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FDR Book: Excerpt from 'Presidential Leadership, Creation of the American Era'

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By    |   Sunday, 09 Nov 2014 05:28 PM

The following is an excerpt from the book Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era (Richard Ullman Lectures) by Joseph S. Nye

Franklin Roosevelt believed in God and an American mission, but he wore his religion and his ethics much more lightly than did Woodrow Wilson. Moreover, Roosevelt was very much a man of compromise, often changing positions, and leaving followers and observers to wonder what he really believed. He was notorious for keeping subordinates in the dark, and he referred to his leadership skills as that of a juggler trying to keep many balls in the air at once. He often seemed to follow rather than lead public opinion.

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Roosevelt’s leadership relied heavily on deception. Gary Wills argues that “what polio did was make him preternaturally aware of others’ perceptions of him. This increased his determination to control those perceptions. People were made uncomfortable by his discomfort. He needed to distract them, direct their attention to subjects he preferred; keep them amused, impressed, entertained. That meant he had to perfect a deceptive ease, a casual aplomb, in the midst of acute distress. He became a consummate actor.” he used devices like the pince-nez, cigarette holder, and careful stage management to distract attention from his disabled lower body. “This regime of deception reached its climax in the 1944 campaign, when the terminally ill Roosevelt tried to show his strength in an open-car ride through New York City, where he was pelted by driving rain.”

Roosevelt always remained close to public opinion and never let himself get too far ahead of it. i noted earlier that this accounts for why he used an inspirational style in domestic affairs, where the public supported his transformational reform objectives, yet used a transactional style in foreign policy, where he hid his transformational goals from an isolationist public. Some have seen this timidity as a moral failing. For example, he could have saved many more Jews from Hitler’s Europe if he had braved anti-Semitic reactions in the American public and loosened immigration restrictions before the war. And at the beginning of the war, a similar attitude led to the violation of the human rights of Japanese American citizens. Even regarding his major objective of preparing the public to enter the war on the side of the allies, he quickly retreated when many of his trial balloons were shot down.

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At the same time, he would try to engineer what seemed to be independent crises and incidents that would educate public opinion in the direction he wished to move. But what is the line between trying to educate the public and manipulating the public? What degree of deception is permissible in a democracy? Earlier I argued that one bright line is between self-serving and group-serving deception. Roosevelt was not above, and sometimes enjoyed, occasional self-serving lies, but most of his major deceptions were for what he thought was the good of the public he was deceiving. a reasonable test is how an impartial observer who shared his goals might judge the action, and how damaging the actions are to trust and institutions. At one end of the spectrum might be deceptions where a leader does not disclose his or her true objectives but that is typical of all politicians; at the other end of the spectrum would be a systematic series of outright lies that could cause loss of confidence in institutions. it was one thing to campaign in 1940 on a promise of no war (after all the moralistic Wilson did the same in 1916), or to use misleading labels like “destroyers for bases” or “lend lease” as disguises for military aid programs. It was quite different to deliberately tell the American public that the USS Greer had been at- tacked by a German submarine when it was the Greer itself that launched the attack.

Cathal Nolan has excused these lies on the consequentialist grounds that “in extremis it is sometimes necessary to violate the letter of the law in order to save the rule of law.” Hitler posed such an existential threat that Roosevelt had no alternative but to deceive the public (though as we saw earlier, Bruce Russett has raised questions about the argument that he had no alternative). “Lying is a requisite of diplomacy, but the best diplomats and national leaders nonetheless lie only rarely and in extreme cases” because they know it destroys trust. On the other hand, Nolan is critical of Roosevelt’s use of lies to support his wartime and postwar plans. He “deliberately deceived the American public about the internal character of the soviet Union, a maneuver that proved quite harmful in the end.” as Robert Dallek has noted, Roosevelt knew full well there was no freedom in the Soviet Union. In Nolan’s view, “the appropriate criticism thus is not that Roosevelt lied. The real problem was that he may have lied unnecessarily before he tried an all-out campaign of using the presidential bully pulpit to convince anti-Soviet Americans that massive material aid to Russia was in the direct and vital interest of the United states.” and one of the effects of the deception is that Americans were less well prepared for dealing with the Soviet Union at the end of the war.

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In terms of his goals and vision, Roosevelt maintained a reasonable balance between risk and realism in his foreign policy, though he did not express it clearly to the public, and he was less clear in Asia (where his contextual intelligence was lower) than in Europe. But his ethical goals were limited by a degree of insularity, and a bolder position could have saved more Jews and done less damage to the rights of Japanese-Americans. His domestic means were constitutional, but the degree of deception he used may have been damaging for institutions in the long term. At the same time, his plans for a postwar United Nations and associated economic institutions and his pressure for decolonization showed a liberal concern for rights. But it is in the consequences that Roosevelt’s foreign policy had the largest ethical importance. His choice to see Hitler as a threat and to prepare America for entry into world war ii rather than to accept the isolationist trend of public opinion was a major moral decision with enormous implications for the creation of the American era. Yes, he had the moral luck of the Japanese attack and Hitler’s declaration of war, but he had prepared to capitalize on that luck. After Pearl Harbor, he began a process of educating the public for a sustainable role in the world, though ironically not adequately about the Soviet Union. And he failed to educate his poorly prepared understudy who would succeed him when the great actor’s health failed.

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Franklin Roosevelt believed in God and an American mission, but he wore his religion and his ethics much more lightly than did Woodrow Wilson.
FDR, roosevelt, presidential leadership, american era, nye
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2014-28-09
Sunday, 09 Nov 2014 05:28 PM
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