No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. By David Kaiser. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 408 pp.
Nearly seventy years after his death in April 1945, the maddeningly elusive Franklin Roosevelt (or FDR) fascinates us still. At my Canadian university, I regularly teach an oversubscribed third-year course on FDR's presidency, as Canadian students are enthralled by Roosevelt's story, the poor little rich boy who overcame polio's onset at age thirty-nine to become the only American president to be elected four times. They are especially intrigued by FDR's records as a war leader, notably, whether he wanted to fight the Axis powers in 1940-41, the subject of David Kaiser's new book. Indeed, on every
final exam for that class, I ask this question: "Examining FDR's foreign policies from 1937 to 1941, would you describe FDR as an active interventionist, a reluctant interventionist, a willing isolationist, or a reluctant isolationist?" I have received well-argued responses for all of those categories (and, occasionally, for categorizations I had not considered).
Kaiser's argument is plain. Examining the period from May 1940 to December 1941, he asserts that FDR deliberately planned nothing less than the total defeat of Germany and Japan. Perhaps, more controversially, Kaiser avers that FDR's caution during this period was driven more by American military weakness, as his nation frantically rearmed, than by strong isolationist sentiment in Congress and among Americans, generally, a sentiment Kaiser says was in retreat long before Pearl Harbor occurred. Kaiser lays out, in considerable detail, why he believes that FDR maneuvered to put America in a position to achieve total victory over aggressive, revisionist powers through Lend-Lease, the Atlantic Charter, embargoes, and the undeclared naval war with Germany in 1941. It is a defensible proposition, one that I generally share, even if Kaiser at times overplays Roosevelt's intentions and deliberations.
But Kaiser's book has flaws. The book's oddest problem is Kaiser's emphasis on FDR's membership in what the author calls a "Missionary Generation" that sought to impose order upon chaos, both at home and abroad. This might be true after 1945 with the advent of both the American welfare state and the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. It is also likely applicable to New Deal domestic policies in the 1930s. But I question its relevance to the issue of growing American intervention...