Saturday, April 12, 2014

Q&A with historian David Kaiser

David Kaiser is the author of the new book No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. His other books include History Unfolding, The Road to Dallas, and American Tragedy. He has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and the Naval War College, and he lives in Watertown, Mass.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on this 1940-41 period in FDR's life?

A: The months from May 1940 until December 1941 were one of the great turning points in world history. Having led the United States through the Depression, Roosevelt had to face a potentially imminent threat to the western hemisphere, or a world war. 

I have always been fascinated by the way he prepared the country for different contingencies ranging from an attack on the western hemisphere to a world war on three continents. 

Meanwhile, he had to win an unprecedented re-election campaign for a third term, and draw upon the political capital his administration had amassed to organize the nation for war. The story, I was convinced, would captivate any reader.
Q: You write, "The presidential campaign of 1940 was one of the most dramatic in American history, rivaling those of 1860, 1896, and 1960 both in excitement and in significance." How do those elections compare to one another?

A: The issue in 1860 was clearly whether the Union would break apart, since much of the South proclaimed its intention to secede if Lincoln won. Nonetheless, he carried nearly every northern state. That is probably the closest comparison to 1940, since the American people clearly re-elected FDR to handle the coming war. 

In 1896 the nation faced one of the clearest choices between political and economic philosophies in its history, and the conservative William McKinley prevailed over the populist William Jennings Bryan. 

I included 1960 because I still regard it as the most exciting election that I and many readers are still able to remember, and because it, too, set the country on a new path.

Q: Why did you select "No End Save Victory" as the title for this book?

A: The title comes from the conclusion Roosevelt's State of the Union address in January 1941. The full quote reads as follows:  
"This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory."

This was one of many instances going back to 1936 in which Roosevelt foresaw a struggle of ideals between democratic nations, led by the United States, and dictatorships. This was a key declaration, because it was the first time that he referred not merely to defending the United States, but to victory over its potential enemies. 

Six months later, in July, he directed the War Department to plan for the total defeat of all possible enemies in an imminent war, and by the time of Pearl Harbor, an outline of those plans was ready. This was perhaps the greatest achievement detailed in my book.

Q: In the book, you discuss the Missionary generation (born from around 1863-1884), of which FDR was a part. What characterized that generation, and how did those characteristics affect FDR in the years leading up to World War II?

A: The Missionary generation had a life experience in some ways parallel to the Boom generation. The Missionaries were born from 1863 through 1883, growing up in the wake of the Civil War, and the Boomers grew up in the wake of the Second World War. 

Both generations rebelled against their parent's values in young adulthood. Many of the Missionaries rejected the pure materialism of the Gilded Age and sought to build a new order based largely on moral values, both at home and abroad. 

This was how Franklin Roosevelt defined the problem posed by the Depression in March 1933, as I show, and it was also how he described the worldwide struggle for power that began in the late 1930s. 

The Missionaries had enormous energy and self-confidence and were used to undertaking great tasks. This allowed men like Roosevelt, Secretary of War Stimson, General George C. Marshall, and many more to face the unprecedented challenges of the Second World War. 

They had no doubt that they knew what needed to be done, and how to do it. They succeeded, bequeathing us the world in which we have lived our entire lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am gathering data for a possible book on the greatest players in the history of baseball. Eventually I think I might write a book on Wilson's response to the First World War as a parallel to No End Save Victory.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: No End Save Victory concludes with a comparison of Roosevelt and the Missionary generation's response to the crises they faced on the one hand, and the Boom generation's response to the crises of our time, on the other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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