Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945. He greatly expanded presidential authority, and his policies infuriated conservatives who saw them as evidence of a deeper conspiracy to increase presidential power and undermine the Constitution.

His domestic policy (the “New Deal”) dramatically increased federal government power in an effort to end the Great Depression, and his foreign policy sought cooperation with Stalin in order to deter and eventually defeat fascist aggression.

Conservatives constructed numerous conspiracy theories around these policies, since they regarded the New Deal as despotic and unconstitutional, and cooperation with Stalin as naïve or treasonous. Conspiracy theorizing about FDR crested in the 1950s, although attacks on the New Deal and his foreign policy continue even today.

Conspiracy theories were perhaps inevitable given FDR’s leadership style: subtle, devious, and disingenuous, he told different people different things, and hated having his discussions documented. The historical record is thus unclear enough to permit widely divergent interpretations, including views of FDR as the master manipulator.

FDR was born in 1882 and educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia. A lifelong Democrat, FDR entered New York State’s senate in 1910. Appointed assistant secretary of the navy under President Wilson, FDR favored U.S. involvement in World War I and the League of Nations. FDR ran for vice-president in 1920, when the Republicans won a crushing victory.

Polio permanently paralyzed his legs in 1921, but undaunted, he spent the 1920s involved in internationalist causes and Democratic politics. He became governor of New York in 1929, was elected president in 1932, and was then reelected three times, and died in April 1945.

In the 1930s, leftist conspiracy theorists feared that Wall Street financiers and industrialists would sponsor a fascist coup. Some observers considered that Wall Street (or the Mafia) was behind the February 1933 attack that narrowly missed FDR and mortally wounded Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, but most considered the perpetrator, Giuseppe Zangara, a “lone nut.”

Communist journalist John L. Spivak claimed that in 1934 Wall Street plotted to supersede FDR with a fascist dictatorship under marine general Smedley Butler. The plot collapsed when Butler betrayed the cabal to Congress—though when forced to testify, the alleged conspirators naturally denied Butler’s accusations. Spivak’s contention that “Jewish finance” was behind the Butler affair—and was financing Hitler—casts considerable doubt on the credibility of his assertions.

Some leftists held that Wall Street was behind the far-right Father Charles Coughlin, the Liberty League, and a supposed coup plot by General Douglas MacArthur. Many Marxists, however, considered Wall Street opposition to FDR a sham. Marxists viewed FDR as Wall Street’s lackey, since the New Deal co-opted liberalism, defused revolutionary discontent, and “saved capitalism” for Wall Street.

Conservatives believed that the New Deal was a socialist conspiracy to “collectivize America” and tighten federal control of the economy, education, and the individual. Ever since the 1930s, moderates and extremists have regarded the New Deal as the origin of pernicious “big government.” Extremists, however, considered that the Soviets and their traitors inside the U.S. government excessively influenced FDR’s policies.

In their view, FDR was either a naïve dupe (or a willing tool) of communism. The John Birch Society believed FDR was the creature of the “Insiders,” a group of financiers who control the United States through front organizations like the Federal Reserve and Council on Foreign Relations. The Insiders wanted to cooperate with the Soviet Union to create a one-world government, and FDR supposedly aided the Soviets to advance this goal.

In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy agitated against an “immense” Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. For decades thereafter, leftists successfully argued that McCarthy was a demagogue who manufactured evidence and slandered innocents for partisan and cold war purposes. They viewed McCarthyism, not Communism, as the real danger to the United States.

In the 1990s, however, declassified National Security Agency intercepts (“Venona”) and KGB archives proved that hundreds of U.S. traitors under Soviet control penetrated the Roosevelt administration. These traitors infiltrated the White House, State Department, Treasury Department, and the Manhattan Project, among other organizations.

Venona did not prove all of McCarthy’s claims, and provided no support for his wild assertions that Roosevelt was a traitor or abetted communism, but McCarthy’s many false charges obscured the truth and greatly hindered anticommunism by allowing real traitors to portray themselves as innocent victims of McCarthyite hysteria. Venona proved that Communist traitors were a real danger, and that they transferred important information and technology to the Soviets.

The Soviets bought U.S. technology as well as stealing it. From 1929 to 1941, U.S. assistance dramatically enhanced Soviet industrial development and completely modernized Soviet heavy industry. American technology and training contributed to over two-thirds of the major Soviet industrial enterprises built in the 1930s.

Far-right theorists attributed this aid to Communist infiltration of the U.S. government, to blind Wall Street greed, and to the Insiders’ long-term plan for a one-world govern- ment. A more compelling explanation was the evident need to strengthen the Soviet Union against future German and Japanese aggression.

This need became especially urgent after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and Hitler assumed power in 1933. From 1941 to 1945, Soviet arms produced in U.S.–modernized factories destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht, proving the wisdom of these technology transfers.

U.S. entry into World War II provided fertile ground for conspiracy theory. “Revisionists” argued that “establishment” histories were a whitewash that needed revision. They asserted that after war erupted in Europe, Roosevelt sought pretexts for U.S. participation.

He subverted neutrality legislation, provided money and equipment to Britain, and fought an undeclared war against German submarines in the Atlantic. Revisionists claimed that when Hitler refused to take the bait, FDR maneuvered Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor.

In 1947, George Morgenstern wrote the “classic” Pearl Harbor work of revisionist history. Since then, other revisionists like Stinnett have added details to his argument. Revisionists claimed that, in 1941, FDR embargoed Japanese oil and made intolerable diplomatic demands in order to force Japan to attack.

FDR knew the Pacific Fleet was vulnerable in Pearl Harbor, and knew—through decoded Japanese transmissions—where and when Japan would attack. FDR, the revisionists assert, withheld vital intelligence from commanders in Honolulu, because an alert there would cause Japan to cancel the attack.

Sacrificing the “tethered goat” at Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war and ensured wartime unity. Afterwards, Roosevelt successfully deflected blame for the attack from himself onto the commanders in Hawaii.

Revisionists were ignored or reviled in the 1940s and 1950s, since they cast doubt on the prevailing internationalist foreign policy consensus and attacked FDR, a liberal icon. In 1962, Roberta Wohlstetter produced a counterargument to revisionism.

She believed that conflicting “signals” and “noise” confused U.S. intelligence analysts before Pearl Harbor (“signals” were evidence of Japanese intentions to attack Pearl Harbor, and “noise” was evidence of Japanese plans to attack elsewhere).

Most historians accepted her thesis that America’s prewar intelligence apparatus was too poorly organized to put the right information together in time to warn Honolulu. Unfortunately, many commentators focused not on the facts, but on personally attacking the revisionists, scorning them as right-wing paranoid extremists who hated the New Deal.

Interestingly, in the 1970s, revisionism gained currency on the Left, after Vietnam and Watergate increased distrust of the government. Some leftists today accept the Pearl Harbor revisionist argument because they believe that analogously, President Bush knew the September 11 attacks were coming and let them happen.

FDR’s wartime diplomacy provided additional conspiracy fodder. Rightists argued that FDR “sold out” China and Eastern Europe into “Communist enslavement” at the February 1945 Yalta Conference. Most rightists attributed this to the pernicious influence of traitors like Alger Hiss and Harry Hopkins, although some accused FDR of deliberate appeasement.

This fixation on Yalta was odd, since FDR actually made the crucial decisions on Eastern Europe at the 1943 Teheran Conference. Historian Warren Kimball convincingly showed that FDR’s wartime diplomacy reflected not treason or naïveté, but a consistent strategy designed to achieve a peaceful postwar world order.

FDR died of a cerebral hemorrhage, but apparently Stalin suspected assassination. Fletcher Prouty (the former Air Force officer and Pentagon insider who was the model for Mr. X in Oliver Stone’s film, JFK) alleged that Stalin told FDR’s son, Elliott Roosevelt, that British intelligence poisoned FDR.

Some rightists believed that Stalin poisoned FDR, although right-wing claims that FDR was Stalin’s dupe should lead to the conclusion that Stalin had no motive to kill FDR.