Traitor to His Class

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2008-11-04
  • Publisher: Doubleday

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Drawing on archival materials, public speeches, personal correspondence, and accounts by family and close associates, the acclaimed bestselling historian and biographer H. W. Brands offers a compelling and intimate portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life and career, revealing the inner strengths as well as the unerring political instincts that shaped him, and helped to save America in its darkest hour. Born into wealth and privilege, FDR became the nation's greatest champion of the poor and down-and-out. Brands examines the role of FDR's uncle Theodore Roosevelt in the shaping of Roosevelt's political aspirations, and the powerful influence of his dominating and overly protective mother. He explores the, at times, prickly resistance and unusual partnership between FDR and his wife, Eleanor. Most of all, the book traces in breathtaking detail FDR's revolutionary efforts with his New Deal legislation to alter the very fabric of the American economy in order to save it, his forcefuland cageyleadership up to and during World War II, and his lasting legacy in creating the foundations of a postwar Europe. This year's presidential hopefuls have eagerly invoked Roosevelt's leadership and vision in their campaigns. TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS brilliantly captures the qualities that have made him a beloved hero and a pivotal figure to millions of Americans.

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. The New York Times gave him the top head, explaining how he had sent a personal appeal for peace to the Japanese emperor. Neither the Times nor the Washington 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 cruiser Dorsetshire had 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 that he chose Knox, Roosevelt named Republican Henry Stimson secretary of war–the president signaled a desire for a bipar­tisan foreign policy. By picking a Chicagoan, Roosevelt poked a finger in the eye of the arch- isolationist Chicago Tribune, a poke that hurt the more as Knox was the publisher of the rival Chicago Daily News.

Roosevelt might have chuckled to himself again, reflecting on how he had cut the ground from under the isolationists, one square foot at a time; but the recent developments were no laughing matter. Four years had passed since his “quarantine” speech in Chicago, which had warned against German and Japanese aggression. The strength of the isolationists had prevented him from following up at that time, or for many months thereafter. But by reiterating his message again and again–and with the help of Hitler and the Japanese, who repeatedly proved him right–he gradually brought the American people around to his way of thinking. He persuaded Congress to amend America’s neutrality laws and to let the democracies purchase American weapons for use against the fascists. He sent American destroyers to Britain to keep the sea lanes open. His greatest coup was Lend- Lease, the program that made Amer­ica the armory of the anti- fascist alliance. He had done everything but ask Congress to declare war. The Sunday papers thought this final step might come soon. He knew more than the papers did, and he thought so, too.


But there was something he didn’t know, or even imagine. Roosevelt was still reading the papers when an American minesweeper on a predawn patrol two miles off the southern coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, near the entrance to Pearl Harbor, spotted what looked like a periscope. No Amer­ican submarines were supposed to be in the area, and the minesweeper reported the sighting to its backup, the destroyer Ward. The report provoked little alarm, partly because Hawaii was so far from Japan and partly because Pearl Harbor’s shallow bottom seemed sufficient protection against enemy subs. Some officers on the Ward questioned the sighting; eyes play tricks in the dark. Perhaps there was an American sub in the area; this wouldn’t have been the first time overzealous security or a simple screwup had prevented information from reaching the patrols. In any event, the Ward responded slowly to the asserted sighting and spent most of the next two hours cruising the area and discovering nothing.

While the desultory search continued off Oahu, Roosevelt in Washington pondered the latest diplomatic correspondence. American experts had cracked Japan’s code more than a year earlier; since then Roosevelt had been secretly reading over the shoulder of the Japanese ambassador. Yesterday evening– Saturday, December 6–he had read a long message from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy. The message answered an ultimatum from Roosevelt, coming after many weeks of negotiations with the Japanese, in which the president insisted that Japan give up the territory it had seized in Southeast Asia and disavow designs on more. The Saturday message from Tokyo left no doubt that the Japanese government rejected the president’s ultimatum.

“This means war,” Roosevelt told Harry Hopkins, his closest adviser and constant companion these days. Hopkins agreed. Hopkins added that since war had become unavoidable, there would be advantages to striking the first blow.

Roosevelt shook his head. “We can’t do that,” he said. “We are a democracy and a peaceful people.” He paused. “We have a good record.”

But there was something strange about the Saturday message. The introduction explained that it contained fourteen parts, yet only thirteen were included. The final part had been withheld until this morning, Sunday. A courier brought it to the White House just before ten o’clock. Roosevelt read it quickly. It said what anyone could have inferred from the previous parts: that Japan was breaking off the negotiations with the United States. The Japanese ambassador was instructed to deliver this news to the State Department at one o’clock that afternoon. The precision of the instruction was unusual. Why one o’clock? The most probable answer appeared to be that the delivery would coincide with the expected Japanese attack against Thailand or Malaya.

At six o’clock Hawaiian time–eleven o’clock in Washington–a task force of six Japanese aircraft carriers turned into a stiff wind three hundred miles north of Oahu. The ships and their four hundred warplanes constituted the most powerful naval strike force ever assembled till then–a fact that made it all the more remarkable that the carriers had managed to slip away from Japan and steam for eleven days toward Hawaii undetected by American intelligence or reconnaissance. Nor did any Americans see or hear the wave after wave of torpedo planes, bombers, and fighters the carriers launched into the predawn sky. The planes formed into assigned groups and headed south.

Roosevelt frequently took lunch at his desk in the Oval Office, and he did so this Sunday. Hopkins joined him. They were eating and discussing the crisis in the Pacific and the war in Europe when a radar station on the north shore of Oahu detected signals on its screens unlike anything the operators had ever observed. Radar was a new technology, introduced in Hawaii only months before. The operators were novices, and their screens had often been blank. But suddenly the screens lit up, indicating scores of aircraft approaching Oahu from the north. One of the operators telephoned headquarters. The duty officer there told him not to worry. A reinforcement squadron of American bombers was expected from California; the headquarters officer assumed that these were the aircraft on the north shore radar screens.

Roosevelt and Hopkins had finished eating when the first wave of Japanese planes approached Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt had a mental image of Pearl, as he had visited the naval base early in his presidency. But it had grown tremendously in the seven years since then. It boasted one of the largest dry-docks in the world, a rail yard with locomotives and cars that moved freight between the berthed vessels and various warehouses, a factory complex that could fabricate anything needed to maintain or repair a ship, tank farms with fuel enough for extended campaigns across the Pacific, a midharbor naval air station on Ford Island to defend the base and the ships, a naval hospital to treat the sick and wounded, barracks for the enlisted men and civilian personnel, and other support facilities along the harbor and in the surrounding area.

But the heart of Pearl Harbor was “Battleship Row,” on the east side of Ford Island, where seven of America’s greatest warships were moored this Sunday morning. An eighth was in the drydock. These vessels, the pride of America’s Pacific fleet, embodied a generation of efforts to secure America’s national interest in the western ocean. Their construction had begun on the Navy Department watch of Franklin Roosevelt, who as assistant navy secretary from 1913 to 1920 had employed every means of patriotic persuasion, bureaucratic guile, and political finesse to augment America’s naval power. The Arizona, the Oklahoma, the Tennessee, and the Nevada, now gleaming in the Sunday morning sun, were his babies, and no father was ever prouder.

All was calm aboard the battleships as the Japanese planes approached the base. The sailors and civilians on the ships and ground initially mistook the planes for American aircraft. When the sirens wailed a warning, most within earshot assumed it was another drill. But as the Japanese fighters screamed low over the airfield, strafing the runways and the American planes on the tarmac, the reality of the assault became unmistakable. Some Americans on the ground thought they could almost reach out and touch the rising sun painted on the wings of the Japanese aircraft, so low did the fighters descend; others, with a different angle, could peer into the faces of the Japanese pilots through the cockpit windows as the planes tore by.

The Japanese fighters suppressed any defensive reaction by American aircraft, guaranteeing the attackers control of the air. The Japanese bombers and torpedo planes concentrated on the primary targets of the operation: the American battleships. The torpedo planes approached low and flat, dropping their munitions into the open water beside Battleship Row. The torpedo war­heads contained a quarter ton of high explosives each, and the torpedoes’ guidance systems had been specially calibrated for Pearl’s shallow waters. The American crewmen aboard the battleships saw the torpedo planes approaching; they watched the torpedoes splash into the water; they followed the trails from the propellers as the torpedoes closed in on the ships. With the ships motionless and moored, and the surprise complete, there was nothing the seamen could do to prevent the underwater missiles from finding their targets. The California took two torpedo hits, the West Virginia six, the Arizona one, the Nevada one, the Utah two. The Oklahoma suffered the most grievously from the torpedo barrage. Five torpedoes blasted gaping holes in its exposed port side; it swiftly took on water, rolled over, and sank. More than four hundred officers and men were killed by the explosions, by the fires the torpedoes touched off, or by drowning.

The destruction from below the surface of the harbor was complemented by the Japanese bombers’ attacks from high overhead. Dive bombers climbed two miles into the sky to gain potential energy for their bombing runs; the Americans on the ground and ships heard their rising whine long before the planes burst through the scattered clouds and released their munitions upon the ships and the facilities on shore. Conventional bombers dropped their pay­loads from a few thousand feet in elevation; what those on the ground and ships first heard of these was the whistling of the armor-piercing bombs as gravity sucked them down. The misses were more obvious at first than the hits; geysers of water spewed into the air from the physical impact of the errant bombs. The ones that hit their targets disappeared into the holes they punched in the decks, hatches, and gun turrets of the vessels. Only when they had plumbed the depths of the ships did they detonate, and even then the overburden of steel muffled and shrouded their explosions.

But the explosions were more destructive for being contained. Nearly all the battleships sustained severe bomb damage; by far the worst befell the Arizona. Several bombs set it afire and triggered a massive secondary explosion that split its deck and burst its hull. More than a thousand seamen died in the fires and blast, and the vessel settled on the harbor bottom, its superstructure still burning ferociously above the waterline.


Roosevelt had finished lunch by now. He received a call from the State Department informing him that the Japanese ambassador had postponed his visit until two o’clock. The president was pondering this new wrinkle when the Oval Office phone rang again. It was Frank Knox, who said the Navy Department had received a radio report from Oahu, where the American commander was advising all stations that an air raid was under way. “This is no drill!” the commander emphasized.

Harry Hopkins reacted the way nearly every other knowledgeable person did on hearing the report. “There must be some mistake,” Hopkins said. “Surely Japan would not attack in Honolulu.”

Roosevelt was as astonished as Hopkins. He had expected an attack on Thailand or Malaya, conceivably the Philippines. But not Hawaii. Hawaii was too far from Japan, too far from the Dutch East Indies, whose oil was the chief object of Japan’s southward expansion, and too well defended.

Yet the president listened calmly to the news. Now that he thought about it, the very improbability of an attack on Pearl Harbor must have made it appealing to the Japanese, who had a history of doing the unexpected. He assumed that the American forces at Pearl would acquit themselves well.

If the report from Hawaii was true, Roosevelt thought, it made his job easier. He had been prepared to ask Congress for a war declaration in response to a Japanese attack against Southeast Asia. He had believed he could get a declaration, but because that region meant little to most Americans, he knew he would have to work at it. Now that American territory had been attacked, he would hardly have to ask.

He called the State Department, where the Japanese ambassador and an associate had just arrived for the ambassador’s postponed meeting. Roosevelt spoke with Cordell Hull, the secretary of state. “There’s a report that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor,” Roosevelt said.

“Has the report been confirmed?” Hull asked.


Hull agreed with Roosevelt that the report was probably true, but he didn’t mention it in his meeting with the two Japanese diplomats. By now the timing of the original appointment was obvious: it had been intended to coincide with the onset of war between Japan and the United States. The postponement remained a mystery. The Japanese diplomats said nothing of the events in Hawaii, but the secretary’s knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack colored his response to the note the diplomats handed him, the intercepted version of which he had read previously. “In all my fifty years of public service,” Hull said, letting his anger rise as he spoke, “I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions–infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government was capable of uttering them.” He ordered the Japanese diplomats from his office.


The bombing and strafing continued for more than an hour and a half. Many of the Japanese bombers made multiple passes before dropping their ordnance, as the broken clouds and then the heavy smoke blocked their view of their targets. The fighters crisscrossed the area, too, in their case to machine- gun sailors in the water, soldiers and civilians fleeing burning buildings, and aircraft and facilities they had missed or not aimed at before. The Americans now returned the fire, with modest success. Anti-aircraft guns brought down two dozen of the more than three hundred attacking planes. As the Japanese planes crashed to earth and sea, their hurtling wreckage added to the destruction.

By quarter to ten, the last of the Japanese planes ran out of bombs and am­munition and turned away to the north. Their pilots looked back and down upon a remarkable morning’s work. The placid scene of resting power that had greeted their approach had become a burning, bloody chaos; the core of America’s mighty Pacific fleet was a ruin of twisted steel, flaming oil, floating bodies, and battered pride.


Roosevelt now knew that the initial reports were accurate, as he had expected. What he hadn’t expected, and what shocked him far more than he let on, was how much damage the attack did. The initial notice had suggested a raid, but this was far more than a raid. It was a major strike with potentially strategic implications. And the American defenders had been caught inexplicably unready. The news from Hawaii remained incomplete, but each additional report revealed an unfolding debacle.

At three o’clock Washington time, as the Japanese planes were clearing Oahu’s north shore en route to their rendezvous with their carriers, Roosevelt convened a meeting of his principal diplomatic and military advisers. Cordell Hull, Frank Knox, and Henry Stimson were there, along with Admiral Harold Stark, the chief of naval operations, and General George Marshall, the army chief of staff. The mood was grim but determined. For months all had expected war; now all exhibited a certain relief that it had finally come. All were stunned by the manner in which the fighting had commenced; all anticipated a long and difficult, though ultimately successful, struggle.

Roosevelt asked Marshall about the disposition of the army in the Pacific and particularly of the army’s air forces in the Philippines. Marshall said he had ordered Douglas MacArthur, the commanding general in Manila, to take every precautionary measure. The president directed that the Japanese embassy in Washington and Japan’s consulates in other cities be protected against vigilante violence and that Japanese citizens in the United States be placed under surveillance. He rejected a military cordon around the White House but ordered Stimson and Knox to safeguard America’s arsenals, private munitions factories, and key bridges.

Roosevelt told the group he would go to Congress the next day. Cordell Hull recommended a detailed description of Japan’s history of aggression in Asia and the Pacific. Roosevelt rejected the advice. His statement would be succinct, he said. The only thing that mattered at the moment was that Japan had attacked America and killed many Americans.

As the group dispersed to carry out his orders, Roosevelt dealt with messages and queries that arrived by phone, cable, and courier. Winston Churchill called from England. “Mr. President, what’s this about Japan?” the prime minister asked.

“It’s quite true,” Roosevelt answered. “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We are all in the same boat now.”

“This certainly simplifies things,” Churchill said.

During the course of the afternoon, new information detailed the disaster in Hawaii. Five battleships had been sunk or were on fire and sinking. Several other vessels had been destroyed or seriously damaged. More than a hundred aircraft had been blasted beyond repair. More than two thousand sailors and soldiers had been killed, and more than a thousand others wounded. Late in the afternoon, word arrived that Japanese planes had attacked American bases in the Philippines and, despite Marshall’s warning to MacArthur, inflicted heavy damage.

Calls came from the Justice and Treasury departments, where officials needed guidance on how to respond to the apparent state of war with Japan. Press secretary Stephen Early ran in and out of the Oval Office, relaying information from the president to reporters. Harry Hopkins recommended a meeting of the full cabinet and a presidential briefing of the congressional leadership. Roosevelt summoned Grace Tully, his personal secretary, and dictated a draft of the message he would deliver to Congress the next day.

The cabinet gathered at half past eight in the Oval Office. The department secretaries crowded around the president’s desk, feeling the weight of history on their shoulders. Roosevelt reinforced the feeling by describing the session as the most important cabinet meeting since Lincoln had convened his secretaries at the beginning of the Civil War.

Roosevelt read the group the draft of his message to Congress. Hull complained that it was too short and unspecific. The president ignored him.

At nine-thirty the congressional leaders arrived. Roosevelt explained the situation in the Pacific. He formally requested the opportunity to speak to Congress the next day. A time was set: half past noon. The lawmakers asked whether the president would seek a war declaration. He said he hadn’t decided.

They didn’t believe him, and he didn’t expect them to. He realized that if he acknowledged a decision for war, the news would be all over Washington within minutes of the legislators’ leaving, and all over the world within hours. He didn’t want to preempt himself or slight Congress.

The lawmakers were ready to declare war even without a presidential re­quest. Tom Connally of Texas emerged from the White House demanding vengeance against the Japanese.“Japan started this war in treachery,” Connally said. “We will end it in victory.” Warren Austin of Vermont considered war a foregone conclusion. “Of course it’s war,” Austin said. “I can’t see any other sequel.” Harry Byrd of Virginia vowed to “wipe Japan off the map.”

Even the isolationists supported war. Robert Taft of Ohio characterized a war declaration as necessary and inevitable. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan had previously charged Roosevelt with trying to take America to war and had criticized him harshly. “But when war comes to us,” Vandenberg now said, “I stand for the swiftest and most invincible answer.” New York’s Hamilton Fish promised to address America from the floor of the House of Representatives and urge the people to unite behind the president. “And if there is a call for troops,” Fish said, “I expect to offer my services to a combat division.”


The American people reacted more slowly. Most had followed the grow­ing crisis in Asia with varying degrees of concern but also with the knowledge that previous crises had come and gone without entangling America directly. Most had expected that this crisis too would pass. The small number paying the closest attention had, with Roosevelt, supposed that the Japanese would attack somewhere; with Roosevelt nearly all of these imagined the blow would fall on Thailand or Malaya. Almost no one considered Hawaii a likely target.

The news from Pearl Harbor shocked the nation. The first reports reached Seattle and San Francisco as churches were emptying from morning services; congregants shared the ill tidings in shocked whispers. The news caught Kansas farm families sitting down to midday dinner; fathers and mothers looked at their teenage sons and suddenly saw soldiers about to be sent overseas. The news arrived in Chicago at halftime of a football game between the hometown Bears and the archrival Green Bay Packers and made the game seem suddenly unimportant. The news halted tourists in Manhattan’s Times Square, where they huddled against the December chill to read the sobering bulletins crawling along the headline tickers. In Boston the local CBS radio affiliate interrupted its review of the year’s top stories to break the story that outdid them all.

For the rest of that day and through the night, Americans listened and waited. They listened to their radios to learn the extent of the damage. How many ships had been lost? How many servicemen killed? They waited to hear what the disaster meant. Would it be war? Surely yes, but what kind of war? War against whom? Japan, of course, but Germany as well? War for how long? To what end?

Their questions extended to the person who would provide them the be­ginning of answers. All knew the aspect Roosevelt presented to the public. How could they not know the face and voice of the man who had served longer than any other president in American history? Yet few professed, and none convincingly, to fathom the mind and heart, the motives and inspirations, that lay beneath and behind this familiar presence.

Not that people didn’t form opinions–strong opinions. His enemies excoriated him as a communist and damned him for disregarding property rights and violating the canons of the capitalist marketplace. The wealthy de­nounced him for having betrayed the class of his birth. Time magazine devoted a lead article to the “burning bitterness” the better-off felt for Roosevelt. “Regardless of party and regardless of region,” the Henry Luce weekly asserted, “today, with few exceptions, members of the so- called Upper Class frankly hate Franklin Roosevelt.” Their hatred was heightened by their confusion as they reflected on Roosevelt’s apostasy. Why did he do it? What could have converted this scion of privilege into a radical critic of the established order?

Roosevelt’s friends were no less mystified. They applauded his boundless energy, his unsinkable optimism, his bold willingness to employ the engines of government to tackle the social and human consequences of the worst industrial depression the nation had ever experienced. But they too wondered at the sources of his governing philosophy. What traumas or epiphanies had transformed a Hudson Valley patrician into a champion of the common people of America? Those on the inside scratched their heads, and sometimes tore their hair, at his leadership style, which set aides against aides, cabinet secretaries against cabinet secretaries, and the Democratic party against itself. After more than eight years they remained astonished at his ability to make visitors to the White House come away thinking he had agreed with whatever they had told him, without in fact his agreeing to anything.

Mostly they marveled at the calm he exuded at the eye of one storm after another. The signature line of his first inaugural address–that the only thing America had to fear was fear itself–had seemed a rhetorical flourish when inserted into the text, a brave but essentially empty effort to calm the country at the most dangerous moment of its worst financial crisis. But once those words were spoken, in his steady, confident tenor, and after they flashed across the radio waves to every neighborhood, village, and hamlet in the country, they magically acquired a substance that soothed the worst of the fears and allowed the president and Congress to pull the financial system back from the brink.

The insiders knew something of the source of his confidence. They knew how his golden youth of wealth, travel, and athletic vitality had segued into a charmed young adulthood of political preference and rapid advance–and how the brilliant career had been cut short, apparently, by a devastating attack of polio. Crushed by despair, he had clawed his way back to hope; struck down physically, he gradually regained his feet. He reentered the political arena, a fuller man for what he had lost, a deeper soul for what he suffered. His touch with the people seemed surer than ever, his voice more convincing. The people responded effusively, electing him governor of New York twice, then president overwhelmingly. They applauded his performance on their behalf and reelected him by a still larger margin. And after another four years they defied historical precedent and conventional wisdom to reelect him again. It was a record to imbue anyone with confidence.

Yet much of the mystery remained. He was gregarious, genuinely enjoying spirited conversation and the company of others. But the substance of the conversations flowed in one direction; though he talked a lot, he gave nothing away. Not even his wife–his companion and ally of thirty- six years– professed to know his mind. He rarely read books other than dime mysteries, so his tastes in reading furnished few clues. He kept no diary. His letters were singularly opaque. He spoke with journalists more often than any president in American history, yet though his remarks treated policy in detail, they revealed little of the policy maker. His speeches evinced his devotion to democracy, to fair treatment of ordinary people, and to American national security, and did so with passion and eloquence. But the wellsprings of that devotion, the source of that passion, remained hidden. He seemed to like it that way.


Roosevelt left the White House at noon on Monday, December 8, for the mile- and- a- quarter drive to the Capitol. His Secret Service contingent, mustered to maximum strength and tuned to a quivering degree of suspicion, scowled at the masses that lined both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. After yesterday, who knew what form the enemy might take? The scores of thousands, however, registered only support for the president. They cheered, not lustily, not even enthusiastically, but with a strangely moving somberness.

His car pulled close to the rear entrance of the House chamber. In his early days in politics he would leap from his car at every opportunity to shake hands and kiss babies. Now he had to be lifted into a wheelchair and rolled to the speaker’s room. He waited there until half past twelve, when, with the further help of strong arms and the heavy steel braces that locked his knees into place, he shuffled the several feet to the dais.

He gripped the lectern to steady himself, and let the room fall quiet. Im­mediately before him, on his left, sat the nine justices of the Supreme Court, their black robes more appropriate today than usual. To his right were the ten cabinet secretaries. Eighty- two senators sat behind the justices and the secretaries; the other fourteen members of the upper house were still hurrying back from the out- of- town locations where the stunning news had caught them. Three hundred eighty- nine members of the House of Representatives filled the seats behind the senators, demoted to the rear despite being the regular tenants of the chamber. Hundreds of visitors packed the galleries.

As he looked out on the expectant faces, Roosevelt remembered another audience, gathered half a decade earlier, to which he had declared that the cur­rent generation of Americans had a rendezvous with destiny. He had been thinking then of the challenges facing the country at home: a gravely disordered economy, a society showing years of strain. He had been calling his com­patriots to figurative arms against the opponents of the changes he deemed essential to America’s political and social development. The changes had commenced during his first term and had dramatically altered Americans’ expectations of their government. He intended for the changes to continue and to become a permanent part of the American moral landscape.

But now he summoned his fellow citizens to literal arms. In a manner not even he could have guessed, as a result of events he couldn’t have foreseen, his prediction of a special role for his generation of Americans had acquired a new and far broader significance. To them, as to no generation before them, had been entrusted the fate of the world. On them rested the hope of humanity, the belief in personal freedom and national self- government.

He took a breath. In a few seconds he would lead Americans across the threshold of a future radically different from anything they or their forebears had ever known. Some in his audience appreciated the magnitude of the task they were about to undertake; all understood the gravity of the moment.

The chamber was quiet. The nation listened.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941,” he began, “a date which will live in infamy...”

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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