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Doris Kearns Goodwin is the kind of earnest liberal who it is hard to dislike.  But this book joins David McCullough's Truman, Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days and Robert Dallek's LBJ biography to complete the set of hagiographies of the pre-Carter Democrat Presidents.  It is an extremely lightweight, but very readable account of the Roosevelts during the War years.  It is ideal for anyone who wants a glossy portrait of the topic and does not want to have any of their vacuous preconceptions called into question.

As the book opens, in May 1940, we are presented with the truly bizarre menagerie that was the Roosevelt White House.  Franklin and Eleanor have separate bedrooms--and have been estranged since Eleanor found out about his affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918.  Missy LeHand, FDR's "secretary & hostess", lives on the third floor.  Lorena Hickcock, Eleanor's "special friend" lives in the bedroom across the hall from the first lady.  Sara Roosevelt, FDR's mother, is frequently on hand, as are Harry Hopkins (FDR's friend & Eleanor's ally), Joe Lash (the young left-winger & future biographer whom Eleanor loves), Princess Martha of Norway (who FDR shares intimate moments with), and on and on...  But Goodwin assures us that all of these relationships are perfectly straightforward and innocent.

Goodwin briefly describes FDR's childhood.  She trots out the well worn story of his domineering mother, his blackballing by the Porcellian Club at Harvard, etc. All of which leave him with an "anxiety to please".  However, she never really connects the dots & explores how this trait (a weakness/strength that he shares with Reagan and Clinton), and it's resulting tendency to dither over decisions, lead him to needlessly hurt & confuse people.  Instead the chaos that attended his governing style and his personal relationships is presented as a kind of intentional creative force.

Of course, FDR's paralysis from polio is presented as the formative experience in his life.  It is hard to imagine that it would not shape his character somehow, but did it have a beneficial effect?  She accepts Eleanors statement that, "Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater
sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind."  This is balderdash.  They're likely to understand the suffering of others who are crippled.  But the great mass of mankind is not handicapped and if his polio led FDR to govern as if all men are dependents, this is something that needs to be examined and dealt with.  Instead we are assured that FDR had a special understanding, that you and
I don't have, because of his disease.

In the nation meanwhile, eight years of the New Deal has still left the country with a 17% unemployment rate.  But Goodwin assures us that the New Deal has been a resounding success.  And now a second crisis (the War) approaches which is even more fearful than the first (the Depression).  What can she possibly mean by this?  In what sense was World War II, especially in it's early stages, a
dire crisis for America?  We were never seriously threatened.  There was never a chance of the Nazis winning & holding power in Europe.  What crisis?

Suppose it was a crisis, why did it take FDR two years to get us into the War? (Even then, only the bombing of Pearl Harbor made it possible.)  If FDR was a great leader, why were these leadership skills not evident prior to December 7, 1941.

At any rate, War in Europe rages.  FDR faces a decision that fairly few President's ever faced.  Should he run for a third term.  Now George Washington was one of the few who could actually have won a third term, but he considered it more important that the Nation be governed by laws and not men, so he stepped down.  Following his example, no other President had stood for a third election.  But Goodwin barely acknowledges the fact that FDR's decision to run was a significant step on the way to the Imperial Presidency which finally came a cropper under JFK, LBJ & Nixon.

Later, when FDR actually runs & wins a fourth term, she not only ignores this issue, she ignores the fact that he was a dying man, with little chance of finishing his term.  It was an act of extraordinary irresponsibility to put the country in a position where it would be governed by a virtual unknown in time of war.  But by this time, as one observer remarked "...he had ceased to be a person; he was simply the president.  If something was good for him, it was good; if it had no function for him as president, it didn't exist."

Here are a few other issues that warrant fuller treatment:

    1) Did the internment of the Japanese flow from something within FDR?  He often used hateful
    language in describing those, like the America Firsters, who disagreed with him.  Was he prone to
    seeing the Japanese as enemies, because it was easy for him to imagine enemies?

    2) What was the point of taking Europe away from the Nazis and giving it to the Soviets?  Was that
    his intent?

    3)  When the war ended US debt was 127% of GNP.  If our current debt of maybe 60% is so
    awful, as I'm sure she argued during the Reagan years, then how could he have saddled us with
    twice that amount?

    4)  FDR used the Greer incident to justify convoying British ships.  He claimed that a U-boat fired
    on the US ship Greer without provocation.  This was a lie and as Goodwin points out, it bore bitter
    fruit in the Tonkin Gulf.  But isn't such deceitfulness an integral part of FDR's career?  He cheated
    on Eleanor (understandably perhaps, since she once told a daughter that sex was "an ordeal to be
    borne"), lied about his marriage, lied about his physical condition, etc. Wasn't lying his modus
    operandi?

Goodwin answers none of these questions, & for the most part doesn't raise them, because it's probably
never occurred to her to ask them.  She began work on this book believing the Roosevelts were demi-gods, but found she'd underestimated them.

As a general proposition, I'd recommend the book for those of limited intellectual curiosity.

Wingnut's reaction:
Read your review of Franklin & Eleanor.  It was good.

Did you know there was a PBS mini-series on them? and DKG was on screen about 70% of the time?

The mini-series is worhty of a C+ also.  In the era of Jerry Springer,  their trangressions seem mild, now.

Your questions:

1) Did the internment of the Japanese flow from something within FDR?  He
often used hateful language in describing those, like the America Firsters, who
disagreed with him.  Was he prone to seeing the Japanese as enemies,
because it was easy for him to imagine enemies?

Do you mean the Japanese-Americans as enemies?  The Japanese were enemies.
Something in me would still like to think internment was a sound idea,
originally.  But, as the Germans said the Jews were no better than animals,
he needed to disparage the objects of his/America's oppression, thus making
it easier to go through with it.

2) What was the point of taking Europe away from the Nazis and giving it to
the Soviets?  Was that his intent?

I don't think the two actions were related.  Stalin was sitting in the
countries he eventally annexed.  And Churchill had much more weight, given
his role in WWII and his relationship with Stalin, in the negotiations at
Yalta.  His intent was to make everybody happy. Unfortunately, he made
Stalin the happiest.

3)  When the war ended US debt was 127% of GNP.  If our current debt of maybe
60% is so awful, as I'm sure she argued during the Reagan years, then how
could he have saddled us with twice that amount?

If you check the GNP of all the belligerents, it was in the stratosphere.
127% is probably low for the group.  He did not saddle us with the debt, it
was a natural result of 4 years of war.  Yeah, it was awful, but prolonging
the war was more awful (not to mention defeat).

4)  FDR used the Greer incident to justify convoying British ships.  He claimed
that a U-boat fired on the US ship Greer without provocation.  This was a lie
and as Goodwin points out, it bore bitter fruit in the Tonkin Gulf.  But isn't
such deceitfulness an integral part of FDR's career?  He cheated on Eleanor
(understandably perhaps, since she once told a daughter that sex was "an ordeal
to be borne"), lied about his marriage, lied about his physical condition, etc.
Wasn't lying his modus operandi?

Yes.  Isn't it the M.O. of most presidents.  Every leader used a lie to
justify their entry into the war (Hitler used non-German aggression in the
free city of Danzig and dressed up German soldiers in Polish uniforms to
create havoc in the Sudetenland, Tojo whipped up lies about Chinese
aggression which was actually defensive measures in Japanese occupied
China).  Like Clinton, we have to wonder whether his lying went so far as
to affect national policy.

Wing
 

Orrin's response:
Dear Wing:

Thanks for your thoughtful answers.  I don't disagree with all your points, however:

1.) If there were legitimate reasons, why didn't we round up German-Americans & Italian Americans & put them in camps?

Because it's ridiculous on it's face to think that they would have been disloyal..  The same goes for Japanese-Americans, but purely because of race, they were rounded up.

Moreover, why weren't Hawaii's Japanese-Americans rounded up?

Because they were such a large portion of the population of the islands & actually had some political power.

My broader point though was that FDR demonized his opponents.  Isolationists were virtual Nazis in his eyes.  Every President who has engaged in this kind of personilization of political opposition has made catastrophic mistakes as a result:  Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare, FDR's camps, Nixon's enemies list & Clinton's attack politics are the bitter fruit of this kind of politics.

2.) I think you've missed the boat here.

Churchill was actually treated like a junior partner at Yalta.  It was very much a Stalin/FDR agreement.

But more importantly, was FDR incapable of seeing what Soviet domination would mean or did he approve?  There's no question that we could have driven them out of the countries of Eastern Europe.  So at some level, FDR/Truman determined that we would accept the Iron Curtain.

Given that fact, what was the point of fighting the Nazis.  On what basis did we differentiate the two murderous regimes?

3.)  Exactly.  And at the end of 50 years of the Cold War, we had an entirely manageable debt of 60%.  I was merely pointing to the double standard.  Where in the endless diatribes about Reagan's defecits is an acknowledgement from the Left that the Debt was consistent with historic norms?

4.)  My view would be that his lying was central to his personality & his governance (just like Clinton's).

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Doris Goodwin (2 books reviewed)
History
Presidents
Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Doris Kearns Goodwin Title: No Ordinary Time  Air date: January 1, 1995 (C-SPAN)
    -ARCHIVES : "doris kearns goodwin" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of COMING OUT UNDER FIRE : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two.  by Allan Berube (Doris Kearns Goodwin, NY times Book Review)
    -LECTURE : DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN Commencement address Dartmouth College June 14, 1998
    -Interview from Book Radio
    -INTERVIEW : Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses her new book about the Dodgers and her memories of baseball (Newshour, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW : with Doris Kearns Goodwin (AARP Bulletin, January 1998)
    -LINKS :    Doris Kearns Goodwin   (January 4, 1943 - ) (About.com)
    -PROFILE : Everybody Loves Doris : Doris Kearns Goodwin :  The sunny-side-up historian. (David Greenberg, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Wait Till Next Year A Memoir. By Doris Kearns Goodwin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wait Till Next Year A Memoir. By Doris Kearns Goodwin (Ann Hulbert, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of No Ordinary Time Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II By Doris Kearns Goodwin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of NO ORDINARY TIME Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. By Doris Kearns Goodwin (David M. Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS. By Doris Kearns Goodwin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS By Doris Kearns Goodwin (Geoffrey C. Ward, NY Times Book Review)

FDR :
    -REVIEW : of 'By Order of the President' by Greg Robinson, 'Free to Die for Their Country' by Eric L. Muller, 'Last Witnesses' by Erica Harth (Peter Irons, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. By Greg Robinson (The Economist)

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