After the bugle sounded, followed by the ceremonial music of the Marine Band, Franklin Roosevelt, his arm locked to that of his eldest son, James, walked slowly to the lectern on the Capitol’s East Portico. As he stood hatless and coatless, tens of thousands of eager supporters who had long waited in the cold on the Capitol’s grounds cheered loudly. Roosevelt raised his right hand and placed his left hand on a Dutch family Bible brought to the New World by his ancestors. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administered the oath of office, ending with the president’s promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.” The more than 150,000 spectators who huddled together on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol roared their approval.
When Roosevelt was sworn in as thirty-second president of the United States in March 1933, during the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis, he most assuredly never anticipated that by the end of the decade he would be preoccupied with foreign policy. And yet by 1940, Roosevelt found his presidency increasingly consumed with the march of fascism and widening conflict in Europe. Although it was ultimately the Japanese who precipitated America’s entry into World War II, during his third term in office, Roosevelt had grown increasingly concerned that the war already raging in Europe threatened democracy everywhere, including in the United States.
Roosevelt came to the presidency with a particular appreciation for European customs and culture. French and German governesses tutored him until he was fourteen, and he accompanied his parents on their frequent travels to Europe during the summer months. He also knew something of Europe’s turbulent history and bitter rivalries. As a young man, he served in the Wilson administration and knew well the impact of the Great War in which ten million soldiers were killed, and an equal number of civilians perished.
As president, Roosevelt’s views, and ultimately his policies, concerning Europe were shaped by his own experiences, but he also gleaned information about international developments from many sources—newspapers, diplomatic cables, former diplomats, and friends who traveled abroad. However, nothing was more important to his understanding of the foreign landscape than the information and analysis he received from his ambassadors.
The president wanted to know what his ambassadors were seeing at post, to whom they were talking, and what they thought. Stricken by polio, which limited his ability to travel, and in an age before today’s instant communication, he was a voracious reader of cables and an inveterate letter-writer. Whenever his ambassadors were in Washington, D.C., he nearly always met with them. Sometimes the ambassadors provided prescient advice; other times they were terribly mistaken. A born skeptic, Roosevelt understood the value of information collected on the ground and had an uncanny ability to sift through the often-contradictory data and opinions he received.
Roosevelt’s direct communication with his ambassadors was atypical, but he didn’t especially care about protocol; in fact, he had little respect for the Department of State as an institution of government. In part, his disdain stemmed from his view that most diplomats were entitled bureaucrats marking time during a grave economic crisis. He was partially correct; after decades of American isolation in the world, diplomats didn’t have a lot to do, but neither did they show much initiative. In fairness, it wasn’t entirely their fault; there was no overarching conception of America’s role in the world around which to focus the work of diplomacy.
Roosevelt’s criteria for choosing ambassadors varied from man to man depending on the country. He doled out embassies to friends, campaign contributors, and the occasional professional. Although many of Roosevelt’s ambassadors were from a similar social background, it is difficult to find common denominators in the choices he made for those who served him in key positions except for two consistent traits: He appeared to value loyalty and trustworthiness above all else.
While he didn’t necessarily choose the most capable individuals, he sized up men better than any politician of his era and built each of his personal and political relationships on a set of commonalities, distinct for each man. With William Dodd, his ambassador to Germany, Roosevelt appealed to their shared admiration for the international idealism of Woodrow Wilson. With Breckinridge Long, appointed to Italy, Roosevelt shared a cultural and class affinity, not to mention the love of political battle. With William Bullitt, ambassador to the Soviet Union and later to France, he shared a sense of humor, bonhomie, and an unabashed optimism. Then there was his ambassador to the United Kingdom, Joseph P. Kennedy, with whom Roosevelt had little in common. They did not enjoy a personal chemistry and were more competitors than friends. But Roosevelt did respect Kennedy’s drive and ambition, though he felt constantly compelled to check it.
After World War I, during his political career in New York, Roosevelt had observed Americans turn inward, become skeptical of foreign entanglements, and grow suspicious of European governments that couldn’t seem to resolve their differences or pay their international debts. Yet almost from the moment he became president, Roosevelt sensed that the futures of America and Europe were intertwined. Two of his ambassadors, Dodd and Bullitt, generally shared the president’s worldview. Ambassador Long somewhat admired European fascism, and Kennedy, like most Americans at the time, was an avowed isolationist. Dodd and Bullitt, Long and Kennedy, personified the different approaches to foreign policy, and their advice was often emblematic of the tensions pulling Roosevelt in opposite directions.
These four ambassadors, some of whose diplomatic service overlapped with one another, served in the most important posts in Europe during the 1930s. Watching Darkness Fall is their story—the story of a fascinating though problematic team of men who had little in common except that they witnessed, and interpreted for the president, many of the most tumultuous events leading up to World War II. It is also the story as well of a president who weighed their advice and ultimately made the fateful decision to take the country to war. And, finally, it is the story of America’s struggle to define its role in a changing world.
HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN
Inspired by his older fifth cousin President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt’s political career began in 1910 at the age of twenty-eight when he was elected to the New York State Senate. Tall, good-looking, with a square jaw and gray-blue eyes, Franklin was charismatic and a gifted orator. He sported a pince-nez like his cousin, but in contrast to the high-pitched, nasal timber of “TR,” his voice was clear, strong, and melodic. And when the young senator smiled, his face lit up, projecting a warmth and friendliness that enveloped those around him.
Franklin followed in the footsteps of his cousin TR when after only three years in state government, newly elected president Woodrow Wilson appointed the thirty-one-year-old state senator with a famous name to be assistant secretary of the navy. As the second-most powerful man in the navy, Roosevelt was responsible for civilian personnel as well as administration of naval bases and the operations and contracting at shipyards. It gave him exposure to the workings of the federal government, and because he was responsible for upgrading and expanding the navy during the Great War, he received an education in international relations as well.
By 1920, Roosevelt was viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party and was nominated for vice president on the ticket with Governor James M. Cox. Although Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge soundly defeated the Democrats, the experience gave Roosevelt a political education in running for higher office and an appreciation for the vastness and diversity of the nation. Retreating to New York after the election, Roosevelt joined a law firm, but was stricken with polio during the summer of 1921 while on vacation at Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada.
In January 1922, Roosevelt was fitted with braces that locked in at the knee and continued the length of his leg. By the spring of that year, he could stand with assistance, and he returned to his law practice. In 1924, at the Democratic National Convention, he gave presidential nominating speeches for Governor Al Smith. The speech marked a return to public life for Roosevelt, and four years later, he ran successfully for governor of New York, succeeding Smith in office. After the stock market crash of 1929 and President Hoover’s failure to effectively address the deepening economic crisis, Roosevelt, with encouragement from his wife, Eleanor, ran for president.
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In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt campaigned on ending the Great Depression and restoring American prosperity. He focused almost exclusively on the domestic economy, broadly laying out his vision for a “New Deal.” While the concept was rooted in a political realignment toward progressivism, Roosevelt offered few specifics about what he would actually do if elected, leading some to question his commitment to making his vision a reality. Walter Lippmann, one of the era’s leading journalists and pundits, observed, “Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune to the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”1
Like so many political observers at the time, Lippmann vastly underestimated Roosevelt, but correctly characterized the governor’s campaign to be based more on personal charisma than any blueprint for the future. Roosevelt loved interacting with people, and his magnetism translated to votes. During the 1932 campaign, he projected a warmth and confidence that communicated genuine concern for the people and assured voters that he would use the highest office in the land to fight for them.
Because the economy was the most important issue on voters’ minds, candidate Roosevelt almost never mentioned foreign policy. When he did, his message conformed to the isolationist mood that was sweeping the country, articulated most clearly by newspaper publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, a nemesis of Theodore Roosevelt and a onetime presidential candidate himself in 1904, paid for a nationwide radio address in early 1932 to blast “the disciples of Woodrow Wilson … fatuously following his visionary politics of intermeddling in European politics.” Hearst declared, “We should see to it that a man is elected to the presidency whose guiding principle is ‘America First.’”2 Unwilling to challenge Hearst, Roosevelt publicly opposed American membership in the League of Nations and vowed that, if he were elected president, debtor nations would pay the bills they owed to the United States. In a speech before the New York State Grange on February 2, 1932, he declared, “The League of Nations today is not the League conceived by Woodrow Wilson.” Roosevelt claimed that the nations of Europe had not demonstrated “a disposition to divert the huge sums spent on armament into the channels of legitimate trade, balanced budgets and payment of obligations,” and concluded the organization no longer served “the highest purpose of the prevention of war and a settlement of international difficulties in accordance with fundamental American ideals.”3
Notwithstanding his campaign rhetoric, Roosevelt was at heart an internationalist. He had traveled widely, understood the value of international trade, and perhaps most importantly, abhorred war as a waste of human life and resources. Privately, Roosevelt continued to embrace the Wilsonian view that global diplomacy could bring about a more peaceful world.
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The 1932 Democratic Convention was held in Chicago at the end of June. Roosevelt campaigned throughout the country and won a majority of the seventeen state primaries, and arrived in Chicago with the firm commitment of 600 delegates. However, he needed 770 votes to secure the two-thirds majority required by party rules at the time, and there were a number of potential aspirants to the White House, including John Nance Garner, the Speaker of the House, as well as his onetime mentor, former governor Al Smith of New York. Garner had won the important primaries of his home state of Texas and, with the support of William Randolph Hearst, had trounced Roosevelt in California. Smith, an undeclared candidate, posed perhaps the biggest threat to Roosevelt’s nomination. He and Roosevelt had once been close friends but now were bitter rivals.
For two days before the balloting began, delegates haggled and horse-traded over chairmanship of the party, convention rules, and the party platform in efforts to gain an advantage for their preferred candidates. The balloting process finally began on July 1 but the convention soon deadlocked. After the third ballot, the delegates adjourned, promising to reconvene in the evening for the fourth ballot. Back in his hotel room, Roosevelt’s campaign manager, Louis Howe, assessed the situation and decided that there was no way to persuade Al Smith’s delegates to support Roosevelt. The Ohio and Illinois blocs pledged their respective “favorite sons” would “hang on grimly in hopes of a ‘dark horse’ nomination.” That left the California and Texas delegations, at the time pledged to Speaker Garner. Approaching Garner through two separate Texas allies, the Roosevelt camp offered the Speaker the vice presidential nomination if he would withdraw. Garner wanted to think it over.
While Garner equivocated, Hearst, monitoring the proceedings from the comfort of his California estate at San Simeon, began to question whether or not the Speaker could win the nomination. Roosevelt’s operatives tried to reach Hearst by telephone but were unsuccessful. However, early in the morning on July 2, Hearst accepted a call from Joseph P. Kennedy, an early Roosevelt supporter whom Hearst had gotten to know during the late 1920s, when Kennedy lived in Los Angeles and was making millions in the movie industry. Kennedy persuaded Hearst that Garner could not win and that if the convention remained deadlocked, then a potential dark horse—perhaps an internationalist—might carry the day. For Hearst, internationalism was an anathema and disqualified any candidate who embraced it; because Roosevelt had walked back his Wilson-era belief in the League of Nations, Hearst favored him over other remaining prospects, like Wilson’s former secretary of war Newton Baker, another undeclared candidate waiting in the wings.
Hearst telephoned Garner and advised him to fall in behind Roosevelt and release his delegates. Other political bosses put pressure on Garner as well. The Speaker acquiesced, and after some internal debate within the delegations, both California and Texas lined up behind Roosevelt. The next day, Franklin Roosevelt was officially nominated as the 1932 Democratic candidate for president. At the time, few people understood that Roosevelt’s statements on America’s role in the world—carefully crafted to satisfy William Randolph Hearst—helped him secure his party’s nomination.
Following the convention, Roosevelt’s sons Franklin Jr., James, and John joined him for a two-week vacation aboard a forty-foot yawl that set sail from Long Island up the Atlantic coast to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Afterward, during the remaining weeks of the summer and into the fall, Roosevelt crisscrossed the country by train. In September, he traveled to Los Angeles, which had hosted the summer Olympics the previous month. The Boston Globe reported that Joe Kennedy joined the trip as a member of the candidate’s “inner circle,” and that Kennedy was consulting on policy as well as discussing “political tactics” and “business matters” with Roosevelt.4 Kennedy also contributed $10,000 directly to the campaign and lent it another $50,000.5
Roosevelt and Kennedy had known each other for a number of years, beginning when Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the navy in the Wilson administration and Kennedy, six years his junior, was the assistant manager of the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. As Kennedy remembered years later, “We never got along then.”6 Their first encounter was not an auspicious beginning.
In early 1917, Roosevelt summoned Kennedy to the Navy Department. The assistant secretary appealed to the shipyard manager to release two Argentinian-built battleships that were docked at Quincy and badly needed for service in the Atlantic. The only problem was that the government needed the ships delivered immediately—and wanted them on credit. “Don’t worry,” Roosevelt assured Kennedy, “the State Department will collect the money for you.” However, Kennedy refused the assistant secretary’s request and argued that the ships could only be delivered after they were fully paid for. Roosevelt rose from his desk, smiled, and put his arm around Kennedy, and then quietly informed him that if the ships were not delivered immediately, he would use the power of the government to expropriate them. An indignant Kennedy returned to Boston and ignored Roosevelt. A week later, four tugboats carrying armed soldiers arrived at the shipyard and seized the battleships. Kennedy would later remember Roosevelt as “the toughest trader I’d ever run up against.”7
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In October, Roosevelt set off on a second whistle-stop tour through the Midwest, South and mid-Atlantic. Kennedy was not invited on this trip, likely because Louis Howe, the campaign manager, neither liked nor trusted him. Howe thought Kennedy too close to Wall Street and likely heard the rumors that Kennedy had voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928.8 But other financial backers were along for the ride. Breckinridge Long, a friend from their days serving in the Wilson administration, was on board and occasionally introduced the candidate at events. Long had supported Roosevelt from the beginning of the campaign and was a member of a small group of political supporters who referred to themselves as “WRBC”—“With Roosevelt Before Chicago.”
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Some of President Hoover’s advisers had been eager to confront Roosevelt in the election of 1932, believing that the New York governor’s paralysis would make it impossible for him to wage an effective campaign, much less fulfill the duties of the presidency. “What is he, himself, thinking about when he allows himself to aspire to that office?” Hoover’s congressional liaison, James MacLafferty, sneered. During the fall campaign, President Hoover never talked about Roosevelt’s disability, instead attacking his “social philosophy,” which he called “very different from the traditional philosophies of the American people.” Hoover warned that these “so-called new deals” would “destroy the very foundations” of American society.
Louis Howe concluded that because President Hoover was so unpopular, Roosevelt’s main strategy should be not to commit any gaffes that might divert the public’s attention. Foreign policy was barely mentioned. While Roosevelt didn’t offer specific programs or policies to address the economic crisis at home, in a famous speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on September 23, he talked about the need to redress the balance between corporate and individual economic rights. The capitalist marketplace had failed, and in his view, only the federal government could resuscitate the economy and put people back to work. As he put it, “Every man has a right to life; and this means that he also has a right to make a comfortable living.”9
While many Americans came to know Roosevelt via newsreels and the radio, he was never filmed in his wheelchair, and the vast majority of Americans were unaware of his physical disability. During the fall of 1932, he waged an energetic campaign, traveling around the country, attacking Hoover and promising better days ahead. Whenever Roosevelt spoke before a crowd, he pulled himself to an upright position, standing at a podium, or at the rear of a train, as a band or orchestra played “Happy Days Are Here Again.” His campaign song and ever-present smile lent an air of optimism and hope to every campaign appearance.
The outcome of the election was never really in doubt. The American people wanted change.
On November 8, Franklin Roosevelt won forty-two states and nearly twenty-three million votes, crushing the incumbent president who managed to win only six states and fewer than sixteen million votes. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States with a lopsided electoral vote victory of 472–59.
Copyright © 2021 by David McKean