Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Comparing Bush and Roosevelt as War Leaders

World War II - the "Good War" - has an iconic place in our history, and because of this we tend to see it as a model for how wars should be fought. Never undertake a "war of choice" and always start with a clear declaration of war. Americans aren’t good at the muddled, balance-of-power wars that Europeans specialized in before the 20th century. World War II lacks the bitter feel of Korea and Vietnam. We don't do "limited wars" very well - as a religious people, we yearn for an all-out crusade against evil incarnate, and World War II was the perfect model of that.

Roosevelt also has an iconic place in our minds, but I think this is solely because he was commander-in-chief during the war. The New Deal was a complete failure - unemployment in 1939 was 17%. Beating Hitler, sending the unemployed overseas, and women working double-shifts in munitions factories formed his legacy. If he didn't go for a third term he'd be remembered for soup kitchens, bank robbers roaming the plains, and trying to pack the Supreme Court.

Some claim that Bush "should have known" about 9/11. While anything Bush should have known Clinton should have known as well (especially since the World Trade Center was attacked early in his administration), there is a better case that Roosevelt knew Japan would attack in the Pacific. Note I said better case than Bush but neither case is strong - I'm no conspiracy theorist.

Bush is said to have had it in for Iraq from the moment he took office, and seized on 9/11 as an excuse. That Roosevelt was spoiling for a fight with Germany is clear. Long before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt chartered military staff talks with Britain, planning our European and Pacific strategies. Lend-lease tied us to Britain as well as putting the still-unemployed back to work. Well before Pearl Harbor, we had US ships escorting convoys halfway across the Atlantic. Recall that we were brought into World War I because of submarine attacks in the Atlantic.

The American people were overwhelmingly isolationist - so much so that Roosevelt, an accomplished politician if nothing else, knew that it would take an attack on America to gain our participation in the war. And we were by no means sympathetic in general with Britain - there were too many German and Irish Americans to make that issue clear before late 1940.

Propaganda? Using an attack by one enemy (Al-Queda) as an excuse to start a campaign against another country (Iraq)? The first massive ground and naval action after Pearl Harbor was an attack against . . . French North Africa. Ahh, but you say: Germany declared war against us! I recommend a fascinating, little known book called Hitler Attacks Pearl Harbor. It is a detailed study of US media coverage immediately before Pearl Harbor, and the month after it. The author makes the claim that the German declaration of war changed nothing. Even in its absence we still would have focused most of our war effort against Germany, because that was what we had been planning (with Britain, in secret) all along. There were stories in the media that Japan was incapable of such an attack. There were editorials that claimed they must have had the assistance of German planning, German planes - even German pilots! It puts the run-up to the Iraq war to shame.

Bush's assault on civil liberties and Guantonimo? Roosevelt had internment camps for US citizens on US soil.

What about Bush's obsequious "alliance" with the tyrannical, repressive Saudis? Think of all the pleasant, warm chats Franklin had with Joe Stalin.

Notwithstanding the above, there are good reasons for the actions that Roosevelt took. But there are good reasons for the things that Bush did as well. Americans would do well to recall that he does not bare sole responsibility for this. The war against Saddam was overwhelmingly popular as the tanks were steaming into Baghdad. We were in crusade mode then, but as things became muddled we deny ourselves, and act like Bush did this alone. As if there were hundreds of thousands of protesters who were barricaded in the streets of this country while the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Baghdad.

I think history will see Bush in a better light that he is seen now. I'm in only partial agreement with him on Iraq. Dragging Saddam out of his hole was the best possible lesson that leaders - no matter how many bunkers, guards, and palaces they have - should think twice before lending support to those who would attack us. When an attack on our soil kills more Americans than Pearl Harbor, a disproportionate response (like invading North Africa with the same number of troops that we sent to Iraq) is warranted.

But we should have left Iraq long ago. We don’t need an empire, and when I see the imperial temple we're building in the Green Zone, I'm afraid that's the path we've taken.


Oldsat said...

Well done essay! Thanks for sharing.
Apropos in a reverse kind of way, I was reading a blog heralidng a "Bilderberg Presidency," in which non-US citizens (mostly of Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" types) lend their approval of PCINC (Prospective Commander in Chief) Ms. Clinton as President #44. Wow, what a crystal ball they must have; maybe its really one of the famous LOTR Palantiri. If we recall JRRT's Middle Earth opus, the seeing stones had their Net Control on Mt. Doom. I'm not sure I'd want to use on o' them things in half-duplex when Sauron was in a bad mood...
Anyway. The FDR-Bush compare/contrast is instructive due to its early effort at building international relationships for the betterment of all concerned. Except for Hitler and Tojo, that is.
The Peaceful Planet ideal seems to me to be better actuated when the REAL Star Trek-Prime Directive adhering generations exist.
Until then, we must keep on slapping each other up alongside the head until it feels pretty good when we stop.
Well, until the numb wears off. Then, it's back to maneuver operation and PSYOPS.

Oldsalt in Quaker-Land

PS: And -- if Jean-Luc Picard's humanity is so great - why does he still pack a Phaser on Away Parties? (Yeah, I know, to toast marshmallows....) As well, because Picard's 'Humanity' doesn't fit into the life styles of non-humans....

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Excellent post! I must look into that book you mention!

Sweating Through fog said...


Thanks for your comment. The book is a very interesting read on the critical days just after Pearl Harbor. It is the only book or article I've read that addresses the issue - "what would we have done after Pearl Harbor if Hitler hadn't declared war?"

Almost every historian I've read ignores the four days between the Japanese attack and Hitler's declaration of war, so this was very interesting.

Mike in Maryland said...

"The first massive ground and naval action after Pearl Harbor was an attack against . . . French North Africa."

Forgetting the Battle of Midway??? And the other major battles in the Pacific???

The Battle of Midway occurred June 4 to 7, 1942. This was a full five months PRIOR to Operation Torch in North Africa (first US troops in combat against the German/Italian forces) started on November 8, 1942.

You did a good job of wordsmithing your article to project your views, but that's all it was - wordsmithing, not FACTS.

As a result, if I were grading your paper, based on a historical analysis, I would give it a 'F'.

Sweating Through fog said...


Thanks for stopping by. Midway was a defensive action, where we used existing forces to intercept a Japanese attack. And no ground forces took part.