Issues & Insights

The FBI Eagerly Accepted Foreign Interference — To Give A Third Term To FDR

I&I Editorial

Donald Trump and a certain highly popular previous president have something in common you won’t be hearing Democrats talk about.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of the canonized saints of the Democratic Party, despite his long-known anti-Semitism, plus philandering that ranks him right up there with Democratic successors John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

And also despite well-documented reassessments of his economic policies, like those of “Forgotten Man” author Amity Shlaes and Hillsdale College economic historian Burt Folsom, indicating that, far from saving the country from apocalypse, he turned a recession into the Great Depression.

But the man Democrats consider the greatest president of the 20th century, the commander in chief who led the Allies to victory in the Second World War, and who established the country’s most popular government entitlement, Social Security, did something that looks uncannily similar to what House Democrats are poised to impeach Trump for. Except that FDR did it in spades.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late last month described to her House Democratic Caucus the offense she says warrants President Trump’s impeachment. As reported by Gabriel Debenedetti in New York magazine, Pelosi said: “He is asking a foreign government to help him in his campaign. That is a betrayal of his — our — national security. And a betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”

So a president just asking a foreign government to help his re-election campaign imperils both the country’s security and the integrity of its elections, according to Pelosi. How does the 32nd president look when you apply this same criterion to him?

The law against soliciting the contribution of a “thing of value” from a foreign national for a political campaign was not in effect during Roosevelt’s presidency. But the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act was. It prohibited agents of foreign powers from operating in secret, and consequently made possible the “evaluation by the government and the American people” of foreign agents’ activities and communications. It’s a law that was used in 23 criminal cases during World War II.

So there was plenty of concern about foreign electoral interference when FDR was president. And yet, as “Spying Between The Lines” author Steve Usdin wrote in Politico a few days before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, “Covert intelligence operations, propaganda, fake news stories, dirty tricks — all were used in a foreign government’s audacious attempt to influence U.S. elections. It wasn’t 2016; it was 1940” — and it wasn’t Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. It was the beloved mother country, Britain.

Using An Election To Get A Reluctant America Into War

Moscow’s purposes today in interfering in the free world’s elections have been described by Democrats as an effort to “sow distrust and confusion, promote radical voices on divisive political issues, and gain economic leverage, all while eroding support for the democratic process and rules-based institutions created in the aftermath of the Second World War.”

But that is dwarfed in magnitude by the British government’s underlying objective 80 years ago: to draw America into that same war, which ended up being the bloodiest in history. There’s no blaming Britain, of course, for doing anything and everything to save itself from Nazi expansionism.

“SIS, the British intelligence agency, flooded American newspapers with fake stories” and “leaked the results of illegal electronic surveillance,” Usdin noted. “Even the most alarmist commentators and conspiracy-mongers underestimated the depth and effectiveness of British covert activity.”

Britain’s covert actions might, in fact, be directly responsible for the Republican Party nominating the unconventional industrialist Wendell Willkie over more isolationist candidates, such as Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, former President Herbert Hoover, and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey. Less than a year before being nominated, Willkie was registered as a Democrat. He would carry only 10 states in a 55%-45% landslide loss, garnering nearly 10 million votes fewer than FDR,

In June 1940, an “independent” poll finding that three-fifths of GOP convention delegates supported helping the Allies “with everything short of war” was actually the work of a firm, Market Analysis, Inc., owned by an American who had been in the employ of British intelligence for years. Its surveys always seemed to show support for entering the war, despite most Americans at the time wishing to stay out.

Although, in accepting the nomination, Wilkie charged that Roosevelt “has courted a war for which the country is hopelessly unprepared — and which it emphatically does not want,” he also in the same speech left the door open for war, warning that “peace is not something that a nation can achieve by itself. It also depends on what some other country does.”

The history of British intelligence’s primary North America front organization, authored by William Stephenson, the Canadian businessman who headed it, was declassified 20 years ago. In it we find that Stephenson’s front managed the Century Group, made up mostly of business leaders, who brokered an agreement from Willkie not to attack Roosevelt when he announced in September, 1940 that he would be bypassing a decidedly anti-war Congress to send the Royal Navy some 50 World War I-era destroyers. Breaching the hallowed tradition maintained since George Washington of not running for a third term, “FDR was acutely aware of the threat posed by accusations that he was behaving like a dictator,” Usdin noted.

While Willkie did charge that Roosevelt’s New Deal “will lead us to economic disintegration and dictatorship,” he refrained from accusing his opponent of acting dictatorially as commander in chief as he sought his unprecedented third term.

Where, you might wonder, was the FBI as a foreign power’s agents meddled in the American people’s choosing of their president? It was busy collaborating.

FDR Ordered Foreign Surveillance Of Americans

In “J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists,” Penn State history professor Douglas M. Charles reveals via declassified FBI documents the Bureau’s partnership with British intelligence in purely politically-oriented domestic surveillance, despite federal wiretapping being prohibited under the Communications Act of 1934.

In April 1940, Stephenson first met with FBI Director Hoover and sought “the FBI’s permission to set up a base of British espionage operations … Hoover cautiously assented … Roosevelt gave his hearty endorsement … ‘There should be the closest possible marriage,’ he said, ‘between the FBI and British intelligence.’”

Not surprisingly, German spies were busy planting seemingly indigenous propaganda too, such as a full-page ad in the June 25, 1940, New York Times directed to Republican convention delegates that attacked “the interventionists and warmongers” controlling the Democratic Party.

FDR, of course, is far from the only Democratic president to be up to no good in an election. Lyndon Johnson’s formidable Texas political machine possibly stole the state’s 24 electoral votes for the ticket he shared with Kennedy in 1960. And four years later, CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, who later served 33 months for his Watergate offenses, commanded a team that infiltrated Republican nominee Barry Goldwater’s campaign on behalf of Johnson.

Somehow, neither FDR nor LBJ ended up getting impeached.

The retrospective question of America joining the Allies was rendered moot, of course, by Pearl Harbor, and Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. soon after. America may indeed have provided the edge that saved the world from the Nazis’ global designs, and of course that is nothing to lament.

The point here, however, is that Trump telling a foreign head of state over the phone in July, “I would like you to do us a favor … there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son … Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it,” is but a wisp of FDR’s electoral transgression: ordering the FBI to work with British spies on efforts that helped re-elect the president that today’s Democrats revere the most.

— Written by Thomas McArdle

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