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Roosevelt’s use of information

LAURENCE REES: Roosevelt is constantly using these intermediaries, outside the established system of governement, to get information just for himself. And I was struck by the fact that so many people say at the time that this meant that the whole system of the Roosevelt White House was therefore shambolic. Only Roosevelt seemed to knew what was actually going on. So to what extent did that influence the relationship with the British as well? This sense that: 'do we ever really know what he’s thinking, or what he really wants?'

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, Roosevelt is the wheelchair President. He’s paralysed from the waist down and he can’t move unaided. You need to remember that this is a man who could only stand if he has metal braces strapped on his legs that hold the knees straight. He has to be dressed in the morning, undressed at night and he has to be helped onto the toilet. This is an amazing routine for a man who’s President of The United States, so Roosevelt really is not mobile in the way that other leaders are. Churchill flies all over the world visiting people. At Tehran there’s this picture of the big three of them and somebody says, oh, it’s like the Holy Trinity, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and when it’s translated to Stalin he says if we are the Trinity then Churchill is the Holy Ghost because he flies around so much. Well, Roosevelt can’t fly around as much. The two big trips really undermine his health, first Tehran, and then Yalta finishes him off. So he needs emissaries. That’s why people like Hopkins and Averell Harriman are so important, people that Roosevelt trusts who can go and be his eyes and ears. He uses his own wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the same way at home. So that’s one thing.

The other thing, of course, about Roosevelt is that he is intensely suspicious. He keeps all his cards close to his chest and he does not confide in anybody else. Even people like Hopkins don’t really know the whole story, and for a while in the war Hopkins himself is frozen out. So Roosevelt’s idea is he gets information from different people but only he knows what the information is, nobody else has the whole picture.

The other thing is that Roosevelt has this sublime confidence or complacency about his own abilities. He doesn’t tie things up, he doesn’t do paperwork, he’s bored by detail and so on, and he just has this great belief that if he goes one to one with somebody he can get them to do what he wants, and that is what he believes will happen in the war. It’s happened in domestic policy and he believed it would happen in the war, and, above all, it will happen with Stalin if he needs Stalin.