THE SPHINX: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II. By Nicholas Wapshott. Norton. 464 pages. $27.95.
“Among the exhibits displayed in a glass case in his presidential library is an 8-foot-tall papier-mache sculpture of a sphinx.” So begins the prologue in Nicholas Wapshott’s new book on Franklin Roosevelt.
The statue was presented to the president at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in December 1939. The “press were flummoxed” because of his reluctance to announce whether he would run in the November 1940 presidential campaign.
These were momentous times; and the president had specific goals: First was to deal with a country struggling with a deeply depressed economy: 10 million people without jobs. Second, in Europe the sabers were rattling as the fascist rhetoric of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini grew louder, and in the East, the “Japanese military were stampeding the world toward war,” a war that American isolationists wanted no part of: “None of America’s business,” they said.
America’s role was uncertain. Roosevelt, ever the pragmatist, nevertheless planned to pursue a third goal to “rearm America as quickly as possible.”
“And, because he felt he alone was capable of achieving all three goals, Roosevelt was slowly coming to the conclusion he would need a third presidential term,” Wapshott writes.
Meanwhile, Joseph P. Kennedy, an adviser to Roosevelt, made it clear that he “early wanted to become the first Irish-American ambassador to London.” Wapshott writes that “the two men deeply distrusted each other.”
“Roosevelt liked to play on Kennedy’s lack of social confidence, while his own embrace of the presidency was absolute. As one observer put it, he enjoyed “a love affair with power.” It was this supreme confidence Roosevelt had in who and what he was that the author explores throughout the book.
After winning his third term as president November 1940, Roosevelt now faced the huge challenge of America’s involvement in the war in Europe. (Britain and France had officially declared war on Germany in September 1939). Roosevelt knew he had to convince the isolationists — among them Joe Kennedy, Henry Ford and revered aviator Charles Lindbergh — that it would be in America’s interest to enter the fray.
Churchill and Roosevelt had become close, if wily, partners, and as Britain became more deeply involved in the war, it was running out of cash. Churchill pleaded for planes, armaments and other supplies.
Once established in his third term, Roosevelt initiated his lend-lease program, which provided Britain with necessary aid and made provisions for reimbursement.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the day of infamy, all bets were off.
Wapshott’s extensive, insightful research for “The Sphinx” allows him to focus on the major players who were to bring the U.S. into a global war unpopular with many Americans.
Eighty years later, Wapshott muses how Roosevelt “charmed, provoked, prodded and appealed” to get the American public to accept its responsibilities, however distasteful they might be.
Frances Monaco is a writer based in Charleston.