Mises Review

The New Dealers’ War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Within World War II, by Thomas Fleming

The Mises Review

The Truth About the “Good War”

Mises Review 7, No. 3 (Fall 2001)

Thomas Fleming
Basic Books, 200, xii + 628 pgs.

Thomas Fleming has done a great deal to strengthen a standard revisionist contention about America’s entry into World War II. Historians opposed to Roosevelt’s interventionist diplomacy, such as Harry Elmer Barnes and Charles Callan Tansill, have suggested the following argument: Roosevelt, gripped by strong hostility toward Germany, wished ardently to enter the war on the side of the British. But Hitler had no desire to accommodate the American president, and he instructed his navy to avoid hostile incidents with American ships. There would be no repetition of the Lusitania disaster, if he could avoid it.

What was Roosevelt to do? He knew that he could never ram through Congress a declaration of war against Germany, in the absence of German moves against the United States. Most Americans, however hostile to the Third Reich, opposed entry into the European War. According to the revisionists, this situation did not prove too much for the ingenuity of the wily Roosevelt.

Japan and Germany were allies; and if Roosevelt could provoke Japan into attacking the United States, was not Germany bound to enter as well? Thwarted by isolationist sentiment for a direct blow against Germany, the president could enter the war through the Japanese “back door.” Fleming notes that, after Pearl Harbor, this famous phrase was not long in coming to characterize Roosevelt’s strategy. General Robert Wood, a founder of the America First Committee, told Charles Lindbergh immediately after learning of the Japanese attack, “he [Roosevelt] got us in through the back door” (p. 40).

In the revisionist view, Roosevelt implemented his plan by provoking Japanese hostility, most notably through an oil embargo that placed Japan in an untenable economic situation. After Roosevelt rejected all Japanese peace feelers, Japan made ready to attack. Of this, Roosevelt was well aware, since the United States was able to decode Japanese military and diplomatic messages. Although information in the days before Pearl Harbor indicated an imminent Japanese assault, Roosevelt refused to warn the Army and Navy commanders at the base. He wanted an attack; otherwise, his back-door ruse would fail.

To this daring argument, opponents of revisionism have posed two strong objections: First, was Roosevelt a Japanese agent? If not, surely he would not have placed the United States in a potentially losing situation. But did not the back-door strategy threaten exactly that outcome? A refusal to warn the naval commander of an impending Japanese attack risked major damage to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Second, suppose Roosevelt’s alleged plan “worked,” in the sense that the Japanese attacked without inflicting unacceptably severe damage. Why would this get America into war with Germany? What if Germany refused Roosevelt’s bait and did not declare war? Then Roosevelt would be no nearer to his goal of American entry into the European War, and he would face a full-scale war with a powerful foe.

Mr. Fleming offers persuasive responses to these objections. “If an attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise only in the tactical sense, what lay behind FDR’s decision to base the fleet there? . . . A good part of the answer lies in the race-based contempt for the Japanese that too many Americans shared with their British allies. The Anglo_Saxons were convinced that the Japanese could neither shoot, sail, or fly with the skill of Westerners. . . . This arrogant mindset explains why Roosevelt expected to `get hit but not hurt’ wherever the Japanese attacked-including Pearl Harbor” (pp. 44-45).1

If our author has turned aside the first objection, his case survives only to confront a more formidable obstacle. Once more, what if Germany did not respond with a declaration of war? Here, Mr. Fleming responds with his boldest stroke. On December 4, 1941, the Chicago Tribune, under the byline of Chesly Manly, published the Rainbow Five War Plan, a detailed agenda for an American invasion of Europe, in cooperation with the British. Most historians have seen publication of this plan as a grievous blow to the president. Did not the exposé show Roosevelt’s constant claims that he sought no war in Europe to be blatant lies? 

Accordingly, most writers have wondered what dissident isolationist privy to administration plans leaked the documents. Suspicion has sometimes centered on the plan’s author, Major (later General) Albert Wedemeyer, a firm supporter of America First, but he satisfied investigators that he was not involved. Mr. Fleming, amazingly, suggests that Roosevelt himself orchestrated the leak. 

By doing so, he ensured the success of his scheme. The publication of the plan convinced Hitler that war with the United States was inevitable; and in his speech to the Reichstag declaring war, he emphasized the Tribunestory. “His final decision, Hitler said, had been forced on him by American newspapers, which a week before had revealed `a plan prepared by President Roosevelt . . . according to which his intention was to attack Germany in 1943 with all the resources of the United States. Thus our patience has come to the breaking point’” (p. 35). 

Publication of the plan served Roosevelt’s interests, but it does not at once follow from this that he bore responsibility for the leak. Our author’s case, however, is not yet complete. He notes that, although some evidence suggested that General Henry Arnold leaked the plan, the assistant director of the FBI, Louis Nichols, stated, “When we got to Arnold, we quit” (p. 28). Fleming takes this as an indication that the real source outranked the general; is not the president the most likely candidate? Further, General Wedemeyer, in his later years, inclined to hold Roosevelt responsible. 

Our author’s case, though based on a convergence of several lines of evidence, seems to me no more than an intriguing possibility. But he is entirely correct to cast aside the antirevisionist argument suggested earlier. True enough, Germany might not have declared war. But what had Roosevelt to lose? Given the Axis Pact, he might have been able to force an American declaration of war through Congress. And even if he could not, how would the chances of entering the European war be weakened by a fight with Japan? 

I have spent a great deal of time on the leak of the Rainbow plan, since Fleming’s explanation of it is the most original element of his book. But the volume contains much else. For one thing, it includes a devastating criticism of Roosevelt’s unconditional surrender policy. Roosevelt’s demand, announced at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, played into the hands of German propaganda. “Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, was in a state of euphoria. He called Roosevelt’s announcement `world-historical tomfoolery of the first order.’ To one of his colleagues, he admitted: `I should never have been able to think up so rousing a slogan. If our Western enemies tell us, we won’t deal with you, our only aim is to destroy you . . . how can any German, whether he likes it or not, do anything but fight on with all his strength’” (p. 176)?

Critics might claim that our author’s argument overrates the capacity of the German resistance to Hitler, but I think he stands on firm ground. However small the chances of an overthrow of Hitler, what had Roosevelt to gain by unconditional surrender? Had there been no opposition at all to Hitler within Germany, the policy still would have been a mistake, for the reason stated by Goebbels. 

Further, if the Germans did surrender, they could anticipate an American policy more befitting Genghis Khan than the civilized leader of a modern state, a fact of which Goebbels was not slow to make use. Roosevelt inclined toward the plan of his Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., for dealing with postwar Germany.

The Morgenthau Plan aimed to strip Germany of her industrial capacity, with dire consequences for the German people. “It proposed . . . destroying all the industry in the Ruhr and Saar basins and turning Central Europe and the German people into agriculturalists. At one point Communist agent [Harry Dexter] White . . . feared they were going to extremes. He warned Morgenthau that the idea was politically risky; it would reduce perhaps 20 million people to starvation. `I don’t care what happens to the population,’ Morgenthau said” (pp. 428-29). Fortunately, the accession of Harry Truman to the presidency brought about the plan’s demise. 

I have had to leave much in this rich book unmentioned-for example, Fleming’s depiction of the conflicts between extreme New Dealers such as Henry Wallace and their opponents. But I have endeavored to sketch the main lines of our author’s indictment of Roosevelt. He schemed to get the United States into a war that most people did not want. Once in it, he pursued a course designed to ensure an unnecessarily long and bloody conflict; and his postwar plans for the defeated enemy threatened widespread catastrophe. Hardly a record worthy of praise, memorials in Washington to the contrary notwithstanding.


Gordon, David. “The Truth About the ‘Good War.” Review of The New Dealers’ War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Within World War II, by Thomas Fleming. The Mises Review 7, No. 3 (Fall 2001).

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