Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made

Image of Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made
Release Date: 
February 28, 2023
St. Martin's Press
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“Leebaert, to his credit, presents an unvarnished look at the policymakers he credits with saving America’s democracy and shaping the post-World War II world.”

The more one learns about Franklin Roosevelt the less admirable he appears. Award-winning author Derek Leebaert’s new book about FDR and four of his top presidential aides, Unlikely Heroes, further stains the man and his presidency, even if unintentionally.

Leebaert praises FDR’s New Deal and war leadership, and attributes much of Roosevelt’s presidency’s success to his longest serving assistants: Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, and Frances Perkins. Except for Perkins, these liberal icons, however, shared some of FDR’s less admirable traits. Leebaert, to his credit, presents an unvarnished look at the policymakers he credits with saving America’s democracy and shaping the post-World War II world.

Hopkins, Ickes, Wallace, and Perkins were liberal crusaders committed to making America and the world a better place for everyone. Leebaert details Ickes’ role in running the Public Works Administration and later the Interior Department, Hopkins’ oversight of the Works Progress Administration, Wallace’s running of the Agriculture Department, and Perkins’ Labor Department work. At times, these four served as an “inner Cabinet” that Leebaert compares to Lincoln’s “team of rivals.”

Hopkins later assumed even more important duties for FDR, especially during the war when he became a special envoy to both Churchill and Stalin. Wallace later served as FDR’s vice president until he was unceremoniously dumped by FDR at the 1944 Democratic convention after being led to believe he would remain as FDR’s running mate.

FDR had liberal instincts but, unlike his four aides, had no firm philosophy—he wanted power and enjoyed exercising power over others. Leebaert describes Roosevelt as “shifty,” “the coldest of men,” “ruthlessly self-centered,” disloyal, vindictive, congenitally deceptive, and a shrewd, calculating political operator capable of wielding “darker powers” to exact revenge against his political opponents.  

Roosevelt routinely used the IRS and the Justice Department to harass and prosecute his political enemies. He had what Leebaert calls a “habit of almost reflexively lying” to legislators and aides. Ickes remarked that FDR’s “word cannot be relied on.” Harry Truman, then a Senator, bluntly said of the president: “He lies.” FDR lied, Leebaert writes, “when there was no reason to lie” because “lying was a means of Roosevelt’s asserting primacy.” He engaged in “two-faced statements and offhand cruelties” even with his closest aides. Henry Wallace said that FDR loved to “watch people suffer as they wriggle to try to get out of the tight spot in which he has placed them.”

FDR’s position on policies wholly depended on politics. He refused, for example, to support anti-lynching legislation—championed by Ickes—for fear of offending Southern voters. He offered no support for legislation to allow more Jewish refugees from Europe to settle in United States territory—legislation that Perkins championed—even though, as Leebaert notes, FDR “recognized a looming humanitarian disaster.” He sensed the gathering storm in Europe and in Asia—as did Wallace—but refused to get out ahead of public opinion, which was decidedly isolationist.

Leebaert notes that Ickes, Hopkins, Wallace, and Perkins “remarked on [FDR’s] intellect that was sharpest whenever he faced a crucial move in the political game, such as corralling votes.” They pitched their ideas to FDR “in the context of elections” because they understood that he thought “in terms of politics over policy.”

Leebaert credits FDR for his selection of military leaders who won America’s part of the Second World War: George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and others. But Leebaert also notes what Robert Nisbet once called FDR’s “failed courtship” of Stalin—a courtship that Hopkins and Wallace favored and to which they contributed.

Leebaert rightly faults Hopkins for failing to impose political strings on Lend-Lease aid to Stalin, especially in the war’s later years. And he faults Wallace for his blindness to Soviet postwar ambitions—a blindness that continued even after Stalin’s “iron curtain” descended over central and eastern Europe. Indeed, one reason why Wallace was dumped from the ticket in 1944 was because Democratic politicos knew FDR was so ill that he would not likely finish a fourth term in office. They rightly feared that Wallace would appease Stalin, so Harry Truman became FDR’s running mate. FDR’s declining health—like so much else that was negative—was kept hidden from the American public.

And it was this blindness to the Soviet threat by FDR, Hopkins, Ickes, and Wallace, among others, that resulted in widespread infiltration of the administration by Soviet agents, including some at the highest levels of government (Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss) and inside the Manhattan Project. Leebaert rightly describes this as a “fecklessness that had exposed the Republic to grievous, far-reaching Soviet espionage.”

If “greatness” depends on “character,” then FDR was not a great president. Even Leebaert’s four “unlikely heroes” understood that what motivated FDR most was a “ruthlessly self-centered drive for power,” and they each came to recognize that “anyone who trusted Roosevelt was a fool.” But character aside, many scholars are coming to appreciate that the New Deal made the Great Depression last longer than it otherwise would have. And FDR’s success as a war leader was undermined by his erroneous assessments of Stalin in the closing months of the war.