A 20th-Century Giant ; New Biography Claims FDR Saved the World, but Where's Eleanor?

Article excerpt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's central role in American history is indisputable. He successfully guided the nation through the Great Depression and World War II and, in doing so, forever changed the role and place of the federal government in American society. Yet, nearly 60 years after his death, he remains as complex, mysterious, and controversial as he was during his lifetime.

Conrad Black looks at this quintessential American politician from an unusual perspective. Born in Canada, Black became an influential publisher who eventually gave up his Canadian citizenship to become a British peer. Until recently, he was the chief executive and chairman of Hollinger International, an empire that included The Daily Telegraph, The Jerusalem Post, and The Chicago Sun Times. Now Lord Black of Crossharbour, he is well known in conservative political circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

In recent months, Conrad Black and Hollinger have been the subject of criticism and an SEC investigation for financial improprieties. There is, however, absolutely no evidence that these problems have affected "Champion of Freedom" in any way. The book can, and should, be examined on its own.

Despite his conservative credentials, Black reveres Roosevelt. In his words: "Roosevelt was the most important person of the 20th century," and he argues that his standing in American history is on a par with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. His greatness, according to Black, rests on several achievements: he (along with Winston Churchill) saved Western civilization; perma- nently ended America's global isolationism; reshaped American government; exhibited unmatched mastery of the American political system; and triumphed decisively over his disability.

Black adds one additional accomplishment that runs contrary to the conventional wisdom. Many historians believe that Roosevelt's physical infirmities at Yalta prevented him from standing up to Stalin and therefore gave the Soviets too much freedom to enslave Eastern Europe. In Black's view, however, Yalta actually "laid the groundwork" that enabled FDR's postwar successors "to complete the Allied victory in World War II" and, eventually, to liberate Eastern Europe.

Black argues that Roosevelt made reasonable, if largely futile, efforts to bring Stalin into the fold of responsible world leaders throughout World War II. But because FDR held no illusions about Stalin, he also sought to contain the Soviets. For example, he minimized Russia's postwar influence in France and Italy, made sure that the Western allies occupied as much of Germany as possible, moved decisively to develop atomic weapons, and was the principal creator of the United Nations, which provided a framework for international cooperation and a counterweight to Soviet expansionism. …