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Roosevelt’s Ultimate Legacy

October 30, 2001

“When in doubt, don’t.” That has been called the world’s shortest sermon, and it’s generally good advice.

Until December 7, 1941, the American people, in their wisdom, were overwhelmingly opposed to getting into World War II. Then came Pearl Harbor, and the shock instantly changed everything. The country was consumed by a mixture of patriotism, revenge, and race-hatred, all of it diligently fanned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

For years Roosevelt had been trying, with all his devious skills, to get the country into war. To him Pearl Harbor came as a godsend. Unlike President George W. Bush, he encouraged indiscriminate hatred of the enemy populations. He didn’t say apologetically that our quarrel was not with the people of Japan and Germany, but only with the dictators who ruled them. On the contrary. He sponsored propaganda films vilifying the Japanese and German races, and ordered the bombing of their cities. He launched the development of nuclear weapons that would enable American bombers to kill as many civilians as possible.

[Breaker quote: The optimistic 
gamblerNever particularly reverent toward the Constitution and the rule of law, Roosevelt also ordered the illegal and unconstitutional arrest and internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Even J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, no civil libertarian himself, protested.

Those propaganda films are something to see. The series Why We Fight, directed by the great Frank Capra, was brilliantly calculated to stir the blood against “Japs” with their “grinning yellow faces.” Today’s multicultural sensitivities were still in the remote future; but even then, decent people should have recoiled. There isn’t much evidence that they did.

It all seemed like a good idea at the time. Even now Roosevelt is generally regarded as a hero, even, increasingly, by conservatives. His deceitful policies, condemned at the time by true patriots like Charles Lindbergh, are defended as necessary for the purpose of dragging a reluctant America into the war; so much for democracy and the people’s right to know. The atomic bomb itself is defended because it “shortened” the war. And as for Roosevelt’s dream of a postwar world benevolently dominated by an American-Soviet partnership, the less said the better.

Just as an individual should sometimes review his life and repent his sins, a country should reflect on its history and retrace its steps. At the end of the war, Americans were grateful for their monopoly of nuclear weapons. But Roosevelt’s pal, Joseph Stalin, soon became America’s open enemy and acquired his own nuclear arsenal. Doubts about the wisdom of creating such weapons in the first place began to haunt us.

Still, we assumed that nuclear weapons would remain what they originally were: complex, bulky things that only a few states could possess and deliver. Nobody foresaw that they might one day be miniaturized and fall into private hands, beyond the control of any state.

The peril we now face from stateless terrorists is one long-term result of World War II. Nobody, not even the most pessimistic and alarmist opponents of the war, could have predicted it. The “isolationists” gave cogent reasons for avoiding war, but the best reason of all lay hidden from them, dormant in the seeds of time, to be revealed only decades later. Now we know what it was.

When you go to war, you never really know what you’re getting into. The dangers you can specify may matter less than a nameless qualm about far worse evils that you can’t even imagine. Nobody in 1945, when the first A-bombs were dropped on Japan, asked, “But what if some Muslim fanatic is born in 1957 who will get hold of such weapons and use them against us?” Roosevelt’s ultimate legacy may turn out to be Osama bin Laden.

Though nobody could have dreamed it, Roosevelt was the last man to whom such a dark thought would occur. He plunged into the nuclear future with his famous sunny optimism. So here we are. As Ernest Hemingway jeered, in another context, “How do you like it now, gentlemen?”

Modern warfare keeps breeding new possibilities of violence. But like a gambler who thinks he can beat the house, our rulers have kept betting that they can win at this lethal game in which no man knows the real odds. And their lack of foresight is made worse by their faulty hindsight.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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