The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Hitler vs. Roosevelt, The Undeclared Naval War

  • Hitler vs. Roosevelt, The Undeclared Naval War, by Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan, The Free Press (a division of Macmillan Publishing Co.), 303pp, Hardbound, $12.95. ISBN: 02-901270-8.

Reviewed by J. Marcellus

Two apparently major reviews are found on the back jacket of this 1979 book; one by Edward L. Beach of Run Silent, Run Deep fame, the other by Frank Freidel, Professor of American History at Harvard. And as reviewed there, one would get the distinct impression he was soon to read all about how FDR “very nearly succeeded in keeping us out” (of the war) and how “the analysis of Roosevelt’s role is particularly instructive and should help destroy lingering stereotypes that he was engaging in subterfuge to get the nation into a full-scale war.”

Curiously conversely, however, in the preface, the authors make a note concerning themselves which reads in part,

The older author, an academic historian, viewed the scene at the time from the ivory tower detachment of Stanford University. He recalls reacting with anger to what appeared to be Roosevelt’s determined efforts to drag the nation into an all out shooting war.

Of course, this is the same Stanford University which houses the formidable Hoover Institute on War and Peace of which Professor Antony C. Sutton was an eminent member in good standing until the approaching third volume of his massive Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development. Evidently, Sutton’s illuminating research findings about the making of an enemy were causing some discomfort in the Establishment echelons. And, not altogether surprising as we'll see, we find the authors regularly drawing from newspaper journalist and amateur historian, William L. Shirer.

Your reviewer experienced a see-saw polemic throughout the work. On the one hand, FDR is a patriarchal conniver and manipulator, an oft-times shady dealer and big landlord, while, on the other hand, a freeworld saviour as

His major strategy, despite much deviousness in tactics, was to defend America by helping the British (and the Russians) survive Hitler’s over-whelming assault …; (preface)

And just what of Hitler? Well, the authors struggle to hold it back, but they just have to let it out. So we find such academically moot appellations as “practitioner of the big lie” (p 47), “Hitler and his fellow gangsters” (p 73), “the Hitlerian menace,” the “notorious liar telling unpalatable truths,” “madman,” and so forth appearing throughout. We expected to be treated to a fairly detailed analysis of FDR’s undeclared war-with the U-boats and cruisers and all in international waters, and of the secret deals with Churchill, lendlease, the non-intervention pact manipulations, etc.-and so we are. The whole mid-section of the book-in the reviewer’s opinion-does a fair and accurate job of narratively recounting the many playful and blunderous instances of Allied/Axis cat and mouse, spreading the evident responsibility with a discerning balance of historical Justice.

But wait, what we read here in the several opening and closing chapters is another historical escapade altogether, a telltale liberal sprinkling of that all-to-familiar “court historian” Pharisaism that manages to excuse, even applaud virtually every FDR move while condemning most anything that looks at all like noninterventionism. This is typically evidenced where the authors take a benighted look at the days just prior to the Japanese attack"The isolationist pack was in full cry …” (p 236). Hopefully, early on, the reader will discover that Hitler Vs. Roosevelt is a seductive attempt at an outright apology for our great (day of infamy) thirtysecond chief executive.

Where the authors concede to the stranglingly impossible Versailles settlement and even allow Germany a little breathing room in its attempt to shake off the bonds of a captive nation status, Hitler gets billed once again as the principal warmonger who, if not stopped, will get the entire planet in his terrible grip. The Axis nations are alone responsible for the ravages of war. But FDR, like an endearing big brother who chats with his electorate by the fireside and inestimably values his “public opinion,” is very careful not to overtly break any of his promises to the people. And Charles A. Beard, an obviously important person who wholeheartedly disagrees with this estimation, is branded as one “of the more extreme postwar Revisionists” (p 235).

When we really get down to the woof and warp, we find the authors almost desperately clinging to the old superficially deduced agreement that even though FDR and his cronies admittedly needed that Japanese first strike, well they just had no idea that it would be the pearl of the Pacific. And further, that “The presentation of the final Japanese diplomatic response came only a few moments after (ital. ed.). Secretary Hull learned of the attack on Hawaii” — as if this were some sound justification for Kimmler and Stout having been handcuffed beforehand, or their aircraft carriers unexplainedly dispersed, or the fateful dispatch being sent by the equivalent of commercial carrier pigeon. Or, as if that account were even remotely true.

The authors make no mention of the many documented Japanese peace overtures before Pearl Harbor. Nor will they present the evidence that would inform the reader of the ultimatums delivered by FDR to the Japanese (see “The Court Historians vs. Revisionism,” in The Barnes Trilogy, IHR, $4.00), or treat in any amount of necessary detail the actual dramas occurring while FDR and his stateside commanders were biting their nails awaiting the attack. And conspicuously absent, of course, is the fact of their having known the approximate when and where some 15 hours beforehand. Your reviewer was sorely tempted here to cite the exhaustive Barnes, Martin, Theobald, Flynn and Dall-accounts which Messrs. Bailey and Ryan have conveniently failed to look at in depth or even acknowledge. Or the almost countless, detailed expositories that document a frightening insight into Roosevelt, the man and politician, as he saw to the systematic monetary and commercial rape of his nation, barely escaping from the impending collapse with the promise of global war and a world government to see to things afterwards. But you already know all that. But as far as Hitler vs. Roosevelt is concerned, it’s a mundane, convenient little history of mostly minor events. And while we might be just a little pleased at its sporadic acquiescence though antipathetic toward its intention to be an answer to Revisionism, we are at a total loss as to where to assign it its proper place except to that well-populated, yet vacuous expanse of middle-of-the-road literature appropriately referred to as the historical twilight zone.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1980 (Vol. 1, No. 3), page 278.