Mises Daily Articles
John T. Flynn and the Myth of FDR
Albert Jay Nock, distinguished man of letters and philosophical anarchist, was an inspiration to thinkers as diverse as Murray Rothbard and Robert Nisbet, Frank Chodorov and Russell Kirk. A personal friend of the father of William F. Buckley, Jr., he was a kind of guru to the young Buckley as well. In April, 1945, Nock wrote a cheery letter to two of his friends, describing the death of Franklin Roosevelt as "the biggest public improvement that America has experienced since the passage of the Bill of Rights," and suggesting a celebration luncheon at Luchow's.1
Today Nock's unabashed glee would be regarded as obscene, a sacrilege against the civic religion of the United States. Republican no less than Democratic leaders revere and invoke the memory of Franklin Roosevelt. His praises are sung from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, and herds of historians (the phrase is Mencken's) regularly announce that FDR was one of our truly "great presidents." Symbolic of his apotheosis was the dedication, in May, 1997, of the vast Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. As the Times happily reported, it is "a memorial laced with a zest for the power of government." The current executors of that power had eagerly lent their plundered support, Congress voting $42.5 million, with bipartisan enthusiasm. Amid the hosannas that rose up everywhere in politics and the press, the few dissident voices were inaudible. The dominant credo is that, as an editor of the Wall Street Journal has informed us, criticism of FDR is conceivable only from enemies "maddened by hatred of him."
Yet it is a fact that throughout his long presidency FDR was hotly opposed, even pilloried, by a host of intelligent, respected, and patriotic men and women. The most consistent of his adversaries formed a loose coalition known today as the Old Right.2 There is little doubt that the best informed and most tenacious of the Old Right foes of Franklin Roosevelt was John T. Flynn.
When Flynn came to write his major study of the four-term president, he aptly titled it The Roosevelt Myth. Myths continue to abound concerning Roosevelt and his reign; one of the most convenient is that the antagonists of his New Deal were all "economic royalists," self-serving beneficiaries and defenders of the status quo. In Flynn's case, such an accusation is laughable. When he became a critic of the New Deal, Flynn enjoyed a well-established reputation as a progressive and a muckraker, with, as Bill Kauffman writes, "a taste for plutocrat blood."3
John Thomas Flynn was born in 1882 into a middle class Irish Catholic family in the suburbs of Washington, and educated first in public schools, then in the parochial schools of New York City. The debate that raged around 1900 on US annexation of the Philippines seems to have exercised a formative influence on the young Flynn: all his life he remained an adamant opponent of western, including American, imperialism. He studied law at Georgetown, but found journalism irresistible. After serving as editor on papers in New Haven and New York, he worked as a freelance writer exposing crooked financial dealings on Wall Street. In the early and mid-1930s, Flynn authored a series of books attacking the trusts and what he viewed as the misdeeds of the securities business. His God's Gold: The Story of Rockefeller and His Times (1932) became something of a classic.4
Flynn was not a strict libertarian, nor was his thinking on economics notably sophisticated. He fully appreciated the productive dynamism of the private-property market economy. But in his progressive phase, he held that government had a crucial role to play in reining in the "excesses" of capitalism, by thwarting monopolies, protecting small investors, and undertaking moderate social reform. Yet he was never a socialist; to his mind, the hopes for a free and prosperous society lay in a truly competitive private-enterprise system.5 Above all, Flynn always distrusted any close tie-in between the state and big business, at home or abroad. In 1934, he acted as chief researcher for the Nye committee of the US Senate, which investigated the role of the New York banks and the munitions industry ("the merchants of death") in leading the United States into the First World War.
Flynn opposed the New Deal practically from the start. Instead of opening up the economy to competitive forces, Roosevelt seemed bent on cartelizing it, principally through the National Recovery Act (NRA), which Flynn regarded as a copy of Mussolini's Corporate State. As one failed New Deal program followed another, Flynn suspected that Roosevelt would try to divert attention to alleged foreign dangers, a recourse facilitated by world events. The sinking by the Japanese of an American gunboat, the Panay, which had been patrolling the Yangtze, precipitated an early crisis. Flynn asked why we had gunboats patrolling Chinese rivers in the first place—and found the answer in the fact that the Panay had been convoying tankers of the Standard Oil Company.6 Incidents such as this, Flynn charged, were exploited by the administration "to churn up as much war spirit as possible." In 1938, he joined with Norman Thomas and others to establish the Keep America Out of War Congress, composed mainly of pacifists and socialists.
In Country Squire in the White House (1940), Flynn set forth themes he would develop more fully in The Roosevelt Myth. He painted the Hudson Valley patrician as a dilettante with no principles of his own, a mere power seeker with a genius for winning votes. Roosevelt had reneged on his promises of progressive reform and instead created a federal Leviathan based on the cynical policy of "tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect" (the formula which has since become the bedrock of American politics in our two-party system). Characteristically, it was the government's intimate relationship with the armaments industry that came in for Flynn's sharpest censure.
Roosevelt, who always viewed any criticism of himself as a perversion of true democracy, was outraged. The president of the United States wrote a personal letter to a magazine editor declaring that Flynn "should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine, or national quarterly."7 Whether or not as a consequence of FDR's spite, the New Republic dropped the column by Flynn it had been publishing since 1933, a sign things were changing in the circles of left-liberalism. In the years to come, FDR would use the FBI, the IRS, and other agencies to spy on, harass, and intimidate his critics.8 This—and his lying, his constant lying—more than any putative mental affliction, explains the hatred that so many cherished for Franklin Roosevelt.
As FDR edged closer to war, the need was felt for a mass-based anti-interventionist organization. In August, 1940, Flynn became one of the founders of the America First Committee and chairman of the New York City chapter. At its height, the America First Committee had over 800,000 card-carrying members, among them E. E. Cummings, Sinclair Lewis, Kathleen Norris, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Irene Castle. (The actress Lillian Gish served for a time on the national board, but was forced to resign when this led to her being blackballed—"blacklisted"?—in Hollywood and on Broadway.) Younger members of America First included John F. Kennedy, Sargeant Shriver, Gerald Ford, and Gore Vidal.9
America First was tapping into a deep vein: poll after poll showed that 80% of the people were against going to war with Germany. Soon the Committee was subjected to a relentless campaign of defamation and slander. Its most popular speaker, Charles Lindbergh, was labeled the "No. 1 Nazi fellow traveler" in the United States by Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior and Roosevelt's chief hatchet man, while Robert Sherwood, the president's speechwriter, dismissed the heroic aviator as "simply a Nazi."10 The smear by the philosopher and socialist John Dewey, that the America First Committee was a "transmission belt" for Nazi propaganda, was echoed by scores of interventionist hacks.11 Self-appointed "antifascist" patriots in Hollywood and elsewhere depicted a vast (imaginary) network of Nazi agitators and saboteurs at work throughout the land, and linked these domestic Nazis to the "isolationists," "Hitler's conscious or unconscious allies."12
Flynn termed the campaign a "witch hunt." He and his ideological comrades would remember the establishment's viciousness when the tables were briefly turned, during the episode known as "McCarthyism."
As the battle over intervention intensified, Flynn observed that Roosevelt was wrecking the constitutional balance in foreign affairs as he had domestically. When the president sent troops to occupy Iceland in July, 1941, Flynn assailed the unconstitutional act and the supine Congress that permitted it: Roosevelt "could not do this if the Congress of the United States had not been reduced to the state of a servile shadow" of what the Founders intended.13 In the "Four Freedoms" declaration issued by Roosevelt and Churchill, in August, 1941, Flynn saw prefigured the globalist program for America: "the task is forever to be ours of policing the world, inflicting our ideologies and our wishes upon the world."14
Roosevelt needed the war and wanted the war, and the war came.
The America First Committee dissolved itself, but Flynn did not cease his attacks. In 1944, he published As We Go Marching, an analysis of the nature of European fascism and the clear parallels to trends in the United States. "As we go marching to the salvation of the world," Flynn warned, government power expanded, our economic and social life was militarized, and we were coming to resemble the very dictatorships we were fighting."15 With the end of the war and the death of FDR, Flynn was ready for his summation of the career of the four-term president.
It is fairly obvious that the routine judgment of American historians, that Roosevelt was a truly "great president," has nothing objective about it. Historians, like everyone else, have their own personal values and views. Like other academics they tend to be overwhelmingly on the Left. Analyzing one recent poll, Robert Higgs notes: "Left-liberal historians worship political power, and idolize those who wield it most lavishly in the service of left-liberal causes."16 Why should it be surprising, or even noteworthy, that they venerate Roosevelt and try to get a credulous public to do the same?
For a rather different view, the reader can now turn to The Roosevelt Myth, once more in print, which was and, after half a century, remains the major debunking of Franklin Roosevelt. "Polemical as only Flynn could be polemical,"17 the work was turned down by every publisher the author approached. Flynn was desperate: "For the first time in my life I am peddling a book around like a fresh unknown…. I am at my wits' end." Finally, he met Devin Garrity, head of a small house in New York specializing in Irish and revisionist works, and the book appeared in 1948 under the imprint of Devin-Adair. It quickly became number two on the New York Times best-seller list.18
Taking every phase of his presidency in turn, Flynn is merciless in exposing Roosevelt as a failure, a liar, and a fraud. Two subsidiary myths which he demolishes are of particular interest today, since they are the main supports for FDR's supposed greatness: his roles in the Depression and in the Second World War.
The mantra, "Roosevelt cured the Depression," exasperated Flynn. (Now it is often replaced with the banal and much more cautious: "He gave the people hope.") Didn't anyone care about facts? he demanded. The "first" New Deal came and went, then came the "second" New Deal, in 1935—and still the Depression, unlike every previous downturn, dragged on and on. Flynn pointed out that in 1938 the number of persons unemployed totaled "11,800,000—more than were unemployed when Roosevelt was elected in 1932" (his italics). Flynn deals with the impotence of successive New Deal programs and the fulminations of the "planners" and "spenders" in his chapters on "The Forgotten Depression" and "The Dance of the Philosophers."
Recent scholarship has bolstered Flynn's analysis. In studying why the slump that started in 1929 became "the Great Depression," the longest-lasting in US history, Robert Higgs identifies a critical factor: the exceptionally low rate of private investment. A chief cause of this failure to invest and create productive jobs, Higgs finds, was "regime uncertainty." For the first time in our history, investors were seriously worried over the security of property rights in America. There had been an
unparalleled outpouring of business-threatening laws, regulations, and court decisions, the oft-stated hostility of President Roosevelt and his lieutenants toward investors as a class, and the character of the antibusiness zealots who composed the strategists and administrators of the New Deal from 1935 to 1941.19
The comfortable mythology has it that businessmen hated Roosevelt because he was "a traitor to his class." The truth is that they feared him as a menace to the private property system, and they restricted their investments accordingly.
On FDR's role before and after our entry into World War II Flynn is scathing. When he wrote his book, Thomas A. Bailey, diplomatic historian at Stanford, had already published the defense of Roosevelt's prowar policy that has now become standard. Casually conceding the whole revisionist indictment by Charles Beard and others, Bailey wrote:
Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor…. He was like a physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient's own good…. Because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see the danger until it is at their throats our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests. This is clearly what Roosevelt had to do, and who shall say that posterity will not thank him for it?20
But Flynn asked: "If Roosevelt had the right to do this, to whom is the right denied?" In 1948, Flynn was speaking for the "patients," the lied to, the duped and manipulated masses, those once known as the free and sovereign citizens of the American Republic. Today, the conventional wisdom is all on the side of the lying Roosevelt and against the people he deceived.
On another subject, also, standards have changed. In our own enlightened times, it is considered entirely in the natural order of things that the United States should have emerged triumphant from the costliest and second-bloodiest war in our history and then been instantly plunged into another struggle against a more powerful foe. Yet in 1948, Winston Churchill himself admitted that: "we have still not found Peace or Security, and … we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted."21 A half century ago, this suggested, reasonably enough, that something had gone seriously wrong in the political conduct of the war.
In accounting for the sorry state of the postwar world, Flynn focused on Roosevelt's failures: "Our government put into Stalin's hands the means of seizing a great slab of the continent of Europe, then stood aside while he took it and finally acquiesced in his conquests." Forty years later, Robert Nisbet reinforced Flynn's case, laying out in detail FDR's fatuousness in looking on Stalin—Stalin—as a friend and a fellow progressive, his main ally in constructing the New World Order.22 These facts have, however, made little impression on the herds of historians. It seems that there is no degrading inanity, no catastrophic blunder that is not permitted a truly "great president."
Franklin Roosevelt's impact on America was measureless. Flynn's account—composed in his trademark fighting-Irish style—is still the best analysis of why it was so deeply destructive.
In the years that followed, Flynn became the intellectual mainstay of the Old Right, shedding the remnants of his old-line progressivism and growing more clearly constitutionalist and antistatist. This was the Flynn of The Road Ahead, another bestseller, which reached a printing of 4,000,000 in the Reader's Digest condensation. The "road" Flynn warned that we were following was the path of Fabian socialism towards omnipotent government.
As the new president, Harry Truman, engaged the United States in yet another crusade, Flynn sided with what remained of the anti-interventionist movement, which looked to Senator Robert Taft as its leader. Opposed to open-ended American commitments everywhere, suspicious of foreign aid programs that entailed underwriting the status quo in a rapidly changing world, these conservatives became, once again, the target of interventionist slanders. According to Truman, Republicans who opposed his foreign policy were "Kremlin assets," the sort of miscreants who would shoot "our soldiers in the back in a hot war."23 Once again, the establishment press echoed administration smears.
All of this has been forgotten now, along with the prewar campaign of defamation of patriotic Americans as "Nazis." All that remains in the popular memory is the perpetually rehashed tale of a time of terror known as the Age of McCarthyism. Flynn was a fervent supporter of Joseph McCarthy, and in several works he examined the influence of Communists and Communist sympathizers on US foreign policy, especially on China.24 While it is clear that Flynn basically misunderstood the Chinese revolution, on other points he was closer to the truth than McCarthy's enemies, then and now. Owen Lattimore, for instance, was not the mild-mannered, ivory-tower scholar of left-liberal mythology, but a dedicated apologist for Stalin, for the purge-trials and the Gulag.25 With the continuing release of documents from the 1930s and '40s, from US and Russian archives, the received wisdom regarding the "McCarthyite terror" is due for revision.26
In the watershed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952, Flynn was an ardent supporter of Robert Taft. Eisenhower he saw as simply a front man for the Eastern Republican establishment, centered in Wall Street, that had foisted Willkie and Dewey on the party; he felt the same way about Eisenhower's running mate, Senator Richard M. Nixon.
Flynn continued to oppose globalism to the end. He contended against American meddling in the Middle East; and when Senator McCarthy—true to his own internationalist bent—supported the British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, Flynn broke with him. Growing American involvement in Indochina under Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles incensed Flynn. He asked pointedly: "I would like to know who in Asia is going to cross the Pacific and attack us." At the time of the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu, Flynn called on Eisenhower to make it clear that "we're not going to get involved in any kind of war in Indo-China, hot or lukewarm, all out or part-way."27
A constant target of Flynn's was the "bipartisan foreign policy," a hoax that functioned to deprive Americans of any choice on questions of peace or war. As a central source of this ruse he identified the Council on Foreign Relations, noting that both Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles—secretaries of state from nominally opposed parties—as well as most of the other makers of US foreign policy were members of the New York organization. Palpably a front for business interests, the council's aim was a radical transformation of the attitudes of the American people, their conversion to the dogma that our security required that we "police the whole world, fight the battles of the whole world, make every country in the world like the United States."28
Flynn's highlighting of the influence of big business on American foreign policy has inevitably led some writers to link his outlook to Marxism. Nothing could be more wrongheaded. Flailing capitalists for using their links to the state to further their own sinister interests—especially their overseas interests—has been a cornerstone of classical liberalism from at least the time of Turgot, Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham.
In 1956 occurred a small event that, like Flynn's firing from the New Republic in 1938, symbolized the passing of an era in American politics. As Flynn had earlier been dismissed because his antiwar views were inconsistent with the new turn on the Left, so now he ran into opposition from a nascent "New Right." William F. Buckley, Jr., nurtured on the American antistatism of Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, had fallen in with a crowd of ex-Stalinists, ex-Trotskyists, and conservative European émigrés. His position now was that "we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores." The anti-Communist crusade required high taxes for vast armies and navies, even "war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington."29
As editor of National Review, Buckley commissioned an article from Flynn. Flynn turned in a bitter critique of the hypertrophic growth of the central government under Republican as well as Democratic administrations, which concluded: "There has been, since Roosevelt's regime, no plan whatever for restoring the American Republic in its constitutional form."30 This was not something that Buckley, as committed to global meddling and as indifferent to American constitutionalism as any New Dealer, could accept. The manuscript was returned, ending Flynn's connection with what now passed for the conservative movement in America.
Gregory Pavlik, editor of a recent edition of Flynn's essays, summed it up well: "When Flynn died in 1964 he was an outcast from both the then-fashionable varieties of liberalism and conservatism. His life was a testament to his character—he refused to compromise deepest convictions for the affection of trendy demagogues of any political stripe."31
From the introduction to The Roosevelt Myth, by John T. Flynn.
- 1. Albert Jay Nock, Letters from Albert Jay Nock 1924–1945 (Caldwell, Id.: Caxton, 1949), p. 211.
- 2. Sheldon Richman, "New Deal Nemesis: The 'Old Right' Jeffersonians," The Independent Review, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 1996), pp. 201–248; and Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Burlingame, Cal.: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993).
- 3. Bill Kauffman, America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1995), p. 58.
- 4. Michele Flynn Stenehjem, An American First: John T. Flynn and the America First Committee (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1976), pp. 26–29.
- 5. Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), pp. 197–201.
- 6. Ibid., p. 205.
- 7. Ibid., pp. 204–205.
- 8. See, for instance, Robert Dallek, Franklin Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 289–290; and Richard Norton Smith, The Colonel: The Lift and Legend of Robert R. McCormick (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1997), pp. 405–406, 424–428.
- 9. Kauffman, America First! On Lillian Gish, see Justus D. Doenecke, ed., In Danger Undaunted: The Anti-Interventionist Movement of 1940–1941 as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee (Stanford, Cal.: Hoover Institution Press, 1990), p. 14.
- 10. Wayne S. Cole, Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle Against American Intervention in World War II (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), pp. 130, 147.
- 11. Radosh, Prophets on the Right, p. 219.
- 12. John Earl Haynes, Red Scare or Red Menace? American communism and Anti-communism in the Cold War Era (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), pp. 17–36. In December, 1942 — in the midst of the war — it was Roosevelt himself who shocked the Washington press corps by mockingly presenting John O'Donnell, the anti-interventionist columnist for the New York Daily News, with an Iron Cross for his services to the Reich. Graham J. White, FDR and the Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 44–45. The smears continue to this day. Professor Harry Jaffa ("In Defense of Churchill," Modern Age, vol. 34, no. 3 [Spring 1992], p. 281) refers to "Charles Lindbergh and Fritz Kuhn [Führer of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund] standing together" in warning that participation in the war would "be mainly in the interest of the Jews." Jaffa wishes to evoke the picture of Lindbergh next to Kuhn addressing an antiwar rally. Needless to say, it never happened. They "stood together" with Stalin and his mass-killers in agitating for US entry. Lindbergh did not maintain that it was "in the interest of Jews" for the United States to enter the war; on the contrary, he believed it would damage the status of Jews in America (Cole, Charles A. Lindbergh, pp. 157–185). The cause of Jaffa's foolish diatribe is clearly his clammy fear that the voice of America First "is once again abroad in the land."
- 13. Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, p. 432.
- 14. Ibid., p. 495.
- 15. The militarization of American life since 1933 is dealt with by Michael S. Sherry, In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s (New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1995).
- 16. Robert Higgs, "No More 'Great Presidents' ," The Free Market, vol. 15, no. 3, p. 2. Higgs says everything that needs to be said on these political-inspired surveys of historians, concluding: "God save us from great presidents."
- 17. Justus D. Doenecke, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979), pp. 97–98.
- 18. Stenehjem, An American First, pp. 172–173.
- 19. Robert Higgs, "Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War," The Independent Review, vol. 1, no. 4 (Spring 1997), p. 586. See also the chapter on the New Deal in Higgs's indispensable work, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 159–195.
- 20. Thomas A. Bailey, The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy. (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 13.
- 21. Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. v.
- 22. Robert Nisbet, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 1988).
- 23. Doenecke, Not to the Swift, p. 216.
- 24. E. g., While You Slept: Our Tragedy in Asia and Who Made It (1951) and The Lattimore Story (1953).
- 25. After a visit to Kolyma, the most notorious of the Gulag camps, Lattimore decribed the camp administration as "a combination of the Hudson Bay Company and the TVA." See Robert Conquest, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (New York: Viking, 1978), pp. 204–205, 208–212.
- 26. See, for instance, M. Stanton Evans, "McCarthyism: Waging the Cold War in America," Human Events, vol. 53, no. 21 (May 30, 1997), pp. 51–58.
- 27. Doenecke, Not to the Swift, pp. 241, 243; Radosh, Prophets on the Right, p. 261.
- 28. Radosh, Prophets on the Right, p. 258.
- 29. William F. Buckley, Jr., "A Young Republican's View," Commonweal, January 25, 1952, quoted in Murray N. Rothbard, The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 159.
- 30. The essay is published for the first time in John T. Flynn, Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays, Gregory P. Pavlik, ed. (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), pp. 129–134.
- 31. Ibid., p. 4.