In granting official diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933 Franklin Roosevelt was “unintentionally,” of course, returning to the traditions of American foreign policy.
From the early days of the Republic, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th — in the days, that is, of the doctrine of neutrality and nonintervention — the US government did not concern itself with the morality, or, often, rank immorality, of foreign states. That a regime was in effective control of a country was sufficient grounds for acknowledging it to be, in fact, the government of that country.
Woodrow Wilson broke with this tradition in 1913, when he refused to recognize the Mexican government of Victoriano Huerta, and again a few years later, in the case of Costa Rica. Now “moral standards,” as understood in Washington, DC — the new, self-anointed Vatican of international morality — would determine which foreign governments the United States deigned to have dealings with and which not.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Wilson applied his self-concocted criterion, and refused recognition. Henry L. Stimson, Hoover’s secretary of state, applied the same doctrine when the Japanese occupied Manchuria, in northern China, and established a subservient regime in what they called Manchukuo. It was a method of signaling disapproval of Japanese expansionism, though there was no doubt that the Japanese soon came into effective control of the area, which had been more or less under the sway of competing warlords before.
In later years, Roosevelt would adopt the Stimson doctrine of nonrecognition and even make Stimson his secretary of war. But in 1933 all moral criteria were thrown overboard. The United States, the last holdout among the major powers, gave in, and Roosevelt began negotiations to welcome the model killer state of the century into the community of nations.
Recognizing Soviet Russia
To the Soviet negotiator, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, FDR presented his two chief concerns. One had to do with the activities of the Comintern. This worldwide organization is often ignored or slighted in accounts of the interwar years, but the fact is that the history of the period from 1918 to the Second World War cannot be understood without a knowledge of its purpose and methods.
With his seizure of power in Russia, Lenin turned immediately to his real goal, world revolution. He invited members of all the old socialist parties to join a new grouping, the Communist International, or Comintern. Many did, and new parties were formed — the Communist Party of France (CPF), the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), and so on, all under the control of the mother party in Moscow (CPSU).
The openly proclaimed aim of the Comintern was the overthrow of all “capitalist” governments and the establishment of a universal state under Red auspices. Hypocrisy was not one of Lenin’s many vices: the founding documents of the Comintern explicitly declared that the member parties and movements were to use whatever means — legal or illegal, peaceful or violent — that might be appropriate to their situations at any given time.
This was the stark specter facing the non-Communist nations in the decades before World War II: a power covering one-sixth of the earth’s surface had at its command a global movement that was fighting to wrest control of organized labor everywhere, fomenting revolutions in the colonial regions, vying for the allegiance of the western intelligentsia, and planting spies wherever it could — all with the goal of bringing the blessings of Bolshevism to the all of the world’s peoples.
The first commitment FDR asked of Litvinov was that the Comintern should cease subversion and agitation within the United States. This the Soviet minister readily agreed to. When, less than two years later, Washington complained that Russia was not living up to its agreement, Litvinov, in true Leninist fashion, denied that any such pledge had been given.
The second major point brought up in the negotiations involved freedom of religion in Soviet Russia. Ever the politician, Roosevelt was worried about Catholic hostility to the Red regime, a hostility based on the murder of thousands of priests, the wholesale destruction of churches, and the ongoing crusade to stamp out all religious faith.
In discussing the issue with Litvinov, FDR caused the foreign minister acute embarrassment. He brought up Litnivov’s parents, who, Franklin supposed, had been pious, observant Jews. They must have taught little Maxim to say his Hebrew prayers, the president averred, and deep down Litvinov could not be the atheist he, as a good Communist, claimed to be. Religion was very important to the American people, and many would oppose recognition unless the regime ceased its persecutions. “That’s all I ask, Max — to have Russia recognize freedom of religion.” It was Franklin at his most fatuous.
In the end, Roosevelt got Litvinov to concede that Americans in the Soviet Union would have religious freedom, which was never in doubt anyway, and palmed this off as a major Communist concession. FDR had won the public-relations contest once again. When Ukrainian-Americans tried to hold protest rallies in New York and Chicago, they were broken up by Communist goons.
Roosevelt’s strange bias toward the Stalinist regime continued to the end of his life. The massive documentation accumulating in the hands of the State Department on the real events in Russia was never made public, although it could have affected the great debate going on, in the United States and throughout the world, on the relative merits of communism and capitalism.
Nor did FDR’s State Department ever issue any complaints on Soviet crimes, not on the terror famine, not on the Gulag, not on the purge trials, not on the never-ending executions, including the Katyn massacre of Polish POWs. Yet before the United States entered the war, Secretary of State Cordell Hull frequently called the German envoy on the carpet for the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
The grotesque double standard in judging Communist and Nazi atrocities, which Joseph Sobran keeps pointing out and which continues to this day, originated with the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
The Collectivist Wave
There was a peculiar affinity between Roosevelt’s New Deal and the European dictatorships that on occasion extended even to fascism and national socialism (the correct term, incidentally, for which “Nazism” is a nickname). Early on, FDR referred to Benito Mussolini as “the admirable Italian gentleman,” stating to his ambassador in Rome, “I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished” (though Franklin’s praise of the founder of fascism stopped far short of Winston Churchill’s gushing admiration of Il Duce at this time).
Mussolini, in turn, was flattered by what he saw as the New Deal’s aping of his own corporate state, in the NRA and other early measures. When Roosevelt “torpedoed” the London Economic Conference of June 1933, Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht smugly told the official Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter that the American leader had adopted the economic philosophy of Hitler and Mussolini. Even Hitler had kind words at first for Roosevelt’s “dynamic” leadership, stating that “I have sympathy with President Roosevelt because he marches straight to his objective over Congress, over lobbies, over stubborn bureaucracies.”
What linked the New Deal to the regimes in Italy and Germany, as well as in Soviet Russia, was their fellowship in the wave of collectivism that was sweeping the world. In an essay published in 1933, John Maynard Keynes observed this trend and expressed his sympathy with the “variety of politico-economic experiments” under way in the continental dictatorships as well as in the United States. All of them, he gloated, were turning their backs on the old, discredited laissez-faire and embracing national planning in one form or another.
It goes without saying that the New Deal was a much milder form of the collectivist plague. (Italian fascism, too, never remotely matched the brutality and oppression of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.) It is a matter of family resemblances. All of these systems tilted the balance sharply towards the state and away from society. In all of them, government gained power at the expense of the people, with the leaders seeking to impose a philosophy of life that subordinated the individual to the needs of the community — as defined by the state.
The inner affinities of the New Deal with the continental dictatorships is well illustrated by a program that was one of FDR’s favorites.
The Civilian Conservation Corps
One of the first measures passed during FDR’s first hundred days was the act establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Young men were enrolled as amateur forest rangers, marsh drainers, and the like, on projects designed to improve the countryside. The recruits were given room and board, clothing, and a dollar a day. More than two and half million of them passed through the camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, until the program was abolished in 1942, when the men were needed for the draft.
In 1973, John A. Garraty published an important article on the CCC in the American Historical Review. Garraty was Gouverneur Morris Professor of American history at Columbia and later general editor of the American National Biography, a distinguished historian, and a pillar of the historical establishment. By no stretch of the imagination could he be considered one of the wretched band of Roosevelt haters.
Yet, while a warm admirer of FDR, Garraty was compelled to note the striking similarities between the CCC and parallel programs set up by the Nazis for German youth. Both were
essentially designed to keep young men out of the labor market. Roosevelt described work camps as a means for getting youth “off the city street corners,” Hitler as a way of keeping them from “rotting helplessly in the streets.” In both countries much was made of the beneficial social results of mixing thousands of young people from different walks of life in the camps. … Furthermore, both were organized on semimilitary lines with the subsidiary purposes of improving the physical fitness of potential soldiers and stimulating public commitment to national service in an emergency.
Garraty listed many other similarities between the New Deal and National Socialism. Like Roosevelt, Hitler prided himself on being a “pragmatist” in economic affairs, trying out one panacea after another. Through a multitude of new agencies and mountains of new regulations, both in Germany and America, owners and managers of enterprises found their freedom to make decisions sharply curtailed.”Both FDR and Hitler ‘tended to romanticize rural life and the virtues of an agricultural existence’ and harbored dreams of the rural resettlement of urban populations.”
The Nazis encouraged working-class mobility through vocational training, the democratizing youth camps, and a myriad of youth organizations. They usually favored workers as against employers in industrial disputes and, in another parallel to the New Deal, supported higher agricultural prices. Both FDR and Hitler “tended to romanticize rural life and the virtues of an agricultural existence” and harbored dreams of the rural resettlement of urban populations, which proved disappointing. Characteristically for the collectivist movements of the time, “enormous propaganda campaigns” were mounted in the United States, Germany, and Italy (as well, of course, as in Russia) to fire up enthusiasm for the government’s programs.
It is no wonder, then, as Professor Garraty writes, that “during the first years of the New Deal the German press praised him [Roosevelt] and the New Deal to the skies. … Early New Deal policies seemed to the Nazis essentially like their own and the role of Roosevelt not very different from the Führer’s.”
America under FDR did not, of course, follow Germany and Russia on that fateful road to the bitter end. The main reason for this lies, as scholars such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Aaron L. Friedberg have recently written, in our deeply rooted individualist and antistatist tradition, dating back to colonial and Revolutionary times and never extinguished. Try as he might, Franklin Roosevelt could bend the American system only so far.
This article is excerpted from “FDR — The Man, the Leader, the Legacy,” The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1998–2001.Author:
Ralph Raico (1936–2016) was professor emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College and a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. He was a specialist on the history of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton.