§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: FDR by Jean Edward Smith

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

Excellent biography for the general reader. There have been many books on Roosevelt recently, several about his relationship with Churchill specifically, but not a complete biography. Smith sees Roosevelt as, with Washington and Lincoln, in the top echelon of influential American presidents and her book is intended to show why. But she is also sensitive to his faults and doesn’t hesitate to condemn a number of his actions and attitudes, not the least of which was his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court by mandating another justice for every justice who turned 70. The reader has a sense of a factual and balanced view of an extraordinary man.

This isn’t a biography with startlingly new information. I’ve read a lot of books about Roosevelt and a lot of histories in which Roosevelt figures prominently and was surprised by nothing but still delighted with the book because of Smith's ability to analyze Roosevelt’s attitudes and actions in detail, free of political and popular bias. The one section of the book that seemed to me particularly good was her analysis of the build up to the attack on Pearl Harbor which revisionist historians recently have construed to suggest that Roosevelt deliberately allowed to happen in order to have an excuse for the US to enter the war. Certainly Roosevelt saw that necessity before the country as a whole was willing to abandon its isolationism, but after reading Smith’s account I’m convinced that the revisionist’s were wrong about Roosevelt. One particularly interesting facet was the attempt of Ambassador Joseph C. Grew to broker a rapprochement with Japan through the Japanese prime minister who did not want war but who was facing an ever-more-militant party within the government. Grew cabled the prime minister’s offer of talks to Roosevelt, but Roosevelt was in Placentia Bay at the time meeting with Churchill and drafting what became the Atlantic Charter. Evidently Grew’s cable was dealt with by more militant and anti-Japanese elements within the State Department.

Smith devoted more attention to the New Deal, both its successes and its failures, than to WWII which seemed odd to me, but after all, those years constituted a larger proportion of FDR’s presidency and the war years have been covered so thoroughly in the recent spate of books on WWII and Roosevelt’s role and influence. I was particularly convinced of Roosevelt’s power as a politician and leader when Smith showed how his positive attitude and ability to communicate with all Americans appealed to the people who had heard nothing but doom and gloom from Hoover who was not an inspiring communicator. In fact, with the US facing a Presidential choice at this time, it reminds me that sometimes the ability to communicate a vision is the most important job of a national leader.

Oh yes, I was surprised by one thing. There was an assassination attempt on Roosevelt before his first inauguration. In Feb of 1933 he had been on a yacht with Harvard friends (last vacation before taking up his duties). They put in at Miami because Roosevelt was supposed to address a rally/convention of the American Legion in a park. After his talk which he gave from the back of the car, 5 shots came in rapid succession. One hit the mayor of Chicago who was talking to Roosevelt. Then as afterwards became clear, the last shot, evidently intended for Roosevelt, went wide when a woman in the crowd hit the assassin's arm with her handbag. At least two other people were hit but not killed. Roosevelt overrode the Secret Service and got Cermak (Chicago mayor) into the car and took him to the hospital. He didn't die right away but when he did, the assassin, an unemployed bricklayer of Italian extraction was tried, and sentenced to death.


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