chapter  3
14 Pages

Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Strategic Vulnerability

ByDavid M. Esposito

Historians have long debated how Franklin Roosevelt dealt with the coming of the Second World War, and how decision makers in Washington perceived the growing danger to peace in the 1930s posed by dictatorial powers. New scholarship increasingly suggests that Franklin Roosevelt' s view of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan reflected pre-established patterns of American exaggerated strategic vulnerability: American leaders feared foreign invasion of the U.S . by a hostile military power. Although it may seem odd to the modem reader, this belief was reflected in contemporary popular culture and personal behavior. In the 1 940s many Americans feared that someday Hitler' s legions (or the Japanese hordes) would come marching down Main Street, USA. More importantly, FDR held that even if foreign enemies did not invade the continental United States (or even

penetrate the Western Hemisphere) that America would be forced to take measures of defense that would prove fatal to democratic government. Freedom would not long last in an armed camp and liberalism would find no home in a garrison state. Thus, much like his mentor Woodrow Wilson in 1 9 1 7, Roosevelt opted for a forward defense strategy and joined a world war in progress. 1

The case of the First World War deserves special attention. Imperial Germany did not pose any direct military threat to the U.S . , as most American statesmen, journalists, and military officers of the day knew well . What people overlooked then, and overlook now, was the threat to American institutions and ideals implicit in a German victory. No invading army would have had to cross the seas in order to force the U.S . to adopt defensive measures that liberals feared would put an end to the great experiment in democracy. A permanent state of unlimited national emergency-the garrison state-would destroy the U.S . as certainly as any foreign invasion. Wilson was the first American president in this century to face this alarming possibility, although virtually every U.S . president since 1939 has shared this nightmare in one form or another. The question Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and others faced was how to preserve American institutions against rampant and aggressive powers without suspending the constitution, sinking the nation under the weight of its own military expenditures, crushing organized labor, and turning the government over to illiberal super­ patriots. In time, both Wilson and Roosevelt found their answer in aggressive defense to counter international aggression, and both found it incumbent upon the nation to enter a global war already in progress. Wilson is unique because he apparently believed that intervention would be a one­ time affair, and that thereafter the affairs of nations would yield to the organized opinion of mankind. FDR's postwar plans included many Wilsonian features including collective security, but with characteristically "pragmatic" changes. 2

Invasion and hypothetical war novels have a long and distinguished lineage in utopian (or anti-utopian) literature, with examples going back to Napoleonic times. However, taking advantage of the new mass literacy and inexpensive media, the "new" fiction of futuristic warfare began a generation before World War I. The genre developed several interesting conventions : real locations, famous casualties, and well-known monuments destroyed. By 1 9 14, the major combatants had been fighting each other furiously, on paper, for over a generation.3