Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > Historical Humility

Jul 22, 2014

Historical Humility

tags: World War II,FDR,Mark Byrnes

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

The great advantage historians have is that we know how the story ends.

The great temptation that follows from that fact is historical arrogance—an unspoken certainty that because we know it now, we would have known it then.

The great challenge, therefore, is to impose upon ourselves historical humility, to remind ourselves that the historical actors we study did not have the advantage we do of knowing the story’s end.

I was reminded of that recently while doing some research at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. I’m working on the role of radio in the Great Debate over American intervention in World War II, and came across some of the countless personal letters people wrote to FDR on the subject.

Many of those letters, of course, urged FDR to stay out of the war, arguing that it was none of America's business. It is easy now to dismiss the anti-interventionists as people blind to the threat of German and Japanese aggression, but it’s important to recall that they thought they were learning the lessons of history. They were trying to avoid a repeat of what they saw as the terrible mistake of American involvement in World War I.

Some of the letters reminded me of the vitriol hurled at presidents in recent history. One letter writer from May 1941, responding to Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s recent radio address calling for the American Navy to convoy British shipping across the Atlantic, denounced the secretary as a “Republican War Monger,” attached a newspaper photo of Stimson, and scribbled the word “traitor” across his forehead. 

More affecting, however, was a letter signed simply “a HeartBroken Mother.” The writer told FDR that her son was now serving in the U.S. Armed Forces because she had believed FDR would keep the United States out of the war:

“If only I had known how things were going to be my boy wouldn’t be where he is now. He still had two more years until his country called but he went now I wish had things to do over again my boy wouldn’t be in a camp just to satisfy those rich guys. If they want to fight tell them to go. I hope they can shoulder a gun they’re not too old. Please keep us out not only for my boys’ sake but for all the other boys we see plenty from the other war.”

She was wrong to think that American policy was meant “just to satisfy those rich guys.” But her anguish at the thought that her boy might die for that reason was real.

If FDR read this particular letter (and it seems he did read some of them), did he question his basic conviction that a British victory was so essential to American security that he should risk war? Personally, I’d like to think he did—at least for a moment. Today, the pundit class pounces on any sign of thoughtful doubt, especially in foreign policy. There are always critics eager to seize upon the slightest hesitation as “dithering,” as evidence of a lack of conviction, a fatal flaw when dealing with a dangerous world.

I rather prefer a leader who will pause when reading this P.S.:

“My Mother’s Day Plea. You promised not too [sic] send any boys out of the states well you broke that promise. I hope you keep the one too keep us out of war.”

In the minds of most Americans (and most historians), history has vindicated FDR’s decisions. His wisdom is enhanced, not diminished, when we recall that it was no easy call, when we remember that good people of good (and sometimes ill) will were pleading for a different course, when we realize that he—unlike us—did not know how the story would end. 

[Photo and quotations from Folder: Miscellaneous May 1941, Official File 25, War Department, Franklin D. Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.]

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