Wednesday, March 28, 2012

FDR Goes to War by Burton & Anita Folsom Part 1

As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read this latest book by Burton and Anita Fulsom. FDR Goes to War is a good companion book to their previous book New Deal or Raw Deal. While that book deals with the domestic economic policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this book focuses solely on the other Roosevelt, the war president.

FDR was reelected in 1936 because he used domestic policies that literally bought votes, because he rabidly demonized business as the cause of the Depression, and because of American's growing fears of what was happening in Europe. After the bruising battles of WW1, Americans, quite understandably felt fairly isolationist. In addition, seeing Stalin and Mussolini rise to power with their brutal, fascist regimes caused Americans much trepidation. Could this be America's future? Credit to FDR for not going down either path and keeping America a republic, but at the same time, he had no problem ignoring the Constitution (see: wiretapping). Navigating these confusing and dangerous times, FDR knew takes a strong hand.

Unfortunately, recognizing the isolationist bent of Americans, while Roosevelt knew war was coming, he did not prepare. How could he ask the very companies he tried to punitively tax simply for being successful to now switch to building war materials and help him prepare the country? His extreme spending on New Deal programs had drained the coffers and led to dismaying borrowing. In the butter or guns question, he knew guns would be necessary, but butter got him the votes.

By 1940, Europe was already in the midst of WWII. FDR faced businessman Wendell Willkie for an unprecedented 3rd term. Willkie ran against FDR's devastating attacks on business and his failed economic policies, however FDR outwitted him. In the months running up to the election, FDR made up with business, paying them to ramp up making supplies to help Britain. While still claiming isolationism, he turned his presidency on a dime to get ready for war under the veil of helping our allies. Additionally, the accomplished genius Roosevelt knew how to distribute tax dollars in the most politically beneficial, if not most efficient, manner. His reconciliation with business and the focus on the very popular doctrine of isolationism for us and help for them, sucked the wind out of Willkie's campaign and FDR went onto victory.

After the election, FDR came to terms with how unprepared for war the US was. His New Deal would have to be sacrificed. As Secretary of War Stimson summed it up, "The whole thing is a great clash between two big theories and interests. If you are going to try to go to war, or to prepare for war, in a capitalist country, you have got to let business make money out of the process or business won't work, and there are a great many people in Congress who think that they can tax business out of all proportion and still have businessmen work diligently and quickly." But one thing would not be sacrificed. Despite their direct interference with Roosevelt's attempts to prepare for war, unions continued to strike and amass power. However, after awhile, even Roosevelt lost patience with the strikers and sent the Army into a plant to bust the strike.

Despite statements to the contrary, the U.S. was not ready for war in the Pacific when Japan hit us at Pearl Harbor. The people in charge had underestimated the Japanese capabilities and 3000 men died as a result. It was clear by early December that the Japanese would launch an attack somewhere in the Pacific, most likely in the Philippines or Singapore, yet we had no way to disseminate the growing warnings efficiently. The telegram informing Hawaii of an imminent attack was in a messenger boy's bicycle pouch when the bombs hit. While Roosevelt was looking for a good excuse to get the U.S. into the war, he believed the attack would be minor. The extent of the damage shocked the administration. Churchill could not hide his relief that the United States was finally, officially in the war.

In the initial stages of the war, due to lack of preparedness, the U.S. lost battle after battle. However, FDR controlled the reports getting out to the public with his Office of Censorship. It was almost a year before the tide began to turn and the U.S. began to drive back the Japanese in the Pacific and the Germans in Africa.

On the homefront, FDR implemented price and wage controls. Groceries became rationed goods and counterfeit ration books became the rage. The halls of Washington D.C tightly controlled production of all goods in our country. With raw materials in short supply, goods such as copper and rubber were highly regulated by the federal government. Shortages resulted from the controls put in place by FDR and by the sudden increase in demand for items such as blankets and guns for the military. Uncharacteristically, Roosevelt put the needs of the country above his own famous hard-line politicking. Having to wind down his Depression-era programs like the WPA which had always delivered him votes, cost the Democrats dearly in 1942. He stopped demonizing the business world and offered an olive branch to get their help if he was ever going to win the war. His fear, however, was that if he didn't buy votes and castigate the "fat cats" the Republican would win the Presidency. Believing that the only way for him to be reelected in 1944 required winning the war, Roosevelt drastically shifted his priorities.

"If 1942 had been a year of disorganization and defeat, 1943 became the year that American and its allies began to win the war."The Nazis surrendered in Russia, and in Africa, America finally made progress. In 1941 the race to develop an atomic bomb began. Using the huge stockpile of silver which Roosevelt had bought at above market prices to appease the West to replace the extremely scarce copper, American scientists scrambled to build the necessary equipment and facilities to succeed.

Shortages characterized much of the wartime. The administration set up the Controlled Materials Plan, the War Productions Board and others like it to regulate scarce resources. In addition to price and wage controls, food rations, and usurpation of various industries, jobs began to fall under Roosevelt's control. As is always the case when government steps in to regulate and limit, scarcity resulted. The Democrats took the blame for the deficiencies and Republicans went onto win state elections in 1943, raising hopes of defeating Roosevelt in 1944.

The war would not be won without the enlistment of business. "Many New Dealers were outraged to see billions of dollars thrown at large corporations to build their factories, swamp them with business, guarantee their profits and remove their risks." Roosevelt, too, hated to cater to the very industries he had just so effectively demonized in the previous election, but winning took precedent above all. He actually pressured the Justice department to abandon anti-trust lawsuit against DuPont because the weapons they produced were so desperately needed. The lawsuit could wait until after the war. In fact, Roosevelt actually  encouraged businesses to collude in order to most effectively innovate and create the materials needed. Principles fell when a war/reelection hung in the balance. Unleashed from the suffocating New Deal policies, business produced amazing results. In their respective roles in the war efforts, future presidents Eisenhower and Truman both recognized that had New Deal regulations stayed in place, America would have either lost the war or seen victory far delayed. "The war business - with its subsidized factories, cost-plus contracts, and guaranteed markets - was the only game entrepreneurs could play in the United States in the 1940s. Thus, the played it. Even with the hight tax rates, it was a better game than FDR had offered them in the 1930s - when he denounced them as 'economic royalists' and created perpetual uncertainty." Is it any wonder the Depression lasted 10 years?

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