Hal Draper


The Making of a War Monger

(September 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 9, September 1938; pp. 268–271.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT has often been compared to Woodrow Wilson, the object of his first enthusiasm in national politics, as a president who deliberately prepares the country for imperialist war under cover of demagogic phrases about love for peace. As far as their political roles go, the parallel is exact. But from the angle of the characters of the two men themselves, they are far apart.

Wilson’s personal leanings were in the direction of pacifism. To be sure, they counted as nothing under the impact of the forces, which were bigger than Wilson’s professorial pacifism, and compelled him to become the leader in involving the United States in the World War. Indeed, they merely served to maintain a certain ring of sincerity in his verbal denunciation of war, while he greased the skids for American entrance.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the other hand, by personal inclination, early training and pre-presidential political experience, is one of the most militarist-minded men who have ever occupied the White House. I say “one of” only in order to be cautious. Only his uncle-in-law Theodore comes to mind as a close competitor for the honors.

Roosevelt’s Background

Insofar as there is an American aristocracy of birth and breeding, Roosevelt belongs to it. His family tree shows that he is related by direct or collateral descent to eleven Presidents of the United States, to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to Robert E. Lee and other men distinguished in American public life. His father, James Roosevelt, was president of a railroad and vice-president of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company; his only recorded distinction, outside of business, was that he bred Gloster, the first horse to trot a mile in less than 2:20. Through his father, F.D.R. is the descendant of a long line of country gentlemen, wealthy patroons of the Hudson Valley.

His mother, Sarah Delano, is a kinswoman of the Astors and was (according to a Roosevelt biographer) one of the most famous of New York’s society beauties. At the time of her marriage, she was the owner of coal mines and real estate in Pennsylvania, and on her father’s death inherited nearly a million dollars. (Roosevelt’s half-brother, another James, also married into the Astor family.) Speaking of inheritance, on his father’s death F.D.R. inherited over $100,000, yielding $5000 a year; his wife Eleanor Roosevelt also had an inherited income of $5000 a year, later increased to $7500.

Franklin was born on his father’s 500-acre estate in Hyde Park. “Col. Archibald Rogers, the Standard Oil magnate, was a next-door neighbor, and it was in the Rogers home that Roosevelt had his first day of school. The Rogers boys, four of them, were his playmates, and Edmund, now president of the Fulton Trust Company, was his closest chum ... It was the childhood of a rich man’s son and a happy one.” His mother later mentioned his “comparatively quiet, sequestered life” as a child; private tutors at home, annual trips abroad with his mother, French and German governesses – this was his life until he entered Groton, and after Groton, Harvard.

His First Love

The preoccupation which was to become the dominant one in Roosevelt’s development began very early. According to his mother, one of the first books he read through was Admiral Mahan’s History of the American Navy. From that time, even as a child, he began collecting books, pictures, trinkets, connected with the Navy. At the age when children are supposed to fancy themselves as firemen or cops, Roosevelt decided he wanted to go to Annapolis and become a midshipman. His father vetoed the idea, and it was given up (the desire cropped up later most unexpectedly, as we shall see) but he fed his passion all the more in reading and collecting. C. Clemens, in the Literary Education of Franklin D. Roosevelt, writes that “his real education began with his passion for American naval history.”

From that time to this, navalism has been Franklin D. Roosevelt’s main preoccupation, outside of politics. He was busy for years compiling biographies of early American naval commanders, especially John Paul Jones. His is one of the largest private naval libraries in the United States. Hendrik Van Loon describes his home in Hyde Park in the Saturday Review of Literature:

“The library is almost entirely historical [incidentally, Mrs. Roosevelt told Van Loon that novels and poetry mean almost nothing to him – HD]. Naval history takes a preponderant place, for naval history is the special hobby of this former assistant secretary of the Navy. This love for nautical lore, however, antedates his career in Washington ... There are a great many naval pictures. The War of 1812 is a heavy contributor ...”

In Roosevelt’s private office in the White House, there is a hodge-podge of ship models, naval prints, etc. On his desk is a ship’s clock, a barometer, a paperweight fashioned as a miniature helmsman’s wheel. In the residential section of the White House, every room has two or three ship models; likewise in the halls. In the study are naval paintings and books again.

Roosevelt’s passion (the word is used time and again by his biographers) for the U.S. Navy was satisfied only vicariously in his boyhood and youth. But it was not long before he got his chance for more real satisfaction.

He had entered politics in his county, running for State Senator, as a gentleman and a scholar. In 1912, he was an ardent supporter of that other gentleman and scholar in politics, Wood-row Wilson, contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination. When Wilson was nominated, Roosevelt became an enthusiastic stumper for his chief. And when Wilson was elected, Roosevelt was prominently in line for reward.

Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury, McAdoo, offered him the post of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. He was not interested. McAdoo baited him with the Collectorship of the Port of New York, but Roosevelt turned that down too. Then Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy, offered him the post of Assistant Secretary.

Daniels reports that the hair seemed to rise on the top of Roosevelt’s head and his blue eyes flashed. “Assistant Secretary of the Navy!” he cried. “Yes! Yes! I’m your man!”

The Assistant Secretary of the Navy

Josephus Daniels was a North Carolina editor whose job in the cabinet was as political advisor to Wilson. In practice, Roosevelt was the real head of the Navy Department; and since Daniels was frequently away on political missions, he was often the formal head, as Acting Secretary. His assigned role in the department was purchase and sale, the entire business system of the department, civilian personnel and navy yards, but he had his hand in all phases of the department work.

Roosevelt was the “admirals’ man” in the department. “Few Government men pretended to understand him. One class of men, however, keenly appreciated him, the Navy officers themselves.” “It was to Roosevelt and not Daniels that the navy men brought their cases. He was the liaison man between the uniform and the swivel chair.” Before Congress, in public, in the department, Roosevelt was the mouthpiece of the professional navalists, whose demands he represented to be the voice of the “navy experts” as opposed to the ignorant governmental civilians. And as for those demands – they reminded one of the advice of Lord Salisbury while Prime Minister of England: “Pay no attention to the military experts. If they had their way, they would fortify Mars to prevent an invasion from the moon.”

When American interests in Mexico were threatened in 1914, Roosevelt was loudest in the demand that Mexico be put in its place. “If it means war, we are ready,” he proclaimed. When the marines intervened in Haiti in 1915, he directed the operations and later visited the island personally to supervise the wiping up. He was instrumental in getting a Congressional Medal of Honor for Smedley D. Butler, then a major in the Marines, whose exploit consisted in wiping out a force of three hundred of the natives who were fighting for their national independence against American imperialism. Roosevelt himself added more light on his role in the crushing of Haiti in the course of his 1920 vice-presidential campaign. Speaking at Butte, Montana, to allay the fears that we would be isolated in the League of Nations in a den of European wolves, he sought to prove that the U.S. had the votes of some of the Latin American countries in its pocket. “You know,” he told his audience, “I have had something to do with the running of a couple of little republics. The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself, and, if I do say it, I think it a pretty good constitution.” (It is incidentally amusing to note that this frank admission of what everybody knew brought indignant protests from Harding about “the rape of Haiti by the Wilson administration”; thereupon Roosevelt repudiated the statement as a “misquotation” and forty good citizens of Butte, Democrats and Republicans, signed a statement calling him, in effect, a liar.)

From the start, Roosevelt boomed it up for a big navy and war preparedness.

“An efficient navy, large and powerful enough to maintain the nation’s prestige, is the policy of the new administration as outlined by Franklin D. Roosevelt ... to members of the Navy League. His statement created enthusiasm.” (NY Times, April 11,1913.)

Practically stumping the country for his ultra-preparedness policy, he addressed congressional committees, patriotic societies, old ladies’ clubs, etc., by the scores, linking himself with General Leonard Wood and Teddy Roosevelt as one of the most active and vociferous militarists and navalists in the country. Doubling or tripling the building program – 18,000 more men – a fleet of dreadnaughts – a quarter billion a year for the navy – a 50,000-man naval reserve drawn especially from the colleges – these were some of his slogans. Not only that, but while the country was officially observing an attitude of neutrality, his public speeches for preparedness were explicitly directed against Germany. For example, in March 1916 he was boasting that “in a naval building race the United States could outbuild Germany”, and pointed toward the German naval program as justification for his proposals. (In 1913 it was Japan. The yellow peril was convenient then to back the call for more ships and coast guns. “If I were a Japanese and couldn’t land on some spot of that 1,800 miles of unprotected coast line after the fleet has been destroyed, I would commit hari kari,” he said.)

In spite of his propagandistic emphasis on coast defense (“FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT TALKS WAR – MUST BE PREPARED TO DEFEND HOMES, HE SAYS” read the Times headline on Oct. 30, 1915) Roosevelt was well aware what the navy was for.

“Strictly speaking,” he wrote in a newspaper article during the same month as the above headline, “if national defense applies solely to the prevention of an armed landing on our Atlantic or Pacific coasts, no navy at all is necessary. But if defense means also the protection of the vast interests of the United States as a world nation, its commerce, its increasing population and resources in Alaska and other territory cut off from the United States except by sea, its ‘mankind benefiting’ enterprises like the Panama Canal, then and then only does a navy become necessary.”

Roosevelt was quite frank on these lines. Here is another sample:

“We’re all peace men, but I don’t think some of the opponents of a strong navy would retain their views if they could understand ... Without a strong navy we should lose in war time Cuba, Samoa, Porto Rico, the Panama Canal, Hawaii and the Philippines ... The people should make up their minds whether they want to defend only the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards or all the territory where the United States has an interest.” (Times, Jan. 31, 1915.)

In general, Roosevelt’s speeches on preparedness were half demagogic agitation about defense of “our homes” and half realistic advice to American imperialism on how to safeguard its investments abroad (its “territorial acquisitions, the trade and wealth of the U.S.” as he put it).

His militarist policies went beyond naval-building talk. “War does not mean the mobilization of an army,” he said. “It means the mobilization of a nation. Every citizen must take his part. That means we must have universal national service ...”

In October 1916, Charles Evans Hughes made a mild suggestion that the navy ought to pay less attention to propaganda for its building program and more to its target practice. With the sensitivity of a fanatic, Roosevelt heatedly replied that Hughes had “insulted” every officer and man in the navy.

This was Roosevelt’s public activity. But through his control of the operations of the Navy Department he could pass from words to deeds in putting his own ideas into effect, quite independently of Congress or even of the executive. These are the words of a laudatory biographer describing Roosevelt’s activities: “Things began secretly to hum in the Navy Department ... Washington was filled with pacifists ... Unobtrusively and quietly he began the task of adding to the personnel of the Navy the 18,000 men that were needed. [And so on with his other plans – HD] ... All this had to be done quietly. The pacifists were forever vigilant ... Every improvement, every step towards readiness in case of war, was a matter for underground activity ... The finishing touches were accomplished with remarkable speed – sub voce! ... everything that could be done was done – everything but the authorization of the command: ‘Proceed to Brest’ ” – which command unfortunately was beyond Roosevelt’s jurisdiction.

Roosevelt During the War

The command to proceed to Brest came a month after the man who had “kept us out of the war” took office for his second term. Roosevelt swung into action, this time with regard to the actual conduct of the war. He is supposed to have made many contributions to the conduct of the naval war: organization of a coast patrol of yachts, a fleet of 110-foot submarine chasers, the selection of Sims for the supreme naval command, etc. Other plans did not blossom in time for use in the war itself, cut short by the armistice.

One of these was a plan for the development of air bombardments such as are being used now in Spain and China. In a 1919 memorandum on the use of helium – “If the war had lasted until spring,” said Mr. Roosevelt, helium-filled dirigibles could have been sent over strategic points in Germany, “each capable of dropping a total of 10 tons or more of high explosives either in a single tremendous discharge or in a number of smaller ones during its passage over a fortress or city.” (Times, Mar. 17, 1919) He also began working out the practical details of a pet scheme, the organization of a 150,000-man Naval Reserve Officers Corps, emphasizing recruitment from “every university and college in the country”, which was continued after the war ended.

His propaganda activity remained in full force. In June 1918 he started a series of alarmist articles in the New York Times, beginning with “U-Boats Off-Shore!”, followed by “England’s Air-Force and Ours”, “The Condition of the U.S. Navy”, etc. He took advantage of the war situation to press for “the principle of universal service”, expressing the opinion that “universal service was bound to be a national policy in the future”.

What was the war being fought for? Again there was the dual approach – patriotic platitudes for ceremonial occasions, realistic understanding for gatherings that did not object to imperialist realism. Referring back to the war period, in his 1920 acceptance speech as Democratic candidate for vice-president, he said: “Even as the nation entered the war for an idea, so it has emerged from the war with the determination that the ideal shall not die.” In 1926, in a lecture at an academy war memorial meeting: “I have felt very deeply the close association of this gathering with the time, not long past, when all the schools of the nation gave the best of their manhood to a great cause. That cause called for the highest ideals and received them.”

What was this ideal for which the war was fought? Roosevelt himself knew quite well and was not unwilling to say so. Speaking at a Tammany Hall July 4 celebration in 1917, he translated the ideal into practical terms.

“Mr. Roosevelt referred to the present war as ‘another American war for independence’. He told how Germans in Venezuela before the war had taken over the railroads which had been built with American enterprise and capital, and how French banks had been transferred to Germans as proof that Germany was reaching out for the trade of western countries.” (Times, July 5, 1917.)

One would think that all this was enough for a dyed-in-the-wool fire-eater. But it was all being done 3000 miles away from the nearest of the hated Huns. And Roosevelt was not at all lacking in personal courage, as his biographers (including the latest among them, the fatuous Emil Ludwig) have emphasized. It was not enough for Roosevelt.

He wanted to quit his job as Assistant Secretary and ship for active service in the Navy – even as an ordinary seaman.

There were persistent rumors in Washington that he had actually resigned to enlist in the Navy. “But emissaries of President Wilson visited him in a long procession of dissent ... At first he was firm in his wish to join the Fleet, but as dissuasion accumulated he weakened.”

A compromise was struck, and it was arranged that he go over, but only to supervise the operations of the Navy abroad. He proceeded to Brest himself in July 1918; at a luncheon in England he announced, “I shall spend most of my weeks on this side in actually seeing things done,” and visited the fronts to see with his own eyes how it was done. When he returned in September, he told British authorities that he hoped to return in the near future, adding “Perhaps in uniform.” The lust of Franklin (“I Hate War”) Roosevelt for action could not be satisfied merely by directing the wiping up of the Huns or thinking up new ways of killing the uncivilized barbarians who threatened America’s stake in Venezuela.

But the war ended before he could get his gun. He went abroad again in 1919 to direct naval demobilization, returned in March and promptly began another preparedness campaign. More naval budgets submitted and defended before Congress with big-navy and alarmist talk, more speeches (such as that before an American Legion Convention in October 1919 again advocating universal military training for both the army and navy), etc.

The 1920 Campaign and the League of Nations

In 1920 Cox was nominated for President by the Democratic Party, with Roosevelt as his running mate for the vice-presidency. The issue they selected to make the fight on was the League of Nations. It turned out that they thereby sealed their doom, being defeated by the largest vote ever. Roosevelt tells the following story on why they chose that issue (as related by MacKaye). Cox and Roosevelt visited Wilson before the campaign started –

“The two men went to the White House and were marched into Wilson’s sickroom. There, huddled in a rocking chair, sat the Great Idealist. He was gaunt and cadaverous and broken, and a gray shawl warmed his shoulders. Cox, a bright, cheerful, little man was immensely moved. He tried twice to speak and finally managed:

“‘Mr. President, I have been a great admirer of your fight for the League.’

“Wilson looked at him a moment in silence. Something electrified the sickroom, and a gleam of the old zealot fire lighted his sunken eyes. He leaned forward and plucked Cox by the sleeve.

“‘Mr. Cox,’ he said, ‘the fight can still be won.’

“The Presidential nominee was crying when he emerged from the White House and brushed awkwardly at his befogged spectacles. Emotion had put a new misty glow in his face. He turned to Roosevelt and struck him savagely across the shoulders. Something stronger than political wisdom had captured both men. There were still crusades to lead while the Saracen held the Sepulchre.

“‘Roosevelt,’ said Cox, ‘we’ll make the fight on the League.’“

Thus history is made, according to the journalistic interpretation of history. But the misty rose glow must have disappeared when Roosevelt wiped away his tears. The Cox-Roosevelt fight on the League was made by the two musketeers as a hard-headed debate with the Republicans on how best to safeguard the interests of American imperialism.

It is true, of course, that there was no lack of ceremonial phrases about “high ideals”, “civilization and humanity”, “lasting peace”, etc. Indeed, Roosevelt’s central slogan was “Progress versus Reaction” (shades of the CP!). There was the denunciation of short-sighted isolationism in a complex and interwoven world. But when it came down to arguments rather than phrases, Roosevelt showed that he was not an idealistic babe in the internationalist woods.

We must prevent the League of Nations becoming a European weapon against the US, he cried.

“Unless the United States entered the League of Nations,” said Mr. Roosevelt, “it would become a new form of the Holy Alliance of Europe ...”

“Regarding the allegation that the Covenant was in direct violation of the American Constitution, Mr. Roosevelt averred that the Constitution was a document ‘through which a team and horses could be drawn on every page’.”

And he assured the audience that the League would not lead to the internationalism of the red flag, among other gruesome things.

America must enter the League to help the fight against Bolshevism, he cried.

“If America had been a member of the League of Nations, the Polish nation would not be today fighting Bolshevism with its back to the wall. If America had been able to throw into the scale the splendid moral force of its hundred millions of people the Bolshevik armies would not be where they are now.” (Speech in Milwaukee, August 12, 1920.)

Unless we enter the League, he cried, we will be crushed under the burden of taxation necessitated by armaments. Speaking before the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, he pointed out that if international relations are not completely reformed by the League – “... We would not be content with a navy that was not the equal of any afloat.” In that case, he said, we would have to be prepared to spend far greater sums than ever before on the naval branch of the service, as the U.S. would demand more and more control or protection of its commerce, no matter on what sea. Such competitive building, Mr. Roosevelt said, might mean a cost of one billion a year for maintaining the American Navy. “That sounds alarming,’ continued the speaker, ‘but it is going to happen ...’ ” – unless the U.S. could depend upon the League of Nations to protect its shipping and investments for it.

The drubbing which Cox and Roosevelt received taught Roosevelt a lesson. Not that he changed his views: for example, in the 1926 lecture referred to above, he repeated his attack on isolationism and his support of international collaboration. But he did not tackle foreign-policy politics again for some time. In 1932, he made not a single speech on foreign policy. His collective-security-for-democracy speech of last October 5 at Chicago was one of the first outcroppings of the views on foreign policy which he had suppressed since becoming a presidential contender.

After 1920 Roosevelt became vice-president and eastern manager of a large insurance company at $25,000 a year, which job he maintained for eight years. And soon thereafter came his battle against the attack of infantile paralysis, which suspended his political career until the curtain opened on it again in 1928.

The Meaning of Roosevelt

This is not written to prove that Franklin D. Roosevelt is a “bad man”. One conclusion should emerge from this examination of his pre-presidential career: Roosevelt is a conscious, consistent, shrewd, brilliant, and far-sighted representative of the interests of American imperialism. A similar examination of his presidency would go beyond this: Roosevelt is the most capable representative of American imperialism that it has ever had. No American statesman has approached his ability to combine the possession of a long-range view of the needs of American imperialism as a whole and today, with a consummate gift of appealing demagogically to the masses. And to characterize him in these terms is already to call him America’s most dangerous militarist, a “regular, blown-in-the-bottle, antiseptic, non-corroding, self-cocking, dyed-in-the-wool” war-monger, the war-president made to order.

The key to his political philosophy he gave in his last message as Governor in 1932: “We should not seek in any way to destroy or tear down – except to replace unsound materials with new. The American system of economics and government is everlasting. Rather should we seek to eliminate those methods which have proved mistaken ...” Unquestioning acceptance of capitalism – experimentalism in methods of preserving it. This has been his characteristic throughout his life: orthodoxy in the essentials, unorthodoxy in the methods. In Harvard, when as college editor he broke all hitherto existing traditions by attacking the administration – on the question of fire-escapes; in the State Senate, when he led a revolt in the Democratic ranks against boss dictation of a Senate appointee – in order to compromise with the bosses on as reactionary a candidate not as directly a part of the machine; as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, when he set officials on their ears with his unorthodox ideas and methods – in order the more efficiently to prepare for imperialist war. And in this unorthodoxy are united and harmonized the two apparently opposite elements of his political course – his pseudo-radicalism as opposed to the hard-shelled conservatism of the old-guarders; the far-sightedness of his defense of capitalism as opposed to the short-sighted vision of other defenders of the system, bound to outworn inadequate methods.


Last updated on 11 September 2015