- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

By Thomas Fleming
Basic Books, $35, 628 pages, illus.

On Dec. 4, 1941, The Washington Times-Herald and Chicago Tribune simultaneously published details of a previously secret American war plan. Code named "Rainbow Five," it called for a 10-million man army anchored by a five-million man expeditionary force that was to mount an invasion of German-controlled Europe by mid-1943. On that same day an American schooner, manned by a largely Filipino crew, set sail for Cam Ranh Bay, then a major Japanese naval base on the coast of what had been French-controlled Indochina.
A coincidence? Not according to Thomas Fleming. A veteran storyteller, Mr. Fleming opens "The New Dealers' War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Within World War" with an account of these two seemingly unrelated and generally overlooked events that occurred on the eve of the Pearl Harbor debacle.
New Dealers' War? What happened to the "Good War?" In recent years we have been inundated with World War II histories validating the latter label. A near flood of Stephen Ambrose books has certainly had this effect. And just last year Tom Brokaw touted those who fought or endured that war as the "greatest generation."
Mr. Fleming too has written a most accessible book. His story of World War II is filled with plots and subplots, a highly compelling cast of characters and, for good measure, a Plotter-in-Chief. This is readable history of the popular sort, but it risks alienating the very readership that it seems to have had in mind.
Let it be stipulated that the author is not out to diminish or otherwise demean the sacrifices of Mr. Brokaw's greatest generation. Nor does he endorse Hitlerian racial theories or pine for the restoration of a 1,000-year Reich. But he does see a different war and a decidedly less good war, which is to say a morally compromised war.
Actually, his New Dealers were simultaneously fighting four wars. The first, of course, was the military campaign against Germany and Japan. The second was an ideological crusade of Wilsonian objectives and global proportions; another was the bureaucratic, near-guerrilla war that raged within the Roosevelt administration; and the last was a political struggle against increasingly powerful congressional Republicans.
The first two of these wars were fought in the name of anti-totalitarianism, even as they advanced the Soviet version of the same. The last two were conducted on a number of levels and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to counter the influence of those who dared to be concerned about the expansion of Soviet totalitarianism.
Along the way, Mr. Fleming seeks to remind his readers ever so gently, but also insistently, that memory is not history. Memory, he concedes, can be a very powerful thing. And memory, he believes, ought to be given its due. This he does by "saluting the generation that won the titanic global conflict." But that victory, he also believes, came at a considerable cost.
A good part of that cost can be measured in lives lost, but Mr. Fleming weighs other costs and other casualties as well. There is little nostalgia here, but with the Good War and the Cold War behind us, the time may be just right for reading a book that explains ways in which the war destroyed one kind of totalitarianism while accomodating another.
Mr. Fleming has risked controversy by asking his readers to re-think the position and the premises of the long since discredited pre-1941 America Firsters. Never mind that as late as the eve of Pearl Harbor there was considerable American opposition to repeating the blunder that was Woodrow Wilson's decision for war in 1917. The irony is inescapable: Mr. Fleming challenges the current consensus on World War II by revisiting what was once the consensus opinion on World War I.
And no one knew better how deeply that antiwar sentiment ran than Franklin Roosevelt. Hence his willingness to make truth the first casualty of his battle against the isolationists. And hence his dual decision to leak Rainbow Five to the isolationist press and send that lone schooner off to its anticipated demise. Or so Mr. Fleming surmises.
To some historians FDR was the "juggler" president. To Mr. Fleming he was the "Big Leaker." The method to his madness was this: Entice Adolf Hitler into a declaration of war by revealing that Germany's window of military opportunity would be shut tight by 1943. And that schooner? Did FDR seek to invite a Japanese attack? Three days later he got thatand more. As Navy Secretary Frank Knox put it on the afternoon of Dec. 7: "I think he [FDR] expected to get hit, but he did not expect to get hurt."
According to Mr. Fleming, Roosevelt also expected to fight and win a modern day Battle of Trafalgar, possibly in the aftermath of a Japanese attack on that American schooner. What was not anticipated was that Japan might have had offensive plans of its own. Hence the terrible surprise that was Pearl Harbor.
Mr. Fleming's history cannot be dismissed as just another "back door to war" story. Roosevelt may well have been the "Big Leaker"; he was surely an inveterate plotter. But he was not an evil one. To this extent Mr. Fleming gives Roosevelt his due. The fleet was kept at Pearl Harbor not to invite an attack, but to be in a better position to launch an attack.
Not that Roosevelt had reversed his priorities. Germany remained Public Enemy #1. To that extent the publication of Rainbow Five did its work. Roosevelt may have been a leaker and a juggler, but this most Wilsonian of our post-World War I presidents was also a man on a mission. Make that three missions. The first was to maneuver the United States into the war against Germany; the second was to force the Axis Powers to surrender unconditionally; and the third was to build a Soviet-American wartime partnership that would eventually blossom into a postwar friendship.
That Roosevelt was successful on two of the three has led many historians to give him good marks for his prosecution of the Good War. But not Thomas Fleming. A cowardly Roosevelt refused to invest the political capital necessary to lead his country off to war. A vengeful Roosevelt resorted to the terror-bombing of German and Japanese civilians rather than alter any unconditional surrender formulas. And a naive Roosevelt helped pave the way for the Soviet domination of much too much of Europe.
To be sure, victory over Adolf Hitler was a considerable achievement, but it is much too much to call it a "good war." Dubbing it "the New Dealers' war" may strike some as too limited, or even mean-spirited, but reading Mr. Fleming's book may change a few minds.

John C. Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn.

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