What FDR Would Have Said About the Unfolding War in Ukraine

Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite | Unsplash


In his recent State of the Union Address, President Biden proposed what he called a “unity agenda” for the nation: a set of four major policy proposals that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can rally around to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. Given the deep partisan divide that exists in America today, the implicit message behind his call for a unity agenda stems not only from the President’s determination to move a portion of his domestic program forward but also from his desire to show the international community that American democracy is strong enough to meet the many challenges we face in the world today.


A few short months ago, the need for American democracy to prove itself was driven mostly by domestic issues, namely the unprecedented attack that took place on the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, that was spurred on by Donald Trump and the anti-democratic populist movements that he incited both in the United States and globally. The emergence of these dark forces has led President Biden to repeatedly assert that the world is now locked in a struggle between democracy and autocracy – between what he has called the “aspirations of the many and the greed of the few; between the people’s right of self-determination, and the self-seeking autocrat.”


Unfortunately, too many Americans have brushed aside the notion that democracy is now on trial. Many do not think that we are at, as President Biden calls it, “an inflection point in history” and refuse to recognize the fragility of our way of life. This mass ignorance has encouraged those who value brute strength over the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights.


The events in Ukraine over the past two weeks, however, have made it all too clear that President Biden is right. Democracy is undergoing a test unlike any we have seen since the spring of 1940 when Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and France fell to the onslaught of Hitler’s forces with shattering speed and a stunned world held its breath in anticipation that Great Britain would soon succumb to the same fate.


In light of this new reality, the United States faced a stark choice in the spring of 1940. We could heed the myopic call of the isolationist “America First Movement,” abandon the last major democracy in Europe, and retreat to a policy of hemispheric defense, or we could tap into our vast industrial power, provide the British with the weapons they needed to defend themselves, and use our naval power to keep the Atlantic lifeline to the British Isles open, even if this meant a possible confrontation with German naval forces.


For Franklin Roosevelt, there was never any doubt that the United States must do all it could to assist Great Britain in its hour of need. Americans may have been divided on the question, but as the Germans intensified their efforts to bomb or starve the British people into submission in the summer and fall of 1940, so too did FDR’s determination to convince his fellow citizens that isolationism was a failed policy. Those who wished to construct “fortress America,” he said, and remained indifferent to the destruction of freedom “in our ancestral lands across the sea” were fatally misguided. To cling to the folly of isolationism was to hold to the “obvious delusion” that we can safely permit the United States to become “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.” The institutions of democracy, he said, could not survive if the wider world was dominated by “the gods of force and hate.”


By the end of that fateful year, FDR announced his plan to turn the United States into what he called “the arsenal of democracy,” and within a few short months, had convinced the US Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941, exactly eighty-one years ago tomorrow. Lend-Lease gave the president the power to ship weapons and other critical supplies to any nation whose defense he deemed vital to the defense of the United States. In the four years that followed, thousands of tons of American arms, steel, food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, and other vital materials flowed to the myriad of nations – including China and Russia – that had been invaded by the Axis powers and forced to fight for their right to self-determination.


Today, President Putin’s unprovoked attack confirms that we are once again confronted with a world dominated by a global struggle between democracy and dictatorship. We live in a world where the Ukrainian people, like their Russian brethren eight decades ago, are once again fighting for their right to determine their own fate. If we wish to preserve the institutions of democracy, then we should heed the lessons of 1940-41 and recognize, as FDR said when he announced his intention to create the Lend-Lease program, that “enduring peace cannot be bought at the price of other people’s freedom.”


This means that the American people, and our counterparts in Europe and beyond, must be prepared to endure whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure that democracy is not extinguished in Ukraine. These assurances must be met even if they require the establishment of a conduit—not unlike FDR’s armed Atlantic lifeline—through which we can arm those fighting Russia’s brutal assault and supply those who are refugees of this conflict.


Taking these moves involves a willingness to endure a measure of economic pain and embrace a certain degree of risk. But if we forsake Ukraine now, we would forsake the values that our forbearers fought and died for in the last great assault on democracy.


David B. Woolner

David B. Woolner, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute, Professor of History, Marist College and author of The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace.


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