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Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill's Arm, Evaded the Law, and Changed the Role of the American Presidency.

In the last half-century or so, American presidents have displayed a proclivity for foreign policy misadventures, often carried out in secret and without consulting Congress. Robert Shogan, one of our shrewdest political reporters, has an intriguing explanation of this phenomenon. It all began, he says, with Franklin Roosevelt's deal with England in 1940 in which the United States acquired sites for military bases from Newfoundland to Trinidad in exchange for 50 destroyers. The deal was made public at the beginning of September 1940, but had been negotiated largely in secrecy, and was not submitted to Congress.

Shogan tells a fascinating story of the three months of negotiation that produced the agreement. Unfortunately, his analysis is less compelling. Because he is a great reporter, Shogan has the integrity not to omit the facts that don't fit his case, but he too often either mininimizes or misinterprets them.

1940 is a year everyone should know and know well. It was a crucial moment in the history of the modem world. And the drama was at its height during the period of June through September.

This was the situation in the middle of June: Hitler had completed his conquest of France, having already overrun Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. He was planning to invade Britain in September. Britain was short of all kinds of armaments, but, of its many needs, destroyers ranked among the most desperate. So Churchill asked Roosevelt for 50 of the World War I-era destroyers this country had mothballed. The need was clearly immediate.

Yet Roosevelt could not say yes right away. There was a law called the Walsh Amendment that appeared to preclude a transfer of American warships to another country. Even more daunting was the fact that the American public had been largely isolationist in sentiment for more than twenty years. The great national hero, Charles Lindbergh, was an active leader of the America First camp, aided and abetted by such prominent senators as Burton Wheeler, Hiram Johnson, Gerald Nye, and Arthur Vandenburg. The Chicago Tribune, the leading editorial voice of the isolationists, said, "The sale of the American ships to a nation at war would be an action of war." Herbert Hoover, the only living ex-president, opposed the transfer. And perhaps most maddeningly, Roosevelt faced the same problem that Churchill had been forced to confront when France, in its death throes, had asked for his precious Spitfire fighters. Would he be sacrificing to a lost cause weapons that would soon be needed in his own country's defense? Hitler seemed unstoppable. Britain, especially since it had been stripped of its armor at Dunkirk, did not seem a good bet to succeed where all others had failed. Many feared America would be next. Time magazine ran drawings of Nazi arrows sweeping across the Atlantic. Only 13, I took the peril so seriously that I decided I should enter military school.

Clearly we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Roosevelt had to get a pitifully unprepared America ready to fight. The army had only a few hundred thousand men. So it was essential to get a military draft enacted. The bill didn't pass until September 15, and until it was passed it had to take priority over other legislation. Shogan makes only fleeting reference to this crucial part of the context of the destroyer deal. This was the first peace-time conscription in American history. It was, to say the least, politically dangerous, as was to a lesser but real extent FDR'S call-up of four National Guard divisions that summer, to which Shogan devotes only one sentence.

And Roosevelt was far from being in the strongest political position of his career. He was nominated for a third term in July, but at a convention that was grumbling and at times near rebellion. The Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, was the most formidable opponent he had faced. (In November, Willkie was to receive five million more votes than the previous Republican presidential nominee.)

So here was FDR trying to get a draft enacted and prepare his country while running against a dangerous Republican opponent and having to face the strong emotional arguments of Lindbergh and the other isolationists against involving the country in a foreign war. Now he added to his problems the effort to accommodate Britain's need for the 50 destroyers.

Far from keeping the matter a secret, Roosevelt tried, to drum up public support for somehow getting the destroyers to England. He invited the nation's most powerful magazine publisher, Henry Luce of Time-Life, to the White House and said, "Harry, I can't come out in favor of such a deal without the support of the entire Time-Life organization for my foreign policy." FDR then arranged for General John Pershing, the only national hero more admired than Lindbergh, to make a radio speech advocating the deal. Roosevelt took Senator Walsh, the author of the amendment that stood in the way of the transfer, for a three-day cruise on the presidential yacht. He used William Allen White as an intermediary to try to get Willkie if not to advocate the deal, at least not to oppose it. Hoover persuaded Willkie not to come out in favor of the deal, but White kept him from coming out against it. And, last but not least, Roosevelt had the unenviable task of convincing the Chief o Navy Operations, Harold Stark, that giving up those fifty ships was a dandy idea.

By the time he got the admiral on board, some clever lawyers, including Ben Cohen, Dean Acheson, and Attorney General Robert Jackson, had discovered a loophole in the Walsh Amendment. But the loophole required that, as a net result of the transfer, the defense of the United States would be improved.

So in August FDR told Churchill: We will give Britain the destroyers, but to take advantage of the loophole, we have to get something that will strengthen our defense - namely, bases in the British colonies along our Atlantic defense perimeter. FDR also had to deal with the problem Churchill had faced with the French request for Spitfires - assurances that, in the event England should fall to the Nazis, the British fleet would sail to our shore. In other words, the destroyers would not go down with England, but would be available for our own defense.

Churchill had difficulty meeting the request for two reasons. First, presenting the matter as a trade would not look like a good deal to many of his constituents who would think that the bases were more valuable than the destroyers. Second, he feared the British people would think it defeatist if he appeared to acknowledge even the possibility that Hitler might conquer England. In the darkest days of May, he had actually mentioned the possibility, but he didn't want to do so again. He instructed his negotiator, Lord Lothian: "Pray make it clear at once that we could never agree . . . to any such defeatist announcement, the effect of which would be disastrous." Churchill's concern about this matter was one reason the details of the negotiations were kept secret, even though everyone knew a transfer was possible and could happen any time.

It was not until the end of August that Churchill could overcome his misgivings and agree to the deal. With the Nazis poised to invade England in mid-September, and the Congress getting ready to vote on the draft at the same time, was FDR to say, "I've got to hold up sending the destroyers until I get congressional approval?" Of course he shouldn't have, and he didn't. As a result, the first dozen American destroyers departed our shores on September 5.

In mid-September, the draft law was enacted. Would it have been if Congress had been distracted by a debate about the destroyers? Also in mid-September, the German Admiral Erich Raeder recommended that the invasion be postponed indefinitely, citing the presence of more than 30 British destroyers off the coast of southwestern England as one of the decisive deterrents. This was nearly half the operational destroyers that the British had to protect all the sea lanes of the world from German submarines. Could they have risked such a concentration of their resources if they had not known the American destroyers were on their way? Churchill said the transfer of the 50 American destroyers made a "profound impression throughout Europe," even encouraging Spain to resist Nazi demands for access to Gibraltar that fall.

So I think Shogan is wrong in contending that congressional approval should have been sought for the destroyer deal. There just wasn't enough time. The secretary of state, Cordell Hull, a former congressman who knew the ways of the Hill, told FDR that the legislation would face "many weeks of discussion." The widely respected senator, Charles McNary, who was the Republican nominee for vice-president in 1940, told Roosevelt that he could not support the deal if it was submitted to the Senate before the election, but that he could go along with the deal if Congress did not have to act. According to a survey of the Senate that August, 12 members of Roosevelt's own parry would have opposed the transfer, and only seven would even say they would "probably" support it. And as late as August of the following year, the isolationists still had enough power to come within one vote of delegating the extension of the draft.

I think Shogan's right, however, in deploring many of the subsequent examples of bypassing Congress by those responsible for our foreign relations. Almost all of the time, Congress should be consulted. But there are two examples where, as in 1940, action had to be taken in a time frame that made consultation impossible.

The first was the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in late June 1950. The progress of the North Korean advance was so rapid - remember that by early August they had pushed all the way down the peninsula to what became known as the Pusan Perimeter - that our troops had to be dispatched before Congress could be consulted as Shogan thinks it should have been. But I do believe that Congress should have been consulted as soon as catastrophe was averted - and I agree with Shogan that one reason that may not have happened was that Truman wanted to protect his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, from embarrassment over his apparent error in seeming to have invited the North Koreans to invade.

The other Shogan example with which I disagree is the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here again, the time frame for action was so condensed that consultation was impossible. And just as I think Truman was right to send troops to South Korea, John Kennedy was right, sublimely so, to decide on the blockade as a way to defuse the missile crisis, instead of authorizing the air strikes on Cuba that Dean Acheson and other senior advisers urged. Shogan quotes Acheson as saying that Kennedy was lucky to get out of the missile crisis. He was certainly lucky he didn't take Acheson's advice. Given what we know now about what the Russians were thinking, it would almost certainly have led to war.

Where Kennedy was wrong in the Cuban Missile Crisis was in not telling the public the full story after it was over, including the role Robert Kennedy's secret offer to the Russians to remove our missiles from Turkey played in persuading the Russians to remove theirs from Cuba, leaving far too many of the public thinking the lesson of the crisis was simply that we had out-toughed the Russians. This misunderstanding was to encourage too many macho misadventures in the future.

So rather than saying no secret deals, period, it seems to me that the lesson is secrecy only where absolutely necessary, in the most compelling emergencies - as in the Battle of Britain, Korea, and the Cuban Missile Crisis - and afterwards, full public disclosure as soon as possible.

The best reason for consulting Congress is that we have not had many presidents like Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, who could be counted on in a crisis. The combination of courage and good sense that they displayed is rare. Even a clever fellow like Dean Acheson who was right in 1940 could be partly in effort in 1950 and dead wrong in 1962. All of which makes it regrettable that Shogan portrays the destroyer deal as something that should be denigrated instead of celebrated.

What happened that summer was in fact very close to miraculous. By the end of September 1940, the threat of a Nazi invasion of England and of America being left alone and defenseless against Hitler - a threat that had loomed so ominously just three months before - had vanished, never to reappear. For this many deserve honor: Churchill, the brave pilots of the RAF - and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The only catch is that I was stuck at military school.
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Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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