A review of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, by Conrad Black

One of the few substantive political differences I had with my father was over his view that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a socialist, if not a communist. He has always been, next to Abraham Lincoln, the American leader I most admired, not only because he triumphed over a cruel infirmity, over national economic and psychological depression, over "the apostles of war and of racial arrogances" …but because he completely suborned, outwitted, and co-opted the American left and delivered the nation from the horrors those forces inflicted on most other advanced countries. Roosevelt the shaman was one of the great talents of American political history. This was the true Roosevelt whom I commended to my skeptical father. When he thought I was playing his speeches too loudly, he would appear and demand the volume be reduced. I did, but he continued to hear Roosevelt's apostolic cadences in his house occasionally.

—Conrad Black, 
A Life in Progress (1993)

Conrad Black has admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a long time—not least because, like Roosevelt, he thrives on controversy. And Lord Black is as spirited today, in his comprehensive defense of Roosevelt's statesmanship, as he was in the 1950s, celebrating "Roosevelt the shaman" to the horror of his conservative Canadian father. In the intervening decades, Black has mastered every pertinent document and book he could lay hands on; but his political biography of FDR is more than the culmination of these long and exacting studies. Like much of the best political science and history,Champion of Freedom is a deeply political work by a public-spirited and prudent observer. Black means to widen the historical horizon of current debate on urgent public questions, by showing that FDR is at the origin of our most important political controversies. Indeed, for Black, FDR is still at their center, because he was the chief architect of the free world in our time, and of the American regime which is the free world's center of gravity.

As a young man, Black no doubt cultivated his admiration for FDR pugnaciously. By contrast, in writing Champion of Freedom he has deployed it deliberately: first, to awaken students of Roosevelt's politics to the real challenge of their subject and to the rather merciless standards it imposes; and then, to recruit young readers to public life and to the study of statesmanship. His book is meant to inflame high ambition by FDR's example, as well as to give it form and direction. Will readers seize upon Franklin Roosevelt's statesmanship to form themselves into serious citizens, as Black did, and as his book invites his readers to do? Or will FDR go the way of Andrew Jackson—another fabulously popular president who swept all before him, inspired fierce loyalty in an immense following, but was practically forgotten six decades later? Black has labored as though the answer to these questions depended on his own accomplishment in framing them—for Americans, for the English-speaking public at large, and for defenders of freedom everywhere. 

One might object that unlike Andrew Jackson, FDR is unforgettable; that he will forever be paired with the finest statesmen; above all, with Churchill and de Gaulle, who made him a central figure in their war memoirs. Since these are indelible classics in the literature of great statesmanship, one might suppose that Roosevelt's place in historical memory would be impregnable, so long as these great memoirs are studied. Black responds to this objection indirectly but with extraordinary care. He clearly gives pride of place to these most influential and widely read memoirs. He sees Churchill and de Gaulle as the most intelligent and capable statesmen who wrote from first-hand experience of Roosevelt. But Black knows that he cannot invoke their judgment of FDR's greatness without also facing their criticism of his dire mistakes.

For in their respective memoirs, Churchill and de Gaulle are sharply critical of FDR's wartime policies. Although in The Second World War he celebrated his warm friendship with Roosevelt, Churchill still managed to convey his reasoned condemnation of U.S. diplomacy from the Tehran Conference on: FDR's failure to present a united Allied front to Stalin and thus his surrender of the moral high ground; his willingness to side with Stalin on the elimination of Germany as a European state; his slowness to confront Communist subversion in Greece and Eastern Europe; and above all his failure to prepare Harry Truman to take over the presidency. De Gaulle's criticisms in his war memoirs took a different but equally damning tack. Among other things, he objected to Roosevelt's diplomatic dalliances with Vichy France; to his cunning policy of setting de Gaulle and Churchill at loggerheads, the better to reorganize Europe as FDR saw fit; and to Roosevelt's overweening desire to dismantle the French and British colonial empires and erect some sort of international New Deal in their place.

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Black has tried to write a defense that weighs de Gaulle's and Churchill's assessments fairly and deals fully with their principal criticisms of Roosevelt. Moreover, Champion of Freedom aspires to be a sequel to Churchill's effort to persuade the European peoples that their dignity as well as security and freedom lie in friendship with the United States. Indeed, Black sees himself as improving upon Churchill's effort, chiefly in two ways. 

First, the Canadian impasse over Quebec proved to Black the vital importance of meeting de Gaulle's critique of FDR candidly and defending the United States before the French-speaking peoples in the light of that critique. Black chairs the editorial board of The National Interest; he is a keen analyst of world politics. I believe he is convinced that serious citizens everywhere will be shaped by de Gaulle's impressive argument, unless it is met more forthrightly than Churchill did. For de Gaulle wrote after Churchill; and he deliberately exploited his advantage as the last of the great wartime statesmen to write his memoirs. Black apprehends that de Gaulle could have the last word in much of the world—and this despite France's descent from the rank of a great power, or even because of it. Champion of Freedom is a sustained engagement with de Gaulle's claim that proud nations must choose against Roosevelt, and against the United States, to preserve their political dignity and pride—or to create it. Accordingly, one fulcrum of Black's defense is the striking claim that "Roosevelt's greatest foreign policy error wasn't his handling of Stalin, which was not particularly unsuccessful. It was his reflexive hostility to de Gaulle and his lateness in getting over it." Black defends Roosevelt on Stalin and Yalta, against Churchill's critique. And he condemns outright Roosevelt's handling of Free France (again in contrast to Churchill), while rebutting de Gaulle's argument about Roosevelt's baleful role in the great "debate over man," la querelle de l'homme. From his Canadian experience, Black knows that if its challenge goes unanswered, de Gaulle's argument can be deadly and demoralizing to the free world. Although his book was in press before the Iraq War, our experience with France over Iraq confirms Black's judgment that de Gaulle's argument remains a contentious force well beyond the Francophone boundary. "[T]he United States paid a price through most of the balance of the twentieth century for Roosevelt's reflexive and indiscreet early animosity to de Gaulle." 

Secondly, Churchill took for granted the vivid memory of Roosevelt as an intelligent and resourceful figure acting with authority on the world stage. In Black's judgment this awareness can no longer be presupposed; it must now be reconstituted for the reader. Much of Black's art is designed to conjure up Roosevelt's authoritative presence, to crystallize it in writing and thus make it a possession for all time. 

To accomplish this, however, Black finds it necessary to challenge Churchill's critique on key points of disagreement between the prime minister and the American president. Hence Champion of Freedom will awaken the suspicions of many stalwarts who otherwise share his judgments on world affairs. He knows that many of the serious citizens who successfully met the Cold War crisis found Churchill's critique indispensable in freeing their minds from Roosevelt's influence. For many, this was a wrenching experience. Such readers will initially be appalled by the critical dimension of Black's reply to Churchill, and especially by his defense of FDR's conduct at Yalta. They are justifiably determined that no American president ever be suckered by the likes of Stalin. So is Black. And (for reasons I shall discuss), he probably knows his book cannot persuade Cold War Churchilleans that FDR played his cards well. 

Even if he cannot, however, Black might reply that Churchill's defense of his own realism, in The Second World War, will become inscrutable in the long run without a book like Champion of Freedom—and that Churchill's case for friendship with Roosevelt and the United States will be gravely weakened if readers can no longer credit what Churchill took for granted: Roosevelt's commanding presence as an intelligent statesman, and his reputation as a very hard trader. In this respect,The Second World War is greatly strengthened by having Champion of Freedom as its sequel or companion; and so Black's challenge to Churchill's influence can be called an improvement.

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In replying to Churchill's critique and making its sustained case for Roosevelt's statesmanship, Champion of Freedom is hardly breaking fresh ground. Roosevelt's case is the case for American wartime policy. It has been made continuously and across a wide front, since 1945, by American historians. The case is now firmly ensconced in the most widely used primary sources; for example, in Warren Kimball's annotations to his edition of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence. A relentless rebuttal of Churchill on the American conduct of the war has long been a leading feature of World War II scholarship. Yet while Black builds on and reinforces this American historiography, Champion of Freedom stands out because Black also responds to it. Moreover, he does so critically, bringing to the task a more acute sympathy with the concerns of Churchill and De Gaulle, and a deeper understanding of their writings, than most historians can muster.

Furthermore, British and American historians writing after the war had a much less vivid memory of Roosevelt's abilities than either Churchill or de Gaulle. What Churchill took for granted was based on first-hand knowledge of Roosevelt's performance that was never available to most diplomatic and military historians, who had to rely on Roosevelt's biographers in forming their estimates, much as laymen do today. While defending American policy, they have not been sufficiently confident in speaking of Roosevelt's capacities. Black does more than improve on the historical scholarship defending American conduct of the war under FDR, by incorporating the critiques advanced by Churchill and de Gaulle. He also restores their high estimates of Roosevelt's capability. This may come as a shock to many readers, because a much lower estimate of Roosevelt's ability is currently fashionable, while Churchill's and de Gaulle's have been progressively forgotten over the last five decades. Readers who suppose that Black's estimate is a product of youthful enthusiasm, or a bizarre idiosyncracy, should ponder the evidence that his estimate was shared, in all essentials, by both Churchill and de Gaulle. 

Because Black reasserts their higher estimate of FDR's faculties, Champion of Freedom is a decisive improvement upon all previous biographies as a companion to Churchill's The Second World War and de Gaulle's Mémoires de Guerre. For Black, statecraft is primarily the work of intellect, not of temperament. To judge Roosevelt's stature is therefore chiefly a matter of understanding his prudence and his practical reasoning. Posing the question of Roosevelt's stature in this way leads us to the heart of Black's study, and to his indispensable clarification of the fundamental problems that Roosevelt's statecraft poses for serious citizens, political scientists, historians, and even for students of political philosophy. These are problems, in the first instance, of knowledge. 

Suppose one grants that Black has succeeded in recovering Roosevelt's masterful presence. What good is the presence of a sphinx, if we cannot get him to speak his mind? In formulating that difficulty, and in responding to it intelligently, Champion of Freedom excels not only the previous biographies of Roosevelt, but everything I have read on the subject, save for Churchill's and de Gaulle's memoirs. Black judges Roosevelt to have been a greater statesman than his two greatest peers because he was a more complete and subtler Machiavellian. He argues that Roosevelt exemplified a distinctively American political realism or pragmatism that came closer to the Machiavellian verità effetuale of politics than did Churchill or de Gaulle. And he does not hesitate to draw the conclusion that Roosevelt was a lesser man, while accomplishing more through his statecraft.

* * *

The primary myth that champion of Freedom seeks to explode is that FDR was not a serious Machiavellian; the second is that he was relatively weak-minded. The two myths obviously reinforce one another. Both have been built up, according to Black, chiefly by Roosevelt's admirers, who soft-pedalled his Machiavellianism, accentuated his muddleheadedness, and then came to believe their own caricature: 


[E]ven perceptive historians have tended to believe that Roosevelt was a largely guileless man and that he became distressed when his puckish love of mischief led him to tactical excess…. His most fervent admirers have made him seem an amiable and capable man carried along to four terms in the White House on a tide of events over which he had little influence.

To the extent that Roosevelt devoted his intellectual powers to Machiavellian misdirection, strategy, and ruse, this way of touching up Roosevelt's public image would effectively dumb down his statesmanship again, though in a different way. Black combats this implication by making his volume an ascent from the cave of such misleading legends. The myth that most discourages inquiry, preventing any searching critique of Roosevelt's failures and accomplishments, is the notion that he could not know what he was doing because he was incapable of reasoning through the great problems with which he dealt during his presidency. 

To explain how this prevailing low estimate of FDR's abilities took hold in the republic of letters, Black addresses himself first to the most widely credited authority for it. How, he asks, did we learn that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., judged FDR, at the time of his inauguration in 1933, to be "a second-rate intellect, but a first-class temperament"? 

[Tommy "the Cork"] Corcoran is the chief source for this last quote, which was corroborated by Donald Hiss, but it is not clear which President Roosevelt Holmes was talking about. This may even have been the first meeting between Holmes and Franklin Roosevelt, and Holmes had often referred to Theodore Roosevelt in similar terms in his correspondence. Whether Holmes said it or not, Franklin Roosevelt has been arraigned on this patronizing charge by historians for some time.

Black meets this condescension forthrightly and seeks to dismantle it: "If allowance is made for the supernatural acuity of his intuition and his almost infallible memory, which Holmes would have had little opportunity to appreciate, Roosevelt's intellect was first-class." 

When a statesman deploys a superior intellect along Machiavellian lines, keeping his counsel to himself by following Machiavelli's precept "put nothing in writing," scholars and citizens face formidable difficulties in finding the evidence they require for judgment. At the dedication of the Hyde Park library, FDR is said to have chuckled all day at the prospect that historians would come there to find answers to their questions: he knew they would find nothing. Black is fully aware of the difficulty. He contends that the only avenue it leaves open is to reconstruct an account of what Roosevelt must have thought and known by inference backward from the record of what he did. 

The historian is thus placed in precisely the position in which Roosevelt's opponents and associates were placed, vis-à-visthe sphinx: one has to make hypothetical estimates and test them against the pattern of FDR's behavior in order to deduce what Roosevelt was thinking, and by what plan or strategy he was acting. In certain respects, the historian's position is more problematic than that of Roosevelt's associates or opponents. For despite the superior information a scholar can deploy in retrospect, he cannot elicit action from FDR, by taking a provocative initiative of his own. By authorizing the Free French sortie at St. Pierre and Miquelon, de Gaulle says, " I provoked Washington in order to stir up the bottom of things, as one throws a stone into a pond." The scholar cannot stir up Roosevelt to discover the bottom of things.

"With Roosevelt," according to Black, "the sure guide of his intentions was to detect the trend of his actions." But can that be a sure guide? At the beginning of his 700-page account of FDR's wartime statesmanship, Black gives a capsule reconstruction of FDR's thoughts and plans. He prefaces it by saying that "The reason Roosevelt must have known all this is because there is no other plausible explanation of his conduct as he moved deftly through the world crisis." This assertion indicates both the plausibility and the vulnerability of the method that Black finds himself compelled to adopt, in the face of his statesman-sphinx. Deeds are never univocal; and if that were not enough, FDR encased his own in elaborate equivocations: "As always with Roosevelt, only the general outlines of what he thought can be discerned from the conflicting signals he sent in all directions and only his deeds are a guide to his thoughts—not, as with more direct leaders (such as Truman), the other way round." Ultimately, this is why Black is unlikely to convince doubters that the evidence supports his own assessment. Nevertheless, he has faced the difficulty squarely. His solution is to put forward his best summary of what FDR must have known at the outset, and ask the reader to assess it in the light of the evidence he presents in detail in the rest of his study. Because its subject is "the cunning and violence that prudence needs to have at its command whether in the worst or in the best cause," Champion of Freedom is a book for intrepid observers.

Harry V. Jaffa reports that he learned more about Jefferson himself from Merrill Peterson's The Jeffersonian Image in the American Mind (1960) than from studying any of the standard Jefferson biographies. He observed that, "from the variety of highly plausible viewpoints about Jefferson, one learns why the study of Jefferson is such a problem." The opposite is true for FDR. One will not learn "why FDR poses such a problem" from the diversity of viewpoints about his image. Instead, an essential conformity of judgment has come to conceal the problem and obstruct serious inquiry. This uniform opinion has even deafened readers to the dissenting assessments of FDR's greatest contemporaries, Churchill and de Gaulle. 

Black has come closest to achieving a radical critique of Roosevelt, in the sense of a clear understanding, because he has formulated this problem adequately and has attempted to solve it forthrightly. Champion of Freedom makes a frontal assault on several influential "myths" that have formed the established public estimate of Roosevelt's statecraft. Without his searching account of FDR's actions, of course, Black's critique of the prevailing much lower ranking of FDR's capabilities would have no weight. With it, Black has laid the foundation for a comprehensive rethinking, not only of Roosevelt's actions and public image, but also of Roosevelt scholarship and the punditry built upon it.

* * *

The great strength of Black's book, then, is his portrait of Roosevelt's distinctive and inimitable abilities, above all, his intellectual mastery of his chosen tasks. This is the source of his book's fecundity and its promise for future scholarship. Yet it comes at a price. Black cherishes certain key myths that cannot go unchallenged. To restore Roosevelt's masterful presence, to recapture his statesmanship in its original energy and radiance, he abstracts Roosevelt from his legislation, and from the routinization of his statecraft in American institutions and customs. Perhaps he thinks this rubble obscures our view of Roosevelt, or might make his actions unintelligible to readers. Black's way of preventing that distortion gives his history a peculiarly utopian cast. He divorces Roosevelt from the army of his imitators, and thus from his legacy in American public life. Black sets out to do justice to "the vast complexity of [Roosevelt's] political designs"—to their character, their execution, and their success in forming the world of concern to us as citizens. But his book does so only for Roosevelt's foreign policy designs. His case for FDR's greatness in foreign affairs is meant to stand up against six decades of subsequent experience. With regard to domestic politics, however, Black is largely silent on what Roosevelt actually wrought, and how his complex schemes were realized in the United States. He has not made a comparable effort to analyze the consequences of Roosevelt's New Deal. This disproportion is reflected in the (relatively) short shrift he devotes to Roosevelt's first two administrations. Champion of Freedom is divided into five equal parts, each of 225 pages. The war years occupy three parts, a full three-fifths of the book. The New Deal occupies one part.

* * *

In my opinion, Black has left the lion's share of his great subject yet to be surveyed; it will be for future scholars to combine a just estimate of Roosevelt's intelligence and prudence with a realistic account of the fulfillment of his "designs" in the United States. (It seems Black is unaware of the good work that has already been done in this direction by Sidney Milkis, Gary Dean Best, Richard Vedder, and Lowell Gallaway. He has not mastered, and does not mention, Benjamin Anderson's Economics and the Public Welfare: A Financial and Economic History of the United States, 1914-1946, which is still fundamental reading and still in print from Liberty Fund). Though Black's command of many episodes in Democratic Party politics is impressive, the central challenge of FDR's first two administrations was the Depression, and that is a subject that Champion of Freedom does not illuminate. Young Black was surely right that Roosevelt was a talented shaman. But while FDR was casting spells and exorcizing demons, the Great Depression continued for twelve years in the United States. Other countries adopted sound policies and recovered rapidly. Here unemployment never fell below 12% until mid-1941. This high figure of 12% had been reached once before, briefly, in the worst previous crisis, the postwar depression of 1920. But that downturn lasted only a year. Never before, or since, has there been anything like this prolonged paralysis of the American economy. It was an experience of social disintegration and demoralization unparalleled in previous American history; and the long fear it instilled is only now being laid to rest, with the generation who lived through it. 

No reader of Black's biography can doubt that Roosevelt was a man of prodigious personal courage and high intelligence. But as Black acknowledges, Roosevelt had not prepared himself to address a crisis of this kind. I would add that Roosevelt never put his powerful mind to work on it, because he was unwilling to shoulder the political risks of meeting it head on. Lincoln learned the art of war after he became president because he was determined to win; Roosevelt did not learn the art of economic recovery because he had other fish to fry. Coolidge and Hoover had paved the way for the Depression by pushing a high-price, high-wage economy. Recovery required that it be dismantled. Roosevelt could not liquidate it without riling large numbers of voters. Instead of mustering the public courage to do what economic recovery required, Roosevelt developed a spectacular, circus-like distraction. His programs ameliorated the catastrophe slightly, and very selectively; but they lengthened it indefinitely, so that the United States did not recover until the end of the Second World War. 

Moreover, it was the Great Depression from 1930 to 1942 which set in motion the perpetual social revolution through which Americans have been living ever since, and which is now formalized and valorized in our public law as the "living Constitution." One of the legacies of Roosevelt's domestic statesmanship has been to "constitutionalize" social experimentation on a national scale, conducted by permanent governmental institutions, and funded by taxation. From the outset these have been deliberately insulated from national, state, and local elections to an extent unprecedented in American public life prior to 1932. In Champion of Freedom, Black remains under the spell of his youthful illusion that Roosevelt somehow saved the United States from a European-style social democratic or Communist Left. It is true that the Great Depression was a cornucopia of miseries on which the Left could thrive, so long as it could be perpetuated. But no one on the Left, until Roosevelt, knew how to make the wretchedness of social and economic disintegration a stable platform for partisan power in American public life. Roosevelt should be given credit both for figuring out how that could be accomplished and for institutionalizing that platform in an ever-expanding welfare state. His wonderful contraptions transformed a fringe Left into the most powerful and long-lived social and political establishment in American history. The Machiavellian "effectual truth" of Roosevelt's statesmanship is precisely the creation and perpetuation of this novel regime. It has enjoyed an incumbency in the councils of power for some five decades, an accomplishment rivaled only by the Southern slavocracy before the Civil War. 

In Conrad Black's judgment, during most of his lifetime the United States has been "without rivals but uncertain of its purpose." He argues that Roosevelt was responsible for bringing the United States to its present position in the world, and he has written Champion of Freedom to fortify American confidence and sense of purpose. He admires Roosevelt because Roosevelt was unshakably sure of his purpose. Black's grand illusion is that the United States can recapture its purpose through Roosevelt's shamanism, by co-opting and suborning the Left.

Roosevelt's legacy in domestic policy is a regime that stands or falls with the authority of its "living Constitution," an authority that requires the electorate to submit to social experimentation by governors who can never be held responsible for the consequences of their experiments. To keep this regime going, the elements of the American constitutional order on which the economic, social, and political health of the United States depend, have been progressively neutralized, or weakened beyond recognition. It is clear that this "progress" now requires that judicial appointments be frozen until the presidency and the Congress are again in the hands of "Progressives." This has become imperative because the regime of the "living Constitution" must expand, or it will die. To prevent that expansion, we must reinvigorate the constitutional forms and reassert the constitutional orders that Roosevelt's admirers have demeaned, weakened, and corrupted during their long march toward an American nanny-state. That cannot be done by citizens who fear to take on all the establishments in the American polity that now depend for their livelihood and prestige upon continued funding of the social-experimentation regime. Roosevelt had the intellect for that kind of challenge, and he had sufficient courage. But he never shared the purpose. 

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville offers us a useful epigraph to Champion of Freedom. For Black too might well say that, 


The ground I wish to cover is vast. It includes the greater part of the [actions] which are responsible for the changed state of the world. Such a subject is certainly beyond my strength, and I am far from satisfied with my own achievement. But if I have not succeeded in the task I set myself, I hope I shall be credited with conceiving and pursuing the undertaking in a spirit which could make me worthy of success.

We should credit Lord Black for the magnanimity with which he has conducted his undertaking, and welcome the great controversy that his book reopens.