ARCHITECTS OF POWER: ROOSEVELT, EISENHOWER, AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY
By Philip Terzian
Encounter Books, $19.95, 127 pages
Long before Donald H. Rumsfeld became an Information Age bete noir, Thomas Jef- ferson, employing similar terminology boasted, “Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and to hobble along by our side. What a colossus shall we be.” And yet, the American embrace of colossus-hood - beyond the continent, anyway - is a relatively recent development. In the aftermath of World War I, Warren G. Harding won a presidential election landslide promising a “return to normalcy” that would reject “the fevered delirium of war” and embrace “tranquillity at home” as “more precious than peace abroad.”
Twenty-five years and another cataclysmic global war later, American mainstream political culture had shifted so fundamentally that the debate never really returned to whether America should be seriously engaged in the world, only to what degree.
In his excellent, concise new book, “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century,” Philip Terzian, literary editor of the Weekly Standard, minds this gap, providing a framework for understanding how the United States got to the internationalist here from isolationist there. In spirit, the short book is reminiscent of Robert Kagan’s “Of Paradise and Power.” Mr. Terzian takes strands of biographical and historical fact from which many assume all enlightenment and import has long since been wrung and weaves from these a strikingly original, wholly elucidating tapestry. One can say of “Architects of Power” the very best thing one may say of any such book: It opens a new window into the mechanics of the world.
Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower serve as Mr. Terzian’s dual anchors, the “easygoing product of the old American squirearchy, who regarded political power and prerogative as his birthright” and “the industrious son of German Midwestern stock, who entered the Army for the free education and whose professional career was a series of uphill steps.”
“These two men could hardly be expected to have much in common, or much mutual sympathy,” Mr. Terzian writes. “But in fact, both recognized that the course of their lives coincided with their country’s coming-of-age, and both were propelled by a singular ambition to overcome adversity, to excel, and to command.”
This convergence of will and foresight, both within themselves and lashing together the overarching policies of their nonconsecutive presidencies, had, Mr. Terzian demonstrates, profound consequences for the world. And while the global order is too gargantuan, too subject to synergetic intertwining, to be solely the sui generis plot of two (albeit extraordinarily powerful) men - “Circumstances have conscripted American power in the world,” as Mr. Terzian notes - the reality we now occupy nevertheless bears their indelible mark.
Roosevelt, Mr. Terzian posits, “eagerly assumed the mantle of democracy’s chief advocate and defender at a moment, in the West, when such sentiments were distinctly unfashionable.” He was, in fact, “a politician of such skill that he could sustain the Allies during the war against Hitler, and claim their gratitude, while reshaping the postwar landscape to favor American interests.”
For his part, Eisenhower, by virtue of his epic triumph in Europe and status as a “plain-spoken general from the isolated - and isolationist - Middle West,” was uniquely positioned to “become the symbol of American power and resolve in a fractured world,” drawing “demoralized … prostrate” Europeans devastated by two world wars into American-led strategic alliances that would give them “a stake in the gathering conflict between East and West” while simultaneously nudging Americans toward a historically uncharacteristic acceptance of the economic and moral responsibilities, as well as, yes, boons, of Pax Americana.
Whether the reader is a National Greatness conservative, New World Order globalist liberal, Ron Paul/Bill Kauffman neo-isolationist or nonaligned history buff, “Architects of Power” almost certainly will expand his foundational perspective - and not, Mr. Terzian argues, a moment too soon.
“Roosevelt, who was nothing if not industrious in his pursuit of American power and harbored no doubts about the necessity of global leadership, is nowadays remembered not as the enemy of isolation and the commander-in-chief who presided over the greatest military undertaking in American history, but as the architect of the American welfare state,” he writes. “And Eisenhower, who directed the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany, waged the cold war against the Soviet Union, and established beachheads of American power around the globe, is now embraced for his valedictory warning against imprudent defense spending.”
Such historical haziness is not only something for which Mr. Terzian provides a valuable corrective, but it also helps validate his thesis: We’re so acclimated to the colossus these dissimilar men awakened that we’ve largely forgotten there ever was a time when it slept.
Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.