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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Revisionist Look at FDR Leaves Disappointing Image : HARD BARGAIN: How FDR Twisted Churchill's Arm, Evaded the Law, and Changed the Role of the American President, by Robert Shogan , Scribner, $24, 320 pages

June 07, 1995|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Sept. 4, 1940, the New York Times announced that the United States would turn over 50 antiquated warships to the British Royal Navy, a gesture of support for a battered democracy that literally stood alone against Nazi Germany.

To hear Robert Shogan tell it in "Hard Bargain," the story of how Roosevelt and Churchill struck a deal to swap destroyers for military bases reflects nothing less than a sea change in American political history.

"In the interests of his country's security and of his own political ambitions," Shogan insists, "the President would find it necessary to twist the law, flout the Constitution, hoodwink the public and distort the political process."

As Shogan argues in "Hard Bargain," Roosevelt responded to Churchill's urgent plea for military aid with the cool, calculated and sometimes cynical mind of a man whose instincts for political self-preservation were stronger than his respect for the niceties of the Constitution. And so FDR set in motion a plan as convoluted and artful as a Richard Condon novel.

Shogan shows us that Roosevelt was beset with political problems that discouraged him from straightforwardly submitting the destroyer deal to Congress for approval. FDR was positioning himself to run for an unprecedented third term, and he was feeling considerable heat from isolationist elements in American politics; he feared a fight in Congress over a deal that might be seen as an act of war by the supposedly neutral and nonbelligerent United States.

Instead, as Shogan explains with impressive clarity and detail, Roosevelt and various members of his Brain Trust crafted a lawyerly ploy that would permit FDR to carry out the destroyer deal without the consent of Congress, an elaborate legal fiction by which the United States bartered the destroyers for the right to use British military bases in Canada and the Caribbean.

The deal was not merely an example of Roosevelt's genius at back-room politics; rather, Shogan sees it as an ominous act of political legerdemain whose repercussions can be seen in Korea, Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis, the Gulf War.

"Roosevelt's handling of the destroyer deal with the British would set a pernicious precedent," Shogan argues. "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."

Drawing on fresh archival sources and his expertise in presidential politics, Shogan shows us how, day by day, Roosevelt tricked up a kind of legal and diplomatic Rube Goldberg device that was designed to put the destroyers in British hands with as few political aftershocks as possible.

For example, Roosevelt dispatched William (Wild Bill) Donovan, soon to become America's wartime spymaster, on a secret mission to London to parley with the British because FDR did not trust his own ambassador, the feisty Joe Kennedy: "I do not enjoy being a dummy," Kennedy complained.

The hard bargaining between Roosevelt and Churchill on the terms of the destroyer deal took place over a period of only months, but Shogan manages to fill in the background with vivid portraiture of various luminaries of American politics and media who figured in the deal-making. Along the way, Shogan works in some colorful asides about the central players as well as the minor characters in his political morality tale.

Shogan finds occasion to let us know, for instance, that Roosevelt was a soprano with "a girlish appearance" well into his teens. FDR liked to boast--falsely, says Shogan--that he had drafted the constitution of Haiti: "And, if I do say it, I think it's a pretty good constitution."

And the wily but cash-strapped President lined up a cushy $75,000-a-year contributing editorship with Collier's magazine as a kind of golden parachute in case his audacious bid for a third term did not work out.

Shogan, a veteran Washington journalist who serves as a national correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, holds Roosevelt to a lofty standard of political ethics--and finds him wanting. Indeed, "Hard Bargain" is the latest effort of a school of revisionist historians who have been hard at work on the entire pantheon of American political heroes of the late 20th Century.

In "Hard Bargain," Shogan has chipped away the veneer of a half-century of myth-making to reveal a flawed and troubling figure--and, to Shogan's credit but also to the regret of readers still capable of waxing sentimental about FDR, we will never look at him in quite the same way.

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