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Opinion

May 3, 2014

Shribman: History's uncertain lessons for Ukraine

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most American presidents are reluctant warriors. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the onset of the Civil War in the passive voice in his Second Inaugural Address. (“And the war came.”) William McKinley “went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance” whether to take the Philippines and “uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Woodrow Wilson waited until the escalation of German submarine warfare before committing to World War I, nearly three years after the conflict commenced in Europe. And Franklin Roosevelt did not enter World War II until two years after it began — and then not until Pearl Harbor.

Even seven decades after his death, FDR remains the template against whom succeeding presidents are measured; consider how often, for example, Barack Obama’s governing coalition is compared to Roosevelt’s, or how often bipartisan support of Social Security is compared to one-party support of Obamacare.

And so it is not necessary to delve very deeply into the very best account of Roosevelt at war, James MacGregor Burns’ important 1970 volume “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom,” to discover a classic account of a president in anguish about international conflict. The very first paragraph of Burns’ preface sets it out for all time:

“The proposition of this work is that Franklin D. Roosevelt as war leader was a deeply divided man — divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision, on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune.”

Burns went on to explain how these divisions also burdened his advisers and the American people, alternating between the “evangelical moods of idealism, sentimentality, and utopianism of one era, and older traditions of national self-regard, protectiveness and prudence of another.”

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