‘The Great Man’ FDR

The people who write history are often divided over the issue of whether the fate of the world is controlled by the decisions of individual people, or whether there are tides of events whose interaction creates history, regardless of the actions and decisions of the people who live through those events.

One of the people who is commonly cited by those who favor what is often called “The Great Man” theory, and which certainly should be called “The Great Person” theory, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States. He was our only president to be elected more than twice, having won our highest office in four different elections. Since his death, our Constitution has been amended to permanently limit present and future presidents to no more than two terms.

Roosevelt led the nation through the Great Depression, and through all but the final month of World War II, as he died of a stroke in April of 1945. Naturally there is vast disagreement over how successful his leadership was, and if we are to learn anything useful for our future, it’s valuable to examine what he did and how, and why.

In the year 2000, pollsters asked their subjects to name the most admired person of the 20th century. Roosevelt was named to the No. 6 position. In polls of U.S. presidents, he is almost universally ranked either No. 2 or No. 3.

The past week has been one of those periods in which a long-scheduled topic for this column turned out not to be possibly used, for reasons beyond our control. Fortunately, in a fit of providential kindness, two works of art dealing with President Roosevelt came into my hands, just as original intentions were crumbling.

So, this week, let’s examine the book “Those Angry Days” by Lynne Olson, and the film “Hyde Park on Hudson,” by Director Roger Michell, and discuss for a bit the roles of people in history.

THOSE ANGRY DAYS

Obviously, a subject such as the 32nd president could be examined in many volumes, and still leave information and points of view unconsidered.

Biographer Lynn Olson, in her publication from March of 2013, has chosen to focus on the slightly more than two years during his second term in office and into the third term, between Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and England and France declared war, and Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor resolved the political quarrels and campaigns over what role, if any, should be played by the U.S., in the war.

Between 50 and 70 million people who were alive at the time Olson’s book begins, had been killed before the war came to its end in 1945, including nearly half a million Americans. If you look in various resources, you get different numbers. If a soldier was fatally bitten by a cobra while fighting the Nazis in North Africa, for example, was he a casualty of the war, or a victim of nature?

Obviously we’re talking about crucial, vital decisions, which needed to be made in a very short period of time, usually with no margin for error, whatsoever.

Only 25 years before the book begins, Europe erupted in what we call World War I. In that struggle, approximately 21 million people were killed. The United States stayed out of the first three years of that war, then rushed into the struggle in 1917, losing more than 100,000 lives, mostly young men and badly injuring our economy. Some Americans believed at the time that our country should have stayed out of the war completely, saving money and lives. Others believed that if we had involved ourselves sooner, we would have lost less and benefited more.

Those same questions existed in our country when the second world conflict erupted. In fact, for the two years of Olson’s book, the U.S. sat out of the conflict. As Hitler’s forces took over nearly all the continent of Europe, Great Britain soon faced his blitzkrieg alone, with Axis bombs dropping on English cities nearly every day, and German submarines sinking hundreds of ships, trying to bring nearly all the food which the British people could eat.

The same arguments raged again. Should we stay out and allow the events in Europe to work themselves out? If we did so would a victorious Hitler just rebuild his forces, refuel his war planes and move his focus to us? Records exist of a German plan to attack South America from Nazi-held Africa, then to work their way up through Central America and Mexico, to the Southern U.S. Was that a real danger, or the pipe dream of ambitious German officials, or a total invention by pro-war Americans to frighten Americans into supporting an active role in the war?

No one in Roosevelt’s position could escape criticism, no matter what he did. And in our well-known pride in not knowing our own government and history, many Americans fail to take into consideration that what any president does or doesn’t do, requires the active participation of the Congress. Olson suggests that the vast majority of Americans in this vital period of time were in favor of sending money, food, weapons and other aide to Britain, many in the hopes that the British would defeat Hitler and we wouldn’t need to be involved.

Roosevelt steered carefully between the two positions, earning the hatred of extremists on both sides. He often consulted the advice of people who had knowledge of some aspect of the conflict, aware that American public opinion has historically been almost miraculously capable of changing completely, under the influence of a successful film or book.

He believed that our country’s well-being was best served by stopping the spread of Nazism, but he knew very well that if he tried to push our country in that direction and failed, he could destroy any progress which had been made.

Meanwhile, among the millions of Americans who favored taking no part in the war, Olson focuses on one man, who was already a popular hero in the world: Charles Augustus Lindberg.

Lindberg had combined courage, intelligence and skill, in becoming the first individual to fly across the Atlantic in an airplane. Lindberg was not a politician, not a journalist nor an activist. His arguments were his own opinions and beliefs, a concept allegedly supported by the entire American system.

On the other hand, Lindberg had visited Germany several times before the war began, and observed that country’s swelling number of war planes and other technology. At a banquet, during one visit, he was awarded a medal by the German government for his inventions and expertise in advancing the science of aviation. His enemies would insist he was a Nazi sympathizer, plotting to advance Hitler’s conquest of the world. His admirers would insist he was a noble hero, uninterested in power or wealth and seeking only to advance the world’s knowledge.

This great political dance between the president and the popular leader of his opposition makes for riveting reading. If you think our modern political scene is unprecedented in its manipulation, influence peddling and heart-breaking dishonesty, this book will show you there was a pattern well established, about 75 years ago.

Another element which played a large role in this momentous struggle was Anti-Semitism. Americans knew that Hitler was persecuting Jews in the countries he took over, and Anti-Semitism was not at all a foreign concept in this country. When my father died, a few years ago, my sister and I was stunned to learn that in the deed to the house in which we grew up, the owners were forbidden to sell the house to Jews and a number of minorities.

Olson devotes only a few pages to the Japanese and their role in all this, even though it was their attack on Hawaii which ended the indecision which is the theme of the book.

In 1995, I participated in an educational program in Germany for American teachers, which included a number of history classes. In one of them we were taught that Hitler had urged his Japanese allies to attack the U.S., because he believed that our country was so racist that if we were attacked by non-whites, we would focus all our military power on revenge, and would allow Hitler to finish off England and begin consolidating his victories.

Instead, we joined the war, both in the Pacific and in Europe, and dedicated only a hold-even force against the Pacific, while focusing our principal attention on Hitler.

The book is well-written, very well-documented, and while the author clearly favors U.S. intervention in the war, Olson doesn’t make broad pronouncements or use negative innuendo against those whose positions he opposes.

The book is published by Random House. It has 461 pages in its hardbound edition, and is marked for sale at $30. There are four copies available to be borrowed from libraries in the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System. Find the book with ISBN number 978-1-4000-6974-3.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

If the actions and decisions of specific persons is the root of all history, then the personal lives of those people are vitally important. If not, they’re nobody’s business but the individuals’.

Some say that Abraham Lincoln had a number of love affairs in his early days, for example. If so, did they play any role in his leadership of the U.S. Civil War or his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation?

FDR was married to a distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the couple had six children together. In 1918, Eleanor found letters to her husband which she believed proved he was having an affair with her secretary, Lucy Rutherford. Historians claim she offered her husband a divorce, and when he refused, she formed a separate life for herself, serving as a political partner in carrying out his agenda, but no longer actively participating in their marriage.

In the nearly 60 years since his death, evidence has been garnered which seems to suggest that the president had love affairs with at least three additional women: his own secretary, Missy LeHand, Princess Martha of Sweden, who took refuge in Washington, D.C. from the Nazis, during the war, and with another distant cousin of his, Margaret (Daisy) Suckley. Ms. Suckley’s participation was not suspected by the public, until her death, at the age of 99, in 1991. Under her bed was discovered a suitcase filled with letters from the former president. It was later learned that after his death, Roosevelt’s daughter Anna had found Daisy’s letters to the president, hidden in his stamp collection, and had returned them to Daisy, which explains why both sides of the correspondence are available.

The film “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which was released for home viewing only a few days ago, gives us a view into the private life of FDR, largely based on those letters. The central event of the film is the visit to Hyde Park by the King and Queen of England, hoping to convince the U.S. to join the war and save their country.

One of the greatest cultural treasures of Chautauqua County, and indeed of all Western New York, is the film and video collection of the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System. The collection is stored and cared for at the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown, but the thousands of films can be borrowed, free of charge, at any of the more than 30 libraries in the two counties. A few of the smaller libraries maintain small film collections of their own.

Once, thousands of years ago, all of literature was oral. If someone wanted access to “The Odyssey” or “Beowulf,” it was necessary to find someone who had memorized the entire work and listen, while that person recited. Now, of course, anyone who can read can enjoy and/or study any of those great works, at his leisure.

Far more recently, films were in a similar situation. If you wished to see a film, you went to a public theater, while the film was being shown. If you lived in a small town, you might never see the vast majority of films. Going to college at Meadville, I remember the year the town’s only movie theater began showing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and kept it on their screen for 17 weeks, during which nothing else was to be seen in town.

The development of video tapes, and affordable players for them, made it possible for almost any citizen to watch almost any film at almost any time. Films went quickly from insignificant entertainment to major cultural influences.

Realizing – with apologies – that I’m generalizing, in most situations a book is preferable to a film of the same story, but the film has had a greater cultural influence, impressing on the minds of viewers who wouldn’t take the time to read, the reality of certain situations.