, who did have such a hose, and asked to borrow it. The neighbor did not worry that the hose cost $15, or that it might be destroyed in the attempt to put out the fire. He worried that if that fire were not contained, it could easily spread to his own house. He was happy to lend the hose, asking only that it be returned when the fire was extinguished. Or, if it had been ruined, that his neighbor would replace it.
Millions of Americans tuned in. Letters and telegrams and phone calls poured into the White House in support.
They understood his metaphor.
Davis, Kenneth – FDR: The War President: 1940-43 – Random House, 2000
Friedel, Frank – A Rendezvous With Destiny – Little Brown & Co., 1990
Meacham, Jon – Franklin and Winston – Random House, 2003