• A Hobbit a Wardrobe and a Great war


The American Spectator: A Frail President in a Hostile World


This article was originally posted at The American Spectator.

Before Biden There Was FDR

Joe Biden is not the first ailing American president to seek another term of office, despite being manifestly unfit for the job. But the last time it happened — with the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt for an unprecedented fourth term — the result was disastrous for the cause of democracy and human rights in the world.

Those in close contact with FDR during the 1944 presidential campaign knew that he was in a state of mental and physical decline. Senator Harry Truman, his newly picked running mate, was stunned by what he saw, “I had no idea he was in such a feeble condition,” he told an aide. On his way to Crimea for the Yalta Conference in February 1945 — the crucial wartime meeting between Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin — Roosevelt was, in the words of one physician, “a very sick man.”

Throughout much of the eight-day conference, the president physically projected weakness and capitulation. The end result of his performance was the forcible absorption of central and eastern Europe into the Soviet Union.

The conventional wisdom, touted for decades by Roosevelt’s sycophantic admirers, is that the Soviet army already occupied these European states by the time of the Yalta conference; there was nothing the president could do to alter Moscow’s intention to create “friendly states” along the border of the Soviet Union. “If he failed at Yalta, it wasn’t because of his physical or mental capacity,” insists author and New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld. “Had he been at the peak of vigor, the results would have been much the same.”

Yet the transcripts of the Yalta conference and the memoirs of key participants expose this narrative as fairy dust. In fact, Roosevelt’s mental decline accentuated his naïve, progressive instincts and played into the hands of Stalin, the ruthless realist hellbent on dominating Europe.

It is true, of course, that the Red Army, in thwarting the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, occupied most of eastern Europe and was not about to leave. But the decisive issue at Yalta — the hinge upon which Soviet designs depended — was Poland. The American president possessed the power to intervene on behalf of its democratic future. Instead, FDR used Poland as a bargaining chip for his Wilsonian dream of a rejuvenated League of Nations.

Churchill went to Yalta with a supreme objective: to preserve Poland’s political independence. It was the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, in 1939, that ignited the Second World War and created an existential crisis for Great Britain. “Everyone here knows the result it was to us, unprepared as we were, and that it nearly cost us our life as a nation,” Churchill said. “Never could I be content with any solution that would not leave Poland as a free and independent state.”

In stark contrast with Churchill, FDR seemed indifferent to the sacrifice and valor of the 150,000 Polish ex-patriates who fought with the Allied forces at Monte Cassino, at the Battle of Britain, and in other theaters against the Nazis. His interventions on behalf of Poland were sophomoric, vacuous, and ineffective. Against the calculating and duplicitous Stalin, he adopted a posture of perpetual retreat.

The Polish democratic resistance, with its leadership in London, was dead set against the communist puppets installed in Warsaw during the fog of war. The American and British negotiating teams wanted the Soviets to agree to a new Provisional Government in Poland — reorganized “on a broader democratic basis” — to offset the Warsaw communists. After that, democratic elections would be held.

But the Soviets balked, and Roosevelt backed down. “The United States will never lend its support in any way to any provisional government in Poland which would be inimical to your interests,” he assured Stalin.

It was an absurd and astonishing thing to promise: The Soviet Union had made it clear that any democratic government on its border was “inimical” to its interests. Stalin confirmed this when, in September 1939, the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east as the Nazis invaded from the west. He confirmed it again when he proceeded to brutally dismember Polish society, ordering the deportation and execution of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.

If elections were to be held without a more broadly democratic government in place, Roosevelt and Churchill insisted upon the presence of election observers. Churchill took the lead: “The U. S., Britain, and Russia should be observers to see that they are carried out impartially. These are no idle requests.”

Yet the prime minister lacked the one thing he desperately needed: the clear and unconditional support of the American president. It never arrived. Eager for a Polish settlement to secure domestic support for his dream of a United Nations, FDR instructed his aides to delete the “offending” provision for election observers. Soviet membership in the United Nations, Roosevelt believed, would moderate Stalin’s illiberal instincts.

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, at Churchill’s side at Yalta, summarized FDR’s frame of mind thus: “He was deluding himself.” Hugh Lunghi, a translator and member of the British delegation at Yalta, was astonished by FDR’s naivete. “Those of us who worked and lived in Moscow knew that there was not a chance in hell that Stalin would allow free elections in those countries when he didn’t allow them in the Soviet Union.”

In February 1945, the American president was commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world and was within months of possessing an atomic weapon. At the beaches of Normandy, U.S. and Allied forces had staged the largest and most successful amphibious invasion in the history of warfare, ensuring the defeat of Nazi Germany. The United States boasted unrivaled industrial might and was the engine of the global economy. Yet with all of these resources in hand, Roosevelt would not even insist upon election observers in a European state that had been brutalized by both the Nazis and the Russians.

Was the President’s Health Determinative?

Did Roosevelt’s fragile condition contribute to his posture of appeasement? Of course it did.

In Malta, on his way to Yalta, Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, interacted with Roosevelt and recorded in his diary: “The president appears to be a very sick man. He has all the symptoms of hardening of the arteries of the brain, in an advanced stage … I give him only a few months to live.” (Roosevelt died two months later). When he arrived at Yalta, recalled Lunghi, “the President, waxen cheeked, looked ghastly.” His condition deteriorated throughout the conference. Those present believed Roosevelt probably heard only half of what was said during the meetings.

In his memoirs of the Second World War, Churchill complained that Roosevelt took “a distant view” of the Polish question. “It seemed to me, throughout the sessions of that conference, that the President had a distant view on many other problems as well,” recalled A.H. Birse, Churchill’s chief interpreter at Yalta. His aides, Birse added, “appeared to be putting the words into his mouth for him to say.” Indeed, based on the notes of his physician, Howard Breunn, it seems likely that Roosevelt suffered a pulsus alternans (when every second heartbeat is weaker than the preceding one) during one of the debates over Poland.

Thus, a frail American president embodied political impotence at a moment of geo-political crisis. By not demanding a free and fair democratic election in Poland, Roosevelt telegraphed a clear message to Stalin: The United States would not object if Poland’s sovereignty and independence were destroyed, nor that of Eastern Europe’s. The message was received in the Kremlin, loud and clear.

Nevertheless, with a compliant press corps, Roosevelt later declared to Congress that the Yalta conference had been a smashing success, especially with regards to Poland. There were difficulties, he admitted, “but at the end, on every point, unanimous agreement was reached. And more important even than the agreement of words, I may say we achieved a unity of thought and a way of getting along together.”

It was a deception based upon a delusion underwritten by political ambition and personal vanity.

What difference might a democratic Poland have made, caught in the communist grip of the Soviet bloc? That question was answered in 1989, when the Polish democratic resistance movement, known as Solidarity, compelled the regime to allow free and fair elections. Solidarity candidates won in a landslide. The downfall of communism in Poland led directly to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The democratic revolutions of 1989 might have occurred much earlier had a stronger American leader been present at Yalta. Joseph Stalin displayed a ruthlessness, a disregard for moral norms, and a lust for domination that has few historical rivals. The sick and feeble Roosevelt was no match for “the man of steel.”

If history is any guide, America’s enemies are taking stock of the fragile president who melted into incoherence during his first debate with Donald Trump — and they are praying that he stays in the race and wins in November.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.

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