"Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor," writes the historian Thomas A. Bailey. "He was faced with a terrible dilemma. If he let the people slumber in a fog of isolationism, they might fall prey to Hitler. If he came out unequivocally for intervention, he would be defeated" in the 1940 election. This view was seconded by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a rave review of Bailey's book in 1949. Schlesinger now spends his time lending gravitas to the moonbattier "Bush lied" table-thumpers at Arianna Huffington's Web site.
Just three days before Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 4, 1941, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Star-Ledger broke the story that FDR had already drafted a plan for war with Germany, a plan that entailed a 10-million-man army invading Germany by the middle of 1943. Democrats and Republicans alike saw this as further proof that FDR had been lying all along. Some suggest that a U.S.-flagged schooner sent into Japanese waters that same day was intended to provoke a fight. Roosevelt got Pearl Harbor instead, which was a surprise but nonetheless "rescued" the president, in Hofstadter's words, from the "dilemma" of needing to start a war the American people opposed.
Does this make FDR a bad president? No. While I have my problems with FDR, most historians are right to be forgiving of deceit in a just cause. World War II needed to be fought, and FDR saw this sooner than others.
Even the most cursory reading of any presidential biography will tell you that statesmanship requires occasional duplicity. If great foreign policy could be conducted Boy Scout-style - "I will never tell a lie" - foreign policy would be easy (and Jimmy Carter would be hailed as the American Bismarck). This isn't to say that the public's trust should be breached lightly, but there are other competing goods involved in any complex situation.
Now, you might say that Iraq was no WWII, Saddam was no Hitler, and 9/11 was no Pearl Harbor. Those are all fair arguments with varying degrees of merit. But WWII wasn't "the good war" in our hearts until after Pearl Harbor and even until after the Holocaust, and a lot of Hollywood burnishing.
The Bush Doctrine is not chiefly about WMD and never was. Like FDR's vision, it balances democracy, security and morality. Still, the media and anti-Bush partisans have been bizarrely unmoved by the revelations of Hussein's killing fields, his torture chambers for tots, and democracy's tangible progress in the Middle East.
If Bush succeeds - still a big if - the painful irony for Bush's critics is that he will go down in history as a great president, even if he lied, while they will take their paranoia to their graves.
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