From 1930 to 1960, the United States changed from a marginal, middle-sized power to a colossus and quasi-imperial actor, a shift overseen, as Philip Terzian writes in “Architects of American Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century,” by two men uniquely equipped for the task.
One was a Democrat, one a Republican; one came from the upper crust, one from the heartland; one was a politician who understood military imperatives, one a military man with a political temperament. Each had a “gift for command,” “a genial temperament” and a talent for building international agencies that looked multinational while serving to further American interests — as they had designed them to do.
FDR, who took his view from his fifth cousin Theodore, suffered torments in the first years of his reign from the tension between his sense of the menace of Hitler and the isolationist mood that prevailed in his country, and the network of restrictions and laws it produced. Before the war started, he was planning to lead the coalition against him.
Between his election in 1940 and the attack on Pearl Harbor, he waged an undeclared naval war against German shipping, tried to stifle Japan, sealed an informal alliance with Winston S. Churchill, and in the Four Freedoms issued a document that “served as a codification of American war aims four months before America entered the war.”
He planned the United Nations as “an instrument of American power” designed to “give the aggrieved powers of the world the illusion of significance” while he and his allies looked after the world.
When FDR died before the war ended, Eisenhower emerged as the transitional figure as the World War II alliance (minus, of course, the Soviet Union) segued almost seamlessly into the Cold War alliance against the Communist menace, demonstrating that American leadership (and American primacy) were not one-offs created for special occasions, but an ongoing factor in life.
He supported the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the formation of NATO, which institutionalized this development. When the general who had conquered Hitler stood at the head of the armies defending Europe from Stalin, it established his country as committed not to specific wars in specified venues, but to the defense of the West against aggression in general.
Terzian says Roosevelt inherited a country disillusioned by war that had “persuaded itself that the wisest defense against foreign perils was to ignore them,” while Eisenhower was the one personality who could have guided the country after the war to bipartisan acceptance of permanent leadership.
Ike had cemented the FDR breakthrough. But right now it's the FDR party that could do with an Ike of its own.
Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 to break the power of the Taft wing of his party, and lock the Republicans into the international order, which Democrats thus far had shaped.
He was succeeded by the son of one of FDR's harshest critics, who enraged his father when he defended the Marshall Plan, and took office swearing to “bear any burden and pay any price” in the defense and projection of liberty. President Kennedy was perhaps the last Democrat to campaign and win on this platform.
In 1980, FDR's fan Ronald Reagan brought his (and Kennedy's) policies into the Republican Party, where they reside at this moment. In 1997, Democrats unveiled a memorial to FDR that played up the New Deal, and bypassed his role as a war and world leader.
In 2008-2009, his fans ran rapturous features comparing President Obama to Franklin D. Roosevelt. They weren't thinking of foreign affairs.
Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to TheWeekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”