One of the paradoxes of our age is that the hereditary principle is in eclipse everywhere except the first great republican democracy. With all our faults, we love our house of peers no more, and there are no longer any political dynasties in England (unless you count Benn) or elsewhere in Europe. But the last American presidential election was contested between the son of a former president and the son of a former senator; while the most famous American president of what one of his vice- presidents called the century of the common man was a rich patrician who grew up as far as could be imagined from the proverbial log cabin.
Among the old New York aristocracy, the Roosevelts stood high, not quite the longest-settled and not quite as rich as some newer families, but well-respected and self-confident in the year 1882, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on their estate at Hyde Park overlooking the Hudson. ‘Delano’ (which later gave Mussolini much amusement: ‘of the anus’ in Italian) was originally de la Noye; FDR was prouder of that Huguenot ancestry than of the way the Delanos had made their recent pile in the opium trade. He received a conventional education at Groton and Harvard, where he didn’t do much work and wasn’t especially popular. By the time he became president, Roosevelt was reviled by the rich as a demagogic class traitor, and in this very detailed but always readable and often unlikely biography Conrad Black thinks there may have been an element of truth in this, or at least that he gained ‘some special gratification in running as a champion of the common man against caricatured groups of complacent and greedy inheritors’ (the fact that the biographer identifies so strongly with this tribune of the people against the greedy rich is what I mean by unlikely).
Inspired by the career of his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was elected to the New York state legislature in 1910, though unlike TR as a Democrat, and was then propelled into national politics when President Wilson made him Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This became a far more important job once the United States entered the war in 1917, and by 1920 Roosevelt was chosen as the running mate for James Cox, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate. After a lucrative spell in the private sector, FDR became governor of New York in 1928, before his historic victory in the 1932 presidential election.
All this public drama is set against a private background. Black is good on Roosevelt the man and on his personal life; his awkward marriage to the plain, rather sad Eleanor, and his long liaison with Lucy Page Mercer, before and after her marriage to Winthrop Rutherford. The author has no problem with Roosevelt’s aptitude for helping himself to the good things of life, sometimes in a way which would have the media clucking loudly today. As Assistant Secretary, he treated the United States Navy as a private taxi service, deciding that the most convenient way to reach his holiday home in New Brunswick was by destroyer and that the most convenient place to stay during the 1920 Democratic convention in San Francisco was aboard a warship of the Pacific Fleet.
Plainly the turning point of FDR’s life was on his summer holiday in 1921, when he found himself losing control of his limbs, and his bowels. He was nursed loyally by Eleanor before polio was diagnosed. FDR was treated at, among other places, what in a more robust age was called without compromise the Boston Hospital for Crippled Children, and being a cripple not only won him much admiration, when he made his way to convention platforms on crutches, but altered his personality: as with Iain Macleod on a smaller scale, it brought out a steely toughness which saw him through his unmatched four victorious presidential elections and his 12 years at the White House until his death in April 1945, weeks before the defeat of Germany.
Any public man — politician, soldier, financier — who writes books is likely to be patronised by professional authors, as when Evelyn Waugh waspishly said that Winston Churchill’s historical works, ‘though highly creditable for a man with so much else to occupy him, do not really survive close attention’. And any historian who isn’t a salaried academic is also vulnerable to the jalousie du métier of dons, often undeserved. Readers will scarcely need to be reminded that Lord Black of Crossharbour owns The Spectator as well as the Daily Telegraph, where the book has already been warmly reviewed twice over, and the Sunday Telegraph, where Paul Johnson was more sceptical; and not only malevolent cynics may reasonably wonder whether praise for his book in these pages can be trusted.
A fair answer to that fair question might be to cite with agreement the detached verdict of one eminent American historian, Professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia University, who writes in the New York Times that
however unexpected, this enormous book is also one of the best one-volume biographies of Roosevelt yet …. it tells the remarkable story of Roosevelt’s life with an engaging eloquence and with largely personal and mostly interesting opinions about the people and events he is describing.
But along with Brinkley’s almost unconcealed surprise that Conrad Black should have written this book at all, what’s no less surprising is its tenor of deepest admiration. Despite its subtitle, it is not quite a hagiography, but it continually gives FDR the benefit of the doubt, and roundly chastises his foes. This sometimes has a perverse effect, as the reader reacts against Black’s adulation and wonders whether Roosevelt’s many detractors might not have had a point. A contre-coeur, Black cannot conceal the way that FDR’s huge charm cloaked an iron-hearted man, cunning, manipulative and ruthless. Roosevelt’s vice-president for his first two terms in 1933-41 was the genial Texan reactionary John Nance Garner, who considered his chief, as Black puts it, ‘compulsively devious and a snake-oil salesman, though undoubtedly a talented one’, and it’s sometimes possible to have a sneaking sympathy with ‘Cactus Jack’.
When Roosevelt took office in 1933, the country was engulfed by crisis verging on catastrophe, with 13 million unemployed and most banks closed. He may have saved the day by temporary expedients, but the New Deal was important more for morale-boosting publicity value than for any profound improvement it actually wrought: recovery didn’t properly begin until several years later, and then it was less preconceived policies which rescued the American economy than the coming war. From 1938, Roosevelt and the United States refuted Göring and showed that you can have guns and butter.
On other questions Black is generous towards FDR. He devotes much attention to the persecution and murder of the European Jews, more attention, it’s tempting to say, than Roosevelt himself did. While Black insists that Roosevelt was free from anti-Semitism, it might be better, on the evidence adduced here, to add ‘by the standards of his age and class’, and the fact is that he did little to help the doomed millions. Likewise, during Roosevelt’s administration, the condition of black Americans barely improved, and Black acknowledges that ending segregation, or even the scourge of lynching, came low on Roosevelt’s list of priorities.
Of course, FDR was to some extent trapped by political realities and his dependency on the Solid South. All great political parties are coalitions, often of highly disparate elements, but none has been more disparate than the Democrats in that Rooseveltian heyday, a truly strange alliance of organised labour, city bosses, intellectual liberals, blue-collar ethnics and Southern segregationists. Still, when excuses are made, the fact is that twice in the past century sainted liberals, Roosevelt and
then Kennedy, struck anti-racist attitudes in the White House, while leaving it to their respective successors Truman and Johnson, execrated by progressive opinion, actually to do something for African-Americans. And FDR’s inactivity in this regard looks less attractive besides the violent energy he displayed in packing the Supreme Court and very nearly violating the Constitution.
Although Black is Canadian by birth and now a British citizen, he sees international politics through American eyes. The story as he tells it of the years preceding the war, and then the war itself, is gripping, but he overdoes his denigration of Chamberlain and Daladier (even stressing the latter’s repellent appearance) during the appeasement period. One thing should never be forgotten. Between August 1914 and November 1918, one and a half million French soldiers were killed in battle, which is to say three times more than all the Americans who have died in every foreign war from 1776 until today. There were besides three-quarters of a million British soldiers killed in the Great War, and any criticism of French or British politicians who wanted to avoid another war should be tempered by that memory, especially when telling the story in an American context.
In 1932, the Democrats were markedly more isolationist than the Republicans, and it is not really too much to say that FDR was elected on a pacificist platform, which he happily kept to for some years. From his ‘Quarantine the aggressor’ speech in 1938, he preached verbal defiance of the dictators, but whatever else may be debatable about the Munich agreement that year, it is absolutely certain that no military support of any kind whatever was on offer to the European democracies from the United States (whose army was anyway smaller than Belgium’s at the time). It is not entirely certain that Roosevelt would have entered the subsequent war at all if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States. And even after their entry into the war American sacrifices were trivial by the standards of the other combatant powers. This point may be made better by an English reviewer: among many other inheritances from one country to the other, the Americans learned in the 20th century the great art which the English had perfected in previous centuries, of providing the money in wartime while others did the actual fighting.
In terms of narrative, almost the best part of the book is the second world war, where the relationship — by no means just a marriage made in heaven — between FDR and Churchill is entertainingly related. And his relationship with Stalin also: Black defends Roosevelt from the charge that he was too gullible and allowed himself to be bamboozled by Stalin, even insisting that the Yalta agreement was a success for the Americans which was only soured through Soviet perfidy, saying that what happened to the East European nations after the war was ordained by geography, and almost implying that they had it coming (‘None of these peoples except the Czechoslovaks had any distinction at self-government’). This is plausible, although another way of looking at it is that FDR had as usual his own priorities, and simply didn’t care to any great degree about the fate of the Poles and Hungarians, any more than about the fate of black Americans or European Jews.
Or perhaps about the fate of the English. Leave aside Marxist historiography, wherever or whatever it might now be: there is a school of right-wing historians — John Charmley and the late Alan Clark among them — for whom Franklin Roosevelt was one of the worst enemies England ever had, and they have a case which needs answering. FDR’s hostility to the British empire was one thing, and plain enough; he also treated Great Britain itself as both ally and rival. This critique is given its most intellectually sophisticated expression by Robert Skidelsky in his great triple-decker biography of Keynes, now published in a one- volume edition (John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman, Macmillan £30). Churchill described Lend-Lease as the most unsordid act in history, but then he had a capacity — strength and weakness at once — for believing what he wanted to believe. After June 1941 he convinced himself that Stalin was a wise and doughty leader of his people, and it was no harder than that to overlook the reality of Anglo-American relations.
In any case, while he naturally hymned Lend-Lease, Churchill didn’t quite understand it. Finance was never his strong suit (as he had demonstrated during his tenure as Chancellor), and he may not have fully grasped how stringent or even devastating the terms of this ‘unsordid’ agreement were. Readers of Skidelsky will perceive that, as Keynes did. He knew that Washington had the British over a barrel, and he nevertheless thought that we had done the right thing, even if the agreement all but destroyed Great Britain as an exporting economy: ‘We threw good housekeeping to the winds. But we saved ourself, and helped to save the world.’
On his last page, Black quotes A. J. P. Taylor’s saying that ‘of the great men at the top, Roosevelt was the only one who knew what he was doing; he made the United States the greatest power in the world at virtually no cost’, a verdict which he calls exaggerated. And yet on all the evidence which this book has honestly presented, it seems hard to deny that Taylor was right. Roosevelt did indeed inaugurate the great American imperium under which we have since lived, at the expense of his allies as well as his enemies; what one makes of it depends on who one is, or where one is.
If circumstances should leave Conrad Black with more time on his hands to devote to his new career as an historian, readers of this enjoyable and stimulating book will be grateful. They must also hope that he continues to explore the great story of our time, the relationship between New World and Old.