Traitor to His Class

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-09-08
  • Publisher: Anchor
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NATIONAL BESTSELLER - A Washington Post Notable Book - A brilliant evocation of the qualities that made FDR one of the most beloved and greatest of American presidents. Drawing on archival material, public speeches, correspondence and accounts by those closest to Roosevelt early in his career and during his presidency, H. W. Brands shows how Roosevelt transformed American government during the Depression with his New Deal legislation, and carefully managed the country's prelude to war. Brands shows how Roosevelt's friendship and regard for Winston Churchill helped to forge one of the greatest alliances in history, as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin maneuvered to defeat Germany and prepare for post-war Europe.

Author Biography

H. W. BRANDS is the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. The author of Andrew Jackson, Lone Star Nation, and The Age of Gold, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography for The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. He lives in Austin, Texas.


Franklin Roosevelt’s Sunday morning began as most of his Sundays began: with a cigarette and the Sunday papers in bed. He wasn’t a regular churchgoer, confining his attendance mainly to special occasions: weddings, funerals, his three inaugurations. In his youth and young adulthood he had often spent Sundays on the golf course, but his golfing days were long over, to his lasting regret. This Sunday morning–the first Sunday of December 1941–he read about himself in the papers. TheNew York Timesgave him the top head, explaining how he had sent a personal appeal for peace to the Japanese emperor. Neither theTimesnor theWashington Post,which provided similar coverage, included the substance of his appeal, as he had directed the State Department to release only the fact of his having approached the emperor. This way he got credit for his efforts on behalf of peace without having to acknowledge how hopeless those efforts were. The papers put the burden of warmongering on Japan; the government in Tokyo declared that its “patience” with the Western powers was at an end. Heavy movements of Japanese troops in occupied Indochina–movements about which Roosevelt had quietly released corroborating information–suggested an imminent thrust against Thailand or Malaya.

Sharing the headlines with the prospect of war in the Pacific was the reality of war in the Atlantic and Europe. The German offensive against the Soviet Union, begun the previous June, seemed to have stalled just short of Moscow. Temperatures of twenty below zero were punishing the German attackers, searing their flesh and freezing their crankcases. The Germans were forced to find shelter from the cold; the front apparently had locked into place for the winter. On the Atlantic, the British had just sunk a German commerce raider, or so they claimed. The report from the war zone was sketchy and unconfirmed. The admiralty in London volunteered that its cruiserDorsetshirehad declined to look for survivors, as it feared German submarines in the area.

Roosevelt supposed he’d get the details from Winston Churchill. The president and the prime minister shared a love of the sea, and Churchill, since assuming his current office eighteen months ago, had made a point of apprising Roosevelt of aspects of the naval war kept secret from others outside the British government. Churchill and Roosevelt wrote each other several times a week; they spoke by telephone less often but still regularly.

An inside account of the war was the least the prime minister could provide, as Roosevelt was furnishing Churchill and the British the arms and equipment that kept their struggle against Germany alive. Until now Roosevelt had left the actual fighting to the British, but he made certain they got what they needed to remain in the battle.

The situation might change at any moment, though, the Sunday papers implied. The Navy Department–which was to say, Roosevelt–had just ordered the seizure of Finnish vessels in American ports, on the ground that Finland had become a de facto member of the Axis alliance. Navy secretary Frank Knox, reporting to Congress on the war readiness of the American fleet, assured the legislators that it was “second to none.” Yet it still wasn’t strong enough, Knox said. “The international situation is such that we must arm as rapidly as possible to meet our naval defense requirements simultaneously in both oceans against any possible combination of powers concerting against us.”

Roosevelt read these remarks with satisfaction. The president had long prided himself on clever appointments, but no appointment had tickled him more than his tapping of Knox, a Republican from the stronghold of American isolationism, Chicago. By reaching out to the Republicans–not once but twice: at the same time t

Excerpted from Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H. W. Brands
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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