Reviewed by John Harper (Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies)
Published on H-Pol (April, 1999)
FDR's World Order
In his famous essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," Isaiah Berlin described a type of mind that knew one big thing, contrasting it with a type that knew many smaller things. This is a book which is right about one big, important thing but muddled about some smaller (and a few medium-sized) things.
The big thing that the authors aptly demonstrate in their blow-by-blow account of the origins and development of the U.N. is that Franklin Roosevelt never abandoned his realist and paternalistic view of how the peace should be organized, a view that clashed with the Wilsonianism of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, and internationalist politicians on both sides of the aisle.
According to Hoopes and Brinkley, "If he [FDR] really believed that the U.N. could and would become the central arena for managing international affairs--and the specific evidence is thin--it was because he viewed the Security Council as a direct extension of the Big Three Wartime alliance. The main lesson he drew from the League [of Nations] failure was that responsibility for world peace depended exclusively on the few nations that possessed real power and that they must 'run the world' for an indefinite transitional period after victory; he considered the lesser nations irrelevant to the international policing function. In his view, Big Power cooperation was imperative for settling or suppressing conflicts between and among the lesser nations, especially conflicts that might lead to wider war" (pp. 207-8). This judgment is right on the mark. In fact the authors needn't have insisted that Roosevelt was a "thoroughly disenchanted Wilsonian" (pp. 11, 39). Though he wrapped himself in Wilson's mantle in order to prosper as a politician, he had never been a true believer. He simply did not buy the central Wilsonian concept of the "sovereign equality" of states.
What is surprising is that this handsomely produced, highly readable retelling of the story of the U.N.'s founding by a pair of distinguished historians should contain so many banal, and some not so banal mistakes. (It is a "retelling," not as its preface claims, the first full account, because it relies on the earlier work of Robert Divine, Robert Hilderbrand and Ruth Russell.) To start with some of the small ones: France was defeated in 1940 not because the Maginot line was "breached and broken" (p. 17), but by the German offensive through the Ardennes. Churchill did not head a "Tory government" in 1940, rather a National (coalition) government (p. 17). Italy did not invade Greece in April 1941 (p. 23) but in November 1940. FDR ordered U.S. ships to shoot German raiders on sight only three months before Pearl Harbor and thus the order was not followed by "sixteen months of semi-secret, undeclared naval warfare" in the North Atlantic (p. 21). It is highly unlikely that Hitler's failure to declare war on the United States would have led to a "concentration of American power in the Pacific" since the September 1941 order would sooner or later have brought a showdown with Germany in the Atlantic, just as FDR intended (p. 45). The Red Army's failure to help the Polish uprising in August-September did not give rise to "bitter exchanges" between FDR and Stalin (pp. 140, 170). FDR did not go to bat for the Poles. The Spring 1945 controversy between Moscow and the Allies did not concern the surrender of "Italian troops," rather of the German army in Italy (p. 181). Senator Gerald Nye was from North, not South Dakota (p. 164); Wayne Morse was not a Democrat, but a progressive Republican (p. 164).
One can agree or disagree with the authors' treatment of the Hull-Welles relationship (the former is presented as embittered and largely ineffectual; the latter as energetic and effective), but it is surely wrong to say that Hull had no qualifications to be secretary of state (p. 33). After all, he was Wilson's chief disciple in the Democratic Party. The book does not provide a very convincing explanation of FDR's shift away from a U.N. blueprint based on regional bodies toward Hull's preference for a universal organization based on sovereign equality. Part of the answer was U.S. politics and public opinion, a topic the authors handle confidently and well. A reason they wrongly discount was FDR's fear that a future European regional organization including the United States might lead to U.S. military entanglement on the continent (p. 101). By the same token, a European regional organization to which the United States did not belong might resist U.S. influence and/or develop into an anti-Soviet bloc. On balance, therefore, regional organizations were not a good idea.
The authors go astray in their handling of the Polish question and its inter-connection with negotiations over the U.N. They say FDR told Stalin at the Tehran conference that he could not "participate in any decision on Polish boundaries" (their words) due to the Polish-American electorate (p. 104). Inexplicably, they do not mention that in the same conversation on the last day of the conference, FDR confidentially agreed to the cession to Poland of German territory up to the Oder River to compensate for Polish territory lost to the Soviet Union. The authors fail to note that the two sides must have seen this as part of a "package" which included Stalin's assent to the U.S. version of a postwar international security organization on the same day.
Throughout the wartime negotiations the Russians went along with U.S. ideas about the U.N. only as long as they were assured that they would call the shots in their own sphere. At the Dumbarton Oaks conference, the Soviets dug in their heels and demanded an absolute veto in the security council in the context of rising tension with the West over Poland. At Yalta, Stalin made a concession by accepting a U.S. compromise voting formula, allowing FDR's prized U.N. project to proceed. In return, Roosevelt made a major concession on Poland, the issue of main concern to Moscow, by accepting a mere "broadening" of the existing Communist government rather than the creation of a new Polish government from scratch. The authors fail to point out the link. The pattern repeated itself at San Francisco in June 1945. The Russians once again demanded an absolute veto in the security council, threatening to torpedo the founding conference of the U.N. The disagreement was resolved when Harry Hopkins, then in Moscow, persuaded Stalin to return to the Yalta voting formula. Hopkins in turn accepted an arrangement limiting pro-Western Poles to a handful of ministries in the Communist-dominated Polish government. Once again the authors fail to make the connection between the two issues and thus have no satisfactory explanation for Stalin's abrupt dropping of the demand for an absolute veto.
The authors seem, at least implicitly, to accept the wisdom of FDR's approach to world order based on great power hegemony, even as they show that it was out of touch with the main currents of opinion (isolationism and Wilsonianism) in the United States. This is fair enough. Still, the question arises whether Roosevelt would not have been a more effective statesman if he had openly put aside Wilson's mantle and been more forthright with all concerned. For example, promising Moscow a second front in Europe in 1942 that he knew would not materialize in order to avoid a domestic controversy over recognition of Soviet control of the Baltic states did not advance U.S.-Soviet ties and merely swept the Baltic issue under the rug. Likewise, selling the Yalta agreement, which amounted to an acceptance of Soviet predominance in Poland, as a Wilsonian triumph raised doubts in Moscow about American good faith as well as unrealistic expectations at home. A related mistake at Yalta, also dictated by FDR's domestic considerations, was to tell Stalin that U.S. troops would leave Europe within two years. Biting the bullet and pledging a longer term U.S. commitment might have reassured Stalin that he need not take drastic, unilateral measures to secure the Soviet Union against German revanchism, while deterring him against the tendency to do just that.
Of course, it can be objected, greater forthrightness about his realism would have been both politically costly and out of character for a "juggler" like FDR. But he must have seen that misleading public opinion was not going to work indefinitely. How he must have wished for a magic wand with which to make both the isolationists and the Wilsonians disappear.
This review was commissioned for H-Pol by Lex Renda <email@example.com>
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John Harper. Review of Hoopes, Townsend; Brinkley, Douglas, FDR and the Creation of the U.N.
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