FDR—Great Wartime Leader
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“A Day That Will Live in Infamy…”
The legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 20th century’s preeminent US president, endures. He successfully led the US through the Great Depression and, along with Winston Churchill, the world through history’s bloodiest conflict. He realigned domestic politics, redefined the role of the federal government, ushered in the atomic age, and inspired the creation of the United Nations.
On December 7, 1941, the war that had been raging across the globe came home to the United States of America when Japan staged a successful attack upon our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking ships, destroying planes and facilities and killing and wounding many servicemen.
President Roosevelt was convinced that Germany posed the greater threat to civilization than did Japan and that the US would be on the Nazi hit list once Britain was defeated. Knowing that Germany would be committed to declaring war on the US once we declared war on its Axis partner, FDR, in words that resonate to this day, asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Japanese Empire. As anticipated, Germany and Italy then declared war on the US.
While the majority of Americans were opposed to our entry into this new conflict, US neutrality was largely a fiction in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. On March 11, FDR had signed into law the Lend-Lease Act, providing an eventual $50.1 billion to the UK and its allies. On September 2, he signed the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, trading 50 US destroyers for base privileges in Newfoundland, Trinidad and several Caribbean islands. US Neutrality Patrols tracked and reported the movements of German warships, eventually assisting the Royal Navy as it convoyed materials across the Atlantic.
Following the German invasion of Denmark, the US proclaimed Greenland and Iceland to be within its sphere of influence. FDR and Churchill had agreed in the Atlantic Charter that when—not if—the US entered the war, Germany would be the first priority.
As a wartime leader, Roosevelt energized the American people with his inspiring rhetoric and charismatic personality, as he had done through the darkest days of the Great Depression. In his famous Four Freedoms speech—freedom of speech and worship and from want and fear—on January 6, 1941, he set the tone for US aims in the coming conflict. Contrary to his own ideals, however, FDR acquiesced in the wave of anti-Japanese hysteria sweeping the country after Pearl Harbor and signed Executive Order 9066, causing 100,000 innocent Americans of Japanese descent to spend the war years in concentration camps, yet another dark chapter in the history of xenophobia and racial discrimination.
Throughout the war, FDR focused upon ways to avoid future conflicts especially the formation of an effective United Nations to replace the defunct League of Nations. He attended twelve conferences with allied leaders, mapping strategy and planning for the world of the future. At first, he expressed confidence that he could work with Joseph Stalin to create a lasting peace. The controversies arising from the Big Three conference at Yalta, February 4-11, 1945, continue to the present. At the time, the Red Army, numbering three times the allied strength, occupied most of eastern and central Europe and was within forty miles of Berlin. While he gave lip service to the formation of democratic societies in the region, Stalin was in a strong position and reneged on all his agreements, sending FDR into a rage. The military and geopolitical realities of the time rather than FDR’s alleged naivete brought about the unhappy consequences.
Fated not to see the end of the conflict he had led the world through, Roosevelt died at his Warm Springs, Georgia, retreat on April 12, 1945, less than a month ahead of the German surrender and six months before the adoption of the UN Charter.