Roosevelts Ultimate Legacy
October 30, 2001
doubt, dont. That has been called the worlds shortest
sermon, and its generally good advice.
Until December 7, 1941, the American people,
in their wisdom, were overwhelmingly opposed to getting into World War II. Then
came Pearl Harbor, and the shock instantly changed everything. The country was
consumed by a mixture of patriotism, revenge, and race-hatred, all of it diligently
fanned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For years Roosevelt had been trying, with all
his devious skills, to get the country into war. To him Pearl Harbor came as a
godsend. Unlike President George W. Bush, he encouraged indiscriminate hatred of
the enemy populations. He didnt say apologetically that our quarrel was not
with the people of Japan and Germany, but only with the dictators who ruled them.
On the contrary. He sponsored propaganda films vilifying the Japanese and German
races, and ordered the bombing of their cities. He launched the development of
nuclear weapons that would enable American bombers to kill as many civilians as
Never particularly reverent toward
the Constitution and the rule of law, Roosevelt also ordered the illegal and
unconstitutional arrest and internment of American citizens of Japanese descent.
Even J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, no civil libertarian himself, protested.
Those propaganda films are something to see.
The series Why We Fight, directed by the great Frank Capra, was
brilliantly calculated to stir the blood against Japs with their
grinning yellow faces. Todays multicultural sensitivities
were still in the remote future; but even then, decent people should have recoiled.
There isnt much evidence that they did.
It all seemed like a good idea at the time. Even
now Roosevelt is generally regarded as a hero, even, increasingly, by
conservatives. His deceitful policies, condemned at the time by true patriots like
Charles Lindbergh, are defended as necessary for the purpose of dragging a
reluctant America into the war; so much for democracy and the peoples
right to know. The atomic bomb itself is defended because it
shortened the war. And as for Roosevelts dream of a postwar
world benevolently dominated by an American-Soviet partnership, the less said
Just as an individual should sometimes review
his life and repent his sins, a country should reflect on its history and retrace its
steps. At the end of the war, Americans were grateful for their monopoly of
nuclear weapons. But Roosevelts pal, Joseph Stalin, soon became
Americas open enemy and acquired his own nuclear arsenal. Doubts about
the wisdom of creating such weapons in the first place began to haunt us.
Still, we assumed that nuclear weapons would
remain what they originally were: complex, bulky things that only a few states
could possess and deliver. Nobody foresaw that they might one day be miniaturized
and fall into private hands, beyond the control of any state.
The peril we now face from stateless
terrorists is one long-term result of World War II. Nobody, not even the most
pessimistic and alarmist opponents of the war, could have predicted it. The
isolationists gave cogent reasons for avoiding war, but the best
reason of all lay hidden from them, dormant in the seeds of time, to be revealed
only decades later. Now we know what it was.
When you go to war, you never really know
what youre getting into. The dangers you can specify may matter less than
a nameless qualm about far worse evils that you cant even imagine. Nobody
in 1945, when the first A-bombs were dropped on Japan, asked, But what if
some Muslim fanatic is born in 1957 who will get hold of such weapons and use
them against us? Roosevelts ultimate legacy may turn out to be
Osama bin Laden.
Though nobody could have dreamed it,
Roosevelt was the last man to whom such a dark thought would occur. He plunged
into the nuclear future with his famous sunny optimism. So here we are. As Ernest
Hemingway jeered, in another context, How do you like it now,
Modern warfare keeps breeding new
possibilities of violence. But like a gambler who thinks he can beat the house, our
rulers have kept betting that they can win at this lethal game in which no man
knows the real odds. And their lack of foresight is made worse by their faulty