What Ken Burns’s ‘The Roosevelts’ doesn’t tell us (but viewers should know) about Josephus Daniels

Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, by Lee A. CraigLee A. Craig, author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, talks to Publicity Director Gina Mahalek about his reaction to the portrayal of Josephus Daniels (who was, at the time, one of the most influential men in the world) in the latest Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Daniels enters the story in Episode 3, around the 44:00 mark. You can view the whole series at pbs.org.

[ed. update 9/29/14: Episode 3 is no longer available for streaming, so we’ve replaced it with the series trailer. Watch pbs.org for future rebroadcasts.]

Gina Mahalek: Were you surprised that Ken Burns chose to focus on Josephus Daniels (and his relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) as a major figure in the Roosevelts’ story?

Lee A. Craig: No, I was not surprised. Daniels played a very important role in FDR’s life. First, it was Daniels who brought FDR to Washington and gave him his initial opportunity on the national stage. Daniels may have done this for narrow, and somewhat cynical, political reasons (he thought it was a public relations coup to have a Roosevelt in a Democratic administration), and FDR may have been destined for great things regardless of what Daniels did, but the fact is it was Daniels who offered him the chance.

Second, as FDR admitted later in life, Daniels proved to be a valuable political mentor, teaching FDR how to deal with cabinet colleagues and work the halls of congress to obtain his objectives at the Navy Department. This was mentioned only briefly in the film.

GM: In your opinion, is Burns’s depiction of Daniels accurate and balanced?

LAC: No, it is not balanced. Burns treated FDR’s opinions of Daniels, as revealed in FDR’s private correspondence, as unassailable facts. Furthermore, Burns chose to emphasize the tension in their relationship, focusing on their disputes concerning the Great War, rather than their mentor-apprentice relationship.

GM: What if anything, might you have added to Burns’s portrayal of Daniels?

LAC: The most important thing I would have added is a brief discussion of why there was so much tension between FDR and Daniels over the war. First, both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt unambiguously saw the British as the victims of German aggression. Daniels saw the belligerents as equals, and until the United States joined the war, Daniels remained neutral in thought and deed.

Second, Daniels’s position was based on violations of international law by both the British and the Germans. Burns, like FDR and TR, focused on Germany’s U-boat campaign, while ignoring the U.K.’s illegal blockade of Germany. But Daniels recognized both countries were in violation of the laws of war at sea. (FDR’s proposal to mine international waters between Scotland and Norway, which Burns treated favorably, was also a violation of international law.)

Finally, Daniels was constitutionally less bellicose then either FDR or TR. He truly wanted to avoid war if at all possible. Burns noted that when Daniels finally voted for war in a cabinet meeting, he wept. Given the war’s consumption of lives and treasure, they all should have wept!