Ambiguity and uncertainty are major themes in this examination of Franklin Roosevelt's leadership in the years before Pearl Harbor.
What's a politician to do? In 1941, 70 percent of the American public favored backing Britain against Hitler, even at the risk of war; 70 percent of the same public wanted to stay out of that war, encouraged by such prominent figures as Charles Lindbergh and the American ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy. A year earlier, attitudes were much the same. Roosevelt became convinced that he needed to remain in the White House for an unprecedented third term to bring about the rearmament of a reluctant nation. Somehow, he had to engineer his nomination and election without providing an opening for a challenger from the isolationist wing of his own party. In this elegantly written account, Newsweek international editor Wapshott (Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, 2012, etc.) depicts Roosevelt sowing confusion by encouraging no-hope candidates while remaining coy about his own future. As Britain's prospects deteriorated, he pushed constantly against the boundaries of the Neutrality Act with every ploy he could imagine, all the while denying any desire to take America to war—though his actual objectives remain uncertain to this day. The villains of the piece are Lindbergh, an anti-Semitic fascist sympathizer whose authoritative overestimates of Nazi strength bolstered those who argued that resistance to Hitler was futile, and Kennedy, an articulate, principled proponent of this defeatism. Though clearly no fan of the noninterventionists, Wapshott showcases their arguments with sufficient clarity to show that, while they proved to be on the wrong side of history, some of their concerns about the evolution of a permanently militarized state with an overweening executive have proved prescient.
Though presented with a pro-Roosevelt tilt, this is history solidly researched and engagingly written. However, it is well-surveyed territory, and the author brings little genuinely new to the discussion.