America Has a History of Pandemic DenialRoundup
tags: World War II, FDR, fascism, 1930s, Donald Trump, coronavirus
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. He is working on a book about the 1945 Yalta Conference.
As soon as Donald Trump described himself as a “wartime president” in his effort to combat the coronavirus, historians and others rushed to compare him unfavorably to Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. They may want to revise that judgment.
FDR, we are told, realized early the threat of Nazi Germany and worked relentlessly to shake the United States out of its isolationist slumber. David Nasaw described in a book review for the New York Times that “almost from the moment he entered office, Roosevelt set out to educate the nation to the fact that the United States was threatened not only by economic depression at home, but also by fascist aggressions abroad.” Likewise, Doris Kearns Goodwin claimed that long before America went to war, Roosevelt could “recognize the future” and sought to prepare the United States for its role as the “arsenal of democracy” against fascism.
This is hagiography masquerading as history. From almost the moment FDR became president, in 1933, he adopted a foreign policy of denial, deception, and indecision: a vain attempt to insulate the United States from a new pandemic—the scourge of totalitarianism—that was spreading around the globe.
Consider that in November of 1933, after less than a year in office, Roosevelt became the first American president to formally recognize the Soviet Union—at a high-water mark of communist barbarism. In 1929, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the collectivization of agriculture, seizing the land and assets of the peasant population. Anyone resisting was sent to labor camps or executed. The result: famine and mass starvation. By the spring of 1933, twenty-five thousand people were dying every day in Ukraine, which was the grain belt of the Soviet Union. From 1929 to 1934, between ten million and fourteen million Soviet citizens perished.
Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish philosopher who rejected Marxism and inspired the Solidarity movement, has called this episode “probably the most massive warlike operation ever conducted by a state against its own citizens.” Instead of isolating the communist contagion, FDR extended an open hand: an act of genocide denial. Once he became a wartime ally, Joseph Stalin—a sadistic and murderous psychopath—was transformed by the American president into “Uncle Joe.”