FDR's lessons for 21st century U.S. strategy

By DOUGLAS MACGREGOR, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Aug. 8, 2008 at 11:21 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Though privately as pro-British as his cousin President Theodore Roosevelt almost 40 years earlier, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no intention of declaring war against Germany on behalf of another state, including Britain. More important, he would not make Woodrow Wilson's mistake and commit millions of Americans to an ideological crusade that promised no tangible strategic benefit to the American people.

Between 1939 and 1942, FDR resisted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's considerable powers of persuasion, providing only what assistance Britain needed to survive and nothing more. When Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler turned on the Soviet Union, Hitler's closest ally until June 1941, FDR reasoned he could afford the time to build up American strength while the Nazis and communists exhausted themselves in an ideological war of mutual destruction.

Even after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, FDR declared war only on Japan. FDR had no intention of declaring war on Germany if it could be avoided. It was Hitler who --- in an essentially romantic gesture of solidarity with Japan unanimously opposed by the German General Staff -- declared war on the United States. Even then, FDR's response was calculated.

With Japan's massive armies tied down in China and Southeast Asia, FDR concluded he could wage a naval war in the Pacific that promised far fewer casualties than a land war in Europe. The strategic question was what America could -- indeed, should -- do to fight Hitler?

FDR reasoned that it made no sense to challenge the German war machine on its own terms. That was a job FDR left to Stalin. Instead, FDR avoided German strength and moved his forces through North Africa and Italy, waiting for the combined effect of Soviet offensives and Anglo-American bombing from the air to weaken the Nazi grip on Europe to the point where France could be invaded.

By the time American forces stormed ashore at Normandy, the strategic outcome in Europe was decided. It was left to President Harry S. Truman to finish the job.

Truman was not a man of the world, nor was he well educated. However, Truman knew the American people, their character and their culture.

With hundreds of thousands of American dead and wounded lying on European battlefields, Truman knew there was little hope of reversing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's gains in Europe.

Truman, like FDR, also knew Americans had no appetite to take the kind of casualties U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur predicted the invasion of Japan would entail: namely a million men. Truman dropped the bomb, ended the war and cut the best deal he could with Stalin.

In the years after 1945 Truman sent the millions of Americans who served in the war home and returned the American economy to its pre-war focus -- prosperity. When the 1950-53 Korean War broke out, Truman was taken by surprise. Initially, he took the Joint Chiefs' advice and responded to the North Korean invasion as best he could, but when American forces were trapped in a small pocket around the southeastern port city of Pusan, Truman looked for another solution.

Truman eventually backed MacArthur's plan for a U.S. invasion at the northwestern port of Inchon over the objections of the Joint Chiefs, giving MacArthur the support he needed to execute what is now considered one of the most brilliant maneuvers in military history. However, Truman, who sought to end the war on favorable terms, could not do so after MacArthur's imprudent public challenges to the Chinese. That task was left to his successor, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower.


(Part 3: Eisenhower's military and economic achievements as America's master strategist)


(Douglas Macgregor is a former Army colonel and a decorated Gulf War combat veteran. He has authored three books on modern warfare and military reform. His latest is "Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights." He writes here for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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