Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Lord Black on FDR

I’ve recently been making my way through Conrad Black’s recent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Though I still have about 300 pages to go, I’ve enjoyed it so far and it is worth the time it takes to go through well over 1,000 pages. cover The aspect I’ve found most interesting concerns Black’s treatment of Roosevelt’s relations with Churchill, de Gaulle and other allies. Specifically, Black gives the readers an indication of the contrasting elements of the executive branch as seen in the American, British, French and even Canadian context. Granted, the focus is on Roosevelt, but Black makes a concerted effort to show how Roosevelt’s rather American approach to executive power interacted with other executives. And, when we consider that Roosevelt came into contact with some of the twentieth century’s greatest statesmen – Churchill and de Gaulle – Black’s portrayal of this period becomes all the more significant.

As far as his portrait of FDR is concerned, Black presents a man who, though an American aristocrat, understood the growing power of democratic opinion in the US, as well as the significant role America would play in the post-war world. At the same time, Black also highlights Roosevelt’s failings when it came to dealing with Churchill, de Gaulle and communism. He shows us Roosevelt’s insensitivity to the touchy issue of India and its place in the British Empire, his pandering to Vichy France and blindness to de Gaulle’s greatness, and even his ignorance of the difficulties of Canadian domestic politics.

In some sense, Roosevelt’s faults were also those of the US then and now. At the same time, Black shows us Churchill’s shortcomings, along with those of de Gaulle. In doing so, these men incarnate the best of their respective nations, along with the quirks of American, British or French domestic and foreign policy. What we see in their respective interactions are the pitfalls and realities of what happens when democracies form alliances and go to war. And, by extension, we see how foolish and vacuous was much of the recent rhetoric surrounding the build-up to the war in Iraq: the stupidity of those who condemn the US as an imperial oppressor, the fatuous vanity of commentators and political leaders who droned on about multilateralism and international legitimacy, and the pointlessness of caricaturing nations according to such inane and relatively useless labels as “isolationist” or “hyper-puissance.”

What Black’s book gives us is a look into modern democratic politics and the scoundrels and giants who, in a time of crisis for civilization, acted in its defense or placed it in mortal danger through preening and posturing. And while he does not go deeply into theoretical and philosophic issues surrounding executive power, war and peace, and liberal democracy, the perceptive reader can see the ideas behind the men and the civilization they defended both in common and sometimes in disagreement with one another. The same perceptive reader can also glean how close those ideas came to being washed away when those chosen to defend the West appeased, capitulated and then claimed they were on the Allied side all along.

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