Book Review — Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, his Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolph Hitler

Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, his Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolf Hitler

By David McKean

This is a pitch-perfect political history about how Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Wilsonian internationalist with exceptionally deft political skills, took the United States from its deep isolationism in the early 1930s to become the liberal internationalist powerhouse of the mid-1940s in one of the greatest political evolutions of modern times. The history is relevant as a new politics is emerging in the United States of the 2020s that might be termed the new insularism, a pendulum shift in the other direction.

The deep chasm of American isolationism in the 1930s echoes again in today’s American politics with the rise of a new insularism based on a new assertion of national interest and less emphasis upon leading the forces for internationalist cooperation. then are again present in American public. This change in domestic political complexion is occurring once again against a backdrop of rising authoritarianism across the Eurasian continent.

This is a group biography charting the evolution of Roosevelt’s thinking as it evolved from interactions with four of his European ambassadors, all of them prominent and accomplished men politically appointed. None were career diplomats although William Bullitt had extensive experience at the top of international diplomacy. Joseph P. Kennedy is well known but one learns that FDR always viewed him skeptically. William Dodd, the ambassador to Nazi Berlin, has been featured in his own recent bestselling biography. The least known is Breckinridge Long, who interestingly contributed to Roosevelt’s greatest failure in not getting the antisemitic State Department to do more for European Jews. Interestingly, all four men fell—mostly as a result of their own faults—while Roosevelt powered on to the great heights.

Both Bullitt and Kennedy were men of outsized ambition who wanted to play a leading role in setting American policy, an area which Roosevelt kept in Washington and under his close personal supervision. Roosevelt did value highly Bullitt’s insights on European affairs but Bullitt later seriously overstepped both his role and place. Roosevelt did not share the presidency.

The author of this highly readable group biography is David McKean, a former director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff. The simple and clear narrative is rich in deep insight. The clear telling of the story reveals its labyrinthian complexity.  

The salience of this book is that once again democracy at home and abroad is threatened. How does a US president navigate both the domestic politics and the international politics behind such tumultuous times? One lesson from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s remarkable career is to remember that domestic politics is the lodestar of a president’s power and authority; it sets the limits upon which any action can be undertaken. Roosevelt keenly felt the limits. McKean gives a strong sense of FDR feeling deeply constrained by American isolationism as he increasingly realized the existential nature of the looming authoritarian threat. One can feel the tension build and the impatience with people like Kennedy grow.    

and his principal European ambassadors during the 1930s as Roosevelt warily watched the rise of Adolph Hitler and the inability of the European democracies to contend with the growing threat Hitler’s rise signified. Roosevelt had to run as a peace-committed isolationist in 1932 and 36 while slowly guiding public opinion towards the necessity of sufficient preparedness to ensure that the United States would not go under in this wave of authoritarianism.

The larger story is about getting and holding power in a democracy.  Roosevelt also understood that the ultimate political power was the president’s alone. He could and would delegate power but never transfer it. FDR always held the ultimate power of decision. Ambassadors William Bullitt and Joseph Kennedy never could grasp this because their own overweening ambition and egotism blinded them to this reality of power in the United States. Roosevelt was always wary of such men, and masterful in handling them. Both Bullitt and Kennedy overreached and took hard falls. Roosevelt was a master of all things political.

In complex situations, Roosevelt could keep a half dozen or more conflicting, contradictory, and inconsistent thoughts in his head, judging and balancing over time, and never taking a decision before it became necessary. He cannily kept his options open.

This great open field runner liked open fields.

McKean recounts the remarkable progression of events in early 1940 that brought both Roosevelt and the American public up to the urgency of the situation. Roosevelt dispatched Undersecretary of State Sumner Wells to Europe on February 17, 1940. Wells traveled to Rome, Berlin, and Paris meeting with top leaders in all capitals by early March. He flew to England on March 10 and had dinner with Kennedy. Wells’ sense was that Hitler “was in a mood to make a reasonable peace and the French and English somewhat in the same frame of mind.” Kennedy momentarily felt a somewhat vindicated. But then several days later Wells had a long meeting with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill who went over in detail Hitler’s record of lies and predicted disaster if Hitler were not stopped. McKean observes that what Wells reported to Roosevelt upon his return, his trip did help convince Roosevelt that the United States would not be able to avoid the widening war in Europe. The dilemma for Roosevelt was what to do next. Events were to provide the answer.

On May 7, 1940, with ominous rumblings breaking out on the western front, Tory backbencher Leo Amery rose in the House of Commons and thundered at Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain the words first hurled by Oliver Cromwell centuries before at the Long Parliament, “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” Chamberlain stepped down and Winston Churchill became prime minister on May 10.

As Churchill was taking command on May 10, the German army launched its blitzkrieg attack in the West with its armies invading Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Defenses collapsed in a matter of hours.

In Washington, Roosevelt convened a cabinet meeting and as Harry Hopkins reported on the poor state of American military readiness an aide came in and passed a note to Roosevelt. He announced to the cabinet that Churchill would be the new prime minister, concluding, “Churchill was the best man England had.”

Review posted to Amazon

“Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, His Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolph Hitler” by David McKean.

This former director of Policy Planning at the State Department writes a clear narrative with many insights on how Roosevelt followed the dispatches from his European ambassadors and how these interactions contributed to forming the president’s estimate on the size of the Nazi threat and the rapidity of its approach. The depth of the American public’s isolationist mood is ever-present in Roosevelt’s political calculation. Ultimately, Roosevelt used a small set of advisers led by Harry Hopkins to size the magnitude of the threat and the response from America that would be required. The ambassadors were information sources, never policy advisers though both Ambassador Joseph Kennedy to the UK and Ambassador William Bullitt to France deeply yearned to be policy czars for European foreign policy as a prelude to holding a major cabinet position. Both men saw their hopes dashed because ultimately Roosevelt looked for lieutenants, not captains, to serve as advisers. Big cabinet positions went to able administrators, not strategic policy setters. There was only one captain on the bridge of the ship of state. 

Ambassador William Dodd in Berlin got the rise of Adolph Hitler right while Ambassador Breckinridge Long in Rome got the rise of the fascist dictators wrong. Nevertheless Long went on to serve as assistant secretary of state for administration and consular affairs during the war and McKean judges this service to have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of European Jews who might otherwise have found asylum. McKean concludes Roosevelt’s reluctance “to do more for European Jews will be forever be the greatest failure of his presidency.”

This is also the story of America finding its way from the depths of a deeply isolationist national mood in the 1930s to the heights of great liberal internationalist global leadership by the end of the Roosevelt presidency, one of the most transformative eras of modern history. The story of the rise to international leadership in the 1930s and 40s is interesting against the contemporary backdrop of the United States moving towards a more insular and nationalist foreign and trade policy in 2020s as the tides of domestic political opinion increasingly go unilateral and retreat from the multilateralism that has been the hallmark of postwar US global leadership.

A very well-told story. 

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