Miller Center hosts lecture on FDR's legacy

Event is part of Center's Historical Presidency Series

Mark Stoler, a distinguished author and professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont, gave a lecture entitled Commander in Chief: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Leadership in World War II Tuesday at the Miller Center. The lecture was part of the 2015 Historical Presidency Series, which explores the past presidential leadership in order to gain perspective on the way the position has evolved over time.

The series was organized by University historians Melvyn Leffler and William Hitchcock, and all events are held at the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University which specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history. Leffler both introduced and moderated the discussion with Stoler.

Stoler began his talk with a discussion of FDR as a mysterious figure.

“Franklin Roosevelt was a very secretive and difficult president to try to figure out,” Stoler said. “[There were] no memoirs, no note taking during many of the meetings that he held. A story I love [is from] 1942, Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote to Roosevelt saying, ‘We have the notes from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Can we publish them?’ The answer came back, ‘No, those notes should have never been taken in the first place.’ That is Franklin Roosevelt.”

Mackenzie Karnes, a second-year College student who attended the event said she thought this particular aspect of Stoler’s talk was one of the most compelling.

“To me it was most interesting to hear the intricacies of how [FDR] would insist on notes not being taken,” Karnes said. “This is a huge change from today, considering the use and influence of technology for security.”

Stoler has written and co-written numerous books on and relating to FDR, among other topics, including “Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and U.S. Strategy in World War II,” “Allies in War: Britain and America against the Axis powers, 1940-1945,” “Major Problems in the History of World War II” with Melanie Gustafson, and “Debating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Foreign Policies” with Justus Doenecke. He described his experience doing research at FDR’s birthplace, lifelong home and burial place in Hyde Park, New York — now a national historic site.

“Whenever I did research at Hyde Park, around this time of day I would take a break — if it wasn’t raining or snowing — and go out and just walk the grounds,” Stoler said. “I swear I could hear him laughing, [saying,] ‘No one is ever going to figure me out!’”

Stoler determined FDR used three different leadership styles during his time as president, each of which helped to distinguish a distinct era. These three time periods help to organize and structure Stoler’s work as a historian.

Roosevelt’s leadership changed depending on what issue was the priority at the time, Soler said. He noted during Roosevelt’s presidency from 1933 to 1938, the president prioritized domestic issues to quell the effects of the Great Depression.

“[From] 1939 to ‘41, a strong support for aiding those nations fighting Nazi Germany, but with the use of a very, very cautious style, so as to influence and obtain public support rather than lose it,” Stoler said. “And then finally, after Pearl Harbor, a very decisive but secretive style in which became one of the most active and effective war leaders in all of U.S. History.”

During the question and answer period, Leffler asked why Stoler portrays such a favorable portrait of FDR, even though today many criticize FDR particularly with regard to flaws in foreign policy.

“I am an educator, but I think Roosevelt had the prestige to educate the public into the realities of the international order,” Stoler said.

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