FDR's Unconventional Diplomacy

The personalities behind America's path to global power.

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America's status as a global power can be traced to World War II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's tactics as a wartime leader, says Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. In "Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World," Fullilove recounts America's role in the war through the missions of Roosevelt's personal envoys. Fullilove recently spoke with U.S. News about how these sometimes unofficial diplomats set the world on a course of the "American century." Excerpts:

How did President Roosevelt's personality impact the entry of the U.S. into World War II?

I think it was critical. Basically, what he did in this period, between the outbreak of the European war in September 1939 and the American entry into the war in December 1941, was take America on a long journey. He not only took America into the war, he carried the country with him. And his endless flexibility in achieving the goals that he wanted to achieve was critical to that.

How did Roosevelt pick his personal envoys?

He chose them for different reasons. Some of them, Sumner Wells, for example, who was the haughty patrician diplomat, was a career diplomat and was the No. 2 in the State Department, and Roosevelt increasingly relied on him. Harry Hopkins, on the other hand, was a social worker who stayed overnight at the White House in 1940 and ended up living there for over three and a half years. Even though he had no formal training in diplomacy, strategy or foreign policy, Roosevelt ended up using him as his closest confidant. One of the brilliant elements of FDR's character was his ability to put almost anybody to work for his purposes, even if they didn't really want to work for him.

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How were their missions unorthodox?

Only one of the five envoys had any diplomatic training; it was completely unorthodox. They had no idea what was happening. I spent many months in the archives, and there were all sorts of anguished notes from diplomats saying "Who is Harry Hopkins?" and "Why is he coming here?" and "What is Averell Harriman's job, exactly?" and "Should we be receiving Bill Donovan?" Everything about it was unorthodox. None of these positions were approved by the Senate. None of them were formal ambassadorial posts. In many cases, they went around existing ambassadors. There were ambassadors in place, but Roosevelt didn't like them for one reason or another, or he wanted to send a particularly personal message. So he'd send an envoy.

Would tactics like these be possible today?

Not quite like these. The system has become much more bureaucratic. On the other hand, elements of it can be used. For example, two weeks ago, John Kerry appointed Martin Indyk as the special envoy for [Israeli-Palestinian negotiations]. He's appointing someone who's not a career diplomat – someone who is outside the system. That enables that task to get the focus it needs, but it also means that the president and the secretary of state are not having to do it all personally. I think there are lessons that presidents and secretaries of state can draw from Roosevelt, but it will never be as romantic and dangerous and consequential as it was in this fraught, exciting two years.

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Have these men gotten sufficient credit for their role in history?

Most of them have not gotten as much credit as they deserve. But my argument is that, as a group, they play this crucial role at the turning point of the 20th century. This was the moment when the array of forces changed suddenly. This is the point when America was transformed from a nervous isolationist middle power into the leader. This was the start of the American century in which we're still living. America turned in these two years; and Roosevelt, with the assistance of these five men, was responsible for that turn.