It was 70 years ago this April that Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Although he’d been in failing health for some time, the details of his condition had been carefully kept from the general public and his passing from a massive stroke on April 12, 1945, thus came as a shock. In an era before the presidency was subject to term limits, he’d been elected to the White House four times, leading America through both the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Roosevelt’s vice-president and successor, Harry Truman, was a simpler man. Considered inexperienced and ill-informed, he was suddenly catapulted into the hot seat and forced to address a host of difficult issues ranging from winning final victory against Japan in the Pacific to dealing with Josef Stalin in post-war Europe.
And some on the American Left didn’t like how Truman went about it. To them, he was a warmonger whose anti-Soviet behaviour betrayed Roosevelt’s legacy and kick-started the Cold War. Politically, this disaffection found its spokesman in Henry Wallace, who’d been Roosevelt’s third term vice-president and who subsequently served as Secretary of Commerce before being fired by Truman in 1946. The contentious issue between them was Truman’s policy towards the Soviet Union.
Wallace’s response was direct. Rather than attempting the herculean task of wresting the 1948 Democratic nomination from Truman, he instead went straight to the general election, running for president on the Progressive ticket. However, it didn’t go well.
In addition to the normal challenges inherent in a third-party run, Wallace was hampered by the visible Communist Party influence in his campaign. On election night, he polled less than 3 per cent of the national vote, only New York gave him more than 5 per cent, and he barely got above a single percentage point in his native Iowa.
The unlikely pair who defrosted the Cold War by Pat Murphy
Still, that leaves open the question of whether the Cold War could have been avoided had Roosevelt lived. Would the combination of his diplomatic skill and strategic clarity been sufficient to manage Stalin and prevent the downward spiral in international relations?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that Roosevelt was personally relaxed about Communism, at least as long as it was confined to distant, foreign countries. The historian David Reynolds characterises this thinking as typical of American liberal opinion at the time. Communism, so the theory went, was an understandable reaction to poverty and oppression. And it had many varieties, some of which were relatively benign. As for the Soviet Union, Roosevelt “knew little and feared even less.”
Roosevelt also fancied himself as a supreme manager of people. He was, in his own mind, a great persuader, telling Winston Churchill “I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department.” Mind you, it’s been argued that the handling actually went the other way round. Indeed, shortly before he died, Roosevelt complained that Stalin had “broken every one of the promises” made just weeks earlier at Yalta. Clearly, his charm and reasonableness offensive hadn’t been particularly effective.
Finally, there’s the matter of Stalin himself. Paranoid, absolutely ruthless and totally opportunistic, he had a long history of doing precisely what he wanted if he thought he’d get away with it. It would take a major leap of faith to conclude that the aspects of his post-war behaviour which alienated the West – the clampdown in Eastern Europe, the coup in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin blockade, green-lighting the invasion of South Korea, and so forth – were really all just a reaction to Truman’s inept diplomacy.
Similarly, it’s very difficult to envisage Roosevelt being indifferent to that sort of behaviour. While he was no anti-Communist crusader, neither was he an isolationist. In his vision of the post-war world, America was going to be a very active participant.
So, bottom line, the advent of the Cold War wasn’t attributable to Roosevelt’s death. Had he lived, some of the music might have been different but the dance would most likely have ended the same way.
Interestingly, Henry Wallace subsequently came around to something resembling that view. Indeed, Wallace’s personal epiphany was such that he voted for Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956, and for Richard Nixon – rather than John F. Kennedy – in 1960.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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