Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Historical Presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Destroyer Deal: Normalizing Prerogative Power

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Historical Presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Destroyer Deal: Normalizing Prerogative Power

Article excerpt

To most historians of diplomatic and military history President Franklin D. Roosevelt's willingness to conclude the destroyer deal with Prime Minister Winston Churchill (an exchange of 50 overage destroyers for leases to maintain naval bases on British possessions in the Atlantic and Caribbean) and take other actions against the Axis Powers was one of the greatest decisions ever taken by an American president. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has argued,

In working it out, Roosevelt paid due respect to the written checks of the Constitution and displayed an unusual concern for the unwritten checks on presidential initiative. Though the transaction was unilateral in form, it was accompanied by extensive and vigilant consultation--within the executive branch, between the executive and legislative branches, among leaders of both parties, and with the press. (Schlesinger 1973, 108)

But not everyone agrees that the president had the constitutional and legal authority to make the deal. Roosevelt consummated the transaction through an executive agreement based on his reading of his constitutional powers, and he did so against the grain of several laws passed by Congress requiring that the United States maintain strict neutrality. Princeton constitutional law professor Edward Corwin claimed about the facilitating opinion provided to Roosevelt by Attorney General Robert Jackson that "no such dangerous opinion was ever before penned by an Attorney General of the United States" (New York Times, October 13, 1940, E6). Columnist Frank R. Kent, writing in his Wall Street Journal column "The Great Game of Politics," talked about "the ruthless sweeping aside of the constitution and dictatorial assumption of power" (Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1940, 6). The Wall Street Journal itself suggested in an editorial "By this road government in America approaches the political outskirts of Berlin" (Wall Street Journal September 5, 1940, 20). The journalist and historian, Robert Shogan, writing in the aftermath of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Contra affair, made the strongest critique:

In the interests of his country's security and of his own political ambitions, the President would find it necessary to twist the law, flout the Constitution, hoodwink the public, and distort the political process. Roosevelt's handling of the destroyer deal with the British would set a pernicious precedent. His machinations would give impetus and legitimacy to the efforts of his successors to expand the reach of their powers, overriding constitutional guidelines and political principles, all in the name of national security. (Shogan 1995, 17)

Roosevelt's destroyer deal took the form of an executive agreement rather than legislation or a treaty. While on its face Roosevelt' agreement was an exercise of unilateral presidential power relying on a White House interpretation of constitutional prerogative, a more fine-grained narrative indicates that it is also a case study of presidential power that may be understood through concepts developed by Richard Neustadt and now routinely applied by presidency scholars to the analysis of executive leadership: power stakes, reputation, and the distinction between the "professional" and the "amateur" in the Oval Office (Neustadt 1960, 1990). It is a case study of the politics of prerogative: of how a president may deploy formal powers to advance the task of persuading Congress and the nation to make a formidable national commitment. Roosevelt's prerogative power involved the normalization of extraordinary powers into alliance politics and legislative leadership--not the abandonment of politics.

Alliance Politics

On May 15, 1940, Winston Churchill, newly installed as prime minister of the United Kingdom, asked FDR for the loan of 40 or 50 destroyers. The deal was not consummated for more than three months. What took so long?

The need was obvious to both sides: the British had begun the war with 100 destroyers designated for protection of the Atlantic sea lanes, and by the fall of France in June about half had been destroyed. …

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