FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, (1882-1945),
32nd president of the United States. Roosevelt became president in March
1933 at the depth of the Great Depression, was reelected for an unprecedented
three more terms, and died in office in April 1945, less than a month
before the surrender of Germany in WORLD WAR II. Despite an attack of
poliomyelitis, which paralyzed his legs in 1921, he was a charismatic
optimist whose confidence helped sustain the American people during the
strains of economic crisis and world war.
He was one of America's most controversial leaders. Conservatives
claimed that he undermined states' rights and individual liberty. Leftists
found him timid and conventional in attacking the Depression. Others thought
him devious and inconsistent and uninformed about economics. Some of these
claims were well founded. Though Roosevelt labored hard to end the Depression,
he had limited success. It was not until 1939 and 1940, with the onset
of heavy defense spending before World War II, that prosperity returned.
Roosevelt also displayed limitations in his handling of foreign policy.
In the 1930's he was slow to warn against the menace of fascism, and during
the war he relied too heavily on his charm and personality in the conduct
Still, Roosevelt's historical reputation is deservedly high.
In attacking the Great Depression he did much to develop a partial welfare
state in the United States and to make the federal government an agent
of social and economic reform. His administration indirectly encouraged
the rise of organized labor and greatly invigorated the Democratic party.
His foreign policies, while occasionally devious, were shrewd enough to
sustain domestic unity and the allied coalition in World War II. Roosevelt
was a president of stature.
YOUTH AND EARLY CAREER
The future president was born on Jan. 30, 1882, at the family
estate in Hyde Park, N.Y. His father, James (1828-1900), was descended
from Nicholas Roosevelt, whose father had emigrated from Holland to New
Amsterdam in the 1640's. One of Nicholas' two sons, Johannes, fathered
the line that ultimately produced President Theodore Roosevelt. The other
son, Jacobus, was James' great-great-grandfather.
James graduated from Union College (1847) and Harvard Law
School, married, had a son, and took over his family's extensive holdings
in coal and transportation. Despite substantial losses in speculative
ventures, he remained wealthy enough to journey by private railroad car,
to live graciously on his Hudson River estate at Hyde Park, and to travel
Four years after his first wife died in 1876, James met
and married Sara Delano, a sixth cousin. She, too, was a member of the
Hudson River aristocracy. Her father, one of James' business associates,
had made and lost fortunes in the China trade before settling with his
wife and 11 children on the west bank of the Hudson. Sara had sailed to
China as a girl, attended school abroad, and moved in high social circles
in London and Paris. Though only half her husband's age of 52 at the time
of her marriage in 1880, she settled in happily at Hyde Park. Their marriage
was serene until broken by James' death in 1900.
Young Franklin had a secure and idyllic childhood. His half-brother
was an adult when Franklin was born, and Franklin faced no rivals for
the love of his parents, who kept him in dresses and long curls until
he was five, and in kilts and Little Lord Fauntleroy suits for several
years thereafter. Summers he went with his parents to Europe, to the seaside
in New England, or to Campobello Island off the coast of New Brunswick,
where he developed a love for sailing. Until he was 14 he received his
schooling from governesses and private tutors.
Franklin's most lasting educational experience was at Groton
School in Massachusetts, which he attended between 1896 and 1900. Groton's
headmaster, the Rev. Endicott Peabody, was an autocratic yet inspiring
leader who instilled Christian ethics and the virtues of public service
into his students, most of whom were of the privileged classes. Franklin's
academic record at Groton was undistinguished, and he did not excel at
sports. Some of his classmates, finding him priggish and superficial,
called him the " feather-duster. But for a boy who had been so resolutely
sheltered by his parents, he was popular enough. At Groton, Franklin revealed
that he could adapt himself readily to different circumstances. The Groton
years also left him with a belief, more manifest later, that children
of the upper classes had a duty to society.
His record at Harvard, which he attended between 1900 and
1904, was only slightly more impressive. Thanks to his excellent preparation
at Groton, he was able to complete his course of study for his B.A. in
1903, in only three years. During his fourth year he served as editor
of the Crimson, the college newspaper. However, he was not accepted
for Porcellian, Harvard's most prestigious social club, and he did not
receive much stimulation in the classroom. As at Groton, his grades were
mediocre, and he showed no excitement about his studies.
While at Harvard, Franklin fell in love with Anna Eleanor
Roosevelt, his fifth cousin once removed. Eleanor had had a trying childhood.
Her mother, a beautiful socialite who gave her little affection, died
when Eleanor was eight. Her father, Theodore Roosevelt's brother, was
spirited and charming. But he was unstable and alcoholic, and he died
when Eleanor was ten. Orphaned, she lived with her maternal grandmother
and entered her teens feeling rejected, ugly, and ill at ease in society.
When Franklin, a dashing Harvard man two years her senior, paid her attention,
she was flattered and receptive. On March 17, 1905, the two Roosevelts
were married. Her uncle Theodore, president of the United States, gave
The marriage was successful enough on the surface. Within
the next 11 years Eleanor delivered five children (a sixth died in infancy):
Anna (1906), James (1907), Elliott (1910), Franklin D., Jr. (1914), and
John (1916). Having been born into wealth, the Roosevelts never lacked
for money, and Eleanor and Franklin moved easily among the upper classes
in New York and Campobello. Eleanor, however, was often unhappy. For much
of her married life she had to live near Franklin's widowed and domineering
mother. Family duties kept her at home, while Franklin played poker with
friends or enjoyed the good life. Later, during World War I, she was staggered
to discover that Franklin was having an affair with her social secretary,
a pretty young Virginian named Lucy Mercer.
Despite these tensions, Eleanor remained a helpful mate
throughout the 40 years of her marriage to Franklin. When he contracted
polio in 1921, she labored hard to restore his emotional health and to
encourage his political ambitions. Thereafter, with Franklin confined
to braces and wheelchairs, she served as his eyes and ears. Because she
possessed deep sympathy for the underprivileged, she goaded his social
For the first five years of their marriage the young Roosevelts
lived in stately houses in New York City. Franklin attended law school
at Columbia until the spring of 1907, when he quit, foregoing the degree,
after passing the New York state bar examination. He then took a job with
the Wall Street law firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn. Much of the
firm's practice was in corporate law. Roosevelt found the work tedious,
and chafed under the routine. By 1910 he was 28, restless, and unfulfilled.
At this point politics gave him a sense of purpose. The
Democratic organization in Dutchess county, the area around Hyde Park,
needed a candidate for the New York state Senate in 1910. Party leaders
recognized that although Roosevelt had no political experience he had
assets as a candidate: the wealth to finance a campaign, and the best-known
political name in the United States. And though Franklin had voted for
" TR, a Republican, his father had been a Democrat. Franklin, who
admired TR, knew that politics could be exciting and worthwhile. Anxious
to escape the humdrum of law practice, he told the organization he would
Roosevelt worked as never before during the campaign. Acquiring
a car, he crisscrossed the county in his quest for support. He showed
skill at making himself agreeable to voters and a willingness to listen
to the advice of political veterans. As at Groton and Harvard, during
his political career he proved open and adaptable. Perhaps his greatest
asset in the campaign was the national trend away from the Republican
party, which was badly split in 1910. For all these reasons Roosevelt
won impressively in the usually Republican district.
Roosevelt made an immediate impact in the legislative session
of 1911. At that time U. S. senators from New York were elected by the
legislature, not by popular vote. The Democrats, with majorities in both
houses, prepared to select William F. Sheehan, a transportation and utilities
magnate who was the choice of Tammany Hall, New York City's powerful political
machine. A few Democrats balked at the choice. Roosevelt joined them and
became their leader.
His motives were idealistic. Reflecting TR's faith in progressivism
and in honest government, he distrusted the "bossism of Tammany Hall.
After a bitter struggle lasting almost three months, Tammany won a qualified
victory by securing the insurgents' acquiescence in the selection of Judge
James A. O'Gorman, a former Tammany Grand Sachem, to the Senate. But Roosevelt
and his allies took some consolation in having forced the withdrawal of
Sheehan and in attracting nationwide attention. It was an auspicious start
to a career in politics.
The young legislator's demeanor during the struggle evoked
mixed reactions. Progressive reformers liked his devotion to principle,
his political courage, and his willingness to work hard. They welcomed
his support of other contemporary reforms: soil conservation, state development
of electric power, the direct primary, popular election of senators, and,
by 1912, women's suffrage, workmen's compensation, and legislation setting
a maximum workweek of 54 hours for boys 16 to 21 years old.
Nevertheless, party regulars like Alfred E. Smith, a majority
leader in the Assembly, and Robert F. Wagner, Democratic leader in the
Senate, considered Roosevelt something of a lightweight and headline-seeker.
Other legislators disliked his manner. Still the patrician from Groton
and Harvard, he had a habit of tossing up his head and looking down his
nose at people. He later confessed, "You know, I was an awful mean
cuss when I first went into politics.
In 1912, Roosevelt defied Tammany again, this time by supporting
Gov. Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey for the Democratic presidential nomination.
After Wilson won the nomination, Roosevelt ran for reelection to the state
Senate. Though he contracted typhoid fever during the campaign, he was
helped to victory by Louis Howe, a bent, asthmatic newsman, who was to
become his most loyal aide.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy
Josephus Daniels, Wilson's new secretary of the navy, then
offered the successful young legislator a more attractive job, as assistant
secretary. This was the post that TR had held 15 years earlier. It meant
that FDR could deal with matters close to his heart: ships and the sea.
Accepting Daniels' offer, Roosevelt moved to Washington in 1913.
As assistant secretary (1913-1920), Franklin Roosevelt reminded
many people of TR. He advocated a big Navy, preparedness, a strong presidency,
and an active foreign policy. In 1917 he enthusiastically supported war
against Germany, and in 1918 he took pleasure in visiting the front in
Europe. Sometimes he clashed with Daniels, a progressive with pacifist
leanings. But Daniels was tolerant of his subordinate. The secretary appreciated
Roosevelt's dexterous handling of admirals, departmental employees, and
labor unions, which were active in naval yards, and his opposition to
the collusive bidding and price-fixing practiced by defense contractors.
FDR's years of service as assistant secretary gave him administrative
experience and a host of contacts in Washington and the Democratic party.
During this period Roosevelt learned the wisdom of political
compromise. His lesson came from harsh experience. In 1914 he challenged
Tammany again by seeking the nomination for U. S. senator. Tammany responded
by endorsing James Gerard, America's ambassador to Germany. Gerard won
overwhelmingly in the primary, 211,000 to 77,000, only to lose to a Republican
in November. Thereafter Roosevelt refrained from battling Tammany, which
gradually forgave and forgot. He also worked hard at making himself personally
agreeable. By 1920, at 38, he had lost some of his earlier haughtiness.
Handsome, exuberant, gregarious, he projected vitality and charm.
These qualities made him a popular choice for the Democratic
vice-presidential nomination in 1920. Running with the governor of Ohio,
James M. Cox, he supported progressive ideals and American participation
in the League of Nations. He proved an energetic and well-received campaigner,
slipping badly only once--when he bragged clumsily about writing the constitution
of Haiti while in the Navy Department. His mistake made no difference
in the outcome, which was foreordained amid the disillusion with President
Wilson's leadership in 1920. Cox and Roosevelt were beaten decisively
by the Republican candidates, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, in November.
Return to Private Life
With the Republicans ascendant, Roosevelt had little choice
but to return to private life. He formed a law firm in New York City and
became vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland, a surety
Stricken with polio in August 1921, Roosevelt fought back
under the care of Eleanor and Louis Howe. In 1924 he discovered the medicinal
waters of Warm Springs in western Georgia. He hoped that they would relieve
his paralysis, and he formed the Warm Springs Foundation for other polio
victims and spent several months a year there for the rest of the decade.
In 1924 he became president of the American Construction Council, a trade
association that attempted vainly to bring order into the building business.
His primary interest remained politics. In 1924 he favorably
impressed delegates to the Democratic national convention by making an
eloquent (though futile) speech nominating for the presidency Alfred Smith,
the " happy warrior who had become governor of New York. Throughout
the decade he widened his circle of contacts by stopping off in Washington
on his way to and from Warm Springs, and by writing letters appealing
for unity within his party, which was badly split along geographical and
urban-rural lines. The Democratic party, he said, should stand for "progressivism
with a brake on, not "conservatism with a move on.
Governor of New York
In 1928, Roosevelt vaulted suddenly to national prominence.
After helping Smith get the presidential nomination, he set off for Warm
Springs, where he looked forward to weeks of therapy. But Smith urgently
needed a strong gubernatorial candidate on the Democratic ticket in New
York, and he pressured Roosevelt into running. Smith lost the election
to Herbert Hoover, the Republican presidential candidate, who carried
New York by 100,000 votes. Roosevelt, more popular upstate than Smith,
successfully bridged the urban-rural gap in the Democratic party and beat
his opponent, state Attorney General Albert Ottinger, by 25,000 votes.
It was a striking triumph in an otherwise Republican year.
During his two terms, Governor Roosevelt battled a Republican
legislature for many progressive measures. These included reforestation,
state-supported old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, legislation
regulating working hours for women and children, and public development
of electric power. He named skilled people to important positions, including
James Farley, a New York City contractor, as chairman of the state Democratic
Committee; Frances Perkins, a social worker, as state industrial commissioner;
and Samuel Rosenman, an able young lawyer, as his speech writer and counsel.
All became important aides during Roosevelt's presidency.
In 1931, when the Depression was serious, Roosevelt became
the first governor to set up an effective state relief administration.
Harry Hopkins, a social worker who later served as his closest adviser
in Washington, directed it. In a series of "fireside chats Governor
Roosevelt also proved a persuasive speaker over the new medium of radio.
He was reelected in 1930 by 750,000 votes, the largest margin in state
While Roosevelt was governor of New York, the Great Depression
tightened its grip on the country. Roosevelt, seeking new ideas, enlisted
a "brains trust of Columbia University professors to help him devise
programs against hard times. These professors included Rexford Tugwell,
Raymond Moley, and Adolf Berle, Jr. All became leading figures in the
national administration in 1933. Acting on their suggestions, Roosevelt
stressed the need to assist the "forgotten man. He added that "the
country demands bold, persistent experimentation. Meanwhile, Farley and
other supporters were lining up delegates for Roosevelt throughout the
country. By the time the Democratic national convention opened in Chicago
in June 1932, Roosevelt stood out as the most dynamic and imaginative
contender for the presidential nomination.
Despite these assets, FDR faced formidable opposition at
the convention, from House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas; former
Secretary of War Newton D. Baker of Ohio, a potential compromise choice;
and former Governor Smith, who still cherished ambitions of his own. For
three ballots Roosevelt held a large lead, but lacked the two-thirds margin
necessary for victory. Farley then promised Garner the vice-presidential
nomination. The move succeeded. Garner reluctantly accepted the vice presidency,
and FDR took the presidential nomination on the fourth ballot.
Most party leaders applauded the Roosevelt-Garner ticket,
which closed the heretofore fatal gulf between the urban-Eastern and rural-Southern-Western
wings of the party. They responded especially to Roosevelt, who broke
with precedent to fly to the convention and to tell the delegates, "I
pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.
The 1932 Campaign
During the fall campaign against President Hoover, Roosevelt
suggested a few parts of this "new deal. He supported spending for
relief and public works. He favored some plan, undefined, to curb the
agricultural overproduction that was depressing farm prices. He spoke
for conservation, public power, old-age pensions and unemployment insurance,
repeal of prohibition, and regulation of the stock exchange.
Otherwise, he was vague. He said little about his plans
for industrial recovery or about labor legislation, and he was fuzzy about
foreign policy and the tariff. On some occasions he promised to support
increased expenditures for relief; on others he denounced the Hoover administration
FDR's equivocations on these issues alienated some intellectuals
and reformers, who turned to the Communist or Socialist party on election
day. But for most Americans, including the majority of progressives, Roosevelt
seemed the only viable alternative to Hoover, who many people blamed unfairly
for the Depression. On election day Roosevelt captured 22,821,857 votes
to Hoover's 15,761,841, and took the Electoral College 472 to 59. The
voters sent large Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress.
The New Deal
By March 4, 1933, when Roosevelt was inaugurated at the
age of 51, the economic situation was desperate. Between 13 and 15 million
Americans were unemployed. Of these, between 1 and 2 million persons were
wandering about the country looking for jobs. Hundreds of thousands squatted
in tents or ramshackle dwellings in "Hoovervilles, makeshift villages
on the outskirts of cities. Panic-stricken people hoping to rescue their
deposits had forced 38 states to close their banks.
From the beginning, Roosevelt tried to restore popular confidence.
" The only thing we have to fear, he said in his inaugural address,
" is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror. He added
that he would not stand by and watch the Depression deepen. If necessary,
he would "ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet
the crisis--broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency,
as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded
by a foreign foe. He then closed the rest of the banks--declaring a "
bank holiday--and called Congress into special session.
His first legislative requests were conservative. He began
by securing passage of an emergency banking bill. Instead of nationalizing
the banks--as a few reformers wished--it offered aid to private bankers.
A few days later the president forced through an Economy Act that cut
$400 million from government payments to veterans and $100 million from
the salaries of federal employees. This deflationary measure hurt purchasing
power. FDR concluded his early program by securing legalization of beer
of 3.2% alcoholic content by weight. By the end of 1933, ratification
of the 21st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution had ended prohibition
His relief program was more far-reaching. A series of measures
took the nation off the gold standard, thereby offering some assistance
to debtors and exporters. He also got Congress to appropriate $500 million
in federal relief grants to states and local agencies. Harry Hopkins,
who headed the newly created Federal Emergency Relief Administration,
quickly spent the money. By early 1935 he had supervised the outlay of
$1.5 billion more in direct grants, and in work relief under the Civil
Works Administration (CWA) of 1933-1934.
In 1933, Congress also approved funding for the Civilian
Conservation Corps (CCC), the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), and
the Public Works Administration (PWA). The CCC eventually employed more
than 2.5 million young men on valuable conservation work. The HOLC offered
desperately needed assistance to mortgagors and homeowners. The PWA, while
slow to act, ultimately pumped billions into construction of large-scale
projects. Though left-wing critics demanded higher appropriations, most
Americans were grateful for these measures. The relief programs of the
New Deal gave hope to the have-nots--blacks and the unemployed--and did
much to restore confidence in the government.
The early New Deal also sponsored reform measures. The Federal
Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) came primarily from congressional
initiative. By insuring deposits, it helped to prevent ruinous runs on
banks. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), created in 1934,
made a cautious beginning toward regulation of the stock exchanges.
The most important reform was the Tennessee Valley Authority
(TVA), instituted in 1933. This public corporation built multipurpose
dams to control floods and generate cheap hydroelectric power. It manufactured
fertilizer, fostered soil conservation, and cooperated with local agencies
in social experiments. The TVA reflected Roosevelt's commitment to resource
development and his longstanding mistrust of private utilities.
The NRA and the AAA
FDR placed his hopes for economic recovery in two agencies
created in the productive "100 Days of the 1933 special session of
Congress. These were the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the
Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The NRA encouraged management
and labor to establish codes of fair competition within each industry.
These codes outlined acceptable pricing and production policies and guaranteed
labor the rights of collective bargaining, minimum wages, and maximum
hours. The AAA focused on raising farm prices, a goal to be achieved through
the setting of production quotas approved by farmers in referenda. Once
the quotas limiting production were established, farmers who cooperated
would receive subsidies.
After a promising start the NRA lost its effectiveness.
Union spokesmen grumbled that the courts undercut the labor guarantees.
Progressives complained that the NRA exempted monopolies from antitrust
prosecution. Small businessmen protested that the codes favored large
corporations. Some employers were slow to sign the codes, and others evaded
them. If the PWA and other spending agencies had moved more quickly to
promote purchasing power, these liabilities might not have been serious.
As it was, the PWA was slow to spend its funds, hard times persisted,
and evasion spread. Well before the Supreme Court declared the agency
unconstitutional in May 1935, the NRA had failed in its aims of sponsoring
government-business cooperation and promoting recovery.
The AAA was a little more successful. Agricultural income
increased by 50% in Roosevelt's first term. Some of this increase, however,
was attributable to terrible droughts. These, ruining thousands of farmers
in the Great Plains, caused cuts in supply and contributed to higher prices
for crops produced elsewhere. AAA acreage quotas also led some landlords
to evict tenants from their lands. Moreover, as the AAA improved farm
prices, it forced consumers, millions of whom lacked adequate food and
decent clothing, to pay more for the necessities of life. Roosevelt, it
seemed, was fighting scarcity with more scarcity.
Assessing the Early New Deal
These early measures displayed Roosevelt's strengths and
weaknesses as an economic thinker. On the one hand, he showed that he
was flexible, that he would act, and that he would use all his executive
powers to secure congressional cooperation. Frequent press conferences,
speeches, and fireside chats--and the extraordinary charisma that he displayed
on all occasions--instilled a measure of confidence in the people and
halted the terrifying slide of 1932 and 1933. These were important achievements
that brought him and his party the gratitude of millions of Americans.
At the same time his policies were so flexible as to seem
inconsistent, opportunist, and ill-considered. They showed him also to
be a very cautious political leader. Neither then nor later in his administrations
did he support civil rights legislation, which would have alienated the
important Southern Democrats in Congress. Political considerations prompted
his generous handling of potent interest groups, such as large corporations
and commercial farmers. Far from imposing federal blueprints on the nation,
he favored decentralization and voluntarism--these gave well-organized
groups wide latitude and power. FDR also refrained from large-scale deficit
spending or from tax policies that would have redistributed income. Purchasing
power, essential to rapid recovery, therefore failed to increase substantially.
Roosevelt, a practical political leader and a moderate in economics, helped
preserve capitalism without significantly correcting its abuses or ending
The New Deal from 1935
In 1935, Roosevelt turned slightly to the left. He sponsored
bills aimed at abolishing public-utility holding companies, at raising
taxes on the wealthy, and at shifting control of monetary policy from
Wall Street bankers to Washington. When Congress balked, Roosevelt compromised.
The bills revealed Roosevelt's loss of faith in government-business cooperation.
They helped undercut demagogues like Sen. Huey Long (D-La.), who was agitating
for tougher laws against the rich. But they did not signify a commitment
to radical, antibusiness policies.
While these struggles were taking place, Roosevelt worked
successfully for three significant acts passed in 1935. One, a relief
appropriation, led to creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The WPA disbursed some $11 billion in work relief to as many as 3.2 million
Americans a month between 1935 and 1942.
The second measure, the Wagner Act, set up the National
Labor Relations Board (NLRB), The third reform was social security. The
law provided for federal payment of old-age pensions and for federal-state
cooperation in support of unemployment compensation and relief of the
needy blind, of the disabled, and of dependent children. The act, though
faulty in many ways, became the foundation of a partial welfare state
with which later administrations dared not tamper.
These accomplishments helped Roosevelt win a smashing victory
in 1936 over his Republican opponent, Gov. Alfred M. Landon of Kansas.
Roosevelt received 27,751,841 popular votes and carried 46 states with
523 electoral votes. Landon received 16,679,491 votes and carried only
two states with eight electoral votes. Although the result of the election
reflected overwhelming confidence in FDR's leadership, he still felt obliged
to observe, in his 1937 inaugural address, "I see one-third of a
nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
Controversy disrupted the president's second term. His troubles
began in February 1937, when he called for a "court reform plan that
would have permitted him to add up to six judges to the probusiness U.S.
Supreme Court. The court's conservative majority had angered FDR by declaring
some New Deal legislation, including the NRA and AAA, unconstitutional.
Congress, reflecting widespread reverence for the court, refused to do
At the time, militant workers staged "sit-down strikes
in factories. Though Roosevelt opposed the sit-downs, conservatives were
quick to blame him for the growing activism of organized labor. In the
fall of 1937 a sharp recession, caused in large part by cuts in federal
spending earlier in the year, staggered the country. Taken aback, Roosevelt
waited until the spring of 1938 before calling for increased federal spending
to recharge purchasing power. His procrastination revealed again his reluctance
to resort to deficit spending.
These developments in 1937 and 1938 severely damaged his
standing in Congress, which had grown restive under his strong leadership
as early as 1935. In FDR's second term, therefore, the lawmakers proved
cooperative only long enough to approve measures calling for public housing,
fair labor standards, and aid to tenant farmers. None of these acts, however,
was generously funded or far-reaching. Meanwhile, Congress cut back presidential
requests for relief spending and public works. After Republican gains
in the 1938 elections, a predominantly rural conservative coalition in
Congress proved still more hostile. Henceforth it rejected most of the
urban and welfare measures of Roosevelt's administrations.
Cordell Hull of Tennessee served as secretary of state from
1933 to 1944, but Roosevelt's desire to engage in personal diplomacy left
Hull in a reduced role. In 1933 the president's " bombshell message
to the London Economic Conference, saying that the United States would
not participate in international currency stabilization, ended any immediate
hope of achieving that objective. In the same year he extended diplomatic
recognition to the USSR, still a relative outcast in world diplomacy.
Roosevelt and Hull worked smoothly in behalf of reciprocal
trade agreements and in making the United States the "good neighbor
of the Latin American countries.
Prelude to War
By the mid-1930's dictatorial regimes in Germany, Japan,
and Italy were casting their shadows across the blank pages of the future.
In 1936, in his speech accepting renomination as president, Roosevelt
had said, "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
By 1938, Roosevelt was spending increasing amounts of time on international
affairs. Until then he had acquiesced in congressional "neutrality
acts designed to keep the United States out of another world war. Roosevelt
did not share the isolationist sentiments that lay behind such legislation.
But he hoped very much to avoid war, and he dared not risk his domestic
program by challenging Congress over foreign policy. For these reasons
he was slow to warn the people about the dangers of German fascism.
Germany's aggressiveness in 1939 forced Roosevelt to take
a tougher stance. Early in the year he tried unsuccessfully to secure
revision of a neutrality act calling for an embargo on armaments to all
belligerents, whether attacked or attacker. When HITLER overran Poland
in September and triggered the formal beginning of World War II, Roosevelt
tried again for repeal of the embargo, and succeeded. In 1940 he negotiated
an unneutral deal with Britain whereby the British leased their bases
in the Western Hemisphere to the United States in return for 50 overaged
American destroyers. Roosevelt also secured vastly increased defense expenditures,
which brought about domestic economic recovery at last. But he still hoped
to keep out of the war and to appease the anti-interventionists in Congress.
Thus he remained cautious.
Campaigning for reelection in 1940 against Wendell Willkie,
a relatively progressive Republican who agreed with some of his policies,
Roosevelt said misleadingly that he would not send American boys to fight
in foreign wars. Many persons, including some leaders of the Democratic
party, were not in favor of giving the president an unprecedented third
term, and his margin fell sharply from his previous reelection. Nevertheless,
he still defeated Willkie handily by margins of 27,243,466 to 22,334,413
in the popular vote and 449 to 82 in the electoral vote.
Safely reelected, Roosevelt called for "lend-lease
aid to the anti-German allies. This aid, approved by Congress, greatly
increased the flow of supplies to Britain. After Germany attacked the
Soviet Union in June 1941, lend-lease went to the Russians as well.
To protect the supplies against German submarines, U.S.
destroyers began escorting convoys of Allied ships part way across the
Atlantic. In the process the destroyers helped pinpoint the location of
submarines, which Allied warships duly attacked. Roosevelt did not tell
the people about America's unneutral actions on the high seas. When a
German submarine fired a torpedo at the American destroyer Greer
in September 1941, he feigned surprise and outrage and ordered U. S. warships
to shoot on sight at hostile German ships. By December the United States
and Germany were engaged in an undeclared war on the Atlantic.
Most historians agree that Hitler was a menace to Western
civilization, that American intervention was necessary to stop him, and
that domestic isolationism hampered the president's freedom of response.
But they regret that Roosevelt, in seeking his ends, chose to deceive
the people and to abuse his powers.
Historians also debate Roosevelt's policies toward Japan,
whose leaders were bent on expansion in the 1930's. Hoping to contain
this expansion, the president gradually tightened an embargo of vital
goods to Japan. He also demanded that Japan halt its aggressive activities
in China and Indochina. Instead of backing down, the militarists who controlled
Japan decided to fight, by attacking Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7,
1941, and by assaulting the East Indies. These moves left no doubt about
Japan's aggressive intentions. In asking for a declaration of war, the
president called December 7 "a date which will live in infamy. He
brought a united America into World War II. By December 11, the United
States was at war with Germany and Italy.
Some historians argue, however, that Roosevelt should not
have been so unbudging regarding the integrity of China and Indochina,
which lay outside America's national interest--or power to protect. If
Roosevelt had adopted a more flexible policy toward Japan, he might have
postponed a conflict in Asia at a time when war with Hitler was about
World War II at Home
In running the war effort Roosevelt encountered almost endless
difficulties on the domestic front. Congress dismantled New Deal agencies
such as the WPA and blocked such liberal proposals as aid to education
and health insurance. Blacks, angry at continuing racial injustice, threatened
to march on Washington in 1941. Fearful of racial disorder, Roosevelt
responded by signing an executive order setting up a Fair Employment Practices
Committee (FEPC) to prevent discrimination in defense-related employment.
Though the order was his most important action on behalf of civil rights,
the FEPC did not have much power, and racial tension mounted throughout
Industrial controversies proved equally troublesome for
the president. In order to encourage cooperation from corporate interests,
Roosevelt brought business leaders into policy-making positions, offered
corporations generous contracts and tax breaks, and downgraded progressive
domestic reforms. Furious liberals protested against this growing power
of big business. Other critics complained that Roosevelt refused to delegate
authority over mobilization to a "czar who would have power to establish
priorities for production. The lack of centralized authority caused confusion,
bureaucratic conflict, and delays in output.
Frustrated, some of Roosevelt's own appointees concluded
that he was a sloppy administrator. In one sense their complaint was just,
for Roosevelt welcomed rivalries among his subordinates. One bitter public
quarrel pitted Vice President Henry Wallace, who had replaced Garner on
the Democratic ticket in 1940, against Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones.
FDR had assigned both Wallace, a liberal, and Jones, a conservative Texas
banker, important responsibilities in procuring urgently needed war supplies.
Wallace was eager to spend money aggressively in underdeveloped countries
and to introduce social reforms in the process. As other members of the
administration chose sides, Roosevelt had to relieve both officials of
their special assignments.
Despite such incidents, the president thought that competition
bred new ideas. And, in fact, Roosevelt's untidy administrative methods
did no serious harm. By 1943 he had created a number of boards and agencies
to control prices, develop manpower policy, and supervise the allocation
of scarce materials. Fired by zeal to win the war, workers and employers
ordinarily cooperated with the government to create production miracles.
Roosevelt's military policies also provoked controversy.
In 1941 critics blamed him for leaving Pearl Harbor unprepared. Extremists
even claimed that he invited the Japanese attack in order to have a pretext
for war. In 1942 liberals complained when he cooperated with Jean Darlan,
the Vichy French admiral who until then had been collaborating with the
Axis, in planning the Allied invasion of North Africa. In 1943, FDR's
opponents grumbled that his policy of unconditional surrender for the
enemy discouraged the anti-Hitler resistance within Germany. Other critics
complained that he relied too heavily on strategic bombing. His own generals
were angry because he postponed the "second front against Hitler
until June 1944. Such delay, critics added later, infuriated the Soviet
Union, which had to carry the brunt of the fighting against Hitler between
1941 and 1944, and sowed the seeds of the Cold War.
Some of these criticisms were partly justified. Poor communications
between Washington and Hawaii helped the Japanese achieve surprise at
Pearl Harbor. Dealing with Darlan was probably not necessary to ensure
success in North Africa. Strategic bombing killed millions of civilians
and was not nearly so effective as its advocates claimed. The delay in
the second front greatly intensified Soviet suspicions of the West.
But it is easy to second-guess and to exaggerate Roosevelt's
failings as a military leader. The president neither invited nor welcomed
the Pearl Harbor attack, which was a brilliantly planned maneuver by Japan.
He worked with Darlan in the hope of preventing unnecessary loss of Allied
lives. Unconditional surrender, given American anger at the enemy, was
a politically logical policy. It also proved reassuring to the Soviet
Union, which had feared a separate German-American peace. Establishing
the second front required control of the air and large supplies of landing
craft, and these were not assured until 1944. In many of these decisions
Roosevelt acted in characteristically pragmatic fashion--to win the war
as effectively as possible and to keep the wartime alliance together.
In these aims he was successful.
Similar practical considerations dictated some of Roosevelt's
diplomatic policies during the war. Cautious of provoking the British,
he refrained from acting effectively against colonialism. Embarrassed
by the delay in the second front--and anxious to secure Russian assistance
against Japan--he acquiesced at the Teheran (1943) and Yalta (1945) summit
conferences in some of Russia's aims in Asia and eastern Europe. In his
dealings with Prime Minister Winston CHURCHILLof Britain and Joseph STALIN
of the Soviet Union, Roosevelt also showed an exaggerated faith in the
power of his personal charm. The joviality and exuberance that had soothed
ruffled congressmen and bureaucrats during the early New Deal days were
not so well suited for international politics.
In the larger sense Roosevelt's diplomacy, like his military
policies, was statesmanlike. Despite occasional strains, the awkward wartime
coalition among Russia, Britain, and the United States held together.
Roosevelt was also wise in recognizing the futility of trying to stop
Russian penetration of eastern Europe, which Soviet armies had overrun
by early 1944. Accordingly, he sought to avoid unnecessary bickering with
Stalin. Had FDR lived into the postwar era, he could not have prevented
divisions from developing between Russia and the United States. But he
might have worked harder than did his successors in compromising them.
Reelection in 1944
In 1944, with the war still in progress, the tired but willing
commander in chief stood for reelection for a fourth term. His doctors
knew that he was suffering from hypertension, hypertensive heart disease,
and cardiac failure. Some of the president's advisers suspected as much,
and they feared that he might not live through another term. So they persuaded
him to drop Vice President Wallace, whom they regarded as too liberal
and as emotionally unsuited to be president, and to accept Sen. Harry
TRUMAN (Mo.) for the vice presidency. In the 1944 general election, Roosevelt
defeated his fourth Republican opponent, Gov. Thomas Dewey (N. Y.), by
25,612,474 popular votes to 22,017,570, and by 432-99 in electoral votes.
By 1945, Roosevelt was 63 years old. The events early in
that year added to the strains on his heart, and on April 12, 1945, he
died suddenly at Warm Springs, Ga. Three days later he was buried at Hyde
Park. Despite his limitations, he had been a strong, decent, and highly
popular president for more than 12 years.
James T. Patterson
Author of Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal