(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/03/obama-medvedev-reut543.gif)“After my election, I have more flexibility,” Barack Obama explained to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—and to the rest of the world through a hot mic—on Monday. He told Medvedev that he needed “space” to concentrate on his reelection before negotiating with the Russians about a missile defense shield that might protect Eastern Europe from a neighborhood predator.
This isn’t the first time that a U.S. president has presented one face to the American electorate regarding the security of Eastern Europe while presenting another face to a Russian leader. The climactic moment in the George Nash-edited Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath comes during the wartime summit at Tehran, where Franklin Roosevelt privately agreed with Russian strongman Joseph Stalin’s plan to absorb Eastern Europe into his Communist dominion. But it was important for Roosevelt to tell Stalin that he could not publicly support this plan until after the 1944 election.
“In 1939 before the war, there was one Communist country,” Herbert Hoover explains in Freedom Betrayed. “By 1946 there were 23 nations or parts of nations dominated by Communism.” That is the abridged version of the 900+ page book that the 31st president described as his magnum opus. Freedom Betrayed is a curio in any number of ways. It’s the only book-length critique of one president’s policies written by his predecessor. Publication arrives nearly a half-century after its author’s death. And it is an unsettling history of settled history—questioning the official account of World War II doesn’t provoke a conversation; it stops one. So for some the critique, and the critic, may make this book’s mere existence indecent. But like all curios, it invites curiosity.
Written during the coldest part of the Cold War, Freedom Betrayed traces the roots of the U.S.-Soviet conflict to policies enacted by Franklin Roosevelt. First among these is Roosevelt’s 1933 reversal of the policy of his four immediate predecessors denying recognition to the Bolshevik regime. “Soon after the recognition,” Hoover explains, “American members of the Communist Party began filtering into the most important government departments, thus gaining access to matters of national security, and the opportunity to influence or even to make major policies. They also infiltrated labor unions, stirring up class hatred and strikes. They infiltrated college campuses, sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of youth as to our basic principles and institutions. They created subversive fronts to mold public opinion. They stole the secrets of the atomic bomb.”
Hoover paints the picture of a president in over his head. “In his first four years in office, President Roosevelt had made speeches and statements on public affairs totaling more than 400,000 words,” Hoover writes. “Of these, fewer than 3,000—the equivalent of one speech—concerned our foreign relations.” He castigates his successor as an isolationist who cut defense expenditures and retreated from the world. He might have been talking about himself. Defense expenditures not related to veterans benefits had declined slightly from Hoover’s first budget to his last, and the isolating Smoot-Hawley tariff legislation that Hoover had denounced ultimately won his signature. It is a peculiar truth that the American presidents embroiled in the pettiest grievances against one another—think on why the Hoover Dam was briefly called the Grand Coulee Dam—demonstrated a remarkable continuity in policy.
Hoover faults Roosevelt for goading the Japanese into an avoidable war. He faults Roosevelt for a lack of preparedness that led more than 2,300 American deaths at Pearl Harbor but just 68 Japanese. He faults Roosevelt for not allowing the two great dictators in Germany and Russia to destroy one another. He quotes Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Curtis LeMay to convey that the dropping of atomic bombs on a Japan that had already sued for peace was unnecessary. He castigates his successor for marketing the war as a fight for democracy only to abandon Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, and points beyond to the Communists in the war’s aftermath “The din of propaganda had led the American people to believe in the [Atlantic] Charter as the emancipation proclamation of mankind,” Hoover notes. “The shock to our people of the long-delayed discovery of their betrayal by the Communists (and others) did much to contribute to the makings of the cold war.”
It is on this last point that the president-author writes most passionately. His is a counter history to even the prevailing counter histories in that it finds the sellout of Eastern Europe at the wartime summit at Tehran rather than at Yalta. “These ‘two great commitments’ were the instrument by which fifteen peoples fell under the control of the Communists,” Hoover writes of Churchill and Roosevelt’s acquiescence at Tehran in Stalin’s annexation of seven peoples who had lived under the Russian Empire and dominion over a handful of puppet buffer states. “The complete confirmation that these commitments were made at Tehran is evidenced by Stalin’s immediate action. He began to move even before the German retreat from eastern Europe. There is no recorded protest from Messrs. Roosevelt or Churchill.” Indeed, Hoover cites government documents and firsthand accounts demonstrating the complicity of both wartime leaders in appeasing Stalin in a manner far more groveling than Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Neither appeasement guaranteed in peace in our time.
The presidency makes hell of one’s principles. Hoover entered the White House a progressive’s progressive and departed it denounced as a laissez faire capitalist. Given the more than doubling of top marginal tax rates, a proto-New Deal that introduced alphabet soup agencies to America, and the beginnings of massive federal public works projects, the “laissez faire” tag is unfair—when talking about Herbert Hoover the president. But Herbert Hoover the citizen transformed into something akin to what his critics had assailed him as: a conservative. Cognizant that he had become a caricature, Hoover wrote Freedom Betrayed in an awkward style that suggests he understood that by him saying what clearly wished to say the reader would immediately consider the source. So, he quotes, and quotes, and quotes. This insecurity makes the book more like a trip to an archive. Hoover here is less the author than a guide through the words of others.
The reader learns, but about the subject or its author? Freedom Betrayed offers insight into Herbert Hoover as well as Franklin Roosevelt.
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