Posted on | August 19, 2013 | 58 Comments
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins
My parents were New Deal Democrats, but I grew up at a time and in a place when Republicans were extraordinarily rare. I’ve often said I never actually met a Republican until I went to college and, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t until my junior year. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I became an ex-Democrat, and so I completely understand the quasi-religious reverence that Democrats have for FDR, Harry Truman and JFK. What puzzles me nowadays is that some conservatives seem to share that attitude.
National Review has published a column by Conrad Black which calls Diana West’s new book American Betrayal a “farrago of lies,” and I just don’t know what to say, except that (a) Black doesn’t seem to have read West’s book, and (b) is therefore attacking the straw man version of West’s argument, as presented by Ron Radosh.
As I said last week, the attacks by Radosh and David Horowitz have made it impossible “to view [American Betrayal] in an unprejudiced light,” and I fear that the resulting controversy will turn into one of those festering wounds akin to the attacks on Mel Bradford that prevented Bradford, a brilliant scholar, from becoming head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Reagan. The whole neocon/paleocon feud can be traced to that episode and, however real the substance of the ideological dispute, it’s the vicious tactics I lament.
What you find, if you examine the history of that quarrel, is that the neocons (and by this term, I especially mean those associated with the Claremont Institute) seem to crave the authority of Platonic archons, to promulgate and defend “noble lies” about American history, to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains, so that in the place of actual history, we have instead a political myth.
Feuds over 19th-century history that attached the stigma of “controversial” to Bradford’s name are, it seems, now being replicated in regard to 20th-century history, with Roosevelt replacing Lincoln as the sanctified figure who cannot be examined critically. And just as criticizing Lincoln resulted in Bradford being stigmatized as “pro-slavery” (a ridiculous accusation to make in 1981), so now FDR’s critics are faced with the not-too-subtle insinuation that they are pro-Nazi.
Are the choices really so stark? Must we only praise FDR, or else be suspected of being Hitler sympathizers? Or was Lincoln’s statesmanship so unquestionably wise that no one may criticize “Honest Abe” without being accused of “white supremacy”?
Is it any accident, really, that both of these myths involve wartime leaders whose influence tended toward the centralization of power in Washington and development of the “Imperial Presidency”?
Yet both FDR and Lincoln were, in their own time, extraordinarily controversial figures. Once you clear away the gauzy myths that hagiographers have erected around them and examine the contemporary record — especially including the criticisms made by their political opponents — the men are perhaps not really less admirable, but their actions are seen as choices subject to second-guessing, and their philosophies of government lose much of their glow.
A preference for beautiful myth over ugly fact is a dangerous thing, and I wish people would stop to think that someday in the future, these mythmakers will be worshiping at the altar of Obama.
The controversies of our own era will eventually be reduced to a couple of pages in the high-school history textbook and, having lived through a half-century of history myself, I shudder at the thought. Already, one sees liberals trying to portray the shift of the Democrat “Solid South” toward the GOP as motivated entirely by racism when, in fact, it was controversies over Cold War foreign policy that did the most to undermine Democratic hegemony in the South, which has always been the most warlike region of America (and which was always the most fiercely anti-Communist).
The Radosh/Horowitz assault on Diana West’s American Betrayal took me by surprise because I’ve known Diana West for many years, and know she is no Buchananite paleoconservative. She is a regular Reaganite Republican, and certainly cannot be tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism that has been applied to Pat Buchanan.
It strikes me, however, that West’s critique of FDR’s foreign policy as too pro-Soviet, which would require conservatives to re-examine the standard history of World War II, might be viewed as “lending aid and comfort” to the paleoconservative enemy. That is to say, while West herself is a mainstream “movement conservative,” her undermining of the Rooseveltian mythos may pose the threat of redeeming the Robert Taft-style Old Right isolationism. So if you question FDR’s fundamental righteousness, you are a conspiracy theorist, and quite possibly (by implication) pro-Nazi.
Baron Bodissey at Gates of Vienna offered a lengthy examination of the controversy Sunday, linking Dr. Andrew Bostom’s rebuttal to Conrad Black’s National Review article. I remain Diana West’s ally in this fight because whatever errors she may have made, from the standpoint of professional historians, she is asking important questions and calling attention to facts that have been too long ignored by those who prefer convenient myth to historical truth.
- Aug. 16: Major Jordan, Carroll Reece, Birchers, Buckley and the Attack on Diana West
- Aug. 8: Diana West Dissed by David Horowitz?
- June 6: ‘A Conspiracy So Immense’ — Was FDR Aide Harry Hopkins a Soviet Agent?