Wishing for some of that World War II-era wisdom


Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a forum on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, hosted by Cornell University’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, which is directed by former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel. (Full disclosure: My daughter, Erin King Sweeney, works as an assistant to Israel at the institute.)

The event was held at upstate Hyde Park, the site of FDR’s birth, home, burial, library and museum, and it provided a perfect backdrop for the daylong series of discussions on the president who led the United States through the Great Depression and World War II.

As a history major and a political junkie who has read numerous books on FDR and his times, I found the forum interesting and rewarding. The most detailed and illuminating segment was the presentation by Andrew Meier, author of the epic work “Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty,” who focused on Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s longtime friend and the U.S. Treasury secretary for almost 12 years.

What struck me the most while listening to Meier was a renewed realization of just how perilous those years were. The country’s fabric was being threatened internally by the corrosive economic and social dislocation of the Depression, and, of course, externally, our independence and freedom as a nation was imperiled by Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Imperial Japan. And in the years leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people were committed to America First and strongly opposed to any involvement in foreign wars.

As treasury secretary, Morgenthau had to deal simultaneously with severe budget, economic and banking crises as well as the Herculean two-front war effort against Germany and Japan. Hovering over all this was the horrific reality of the Holocaust, which he had to confront as the only Jewish member of FDR’s cabinet. Yet somehow, Morgenthau, Roosevelt and, most important, the American people came through all this, emerging with the world’s strongest economy and most powerful military, and the forces of Nazism and Japanese imperialism defeated and crushed.

This made me wonder whether America and our leaders would have that same stamina and unity of purpose today. And whether there would be the same level of patriotism, putting country before party. I remember reading that during the 1944 presidential campaign, Thomas Dewey, the Republican nominee, learned that the United States had broken the Japanese code prior to Pearl Harbor. This raised the question of whether FDR had been negligent or actually allowed the attack to happen (which Dewey believed).

Yet when Army Chief of Staff George Marshall asked Dewey not to disclose that we had broken the code, because that was still not known to Japan and would damage our war effort in the Pacific, Dewey complied in the national interest. That contrasted sharply with what I saw in the war against terrorism, when secret agreements we had with countries were disclosed on newspapers’ front pages for political benefit, without regard to national harm.

My last impression from the FDR forum was how important it is for Americans to remember the past and the lessons to be learned from it. To realize that the world did not begin the day before yesterday or the day you were born. That crises do not lend themselves to the easy black-and-white solutions of social media. As the philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

America has had a difficult but proud history. A prouder history than any nation in the history of the world. A history we must do all we can to learn and never forget going forward.

Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Comments? pking@