A Guided Drift Toward War
Overture: Themes, Issues, Recapitulations
"We are facing difficult days in this country, but I think you will find me in the future just the same Franklin Roosevelt you have known a great many years."
Roosevelt had spoken these words at midnight of the night before (it was now Wednesday morning, November 6, 1940) to a jubilant crowd of Hyde Park neighbors gathered on the wide Big House lawn—a crowd that had come in torchlight parade to celebrate with him his election to an unprecedented third term as President of the United States, defeating Republican challenger Wendell Willkie—and the promise thus made, despite being rendered strangely tentative and even dubious by the prefatory "I think," was evidently intended by him to soothe, to reassure. It failed to do so, however, for everyone who listened to it or read it in the papers. There were critical and well-informed minds in which the promise raised questions of identity that, viewed in terms of the future now rising as black clouds out of Europe, out of Asia, to cast gloom over the Republic,
were both difficult to answer and profoundly disturbing.
Was this "Franklin Roosevelt" whom his listeners had "known a great many years" actually and wholly the Roosevelt upon whom now depended so much of the fate of America and, indeed, the world? Or was the "real" Franklin Roosevelt a man different in important ways, and perhaps contradictory ways, from his Hyde Park friends' perception of him? In either case, but especially in the latter, to what extent and in what ways would his remaining "just the same" be a boon for mankind, to what extent and in what ways a misfortune, in the "difficult days" to come?II
The man popularly perceived, the man whose face at midnight had been cooled by a mild springlike breeze as it was imbued by ruddy torchlight, was a big, warm, friendly, compassionate man with an acute sense of justice and a strong commitment to it. Through all the fifty-seven years
of his life (he would be fifty-eight this coming January 30) he had been a lover of simple country living. He disliked cities, though his most solid political support came from urban areas, and had in the past, in public speech, more than hinted a belief that virtue, discouraged by the frenetic
artificiality of crowded streets, could come to its full flowering only amid green growing things in such landscapes as the one he saw this morning out his bedroom window. For though the green growth was now in autumn retreat at Hyde Park, the hardwoods leafless, the evergreens nearly
black, the fields and meadows gray and brown and swept by chill winds under a darkly lowering sky (the weather, he noted, had greatly changed since midnight)—though this was so, and though the present melancholy of it was felt, the window-framed landscape of wide fields and wild-wooded
hills was yet seen through memory's eyes as a greenly living one. Through it, nourishing and ordering it, flowed the great theme-river of his life, the mighty Hudson, upon whose wide bosom he had spent many of his happiest youthful hours in sailboat and iceboat and from whose bank he and his devoted friend Louis Howe had launched the model sailboats they designed and built together during his long convalescence, as a middle-aged man, from near fatal illness. It now presented itself to his vision, beyond a fringe of treetop, as more lake than stream. A small inland sea. And it
was in fact both an active arm of the sea and an active contributor of water to the sea, for it was one of the longest estuaries on earth, as Roosevelt had learned as a boy. Already, as it made its slow curve around Crum Elbow, it sometimes tasted faintly of the salt of the sea that flowed into it, if meagerly, at high tide, and into which soon it must die. Such facts greatly interested, and were known to interest, the man whom his neighbors had long known. He collected them avidly and, his admiring neighbors would have said, they now richly furnished a mind remarkable for
Many of these neighbors knew, as we know, that his collecting of facts, like his collecting of stamps, old books, naval prints, and the like, had been a major part of the psychological strategy he had employed, to sustain his morale, in the long hard war he had waged—much of it in this house, in this very room—against the crippling effects of the polio that had struck him down in 1921, when he was thirty-nine. It was a war he had declared in the innermost recesses of his being, and to everyone around him, while he was yet wholly bedridden, unable even to sit erect. With an iron determination whose grimness he masked with smiling outward confidence, even gaiety, he had set out to conquer and destroy his affliction. He would walk again! He would walk unaided, without leg braces or crutches or canes! Alas, he never did. He became more mobile, less helpless physically, than had seemed possible to his doctors at the outset of his war, but no amount of willpower or arduous physical effort (he expended prodigious quantities of both) could regrow destroyed nerve tissue. In 1928, when his return to active political life forced him to suspend his recovery regimen after seven years of harsh effort, his legs yet remained nearly fleshless, hardly more than sticks of bone draped in wrinkled skin, and were almost totally unresponsive to his will. His public "walking" and "standing," in 1928 as in 1940, were difficult and often painful balancing acts on what were in effect stilts (steel rods locked around hips, knees, ankles), possible only if he leaned heavily on canes or had beside him a strong man whose arm he could grip. Nevertheless, his struggle had been far from fruitless. During it, as his neighbors knew, he had manifest and further developed an almost incredible fortitude, patience, and emotional self-control—a self-mastery that was part and parcel of his mastery of other people.
Discerned by some of the more acute of those who observed him with close attention, though from a distance, was the fact that his very disability had become in his way of handling it a source, an instrument, a protector and preserver of personal power. As regards this last, it prevented risk-engendering importunities that he could not have avoided, save at the further and possibly greater political risk of giving offense, had he been able to move freely about and therefore compelled to mingle casually with other people on occasions and grounds not of his choosing. The compulsion was now all the other way: people must come to him, and they must come always, to some extent, at least, with formality—that is, in accordance with formal rules whereby they were placed at an initial disadvantage insofar as their dealings with him were of an adversarial nature. This was true even in situations where his actual need for their support was considerably greater than theirs for his. For since they came as invited guests into his house, or by his permission into his office or onto other ground ruled by him, they came perforce under felt obligations and must
assume in some degree, willy-nilly, a supplicatory attitude. By the manner of his welcome or greeting he could and did set the tone of every personal encounter and, having done so, could and did dominate the discussion.
Similar in effect, but different psychologically, was the way in which his physical handicap became per se a source and instrument of governing power. Conjoined or (more precisely) fused with the self-mastery he had gained through his struggle to overcome it, his perceived handicap, in part by weakening in other people their inward resistance to his will, actually increased his persuasiveness and enhanced his ability to command through sheer force of personality. It commonly made these others want at the outset to please, emulate, and, if at all possible, agree with this man who demonstrated so much courage, strength of character, and optimistic confidence—so much liking and concern for them personally, such sweetness of disposition—under pressures that would have crushed an ordinary mortal into chronic depression and resentful dependency. Moreover there was a natural assumption on the part of people in general, an assumption abundantly encouraged by his careful management of his public image, that he had earned through his prolonged and terrible ordeal a compassionate living wisdom remarkable for its width and depth. He was therefore commonly deemed more likely to be right than his opponents were on issues concerning which the common view was not well informed. He might be so even on issues of which his own factual knowledge was meager: his "intuition" was famous, was encouraged by him so to be—an ability, as it seemed, to dispense with logical process as he plunged with lightning swiftness into the heart of a difficult problem and discovered there its solution—and though it was presumed that he had been born with this uncanny ability, it was further presumed that prolonged anguish and arduous struggle had sharpened and strengthened it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from FDR by Kenneth S. Davis. . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.