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Forgotten Elements of FDR’s Foreign Policy Record

I am not an FDR hater. I rank him as one of the five best Presidents and like his foreign policy even more than his domestic. He was an excellent Commander-in-Chief during WWII and the Atlantic Charter and United Nations redefined international relations by making conquest a taboo. However, there are some parts of his record that get overlooked that complicate his legacy.

Most WWII buffs know that the US placed an oil embargo on Japan after Japan absorbed Indochina from Vichy France in autumn 1941 and that this was Japan’s prime motive for attacking Pearl Harbor. But how many know that the State Department made the move without FDR’s direction? FDR met Churchill in August off the coast of Newfoundland to introduce the Atlantic Charter and in his absence Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson severed Japan’s ability to purchase US oil. FDR was stunned and knew the move was provocative but 51% of Americans approved of it and so he left in place.

Emperor Hirohito gave Prime Minister Konoye one month to reach a deal with Washington. Konoye secretly met with the American ambassador and proposed he meet with FDR in Hawaii to establish the framework for a deal. This was sent to the State Department, which convinced FDR that meeting Konoye without a deal in place beforehand would be seen as another Munich Agreement. FDR agreed and sent conditions Konoye had to fulfill before the meeting, which included Japan’s withdrawal from the Tripartite Pact and from its war in China. Konoye had no way of fulfilling these terms and resigned as Prime Minister. He was replaced by Hideki Tojo.

Acknowledging this diplomatic blunder is not engaging in the conspiracy theory that FDR was responsible for December 7, but it is a large piece of his foreign policy record that is almost never mentioned even by professional historians (I learned of it in Jean Edward Smith’s FDR biography). It’s probably one of the largest foreign policy blunders in presidential history, even if, in the long run, the world is better off without the Japanese Empire. Let’s discuss two more.

The Lend Lease Act was arguably FDR’s greatest contribution to Allied victory. Some have even cited it as proof that he “saved the world.” This argument has merit, for it transformed the US into the Arsenal of Democracy and helped fund the British, Soviet, and Chinese war efforts. But FDR also used it to influence his postwar priorities. His seemingly innate trust in the USSR, which he saw as a progressive state, and suspicion of Britain (given his dislike for colonialism), was perhaps his worst miscalculation. He gave Britain the bare minimum it needed to fight the war, aiming to bankrupt London so it couldn’t hold onto its empire. Simultaneously, he gave Stalin a blank check, strengthening the Soviet position in the early Cold War. We can see the legacy of this decision today, not only in the Russo-Ukraine War, but in the rushed partitions of Israel-Palestine and India-Pakistan that resulted in entrenched conflict lasting over 75 years. I write this about a month after Hamas’ attack on October 7.

The following documentary details FDR’s strategy for bankrupting Britain:

The final episode I want to highlight occurred in the November 1943 Tehran Conference. Churchill wanted to detach Prussia from Germany by moving it into Poland and proposed moving Poland’s border to the Oder and Neisse rivers. Put more simply, he said the Allies should move Poland westward at Germany’s expense and to the USSR’s gain. Stalin agreed and so did FDR, who only asked that the move not happen until after the 1944 election so he did not lose the Polish vote. This agreement led to Stalin forcefully moving 10 million Germans and millions of Poles between 1945 and 1950, an ethnic cleansing that killed at least half-a-million people. He did it with FDR’s blessing.

FDR is one of America’s best Presidents for leading the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, two existential crises. He renegotiated our social contract and designed the Liberal World Order. But other Presidents’ failings are routinely used as proof of their deficiencies (think of Ike’s use of covert operations or Reagan and Iran-Contra). Yet these low points of FDR’s record are barely known to most people. Taking them into account offers a more checkered view of one of democracy’s great leaders.

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