Tuesday, September 18, 2007

FDR: The War President by Kenneth S. Davis

This is the fifth volume of a huge, multi-volume biography of FDR. It covers the years 1940-1943, and the saddest thing about it is that the author died near the end of writing it—which means that the series will never be finished.

It’s a good read. Scholarly and tedious in some places, but absolutely fascinating when viewed through the prism of today. FDR’s war against fascism and GWB’s war against terror, and the political climates they existed and exist in, are fascinating to compare with one another. Imagine today’s Congress giving GWB the power to loan battleships to Pakistan so they could use them to fight against Iraq. Imagine there being a strike at Ford Motor Company and GWB sending the U.S. Army in to break it up so the workers could go start making bullets and bombs. Imagine John Kerry saying that he fought hard against GWB because he thought he’d make a better president than him, but that GWB won and he was going to support him in this war effort, and would go on a global tour demonstrating to our allies and enemies alike that our political parties are unified at home. Here are some more interesting tidbits:

Thus the swirl and tangle of events, problems, and challenges through which Roosevelt must pick his way and to which his responses are and will be shaped by his sense of himself, of his own innate and adherent capacities. On this morning of rare passivity his self-felt identity is in some respects no larger, no more formidable, than the one his intellectual critics ascribe to him in their moments of severest censure. He completes his breakfast. He puts aside the newspapers. He rises from his bed (he must have help to do so), dresses himself (he must have help to do so), then rides his wheelchair down into the library living room to begin the (for him) relatively meager activities of the day. And as he does this his consciousness of self, within which his awareness of physical dependency upon the strong arms of other men may be somewhat sharper than usual, has nothing in it of the conqueror’s egotistical willfulness. Indeed, against the massive challenges he faces, he measures exceeding small, far smaller than others do, the powers he can wield—the innate powers (of mind, of will) granted him by almighty God, plus the powers that are his by virtue of his high office—and is reaffirmed in his conviction that he cannot actually dominate even immediate events of major importance, much less change the direction or set the course of world history. He can only nudge here, tug there, prod at this point, brake at that one—he can only cautiously encourage the energies of change or, if the impendent change is of the foundations of the present American domestic order, discourage them—as he attempts to guide the turbulent torrent of event, upon which he is otherwise and in general borne irresistibly, toward what he perceives or conceives to be God’s goals.

Such perceptions or conceptions are, for him, highly tentative. They derive from and depend upon information that is imperfect and uncertain—information he obtains, for the most part, not through a thoughtful study of subject matter, but through three kinds of prayer. Two of these are objective, impersonal, almost devoid of religious feeling. One of the two might even be deemed empirically “scientific” insofar as it consists of various kinds of poll taking, various ways of defining the nature and measuring the strength of public opinion on specific issues—this on the tacit assumption that the will of the majority is the will of God. The other of the two is a species of teleological gambling, essentially superstitious—a kind of betting aimed at achieving not material prizes, but signs of divine approval or disapproval of something he contemplates doing. For instance, he may assign to this or that small happening a large significance, saying to himself that if the trivial event occurs within an immediate time span (the next minutes, perhaps, or before he can count to ten), it means that God approved what he has considered doing; if it does not occur, God disapproves. Or he may see as a sign of divine approval or disapproval his luck at cards when he plays poker or, as he does far more frequently, Miss Milliken, a game of solitaire of which he is fond.

The third kind of prayer, however, is truly religious insofar as it is intensely subjective, profoundly emotional, imbued with a sense of awe and personal dependency; and it is this prayerfulness, which is in perfect accord with his somber nostalgic mood on this gray wintry morning, that he now employs, or by which he is now caught up. He looks backward into time. Seeking stability, permanence, eternality, amid or underlying the unceasing flow of eventful change, he contemplates or (more accurately) feels his way into the past—his own individual personal past as well as the historic past of this little Hudson River town in which he grew up. And he does find permanence there. The past presents itself to the remembering mind as a completed reality wherein one can see how events conform to one another, are fitted together through the operations of casual efficacy, this thing happening because that thing does and in turn causing something else, shaping a structure from whose order the contemplative observer may learn something of the workings of God’s mind, something of the nature of God’s will. The lessons thus learned are highly qualified, however. Roosevelt knows well that the past never exactly repeats itself, is therefore no mirror of the future into which he can look for precise instructions as to what he should now do. He realizes through his feeling self that the past as persistent memory is the very stuff or substance of the living flowing present through which it extends, as an ongoing but continuously changing pattern of event, into anticipated, apprehended future time. This is the mainstream flow of the world, this the felt essence of his profound conservatism. And on this morning of gray melancholy, he in his present self and the boy he remembers himself to have been here at Hyde Park—also between this Georgian mansion that is now his one true home and the smaller, more modest Victorian house in which he was born; and between the town of Hyde Park today and the Hyde Park of distant and receding yesterdays. By this awareness his sore and weary spirit is somehow soothed and refreshed, his optimistic faith restored.

First, how about that prose, huh? Second, how about that insight into the mind of a historical figure. Reading this makes me think that this Kenneth Davis could become FDR if he wanted to, could get into the wheelchair, put on the glasses, clamp his teeth down on the cigarette holder, and become Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I also like what this passage says about being a leader, about how a leader’s power is confined to nudging, tugging, prodding, and braking. Because, boy, that is sure what it feels like for me. But what strikes me most about this passage is the way FDR, the leader of the free world at one of that world’s most critical turning points, allowed his mind to be swayed and decisions to be made by cryptic messages he thought he was receiving from God while he played solitaire. The weight of the world teetering on a precarious fulcrum and there he is, looking for answers in the turn of the next random card. GWB would probably be proud.

There’s a one page summary in the FDR book about the sinking of the Bismarck which is one of the things I stumble across in history books sometimes that I immediately want to know more about. I therefore ordered a copy of Sink the Bismarck! By C. S. Forester, evidently the authoritative expert on the subject.

As a “man of action,” Hopkins, like Roosevelt, was the opposite of ideological, and like Roosevelt, he thereby avoided a typical fallacy of the ideological mind, namely, the conclusion that what people do (history, that is) is wholly determined by forces—economic, in Marx; organismic in Spengler; Christian in Toynbee—that are themselves ahistorical and beyond human control. In both Hopkins’s and Roosevelt’s conviction, if more vividly in Roosevelt’s than in Hopkins’s, human beings were by God’s will free to choose; though they worked out God’s grand design, they must do so through the anguish of personal choice, guided by such signs of His will as He permitted them, human freedom being integral to God’s design. But in eschewing both ideology and the quest for fundamental causes, Hopkins, like Roosevelt, also eschewed coherence and fundamental consistency in his dealings with current event. The whole of his mental concern was with the event itself, and about this he asked questions of “what” and “how” to the virtual exclusion of “why.”

This passage is a lot like the whole book. I find it interesting as hell but I’m uncertain as to what it exactly means.

He presented his proposals to Congress on April 27, as a seven-point “economic stabilization program.” Each of the points, in his statement of it, was preceded by the phrase “to keep the cost of living from spiraling upward.” They were: 1) heavy taxation to “keep personal and corporate profits at a reasonable rate, the word ‘reasonable’ being defined at a low level”; 2) price ceilings, including “ceilings on rents for dwellings in all areas affected by war industries”; 3) wage controls (“we must stabilize the remuneration received by individuals for their work”); 4) stabilization of “prices received by growers for the products of their lands”; 5) increased purchase of war bonds by “all citizens” to prevent their using war-increased earnings “to buy articles which are not essential”; 6) strict rationing “of all essential commodities of which there is a scarcity”; 7) discouragement of credit and installment buying joined with encouragement of “the paying off of debts, mortgages, and other obligations.”

Can you believe this? Can you imagine GWB proposing this to help finance the war against terrorism? Roosevelt later defined the “low level” he would keep everyone’s income at after taxes as $25,000. That’s 1942 dollars. Today that would be $282,812.50. Okay, I guess that’s not that bad.

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