Michael Fullilove: FDR the Greatest Statesman of the Twentieth Century (INTERVIEW)

tags: World War II, foreign policy, interviews, Robin Lindley, FDR, diplomacy, Michael Fullilove


Robin Lindley (robinlindley@gmail.com) is a Seattle writer and attorney, and features editor for the History News Network. His interviews with scholars, writers and artists have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, Daily Kos, The Inlander, and other publications. He is a former chair of the World Peace through Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association.

FDR and Churchill onboard the HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Charter Conference. At far left is Averell Harriman.

To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

--President Franklin D. Roosevelt

From the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in September 1939 until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans were bitterly divided about whether the U.S. should aid the Allies, and many Americans wanted remain isolated from the conflict.

During this period, although he often spoke of staying out of the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gradually and relentlessly nudged the country toward intervention on the side of the democracies against Germany.

To better understand the situation in Europe and evade what he saw as a defeatist and hidebound State Department, FDR sent five handpicked envoys on special missions to Europe during the pre-Pearl Harbor war period: Sumner Welles, William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, Harry Hopkins, Wendell Willkie, and Averell Harriman. Averse to red tape and legal niceties, Roosevelt arranged these missions to Europe as he ignored Congress and sidelined the federal bureaucracy at a time when America was strongly isolationist.

Historian Dr. Michael Fullilove recounts how Roosevelt’s diplomacy relied on personal representatives from 1940 until the Pearl Harbor attack in his new book Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World (Penguin). He explains how these five men -- four of whom had no diplomatic experience -- informed FDR and furthered his policies that would lead to Allied victory and postwar American global primacy.

Dr. Fullilove’s new book draws on extensive archival material and other documents. He has been praised for his unique approach to the story of Roosevelt’s statecraft and the compelling and illuminating portraits of the five unusual and mostly forgotten special envoys. Acclaimed historian Robert Dallek commented: “Michael Fullilove’s compelling account of FDR and the five aides who helped lead the U.S. into the Second World War is an indispensable addition to the literature on the unforgettable events of 1939-1941. Everyone interested in FDR and World War II will want to read this superb book.” And Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution wrote: “Michael Fullilove skillfully recounts an underappreciated strand of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s statecraft -- his innovative deployment of five envoys in service of a strategy that would, ultimately, change the course of history. The efforts of Welles, Donovan, Hopkins, Willkie and Harriman, under FDR’s masterful leadership, laid the foundation for Allied victory in World War Two and buttressed Roosevelt’s campaign to awaken America from isolationism.” And Henry Kissinger called the book a “fascinating and well-written account of a little known chapter that was crucial to the course of World War II and to America’s global leadership."

Dr. Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has also worked as an adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating and as a lawyer.

His first book was 'Men and Women of Australia!' Our Greatest Modern Speeches. Dr Fullilove writes widely on Australian and U.S. foreign policy and global issues in publications including the New York TimesFinancial Times, the Washington PostThe Daily Beast, the Washington QuarterlyThe National Interest and Foreign Affairs, as well as the Australian press. He studied as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford where he earned a doctorate in international relations.

Dr. Fullilove recently spoke about his new book by telephone during a tour of the United States.

Robin Lindley: What inspired your interest in FDR and his five envoys?

Michael Fullilove: I’ve always been interested in FDR and I’ve come to the view over a number of years that he’s the most important statesman of the twentieth century. He held American democracy together during the Depression, led the Allies to victory over the dictators, and won four consecutive presidential elections. Most importantly, he did it all with a broken body and his immense personal courage and joie de vivre I found extremely impressive.

To have a public life like that and do it when he’d been paralyzed was extraordinary.

And I’ve always believed this was the turning point of the century in which America started down the track toward global leadership.

The book is about American entry in the war, and America emerged from the war the global leader. I needed to find something that gave me a fresh angle, and I came upon these five individuals. I take very seriously the structural forces that historians focus on when writing their histories, and I try to deal with those rigorously in the book -- but I did want to write the kind of history I like to read, which is history that about individuals and how they grapple with the forces and the context in which their operating. That’s why I focus on these individuals to tell the bigger story of how America changed as it entered the war.

You said you find FDR the greatest statesman of the past century, so does he eclipse Churchill in your view?

I don’t want to take away in any way from Churchill’s role, but we really remember Churchill for six months or a year from 1940 to 1941. That’s when he was the embodiment of the British will to resist, and when all of his predictions about Hitler came true, when he was in the cockpit of the British Empire at its moment of greatest peril.

But the rest of his career was much more patchy. Although he’s an admirable character of whom I’m very fond, in many ways, he was more of a nineteenth-century figure than a twentieth-century figure. He was quite out of date for his time in his views on imperialism and other matters.

It’s hard to compare that with the enormous impact Roosevelt had as president over such a long period. Roosevelt left his fingerprints on many aspects of America and the world over that period from the Depression right through to the postwar planning period.

And of course America was also was the coming power then and Britain had begun its decline. Therefore Roosevelt had a much more outsized influence, I think, than Churchill.

I think many American readers do not know of the extremely bitter campaign you capture between the interventionists and the isolationists in the two years preceding the Pearl Harbor attack.

That’s part of the essential background to the book. As I note, in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, only one in forty Americans favored an immediate declaration of war even though Hitler was obviously a madman.

So isolationism was powerful and resilient, and it took an enormous effort on Roosevelt’s part to marginalize the isolationists and tilt the national mood toward risking war with the dictators by supplying massive aid to the Allies and by gradually but relentlessly deepening the American involvement in the European war. That was an enormous task. The book is primarily about how Roosevelt took America into the war, but I wanted to make another claim, which was that this helped to take America into the world, too.

Through Roosevelt’s policies and also, to some extent, the work of his envoys, isolationism was diminished and marginalized and that helped America step onto the world stage.

Do you see the beginning of the modern “imperial presidency” with Roosevelt? Behind the scenes, he acted to aid Britain while publically he spoke of avoiding war.

Yes, there’s no question about that and there are many grounds on which one can criticize Roosevelt. And he was certainly not a stickler for constitutional or intergovernmental niceties. People have mentioned, for example, infamously the internment of Japanese Americans. There are many other examples, such as the destroyers-for-bases deal [in which the U.S. gave Britain fifty old destroyers to Britain in exchange for leases to British bases in the Western Hemisphere]. Many people argued at the time that it was legally questionable.

The problem with the Roosevelt example is that people look back and say, “It was in a just cause and it worked and it made a difference.” It did, but it also set the template for later presidents to adopt an expansive view of the power of the presidency.

And indeed, the use of envoys itself [was an issue]. These guys were performing important tasks in a way that the Congress had no part in advising on or consenting to their appointment. But I think that was one of the reasons Roosevelt liked personal envoys. Roosevelt always tended toward informal means that he could keep secret and deniable.

And yes, I think he set some precedents that were abused later.

It may surprise readers that Roosevelt usually ignored his Secretary of State Cordell Hull. What was Roosevelt’s relationship with the State Department?

Roosevelt respected Hull, who was a figure with a great constituency in the Congress and in the country. FDR had a lot of time for Hull, but as Roosevelt’s presidency went on, it became clear that Hull would not suit his purposes. He became increasingly unwell and he was not a creative foreign policy maker.

So Roosevelt turned to Sumner Welles, Hull’s deputy. Welles became a strategist for Roosevelt. Welles was one of the few career diplomats that Roosevelt liked and respected. That might have had something to do with their shared background of schooling and family connections. I think he also liked that Sumner Welles was effective. But generally, he didn’t put much store in the foreign services. Roosevelt referred to “deadwood” in the State Department and how the department was not sympathetic to his policies.

There’s a joke that Roosevelt is said to have made after Pearl Harbor: “My State Department is neutral in this war and I hope it remains that way.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it gives an accurate representation of his view that they were on the sidelines and that they were, in the traditional American view of diplomats, cookie pushers in striped pants. Of course, Roosevelt also made some poor appointments, in particular Joe Kennedy to London.

So Roosevelt’s way was, rather than to reform the State Department, to sideline it. He did that by corresponding directly with foreign heads of government and with ambassadors whom he’d appointed, and by appointing special envoys who went around the ambassadors.

The story of Harry Hopkins is especially gripping. He was a skilled administrator of domestic programs, yet he had no foreign policy or military training or experience. But he goes on to form relationships with Churchill and Stalin and later, during the war, he has a voice in military strategy.

Hopkins is an amazing character and a great forgotten figure. He was central to the New Deal and later central to FDR’s efforts to win the war. Typically, Roosevelt advisors did one or the other, but Hopkins did both. Roosevelt found him very useful as well as funny, charming, and laconic. Churchill conferred on him the mock aristocratic title “Lord Root of the Matter” because Hopkins could listen to a complicated argument and put his finger right on the nub of the issue. His directness appealed to both Churchill and Stalin.

He became the central figure, in a way, at the heart of the Big Three -- the relationship between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. As I point out in my book, one of Hopkins’s contemporaries said that each of them trusted Hopkins more than they trusted each other, which says something about his qualities.

And it seems Churchill immediately took to Hopkins as a friend. And Mrs. Clementine Churchill mothered Hopkins because of his frail health. And both Hopkins and Roosevelt were battling serious health problems during this period.

That’s right. And Hopkins just carried on. He was on dangerous flights and risked his life. Stalin was deeply impressed that Hopkins made the trip to Moscow despite his bad health. Observers noted that Hopkins was one of the few foreigners that Stalin would cross a room to greet. He had real admiration for someone who was so tough.

And of course, Hopkins arrived in London and in Moscow at moments of great trepidation and danger for the British, who were living through the Blitz, and for the Russians, who were trying to hold back [Hitler’s] Operation Barbarossa. And Hopkins in each case bore help and succor and friendship so it’s no wonder that Churchill and Stalin liked him.

Your book has been compared to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on the Lincoln presidency, Team of Rivals. You note that FDR recruited a couple of Republicans as envoys, notably his 1940 opponent for the presidency Wendell Willkie, and World War I hero and lawyer William J. Donovan.

Yes, Roosevelt was very focused on creating a reliable consensus in America for what he wanted to achieve overseas. The GOP was the locus of isolationism, though not exclusively so. There were also many isolationists in the Democratic Party, especially from the west of the country. But most of the Republican leaders and the leading Republican candidates for president in 1940 were all isolationists in principle or practice.

So Roosevelt reached out to internationalist Republicans, both to put them in his cabinet, and to appoint them to special envoy jobs -- especially Willkie. That was an overtly political thing to do -- to give him the “Ship of State” letter to deliver to Churchill. That was a deliberate attempt to corral Willkie into the Anglo-American relationship and to bind him tight.

Roosevelt usually had a reason for doing things.

Churchill liked Willkie; there was a lot to like about him. But I think, over time, Willkie came to feel ill used by Churchill and Roosevelt. Roosevelt hinted at various goodies whenever he needed Willkie, but they never eventuated. And Willkie felt a bit stung given that he had taken risks for Britain and Churchill but that Churchill didn’t reciprocate. In the end, Churchill went with the strength, which was Roosevelt. That was natural and understandable, but Willkie didn’t like it.

In his history of the Second World War, Churchill had few unkind things to say about Roosevelt and was very thankful to him.

Churchill’s history was a whitewash really. He tried to pretend that Washington and London hardly disagreed and that they saw eye to eye on issues when they clearly didn’t. In fact, historians such as David Reynolds have revealed to us how contested and difficult the Anglo-American alliance was and how hard Churchill worked at his relationship with Roosevelt. Later Churchill presented his relationship with Roosevelt in the rosiest possible light, but in fact it was much more hard-won than that.

In 1941, interventionists in particular saw FDR as dithering and indecisive and perhaps detached from issues. How do you see FDR’s leadership in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor?

I think there were some moments of paralysis in 1941. He had some health problems and personal losses that contributed to that. And it’s true that there were hawks who were just as angry at Roosevelt for moving too slowly as there were doves who were angry at him for moving too swiftly.

He might have been more decisive. He might have taken Americans to war earlier, but in that case Americans would have entered the war divided and angry rather than united and ready for the fight.

In a sense, there’s a brilliance to the way he used Britain, France and the Soviet Union as proxies and supported them and provided them with the tools to make war while prodding the Axis powers and allowing them to initiate the conflict.

I don’t say that Roosevelt sat back and knew at the beginning of 1941 where he wanted to get to by the end of 1941. I don’t think the world works like that and FDR didn’t work like that. There was a lot of improvisation and tacks to the left and tacks to the right, but when you look back at it, you have to say that there was a clear purpose that can be easily discerned. You have to say there was an unmistakable presidential purpose behind it: to move America gradually but relentlessly, in stages, in response to events abroad and in response to advances at home, towards ever-greater involvement in the conflict.

How does this history instruct us now, particularly in terms of President Obama’s foreign policy now?

I think one lesson is that it’s immensely difficult to turn a country as big as America.

My own view is that President Obama’s stated intention to rebalance America’s relations away from the Middle East and Europe and towards Asia makes strategic sense. And I’m not saying that just as an Australian but also because that’s where economically and strategically greater opportunities and challenges lie for America in the future.

But it’s very hard to do. You can’t just give a speech about it and host [foreign leaders], which the administration has done. It’s a big sustained task that involves extreme concentration from the president and those around him, including the secretary of state.

I don’t think that change of mindset has occurred. Certainly when we see Secretary Kerry making yet another trip to the Holy Land, one must ask: is that really America’s number one priority in the world? I don’t think so. If President Obama wants to turn America toward Asia, he will require a very clear goal and then endless flexibility and subtlety in terms of achieving it.