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Character of Roosevelt

LAURENCE REES: What was the character of Roosevelt like?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, Franklin Roosevelt was probably the premier politician we had in America throughout the entire 20th Century. He was brilliantly manipulative and he used everyone who came into his circle for his own designs and purposes. This is not to suggest they were necessarily malign purposes, but he was self-serving, to promote himself, to promote the Democratic Party and to assure the national well-being, so he’s very calculating and he’s brilliant at using language to bring people to his side. He’s highly effective at manipulating the press in the United States. Now, newspaper owners despise him, they do not like him one whit. But the journalists love him because he’s so charming, he’s so effective in these press conferences that he holds, inviting the press in to stand around his desk in the Oval Office and he chit-chats with them and he says, boys, there’s no news today, and then of course he tells them what he wants to tell them, so that he can get front page news that hopefully will influence public opinion. Yes, he was a brilliantly manipulative, shrewd and effective politician.

LAURENCE REES: And not averse to straightforward lying…this is hard edged politics, isn’t it?

ROBERT DALLEK: Without question, he is willing to deceive the public. Now one should not go so far as to say that he was behind a conspiracy to allow a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour but, you know, it fanned the flames on this because of his manipulativeness. What was used against him was, of course, during the 1940 Presidential Campaign he kept saying the United States will not go into this war unless attacked by a foreign enemy. The last speech he gives in the campaign he drops the qualifier about being attacked by a foreign enemy because he’s very worried that his opponent, Wendell Willkie, the Republican, may beat him in the election as he’s rising in the polls. And so Roosevelt wants to give a blanket assurance because Willkie is playing on the fact that Roosevelt will get us into the war.

Roosevelt is never beyond saying what he feels he needs to say in order to achieve whatever benefit he sees. And it’s demonstrated also by the way in which they dealt with Stalin in 1942 when they promised that there would be a Second Front before the end of the year. Roosevelt knew full well he couldn’t do that, but he wanted to bolster their support. General Joe Stilwell who he sends out to head the CBI, China, Burma, India theatre writes in his diary about what a manipulative man this was, and he curses him for sending him and he asks him ‘do you have any message for Chiang Kai-shek?’, and Roosevelt blunders around for a minute or two and then he comes up with something, but Stilwell saw right through him and that he knew that this China, Burma, India theatre was a façade and that they had no intention of really giving huge amounts of help to Chiang Kai-shek because that was not going to be the principal theatre in the war. But Roosevelt wants to encourage Chiang Kai-shek and he wants to encourage Stilwell, so it’s rhetoric that he uses very effectively.

LAURENCE REES: But when Stalin sees that Roosevelt hasn’t kept his word about the Second Front doesn’t Roosevelt’s plan backfire on him?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, you see, Roosevelt is always measuring these things, and what he’s saying to himself, and it’s my assumption because you don’t know what he’s exactly saying - Harold Ickes, his Secretary of the Interior once said to him, Mr. President, you are the hardest man in the world to work for. And Roosevelt said, why, because I’m so tough? And Ickes said, no, because you play your cards so close to your vest, so nobody can read you and we don’t know what you’re really thinking or saying or intending.

So what Roosevelt would weigh was will he create too much distrust if he makes a commitment to promise to Stalin that he can’t then fulfil? Or will this short term promise be beneficial or exceed in benefit what the long term distrust will produce? And that was the judgement he made in 1942. Of course, Churchill famously said that when he had to go to Moscow in August of 1942 to tell Stalin that there would be no Second Front in Europe that year, he said he felt as if he were carrying a huge cake of ice under one arm, and was distressed by it.

We also know that Stalin at first was very glum and very dyspeptic about the fact that they had broken a promise to him, but then when Churchill began describing the bombing campaign against Germany and began talking about how they would invade North Africa Stalin pepped up. But the next day he showed himself to be very glum again because he, of course, was also a great manipulator and it was his way of putting pressure on the Allies.