Speaker: Joseph Nye, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government


Franklin Roosevelt comes into office in 1933 without any foreign policy agenda. He is focused, properly, on the Depression. He is thinking of domestic politics. And that's true in the election of 1936 as well.

Roosevelt changes his view in 1938, after the Munich Agreement and Kristallnacht in Germany. He decides that Hitler is going to be a threat to the United States, and that the United States is going to have to do something about Hitler, and that is going to get us involved in Europe. But every time he gently tries to persuade people of that, or give a speech that hints at it, like his famous Quarantine Speech about the Spanish Civil War, he gets intense reaction from the body politic, and he always draws back very quickly.

So here you have Roosevelt, who sees a problem but, as he said to one of his close advisors, "What do you do if you are a leader in a democracy and you look over your shoulder and nobody is following?"

Roosevelt's answer to that was to hope that events would educate the American people. He doesn't turn to grand rhetoric. Remember, this is a man who gave wonderful "fireside chats," very skillful at this, related to the domestic economy. But it doesn't work when he's trying it on foreign policy.

So Roosevelt tries to engineer some things which will get the Americans into the war. For example, there is a famous incident in which an American destroyer, the Greer, has an encounter with a German U-boat, and Roosevelt says to the American people something that was a complete lie: "The U-boat attacked the Greer." In fact, we know now that theGreer fired first. But even that's not enough to get the Americans to change their position.

So what Roosevelt does is he makes preparations for the circumstances in which public opinion may change. So we institute a draft, we begin to build defense spending. We have lend-lease to Britain to help Britain stay alive, which Roosevelt justifies, not as a response to Hitler or some grand threat. But he justifies it as if your neighbor's house is on fire and he has to borrow your garden hose, you say, "Sure, borrow the hose and give it back when the fire is out"—which is not a lie, but it certainly is not an accurate description of what he had in mind.

In those circumstances, then Roosevelt, having failed in all his efforts to get us into World War II, is saved by the attack on Pearl Harbor. It's arguable that if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt could not have gotten the Americans into World War II in Europe.

Then you could say, "Well, wait a minute. You've just said Roosevelt was important. But here's a man who couldn't accomplish what he set out to do and he basically accomplishes it by accident. Then how do you call him important?"

Let me give you an example with my counterfactual exercise. Imagine that, as Philip Roth speculates in his novel The Plot Against America, in 1940 the Republican Party had nominated Charles Lindbergh instead of Wendell Willkie, an internationalist. Lindbergh was a staunch isolationist and an admirer of Germany. And imagine that you had that type of president, a President Lindbergh, when Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Would it have made a difference? I think probably yes. First of all, you might not have had Pearl Harbor. But if you had Pearl Harbor, you would have seen American policy focused on the Pacific, not on Europe. If that had occurred, the world in 1945 might have been not bipolar, with the United States and Soviet Union as the grand superpower survivors of the war, but with a Europe that was divided between Stalin and Hitler, communist and fascist. With the United States in the Western Hemisphere and Japan, with its greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, we would have seen a multipolar world.

Transcript of full lecture

Lecture is based off a discussion of Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era