We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Roosevelt’s idealistic vision

LAURENCE REES: What about Roosevelt’s idealism about, for example, the United Nations?

ROBERT DALLEK: There are two things going on here. One is that he genuinely hopes that there can be some greater idealism after World War Two, that after the follies of World Wars One and Two, hopefully people will emerge from this conflict with a belief, a feeling, an eagerness to have something better; to have a world organisation that will deal with acts of aggression. This idea went back to Woodrow Wilson’s collective security, and that we’ll move in a new direction because the old system of balance of power, diplomacy and of Realpolitik has not worked well and it’s produced so much misery and horror in the world. Now, that was one side of the idealistic side of him. The other, hard nosed, realistic side is he needs to bring the United States through the war in a mood to participate in post-war international affairs. How is he going to do that? How is he going to convince public opinion that the United States should now become a committed international power?

During the war the thrust of opinion in the United States is so much toward reviving Wilsonian idealism. Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1940 Presidential Campaign, is sent on a mission around the world to Europe, Asia, Russia, and China and he comes back and he writes a book called ‘One World’, and it is the most idealistic book you can imagine, in which he talks about the idea that at the end of the war everybody’s going to live by American ideals. Indeed, what I’ve always said is that the theme of this book is that inside of every foreigner is an American waiting to emerge. This is the kind of heady idealism that Americans want to see emerge from the war. It’ll be an American century, a century in which our ideals, our vision, our democracy and our rule of law will be applied globally. And so what you get is this hope, this expectation, and Roosevelt caters to it. He can’t go against it, if he says to people be realistic, Realpolitik is here to stay, spheres of influence are going to be the thing after the war; he can’t do that.
So he comes back from Yalta after the Yalta Conference and he says falsely, knowing that he’s misleading the public, that this conference represents the end of balance of power diplomacy, and the end of spheres of influence. We get on with Stalin. He’s very suspicious of Stalin as demonstrated by the fact that he makes this agreement with Churchill in September 1944, an aide memoir they sign, to hold back the secret of the atomic bomb from Stalin. Why? Because they love him so much? They don’t trust him. And Roosevelt wants an ace up his sleeve. At the end of the war if we get into conflict, tensions or divisions with the Soviets he’ll have something that he can pressure them with. So he’s much more the real politician than people give him credit for because of his public rhetoric.

LAURENCE REES: There is this very real conflict, isn't there, between the public Roosevelt and the private one?

ROBERT DALLEK: This is the politician speaking. Maybe he knew Mark Twain’s proposition: when we discover that we are all mad the mysteries disappear and life stands explained. He has this profoundly cynical view of human affairs and of the way in which it works, and you’ve got to be manipulative if you’re going to be a successful politician, especially in an a mass democratic society like the United States is. You’re not going to change public opinion by going out [on a limb], and especially as he’s used up a lot of his political credibility by the time 1945 comes along, he doesn’t have the kind of influence at that point that he can change public sentiment of the country. And he had seen that in the battle he fought to get us into the war, the battle against isolationism.

LAURENCE REES: Roosevelt’s ability to ‘deal’ with powerful men is often talked about, such as the way in which he attempts to 'deal' with Stalin.

ROBERT DALLEK: Yes, this is where he plays himself false, that he thinks he can manipulate Uncle Joe. And, of course, by now Churchill is in a secondary role because American power has eclipsed British power - the fighting forces; Churchill so reluctant to cross the channel, and memories of the failure in Gallipoli in World War One. And so now Roosevelt and America are top dog, they can call the shots, and Roosevelt has this feeling that it will be an American century. And the Soviets have been so crippled, so injured by the Nazi invasion, how can they stand up to the pressure we will exert? But he doesn’t measure the full extent to which Stalin is also a master manipulator, politician and ruthless – even more ruthless than Franklin Roosevelt, because, as somebody said about the Russian fighting forces there in World War Two, it took more courage to retreat than to go forward.