Why FDR Hated the State Department—and How He Created a Foreign Policy Without It

Then, again.
July 29 2013 6:35 AM

The Personal President

Why FDR shunned the State Department and instead sent friends and cronies on important diplomatic missions.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt after a radio broadcast, November 7, 1936.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt after a radio broadcast on Nov. 7, 1936

Courtesy of Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

Few presidents have elicited more hatred from their enemies than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many scholars, too, disoriented by what speechwriter Robert Sherwood called his “heavily forested interior,” have dismissed him as facile and lacking fixedness of purpose. Some have mistaken his love of improvisation, and the flexibility of means he employed, for an absence of sure and certain ends.

In fact, Roosevelt was the most important statesman of the 20th century. He saved American democracy from the Depression, led the Allies to victory over fascism, won an unprecedented four consecutive presidential elections—and did all this with a broken body.

FDR was a seductive figure and an effervescent one: To encounter him, said Churchill, was like opening your first bottle of champagne. He was, perhaps, the most patrician of all presidents, having grown up as the cosseted son of leisured grandees from Dutchess County in upstate New York. Yet he spurned the conventional career choices of his class and instead entered politics, serving as state senator, assistant secretary of the navy, vice presidential candidate, and governor of New York before his election to the White House. Roosevelt was no snob. He took a generous view of humanity, preferring the company of rogues to preachers, and attracting to his person a colorful menagerie of cronies. He was charming, but also tricky and sometimes heartless. He wore his friendships lightly; at times, he discarded them easily.

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Roosevelt was also elusive. When flying over Egypt in 1943, it is said, he looked down and said in recognition, “Ah, my friend the Sphinx.” He wrote afterward to his personal secretary, “I’ve seen the Pyramids and made close friends with the Sphinx. Congress should know her.” Congress, and the rest of Washington, knew very well that FDR was sphinxlike. He dissembled, advising his friends to “never let your left hand know what your right is doing.” He disdained formal record keeping, and, in the opinion of brain truster Rexford G. Tugwell, “put every possible obstacle in the way” of future scholars who sought to scrutinize him. He drew a heavy veil over his own thinking. Divining his intentions is, therefore, a task of classical proportions. Historians must piece together a mosaic of the man from thousands of tiny tesserae.

The picture that emerges, for the most part, is one of coherence and purpose, not ambivalence and reaction. If the doctors at the Bethesda Naval Hospital had been able to sequence Roosevelt’s political genome, they undoubtedly would have found the gene for pragmatism. He “listened to every rustle in the leaves,” wrote one canny observer, “and built up his own position with unending care and subtlety.” He was cautious in his movements, and highly sensitive to public opinion. He had periods of inertia that seemed to outsiders like paralysis. His tactical shifts were ceaseless, yet behind them all a clear and inexorable direction can be discerned. To adapt his own metaphor, FDR steered his government like one of his beloved sailboats, tacking this way and that for advantage, sometimes drifting, but finally bringing her into his chosen port.

That is not to say that Roosevelt’s governing method was tidy or graceful. He “practised a highly personal form of government,” wrote philosopher and wartime diplomat Isaiah Berlin, that “maddened sober and responsible officials used to the slower tempo and more normal patterns of administration.” He uncoupled the chains of command. He set aside protocols and created intersecting administrative empires. Often he allocated a single task to multiple people. To his courtiers, FDR was a faithless prince, giving none of them a monopoly on his attention and regard. As a result, his administration never coursed with esprit de corps. But there was method to this administrative madness. By seeking intelligence everywhere, he avoided capture by any one source. By setting his advisers against each other, he tested the strength of their arguments. By diffusing authority, he maintained control.

FDR’s professional and domestic lives were analogous. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed that “coexistence with disorder was almost the pattern of his life.” From the day he married his distant cousin Eleanor—to the displeasure of his formidable mother, Sara, who preferred not to share him—Roosevelt “had lived in a household of unresolved jurisdictions, and it had never occurred to him to try to settle lines finally as between mother and wife.”

Settled lines were not Roosevelt’s style. On foreign policy, this proclivity was strengthened by his distrust of the State Department. The career men in the diplomatic service were mainly Republicans, he believed, and out of step with his policies, being disinclined toward interference in the European conflict. His confidants agreed. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes felt the department was “undemocratic in its outlook” and “shot through with fascism.” Harry Hopkins hooted that foreign service officers were “cookie pushers, pansies—and usually isolationists to boot.” Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR is supposed to have joked that his State Department was neutral in this war and he hoped it would at least remain that way.

Aside from ideological misgivings, FDR found the State Department to be a poor instrument for his purposes. “You should go through the experience of trying to get any changes in the thinking, policy, and action of the career diplomats and then you’d know what a real problem was,” he told one visitor. On the day he died, he reviewed a letter prepared for his signature and observed with a laugh, “A typical State Department letter—it says nothing at all.” He felt the department was littered with “dead wood.” He had little faith in the security of its cables, leading him to conduct many of his communications with foreign leaders via naval channels. On top of all that, FDR shared the public conception of diplomats as effete dandies—the “boys in the striped pants.” Other White House terms of abuse for foreign service officers included “old maids” and “stuffed shirts.”

FDR never sought seriously to reform the State Department: Instead, he sidelined it. He asked his key ambassadors to stay in touch with him via personal letters. Wherever possible, he cultivated personal relationships with crowned heads and other foreign leaders. In June 1939, for instance, he delighted in hosting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for a weekend at his family estate in Hyde Park during their tour of North America. His idea was to increase Americans’ sympathies toward the British—and to stiffen British spines. “Roosevelt set the stage for their reception with the care and gusto of a Broadway director,” observed historian James MacGregor Burns. He deliberately treated the royal couple like old family friends, driving them in his Ford (which had been outfitted with custom-made hand controls) to a picnic lunch consisting of hot dogs, baked beans, and strawberry shortcake. Much to his mother’s displeasure, he even served Their Majesties cocktails before dinner. When FDR saw off his visitors at Hyde Park railway station, the crowd sang “Auld Lang Syne.” “Good luck to you!” called the president. “All the luck in the world!”

Franklin Roosevelt was, then, a leader who disliked faceless bureaucracies, distrusted his foreign ministry, craved information, and enjoyed personal diplomacy. If these factors were insufficient to predispose him to the use of personal envoys, there was another: the polio attack in 1921 that paralyzed him from the waist down and forced him to rely, for the sake of political success and his very survival, on family, friends, and aides.

For nearly a decade after that calamity, as FDR sought unsuccessfully to regain his ability to walk, he relied on his wife Eleanor and close adviser Louis Howe to keep his name in the public eye.

When he returned to public life, he continued to encourage his wife in this role of emissary and investigator. As governor of New York, Franklin toured the state each summer with Eleanor, visiting hospitals, prisons, and insane asylums. It was on those early trips, she recalled later, that “she received some of her best training as a reporter.” While the head of an institution sat in the car talking to the governor, Eleanor would inspect the place on her husband’s behalf. If she reported that there was no overcrowding, “he would laugh heartily at her amateurishness.” “Idiot, didn’t you look to see if there were beds put away in closets or behind doors?” On one occasion, he asked her what the patients had to eat, and she relayed what she had seen on their menus. “Look into the pots on the stove,” FDR admonished her.

Eleanor never stopped looking into the pots. During their years in the White House, Roosevelt asked her to investigate poverty in Appalachia and labor conditions in Puerto Rico; during the war, she visited Britain, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Eleanor was able to represent her husband to people who would never see him in person. From her reports, and those of other intimates, FDR could pick up intelligence and gauge the public mood. Her visibility as a spokesperson for liberal causes also served a political function, enabling Franklin to hold on to his left-wing constituency even as he moved to the center. If conservatives complained, he simply pointed out that she was her own person. “Well, you know my Missus ... ,” he would tell the press with an affectionate grin.

If personal envoys were an integral element of FDR’s domestic political apparatus, they played an even more prominent part in his diplomacy. Roosevelt savored personal diplomacy, but the perils of international travel and the questionable security and poor transmission quality of international telephone calls circumscribed its reach, causing him to look for alternative conduits. He was also intrigued by the practice of President Woodrow Wilson (whom he served as assistant secretary of the navy and whose portrait he hung in the Cabinet Room when he was president) of using Col. Edward M. House as a roving diplomatic envoy. FDR corresponded with House until his death in 1938 and on several occasions expressed a wish that the colonel could undertake special missions on his behalf. In the spring of 1934, Roosevelt wrote, “I so wish you could go over [to Europe] and get a true picture for me!” He repeated the sentiment a year later: “I do wish I had someone to fulfil [sic] for me the splendid missions which you carried out in Europe before we got into the war—but there is only one you and I know of no other.”

The unavailability of the aged House, however, did not put Roosevelt off the idea of personal envoys. From the first years of the republic, presidents have assigned individuals to execute diplomatic missions outside of the conventional channels. But there has been no more enthusiastic practitioner of envoy diplomacy than FDR, whose stable of emissaries included friends, allies, cronies, and the occasional political opponent, very few of them with much experience. He dispatched them practically everywhere—to western Europe, Russia, the Middle East, China, India, Latin America. Secretary of State Cordell Hull referred to such amateur diplomats as “raw materials” and believed they tended to “create havoc.” But the president was very taken with the approach, so much so that he tried to extend it from the diplomatic to the divine, appointing a personal representative to the Vatican and exploring the accreditation of emissaries to the Greek Orthodox Church and “the Mohammedan world.”

Franklin Roosevelt never called on envoys to greater effect than during 1939–41, as the European war developed into a world war. As FDR edged the United States closer to the conflict, five uncommon individuals—a well-bred diplomat, a Republican lawyer, a political fixer, a former presidential candidate, and a tycoon—were the inspirations and instruments of his policy.

Excerpted from Rendezvous With Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Michael Fullilove, 2013.

Michael Fullilove is the executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia and the author of Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World (The Penguin, Press, 2013). He tweets at @mfullilove.

 

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