Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Greatest Possible Challenge

Last week there was a rather quiet commemoration of the 70th anniversary of one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century: the Allied victory over the Nazis in World War II.

Indispensable to that victory was the US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  My next few excerpts from Roosevelt & Hopkins will pertain to that, especially as it is the actual subject of this long book.

The book chronicles the months and years after German invasions began the war in Europe but before US formally entered it.  That period was characterized by growing desperation, especially from England, for US help.  While western civilization and liberty arguably hung in the balance, FDR was stymied by a recalcitrant Congress, especially the Republicans who were in the main Isolationists, and viewed with extreme suspicion any attempt to increase US military readiness or aid European allies.  Some factions and celebrities (notably Charles Lindbergh and Ann Morrow Lindbergh) praised the Nazis and called them the wave of the future.

The US public was traumatized by World War I to an extent that history seems to have forgotten.  But the Republicans weren't pacifists--they were Isolationists, opposing American involvement beyond US borders or at least outside its hemisphere.  This isolationism was in part domestic politics, for it gave them a clear identity in contrast to FDR.  They used this important issue about the future to make outrageous charges and gin up their supporters.  And they took it to ridiculous extents, refusing to pass appropriations bills for anything that even sounded like supporting military overseas. Sound familiar?

But that changed on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on ships of the US Pacific Fleet at the US base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  When Congress voted to declare war on Japan and its allies the next day, the US was woefully underprepared.  Only the quiet build-up FDR had engineered (partly by refocusing Depression work programs) ran counter to the obsolescence of US forces, in a war that more than any in history would depend on the quantity and quality of ships, planes, weapons and technologies, and the ability to keep producing them and getting them where they were needed--not only to US forces but to allies, in huge numbers.  How all that happened is covered in great detail in this book.

But US forces in the Pacific suffered defeat after defeat in the first months of the war. In January 1942, everyone knew that the US would have to massively step up its war production or face complete defeat, with Europe lost to the Nazis as well. FDR had gathered experts who went over figures of what the US was producing, and what industry estimated they could produce.  Under FDR's influence, they set goals for the coming year--astounding goals.  Here's Sherwood:

“The production goals determined upon the Arcadia Conference and announced in part by Roosevelt in his Message to Congress were so astronomic that they were greeted with derision and, in some cases, despair by military and civilian authorities alike. Some officers in the War Department were passing the remark, “The President has gone in for the ‘numbers racket’! Others could see nothing humorous in these impossible figures; believing that the goals could not possibly be realized, they foresaw grave criticism and probable injury to public morale when failure became evident.”

As usual, when critics in the press or among Republicans were afraid to lambast FDR directly they went after Hopkins, the "free spender," for unduly influencing FDR.

"However, as Hopkins had once told Quentin Reynolds, he was no Svengali, and Roosevelt was in no trance when he proclaimed the Victory Program of production. It was in Roosevelt’s nature to believe that the surest way to capture the imagination of the American people was to give them the greatest possible challenge.[my emphasis]

The total cost in money bothered him not at all; he always believed it was far better to squander the taxpayers’ dollars than to squander the taxpayers. As a matter of fact—and I can state it as such because I was one of those present when it happened—Roosevelt himself arbitrarily revised some of the figures upward on the eve of his speech to Congress. When Hopkins questioned him on this, Roosevelt said, ‘Oh—the production people can do it if they really try.’

 He did the same thing years later en route to Chicago where he proclaimed a national, postwar goal of sixty million jobs. He was never afraid of big, round numbers.”

Roosevelt the master politician and now leader of the Allies turned criticism into cheers by making these production goals a patriotic statement:

“When Roosevelt announced a part of the Victory Program to Congress, he said, ‘These figures and similar figures for a multitude of other implements of war will give the Japanese and Nazis a little idea of just what they accomplished in the attack on Pearl Harbor.’ The Congress cheered that vociferously and proceeded to appropriate the necessary funds with few of the quivers that assailed those who were responsible for carrying out the incredible program.”

The United States met and surpassed FDR's production goals, widely credited as a crucial element in winning the war.