Smith: Finding lessons in a president’s controversial Caribbean vacation

In the confusing and chaotic time before America entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that he needed a vacation.

The decision shocked many in our nation.

The British were fighting desperately against the Nazis, and the rest of Europe was quickly losing control to Hitler’s armies. Congress could not make up its mind about the war, and nothing could get done.

Some legislators even suggested that America not get involved or even help Great Britain. After all, the economy was starting to look up, and who wanted to face a great war after a great depression?

Roosevelt knew the details of the dilemma, and there was no time to waste. The British were doomed without American help, and America was likely doomed, too, if it did not start the rapid industrial expansion needed to counter a Nazi military that had been preparing for more than a decade.

So Roosevelt decided to take some time off in the Caribbean.

The idea was counterintuitive, and you can imagine the criticism. During the trip, Roosevelt was observed on the deck of a Navy cruiser, smoking and relaxing with a drink. Little work seemed to be occurring.

But Roosevelt was thinking deeply. On his vacation, Roosevelt conceived of the now famous lend-lease program.

The idea was as simple as it was brilliant: America would lend aircraft, ships, food, fuel and tanks to Britain with the understanding that they would return the equipment after the war.

If a piece of military hardware were destroyed, Britain would repay America. Britain would secure the agreement by leasing land on Allied-controlled bases to America.

Conceived to help Britain, it was used to send supplies to France, China and the Soviet Union.

The idea allowed Roosevelt to get Congress on his side in March 1941, convincing skeptics that a strong Britain might protect America from sending troops overseas. It revved up American factories and workers before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In short, it got America ready for the inevitable.

This story is told in much greater detail by Pulitzer winner Doris Kearns Goodwin in her voluminous book about the Roosevelts: “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.”

I retell the story for two reasons. First, it is the silly season of political conventions and, second, because these summer months are typically vacation seasons in America and elsewhere.

Politicians typically exaggerate the world and national affairs to match their political aspirations. Hyperbole without facts can encourage voters to act against their own interests.

No doubt that we live in trying times. But can you imagine what the world looked like in the middle of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and two giant super powers — Germany and Japan — getting ready for war and world domination?

Add well-meaning super stars — such as flying great Charles Lindbergh — barnstorming the country with the message of keeping out of Europe’s affairs.

The 1930s and 40s were different than now. But I would argue they were much more challenging than anything that we face today – despite what politicians are saying at the conventions.

My second point is the need for vacation. In my business life, I knew far too many who did not take time off. It was like a badge of courage, a symbol of how much they were needed at the office and in the decision making process.

I know this well because I was once one of those people.

The reality is that business only moves forward with good ideas and problem solving. Great epiphanies usually occur when you have time to think. That’s why I’ve become a religious believer in the need to take time away.

So I’m currently on vacation. I doubt that I’ll solve any major world problems. But I can already feel my thought process getting clearer, and my creative juices flowing again.

Was America saved by Roosevelt’s decision to take time off? Perhaps.

Randall Smith

Randall D. Smith is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and is the founder of Missouri Business Alert. He can be reached at






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