When we look back at 1938, there was a whole lot of bad national leadership at the heads of most of the great powers at the time. To summarize briefly: the French, having allowed Hitler to retake Alsace-Lorraine with barely a protest, were allowing their army to rot behind the Maginot Line; Chamberlain in England was arranging to give away large chunks of Europe to Hitler and babbling about "peace in our time"; Japan was engaged in rapacious conquest that would end in disastrous overreach; the Kuomintang in China were mired in corruption and utterly ineffective; Germany had Hitler; and Russia had Stalin. Quite the collection.
And then there was FDR. Between unions that were openly sympathetic with Communism, and industrialists that were openly sympathetic with the Fascists, he managed to steer a middle way that preserved democracy. And when war broke out, he was able to do what needed to be done despite a populace with a thoroughly isolationist bent. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that from a modern perspective, he looks like the only leader of a major power anywhere on the planet who had his head screwed on even approximately right in the late 1930s.
But that wasn't obvious at the time. Roosevelt hadn't looked like a great man to a whole lot of people around him as governor of New York. (Robert Moses, then running the state's parks and highways -- as he would for decades after -- called him "the feather duster"). And once he was President, plenty of respectable people in the American upper class dismissed him as a failure and thought someone like Hitler to be, if anything preferable. Hitler was getting things done. The economy was doing great in Germany. And no labor trouble. Charles Lindbergh was openly friendly with the Nazi leadership, and a whole lot of industrialists contributed to fascist groups within the U.S., either directly or through umbrella groups like the American Liberty League -- which funded just about every reactionary element they could find, be it racist, anti-semitic, or just plain nuts, that was opposed to Roosevelt on the right..
And they were wrong. Alfred Sloan, who had lots of nasty things to say about Roosevelt during the 1930s, and wrote a few fat checks to the Liberty League himself, had the grace to say as much after the war, more or less. But at the time, he was writing friends that if Roosevelt was the best that democracies could do, then they were prety much all washed up.
You might want to see this as some kind of proof of the ineffable wisdom of the American electorate, clearly seeing what the rich failed to grasp. Me, I'm not so sure.
What these guys were trying to do, in the '30s, was to bend national policy in a direction that favored them, and to win votes to do it, by appealing to, well... the whole Liberty League menagerie, but let's just focus on the racists, because there were, and still regrettably are, quite a few of them.
The Liberty League was trying, in effect, to get racists to vote Republican in the 1940 presidential election. And there is a very good reason that that was not likely to happen, which has absolutely nothing to do with the ineffable wisdom of the American electorate: since the end of Reconstruction, decades ago already at this point, American racists had gotten everything they could reasonably want out of the Democrats. Republican Theodore Roosevelt's appointment of a female black postmaster had been a cause celebre of his administration; Democrat Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, segregated the entire national postal service.
What's happened over the decades since is that the Democrats got a belated case of conscience which drove the racists out of their ranks -- Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond moved first into the effectively pro-lynching "Dixiecrat" splinter group, which ran him as a presidential candidate, and then into the arms of the Republicans, where Thurmond finished his career, and where the heirs of the funders of the Liberty League, like Richard Mellon Scaife, now have the alliance their fathers and grandfathers dreamed of. And as much as Republicans like to talk about the dependance of the current Democratic Party on the black vote, there's also a story to be told about their own dependance on racists. There's a reason that Haley Barbour, Republican governor of Mississippi and former RNC big shot, hangs out with the Council of Conservative Citizens -- if you don't know what they stand for, a little time on their web site will let you figure it all out.
In short, the election of Roosevelt may have had a lot less to do with the ineffable wisdom of the voters, than with, at best, some rather nasty coalition building on the part of the Democrats, and at worst dumb luck.
Which is kind of disturbing right around now. Now, when the Chinese Communists can criticize American human rights abuses with a straight face. Now, when someone inside the Administration is apparently saying that what we really need now is a war of conquest over all Arabia:
- Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills--all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its support base. -- [S]uch actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.
(Crikey. Has this guy noticed that the effect of the war, thus far, is to create training grounds for the terrorists? Is he aware that there are more than a billion Muslims, and that the Muslim population, and for that matter, Muslim resistance groups, are found not just in the Arab world, but in places as far flung as Indonesia and the Philipines? Does he expect the governments of Muslim states, and states like India with large Muslim populations, who are already out in the streets, to just stand idly by while we do all this? Has he forgotten that at least one Muslim state -- Pakistan -- has nukes? Engaging these folks in a genuine democratic process is not a foolproof recipe for success, by any means, but it has worked in the past. And the victory in arms sought by "anonymous" could only be Pyrrhic -- and the whole planet would be the pyre. Enough).
In the 1930s, it seems to me, we got kinda lucky with our national leadership. I do hope our luck's not running out.