The 1944 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago from July 19-21. Our landing at Normandy began on June 6th. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a little too busy to attend the convention that year, but he did manage to address the convention from a naval base in the Pacific Ocean. You might want to read his remarks because they are quite interesting. Unlike Mitt Romney, FDR did not fail to mention that we were in the middle of a war. In fact, he didn’t even run a traditional campaign.
“I shall not campaign, in the usual sense, for the office. In these days of tragic sorrow, I do not consider it fitting. And besides, in these days of global warfare, I shall not be able to find the time. I shall, however, feel free to report to the people the facts about matters of concern to them and especially to correct any misrepresentations.”
He then went on to explain that quite a lot of planning went into building our armed forces since 1932 and that even more planning went into building a strategy for winning the war. But what he really wanted to talk about was the planning they were doing for the post-war environment.
Some day soon we shall all be able to fly to any other part of the world within twenty-four hours. Oceans will no longer figure as greatly in our physical defense as they have in the past. For our own safety and for our own economic good, therefore -if for no other reason- we must take a leading part in the maintenance of peace and in the increase of trade among all the Nations of the world.
And that is why your Government for many, many months has been laying plans, and studying the problems of the near future—preparing itself to act so that the people of the United States may not suffer hardships after the war, may continue constantly to improve their standards, and may join with other Nations in doing the same. There are even now working toward that end, the best staff in all our history- men and women of all parties and from every part of the Nation. I realize that planning is a word which in some places brings forth sneers. But, for example, before our entry into the war it was planning. which made possible the magnificent organization and equipment of the Army and Navy of the United States which are fighting for us and for our civilization today.
Improvement through planning is the order of the day. Even m military affairs, things do not stand still. An army or a navy trained and equipped and fighting according to a 1932 model would not have been a safe reliance in 1944. And if we are to progress in our civilization, improvement is necessary in other fields—in the physical things that are a part of our daily lives, and also in the concepts of social justice at home and abroad.
Personally, I believe that vision right there is exactly what progressivism looked like when it was ascendant and unashamed of itself. FDR laid out the basic idea behind collective security and universal human rights. He explained why America had to take a lead role in building and pursuing a system that could prevent and resolve conflicts, and protect human life.
We have talked about American Exceptionalism a few times over the years, and I’ve taken a lot of heat from latter-day progressives who think America has been an imperialist bully rather than the true leader of the free world. It’s a complicated topic, but I have always agreed with the basic project. I think we got distracted by a panic about communism that led us to make big mistakes. I think we lost our moral compass a bit under the leadership of John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen. We let a narrow corporate interest trump a more overarching interest in promoting self-determination and representative government. But, overall, I think the best evidence that we were right to pursue the project is that the rest of the world has now matured to the point that the vast majority of it is at peace, trading relatively freely, and more committed to representative government, international institutions and international law than we are.
We built that.
But now people are looking at us with our troops deployed in dozens of countries around the globe and our drone strikes and our presidential candidates who carry on their campaigns as if we are not even at war, and many of them are thinking that we’re out of control. I think Obama got the peace prize because the world wants him to dial it back, and he is doing it slowly. We need to continue dialing it back, and we certainly do not want to return to the Bush/Cheney way of doing things. But we also need other nations to step up and do more to secure the peace. They are politically mature enough to handle it.
Just because America should do less on the international stage doesn’t mean that there isn’t legitimate work to do. Who is going to liberate a Kuwait or defend a Benghazi if America won’t do it?
I’m with Clint Eastwood. We should leave Afghanistan tomorrow. But is the rest of the world going to stand around after we do that and passively watch while Pakistan uses Afghanistan as a launching pad to strike India, and maybe even America, again?
Finally, if the world community can’t do it together, it will either be America or another hegemonic state like China and Russia. Do you think they’ve done the best job of internalizing FDR’s post-war vision?
I don’t. I wouldn’t trust them to maintain a just peace or do a better job of arbitrating disputes. We’re not perfect, but I don’t see anyone else better who is willing and capable to do the job.
That’s part of the reason I was so offended by the Bush administration. They not only ran things poorly, but they surrendered the moral high ground needed to earn people’s respect and trust.
As a country, we only get so many mulligans. And, remember, it was U.S. foreign policy under Bill Clinton that inspired bin-Laden to attack us in Africa, in Yemen, and eventually right here in the United States. That doesn’t mean those attacks were in any way justified, but you ought to know when your actions are putting our citizens’ lives at risk. You ought to minimize that kind of blowback. Don’t do things that antagonize people unless you absolutely have to.
I think we need to wind this empire down, not because it was a bad idea, but because the idea wasn’t to be an empire. The idea was to build a world where countries can agree not to fight each other and we have the tools to resolve conflict without war. That’s something the neo-conservatives not only do not understand but with which they totally disagree. They think the point is to maintain “the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S.”
If we have fallen short, it’s because too often we have allowed our foreign policy to be perverted away from FDR’s vision to a vision in which U.S. corporate interests come first.