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FDR, the President whom nobody knew
December 2017 / January 2018

Dallek does debunk the egregious falsehood peddled by Roosevelt’s critics, especially disgruntled British imperialists and oft-defeated Republican opponents, that he was fooled and swindled by Stalin into giving away Eastern Europe. On balance, Dallek underplays the genius and fortitude of Churchill and Roosevelt in transforming the world of late 1940, when four of the great powers, Germany, Japan, Italy and France, were dictatorships hostile to the Anglo-Saxons, in five years to the Anglo-American liberation or occupation of those countries and the beginning of fruitful alliances with all of them as prospering democracies, while the Russians, as between the big three, suffered 95 per cent of the casualties in subduing Nazi Germany and 99 per cent of the physical damage. Dallek certainly credits Roosevelt as a great president and leader, but is a bit imprecise about his accomplishments, apart from political longevity.

His official reason for adding a book that doesn’t tell us anything new or even reaffirm important parts of the Roosevelt story is that it contains more information about his declining health. It doesn’t; it just tiresomely repeats that Roosevelt explained to Daisy Suckley that he was generally more tired after late 1943. We knew that, and Dallek does confirm that his increasing exhaustion didn’t seem to affect his judgment of the major issues and personalities. We read too often that Roosevelt “fled” Washington for breaks from it — so do all presidents. Dallek is a little hard on Roosevelt’s record in saving Jews. He did admit more Jews than all other country outside Nazi occupation, and, as Dallek does admit, faced very difficult problems with public and congressional opinion. The sad saga of the liner St Louis is not mentioned.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life has the air of Dallek, octogenarian and rabidly partisan Democratic biographer of modern Democratic presidents, checking the FDR box, having written biographies of Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, as well as a dutiful and clumsy sandbag job on Republicans Nixon and Kissinger. The credibility of the author is not raised by his flat assertion in the preface of the book that Nixon rigged the 1968 election by violating the Logan Act of 1799 and inciting South Vietnamese non-participation in Lyndon Johnson’s peace negotiations. This is a complete fabrication.Johnson pretended that there had been a breakthrough in the Paris talks, and that peace could be imminent. The president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, did not need any help figuring out which presidential candidate would be preferable from his viewpoint. This is just rank partisan propaganda, of a piece with a column Robert Dallek published in November on NBC’s website, likening President Trump to rabble-rouser Huey P. Long, red-baiter Joseph R. McCarthy, and arch-segregationist George C. Wallace: not history and not a serious perspective on history.

This isn’t a bad book, and is a passable read, but there are better books on the subject.

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