Mr Roosevelt

'A reason why men and generations are remembered'
Roosevelt (Wikimedia Commons)


[This article first appeared in the April 27, 1945 issue of Commonweal]

You will remember, perhaps, Grey's saying in 1914 that the lights were going out over all Europe, and that it would be a long time before they were bright again. Even he cannot have known how desperately long it would take, or that darkness would descend upon well-nigh the whole earth before dawn could return. Nothing anybody can say about Mr. Roosevelt is more true than that millions of men and women in as many countries as you can mention believed that he, uniquely he, would usher in the morning. Of course this conviction rested in part upon knowledge or illusion, it does not for the moment matter which, about the fields, the factories and the decency of America. But it was born also of a feeling that in Mr. Roosevelt old values had a spokesman as well as new techniques.

Old values and new techniques! I think that the duality thus expressed may well have been the component parts of the unity for which he strove. Mr. Roosevelt had grave and manifest faults, and it may be well to have a candid look at them. Some once said that Caesar was ambitious, and more have said it of the late President with a certain reason. He craved glory and honor and fame and everlasting laudation, often with a quite child-like intensity. To cite chapter and verse would serve no purpose. One can't have known Mr. Roosevelt at all without knowing this. And his second fault may well have been bound up with his training. His mind ranged widely and was keen. But it lacked ability to delve to the last layer of soil where realism is. Some commentators have said that he picked up a germ at Teheran from which he did not rid himself. But it was more than a germ. It was a shock.

Nevertheless these faults, which sometimes made him impetuous when he should have been cautious and conciliatory when he should have been firm, add to rather than lessen the abiding value of what he achieved. Enemies sometimes said that he was veering toward dictatorship. That is extremely fatuous. Mr. Roosevelt's supreme satisfaction lay in the fact that he could master the democratic process. In order to win over the majority of the people, he had again and again to change his political formulas. But he varied them with superlative skill without ever altering the basic factor, which was his ability to make a new combination when circumstances required. In all this he manifested consummate democratic political art. But the drift of his thinking was apart from these matters. He believed in the old things for which America had stood. And he knew that this old wine had to be poured into new bottles. Sometimes, it is true, he poured it into a bottle that broke. But at least he did not spill it on the ground.

Let us look at the values. Mr. Roosevelt believed in the social conscience — worshiped it with the passionate intensity which possibly only the well-to-do and therefore leisurely American has ever been able to develop. He was of the school of Edward Bellamy, Henry George and John A. Ryan. It was appalling to him that honest men should be doomed to helpless poverty. It was equally shocking to him that an industrial mechanism capable of producing everything people needed should lie idle while millions of citizens had nothing. You will get nowhere in this world until you realize that any number of people are neither appalled nor shocked by these things and that their callousness may not be entirely their fault. The middle class consists of human beings who work hard and save something for a rainy day. Often they have no time, energy or money to think of anything else. When depressions come, they turn out the lights earlier and put the same amount in the savings bank. They are workers in the hive and lack the imagination to realize that the fellow who isn't standing in line with a deposit slip may be up against a handicap tougher than indolence. Mr. Roosevelt saw the truth. He went ahead and tried to do something about it. Not always the right thing, no doubt, but anyhow there were fewer people eating out of garbage cans. Mr. Roosevelt also had a curious spiritual fervor. I say "curious" because, frankly, I do not understand it. There was about him none of the grass-roots Protestant Christianity which Mr. Truman will bring to the White House, and none of the tragic mystical insight which Lincoln developed in his last years. The Washington of this war is a singularly despiritualized entity. You journey out to Brookland and see the vast complex of religious establishments grouped round the Catholic University; or you may, if you like, go to church with Lord Halifax. But on the government, these diverse religious forces seem to exercise no influence whatever. It is a positivistic enterprise geared to efficiency and little else. When you listen to Mr. Patterson or Mr. Batt or to any of that fraternity, you hear men speak for whom action suffices without a purpose. The President, however, was somehow far loftier than all that. He believed in prayer, even if it was a conventional prayer. He believed in God, even if He was the Rector's God. One cannot resist the feeling that in matters of the soul Mr. Roosevelt was a conservative.

Undoubtedly he entertained a deep respect for the Catholic Church. He was unfailingly tactful in his relations with Catholics, and considerate of their legitimate interests, for quite other than political reasons. Putting Mr. Myron Taylor in the Vatican and sending Carlton Hayes to Spain were acts of which only a gentleman would think. It is of course no secret that Mr. Roosevelt was often hard put to it to guess what on earth Catholics wanted. Indeed, if he read certain- sections of the Catholic press, he must have wondered whether they wanted anything tangible this side of Sirius, the Dog Star. Yet these things do not alter the essential record. He sent Ed Flynn on a serio-comic trip to Moscow. And undoubtedly for a time he profited by the astute and subtle mind of Felix Frankfurter. To put those two facts together, and alas in certain circles they have not always been joined, is to have the material for a commentary which it might sometime be instructive to compose.

Now for the new bottles. I don't know whether Mr. Roosevelt ever thought about Karl Marx, or about the bee in Marx's bonnet. But it seems to me that he often acted as if he had some intuitive recognition of both. Marx saw that capitalism had not worked out as Adam Smith predicted, because Hume's theory of innate sympathy as the motor of the social conscience was wrong. He also grasped the simple truth that if you were to drum up support for the social conscience, you would have to organize; and he surmised that the logical organization was that of the victims, of the proletariat. Yet Marx made a colossal blunder— in addition to sundry smaller ones—and it was this: failure to grasp the dynamism latent in economic activity. I am not going to insert at this point an essay on the private interpretation of the economic gospel. But it is evident that the New Deal, as well as the economic planning of the British and the Germans, developed out of the surmisal that if you stimulated the whole economic enterprise by injecting into its veins a certain amount of collective public purpose you could alter its tempo and its social significance.

Undoubtedly Mr. Roosevelt's attempts to do this were amateurish. That is always a term one applies to ventures undertaken for the first time. And it is unfortunately true to say that the sole successful experiments in industrial dynamism so far conducted are bound up with the armament industry and war. But we may hope that little by little human society may find the solution. At any rate, we know definitely that it is possible for industrial democracy to accomplish not only everything achieved inside a rigorously organized Marxist state, but much more beside. Therewith, it seems to me, Mr. Roosevelt left the American people a legacy of hope. Realizing that hope will not be easy. But few would doubt that hard work can be contemplated more agreeably than despair.

The dead President was, above all, the Commander- in-Chief of the most formidable American armies ever to have been mustered in. It so happens that on the night of his death, having come away from meetings blissfully ignorant of the sad news, I noted that the number of those who had fallen on the field of battle was near to two hundred thousand. And of course I prayed that those who had been bereft would find solace for the loss of sons in their living faith that mortal men put on immortality, not realizing then that he who was their chief had joined the ghostly cavalcade. Therefore the news when it came was a rude blow. Americans generally have not been permitted to understand the havoc wrought by this war. Day in and out, the commentators make whoopee over the fleets of planes and the thud of bombs. But in the end we shall see the bitter truth and we shall know that it is easy to kindle flames in cities, but desperately hard to light a fire in the heart of man. And the blunt, stern truth is that he who could, as no one else any longer can, stir that warmth and give it kindling life is gone.

It is no doubt true that Mr. Roosevelt initially conceived of this war as a warding off of peril. Nazism in control of Europe and Japan in control of Asia would have been able to squeeze the living sap from the loins of America. Therefore it was necessary to prevent Axis success on either continent. The fact was simple and the conclusion equally so. But very probably nobody foresaw what would happen in the process. The Atlantic Charter and its "four freedoms" were directed to a hypothetical world in which people could still sit down and talk about what kind of society they wanted to live in. There would be a sort of grandiose, world-wide town meeting, at which everybody would meet and decide, in a quite friendly fashion, what ought to be done. But soon it wasn't that kind of world any longer. What we confronted was, rather, a vast array of desperate, regimented, work-or-you-don't-eat peoples driven on to goals they were never permitted to think about in terms other than those of bare survival. Meanwhile we, too, changed. It will not do at present to comment on how we changed. But everybody knows we did.

The "four freedoms" went into the ash-can, and we began to talk about Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods. That is, we fell back upon the concept of an international organization which would eventually do the things we could not now do, just as Mr. Wilson conjured up a League of Nations as a device for making the world safe for democracy—in the years to come. One of the most farsighted of living Americans said to me the other day that Mr. Roosevelt was avoiding all of Wilson's mistakes on the road to the same place. Let us be certain that the man whose body has just been borne to its last resting place saw all this clearly. It worried the life out of him. One can only say to one's fellow-Americans, "You have said goodbye to a great man who loved his country and his conscience. You loved him and damned him, cheered him and mocked him, as was your right to do. And now it is high time to sit down for a little while and figure out what he was up against. Let us, for God's sake, shut out the silly drivel of the radio and forget a thousand slogans. Let us try to imagine that a soldier may have something else on his mind than a leg show. And then we can ask ourselves, for what have all these hundreds of thousands of men and women and children died? Why has the very heart of humanity been broken? Why did churches in which Saint Helena worshiped wait two thousand years to be destroyed? And then perhaps we may find some word Mr. Roosevelt would have spoken had he lived."

The day after he died, poor girls brought flowers to the house he used to live in in New York and put them around the room in which he had once sat. There was the fire he looked into when he was young. And there was the window through which the sun came to him. Well, I know that to thousands of youngsters like these, who were tots in days when desperate poverty burned out the heart like acid, and who are now just grown up enough to feel the whole dreary burden of the war, Mr. Roosevelt has meant more than they could ever say. We have a chance to find out that there is a reason why men and generations are remembered.

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