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Top 10 Foreign Policy Presidents, Number 2: Franklin Roosevelt

Other than Winston Churchill, FDR is likely the single most important person to Allied victory in World War II. That alone earns him one of the top spots on this list.

His primary foreign policy experience was serving as Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy. As President, his Good Neighbor Policy undid his cousin’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and pledged nonintervention in Latin America. He also diplomatically recognized the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, he also refused to partake in a London summit to forge international cooperation in combating the Depression, prioritizing the New Deal instead. This denied him a chance to remove the Smoot-Hawley tariff that triggered a global trade war.

The New Deal dominated the first six years of his presidency, but in 1937 FDR denounced Axis aggression in his Quarantine Speech. The following year he endorsed the Munich Agreement, which he later regretted. He knew American involvement in WWII was inevitable but most Americans opposed intervention and so he slowly (and perhaps overly-cautiously) prepared the country.

The Germans conquered France and the Low countries in summer 1940. The British Expeditionary Force narrowly escaped capture during the Dunkirk evacuation. When the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, refused Hitler’s peace offerings, he knew that German naval and air forces would soon be attacking Britain. “Never has a nation stood so naked before its foes,” Churchill admitted. At that moment, in all of Britain there were only 600,000 rifles and 500 cannons, many of them borrowed from museums. With Britain on the verge of defeat, US military leaders were unanimous in urging Roosevelt to stop sending our limited supply of weapons overseas and instead focus on rearming at home. But FDR was determined to send whatever he could to Britain, even if it meant putting America’s short-term security in jeopardy.

He traded Britain fifty old Destroyers in exchange for naval bases in the West Indies to help the Royal Navy counter German U-Boats. He won an unprecedented third term in 1940 on the platform of keeping America out of the war, even though he was determined to help Hitler’s enemies in any way he could. Churchill sent Roosevelt a letter explaining that Britain did not have enough money to keep paying for US weapons: “I believe you will agree that it would be wrong in principle and mutually disadvantageous in effect… that after the victory was won with our blood, civilization saved, and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed, we should stand stripped to the bone.”

FDR read the letter over and over again while on vacation. He devised a solution that would become known as the Lend-Lease Act, which said that the US would send weapons and vehicles to any nation at war with the Axis. Only once the war was over would those countries be expected to pay America for the equipment. Lend-Lease was purely Franklin’s idea. With the endorsement of Wendell Willkie (FDR’s Republican opponent in the 1940 election) the bill passed Congress.

FDR explained his idea to the press: “Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire...I don't say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.’... I don't want $15--I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.” In his next Fireside Chat, Roosevelt said that the US must become the “arsenal of democracy” to thwart the Nazis’ dream of world conquest.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, FDR again overruled his military advisors and sent Lend-Lease aid to the Red Army. 70% of the bullets, weapons, and vehicles the Soviets used in World War II came from the United States. America sent Russia 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 railcars, three million tons of gasoline, 540,000 tons of rail, 51,000 jeeps, 375,000 trucks and 15 million pairs of boots. At the Tehran Conference in 1943, Stalin declared, “The most important thing in this war are the machines. The United States is a country of machines. Without the use of those machines, through Lend-Lease, we would lose this war.”

FDR also mediated Allied strategy, first siding with Churchill by invading North Africa and the Mediterranean so America could increase its might, and then siding with Marshall, Eisenhower, and Stalin by directing the invasion of Western Europe. Only FDR appears able to see how both strategies were necessary for victory. It is perhaps his greatest contribution and raises the question of his indispensability to winning the war.

He was haunted by Woodrow Wilson’s failure to secure America’s admission into the League of Nations and dreamed of a new international organization that could secure the peace won by the Allied victory in World War II and preserve the Grand Alliance into the post-war world. The first step was the Atlantic Charter. In August 1941, Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland. FDR pledged more Lend-Lease aid to Britain, promised that the US navy would help shield convoys from Nazi attack off the coast of Iceland, but refused to commit any American forces to defeating Hitler. The document they issued called for “the final destruction of Nazi tyranny,” but it also promised a postwar world in which every nation controlled its own destiny, an end to the kind of colonialism Churchill had stood for all his life. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and Churchill proclaimed that the nations at war with the Axis were the United Nations (the suggestion came from Harry Hopkins). Roosevelt devised the organization as we currently know it (with a General Assembly and a Security Council). In order to secure Stalin’s pledge of Soviet entry into the UN, Roosevelt made significant concessions to the communist dictator. The organization was not officially established until after FDR’s death.

If he defeated fascism and established a global taboo against conquest, overturning thousands of years of human history, how is he not Number One? First, because my top pick (yes, you know who he is) is just that formidable, but also because FDR made some missteps that should be better understood.

I’ve written about these in a prior post, but am placing them here again because of their relevance:

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.

I think these failures should deny FDR the top spot, but I still rank him as the second best foreign policy President in American history. There’s only one other who also saved the world, and who did it confront the greatest and most complex stakes imaginable.

Say it with me…

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