Averell Harriman, a handsome, ambitious railroad heir, served as FDR’s man in London, expediting lend-lease aid and romancing the prime minister’s daughter-in-law. Roosevelt even put to work his rumpled, charismatic Republican opponent in the 1940 presidential election, Wendell Willkie, whose visit lifted British morale and won wary Americans over to the cause.
Finally, in the aftermath of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Hopkins returned to London to confer with Churchill and traveled to Moscow to meet with Josef Stalin. This final mission gave Roosevelt the confidence to bet on the Soviet Union.
America’s pivot from isolationism to leadership in world affairs was achieved by FDR through a campaign of subtle diplomacy, carried off with great flair. His tactical shifts were ceaseless, yet behind them a clear direction can be discerned. The U.S. turn toward Europe involved supreme presidential concentration and the diversion of resources on a massive scale. That is what it takes to pivot America. If Obama hopes to reorient the country away from some of the responsibilities FDR assumed — including its heavy obligations in the Middle East — it will require a similar effort.
The president’s challenge may not be as urgent or as deadly as Roosevelt’s. Plainly, a rising China is in no way analogous to the rise of the Axis regimes. Indeed, a strong and prosperous China is in everyone’s interest. Yet the stakes are high. Without a strong U.S. presence in the Pacific, the region faces strategic uncertainty, power imbalances and the risk of destabilizing rivalry.
The president clearly understands that America’s future prosperity and security depend on turning toward Asia. But to achieve that goal, he will need to follow Roosevelt’s lead, combining meticulous planning with diplomatic elan and adroit public relations. And he will need to resist the growing pressure to intervene ever more deeply in the Middle East.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” Roosevelt said. “To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
Obama’s generation also has a rendezvous to keep.
Michael Fullilove is executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, and author of “Rendezvous With Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World.”