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Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933- April 1945)

When Franklin Roosevelt entered office, the Great Depression had brought America to its knees, and forces were at work that were to generate the cataclysm of World War II. Roosevelt shattered the two-term tradition. During his unprecedented 12 years in office, FDR greatly expanded Presidential authority, widened governmental functions, strove to restore economic vigor, launched an unparalleled program of social welfare, and helped lead the country and its allies toward victory over the Axis powers. Shortly before the war ended in 1945, he died not long after he had begun a record fourth term.

He directed and inspired the March of Dimes that eventually developed a vaccine that almost eradicated this once dreaded disease. At his insistence, few people in the United States knew of his paralysis. The press conspired to ensure that no pictures of the president in his wheel chair showed up in the newspapers, and no one ever mentioned his painful struggles to walk, weighed down with heavy leg braces and leaning heavily on aides.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in 1882 on a Hudson River estate at Hyde Park, N.Y., that was to be his lifelong permanent home. The second son of James Roosevelt, a lawyer, financier and railroad executive, Franklin was the only child from his father's second marriage, to Sara Delano. The parents and private tutors provided the youth with almost all his formative education, which was enhanced by frequent travel and some study in Europe, where he learned to speak French and German. He also attended Groton (1896-1900), a prestigious preparatory school in Massachusetts. He was an excellent student and enjoyed many sports.

Roosevelt won a B.A. degree in history at Harvard in only 3 years (1900-03), even though his extracurricular activities tended to overshadow his classroom accomplishments. An admirer of his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, he temporarily abandoned his family's Democratic loyalties and became active in the school's Republican Club. He also participated in football, crew, and glee club; served as managing editor-president of the student newspaper, The Crimson; and was elected as class chairman. After graduation, he stayed on for a year of postgraduate study.

Roosevelt next pursued law at New York City's Columbia University. When he passed his bar examination after 3 years of study, in 1907, he left school without taking a degree. Two years earlier, he had wed (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin. Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, gave her away. She was to give birth to one daughter and five sons.

From 1907 until 1910, Franklin practiced with a prominent New York City legal firm. The latter year, he was a delegate to the State Democratic convention and won election to the State senate from his traditionally Republican home district. In 1912 he was reelected, and fought for Woodrow Wilson's Presidential candidacy at the national convention.

In 1913 Wilson appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The following year, the latter lost a bid for nomination to the U.S. Senate. Continuing at his naval post throughout World War I, he proved to be a tireless and efficient administrator. At the national convention in 1920, Roosevelt was picked as the running mate of Presidential candidate James M. Cox. During the campaign, in which the duo strongly advocated the League of Nations, Roosevelt gained national stature, but Republican Warren G. Harding achieved a landslide victory. The next year, Roosevelt entered into a New York City law partnership, and became vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland (1921-28).

While at the family's vacation home off the Maine coast on Campobello Island, N.B., Canada, in 1921, Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). In August 1921, he arrived in Campobello for his first extended visit in more than a decade. After an ocean swim one day, he developed a high fever and his legs grew weak. “My left leg lagged. . . Presently it refused to work, and then the other.” At the age of 39, he had come down with polio, then usually called infantile paralysis. The disease left him permanently disabled, and he never walked again without assistance.

This set off a courageous, lifetime fight to overcome the ravages of the disease. While building up his chest, neck, and arm muscles, he regained partial use of his legs, particularly by swimming periodically in the healing waters at Warm Springs, Ga., beginning in 1924. In time, he established a foundation there to help other polio victims, and inspired as well as directed the March of Dimes program that eventually funded an effective vaccine.

Encouraged by his wife and associates, Roosevelt had reentered public life. In 1924, he resumed his legal career, and at the Democratic national convention made a dramatic appearance on crutches to place Alfred ("Al") Smith in nomination for the Presidency—though John W. Davis became the candidate. Although never again able to use his legs fully, by 1928, Roosevelt regained enough physical and emotional strength to return to his great passion, politics.

In 1928 Roosevelt again nominated Smith, who was successful this time and subsequently arranged for his protégé to replace him on the New York gubernatorial ticket. Despite a vigorous campaign, Roosevelt narrowly won, but Smith lost the State and the national election to Republican Herbert Hoover. In 1930 Roosevelt was overwhelmingly reelected and served for 3 more years. Although the Republicans controlled the legislature, he gained nationwide recognition for the bold program he pushed through to allay the effects of the depression and to promote social welfare.

After a determined preconvention effort, in 1932 Roosevelt won the Democratic Presidential nomination on the fourth ballot. Breaking precedent by delivering an acceptance speech at the convention, he pledged a "New Deal," devoted to relief, recovery, and reform. While later touring the Nation, he attacked irresponsible business interests, and advocated a loosely defined and sometimes contradictory program of unemployment compensation, the end of prohibition, Government spending cuts, tariff reductions, and protection of U.S. industry. President Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate, argued that Roosevelt's proposals endangered individualism, the basis of American political and economic strength. Nevertheless, the electorate swept Roosevelt into office.

During the 4-month period preceding Roosevelt's inauguration, the depression worsened. Industrial production plummeted; the pace of factory closings accelerated; unemployment soared; breadlines lengthened; and, as depositors panicked, bank failures increased. To reaffirm public confidence, Roosevelt made huge strides as soon as he assumed office. He immediately summoned Congress into special session. Working together, during the first "100 Days" they passed a mass of legislation, the extent and implications of which have probably never been matched in any other similar brief span of U.S. history. Roosevelt formed a "brain trust" of advisers, who included many ex-professors; and appointed a distinguished Cabinet, including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman member of that body.

Seeking to buttress the financial and business structure, Roosevelt at once ordered a 4-day closing of banks to halt depositor panic, cut governmental expenditures, and abandoned the gold standard as an inflationary means to provide economic impetus. To calm the public, he began a series of radio "fireside chats" that he was to continue as a means of explaining his programs and gaining public support.

Legislation passed during the "100 Days" was far reaching in scope and significance. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) safeguarded bank deposits. The Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) provided direct Government loans for mortgages to home owners and farmers. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put thousands of young men to work on conservation projects. The Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) granted funds to States and municipalities for aid to the unemployed.

Hoping to boost prices for agricultural products, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) paid subsidies to farmers for curtailing production of certain livestock and crops and guaranteed parity prices for them. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) put the Government into the power business in a major way and marked the beginning of intensified regional planning.

The omnibus National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA). Respectively, these agencies promulgated voluntary business and industrial codes geared toward increasing wages and maintaining prices and reducing unemployment; and employed laborers on newly created construction projects. The NIRA also guaranteed labor's right to organize and bargain collectively.

Once the "100 Days" had passed, during the rest of 1933 and in 1934 legislation slackened, but Congress and the administration devoted considerable effort to amending and refining earlier bills.

With the exception of the Tennessee Valley Authority, he showed no interest whatsoever in the kind of state-run enterprises that in Europe led to government ownership of core industries like energy, automobile manufacturing, telecommunications, and railroads. He insisted that the New Deal's centerpiece reform, Social Security, be financed not out of general Treasury revenues, but by a contributory tax.

The New Deal did not win the favor of all the populace, particularly businessmen and bankers. Especially concerned with what they considered to be excessive governmental expenditures and the effects of inflation, they and other critics charged that Roosevelt's programs were "socialistic" and would endanger capitalism and democracy. The salutary effects of the New Deal were also questioned. Yet in 1934, indicative of the support of much of the electorate and contrary to tradition, the Democrats, the party in power, gained rather than lost seats in the midterm elections.

During 1935, in the "Second New Deal," another flurry of legislation was enacted. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) (after 1939 the Works Projects Administration), a program similar to the Public Works Administration (PWA), provided Federal jobs mainly for laborers, but also for artists, writers, musicians, and actors. The allied National Youth Administration (NYA) provided students and other youths with employment.

The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) furnished electricity to rural areas not adequately served by private utilities. And the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which created a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), assured the protection of labor's rights. The Social Security Act primarily set up a system of cooperative Federal-State unemployment compensation and a Federal program of old-age and survivors' benefits. In 1935 Roosevelt also obtained legislation increasing taxes on corporate and personal incomes, especially those in the higher brackets.

In November 1937, FDR faced an economy in apparent free fall, Japanese aggression, and congressional resistance. An abscessed tooth raised FDR's temperature to 103 degrees. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes observed that the President "looked badly and seemed listless. He appeared like a man who had more or less given up." FDR medicated himself with a 10-day fishing and poker cruise.

In 1936 Roosevelt handily defeated Republican Alfred M. Landon, and by lesser margins beat Republican candidates Wendell L. Willkie in 1940 and Thomas E. Dewey in 1944. The only President known to a generation of young Americans, being elected to four terms and serving an unprecedented tenure of more than 12 years.

Meantime, in 1935 and 1936, the Supreme Court had declared some key New Deal legislation unconstitutional by narrow margins. Early in 1937 Roosevelt proposed to add new justices, but many people contended this was an attempt to "pack" the Court and undermine the separation of powers. Roosevelt met his first major legislative defeat on this proposal, but before long the Supreme Court began to render decisions more favorable to his legislation.

In 1938 Roosevelt won additional measures, like higher farm price subsidies, and the Fair Labor Standards Act to set minimum wages, limit hours, and ban child labor in production of interstate goods. But by 1939, after Republicans and conservative Democrats made gains in the 1938 elections, the burst of legislation had subsided. The ills of the depression did not fully abate until the Nation mobilized for World War II.

In foreign policy, Roosevelt made one major shift, in 1933, by granting diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. He also amplified the "Good Neighbor" policy Hoover had initiated to restore solidarity in the Western Hemisphere. Under this new approach, the concept expressed in the Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt (Theodore) Corollary was modified to one of American cooperation with Latin American nations instead of intervention in their affairs. Accordingly, Roosevelt completed the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Haiti. He also applied a new spirit of amity in diplomatic negotiations, which included numerous reciprocal trade agreements. By treaty, he renounced the right of intervention in Cuba and Panama.

Elsewhere on the globe, menacing forces were on the rise. During the late 1930's, the accelerating expansionism of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and Africa, continuation of Japanese warfare against China, and the Axis alliance formed by Germany, Italy, and Japan, presaged the outbreak of World War II, which began in 1939.

As the conflict loomed on the horizon and then one country after another fell under Axis control, Roosevelt pursued defensive rearmament, despite a considerable body of isolationist sentiment in the Nation. He followed a course of official neutrality, though he obtained legislation and negotiated treaties as well as other agreements that strengthened America's defensive posture and aided the anti-Fascist countries, with whose cause he and most Americans sympathized. After the collapse of France in 1940 and the onset of the Nazi onslaught against Great Britain, in early 1941 Roosevelt launched an extensive lend-lease program on behalf of the Allies, which included Britain, Free France, China, and the Soviet Union.

Within days of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on the Axis powers and began an all-out global effort to defeat them. Roosevelt mobilized the Nation, defined war aims conferred with other Allied heads of state, stressed the need for unconditional surrender, and from the wartime alliance strove to forge a lasting peace through creation of a United Nations organization. At home, in 1941 he created a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to prevent racial discrimination in defense projects.

Roosevelt was cheered as the tide of war shifted decisively in favor of the Allies. But he did not witness the final victory. Only weeks before the war ended in Europe, he died in April 1945 at his Warm Springs retreat. Given recent revelations about FDR's personal life and failing health, one could conclude that a dying, lonely, and distracted President was trying to "juggle balls of dynamite" whose nature he scarcely understood (as Anthony Eden once put it).

One of the first historians to chronicle the Roosevelt years, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., put it this way at the in a 1998 essay for Time magazine: "Take a look at our present world. . . . It is manifestly not Joseph Stalin's world. That ghastly world self-destructed before our eyes. Nor is it Winston Churchill's world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into history. The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt's world."

Fed by a lively scholarship that some would call "revisionist," segments of the public now ask new questions of the Roosevelt presidency — questions seldom raised by those who lived through the Roosevelt years, including the first generation of Roosevelt scholars. Did FDR mislead the American public about his disability throughout the presidency? Did he "sell out" to the Russians at Yalta because of incapacity due to illness? Could he have acted earlier and more decisively to admit more Jewish refugees? Was he indifferent to the plight of those trapped in the Nazi death camps? Could he have done more to advance civil rights for African Americans? Did he and Churchill conspire to make possible the attack on Pearl Harbor in order to engage an isolationist America in the war? Did he make the wrong decision to intern Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor?

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration abandoned the policy of forced assimilation of Native Americans in favor of cultural pluralism; however, as Alison R. Bernstein demonstrates in American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991),World War II was a profoundly integrating force for many Indians. After the war, the government once again decided to forcibly assimilate native peoples into mainstream society by terminating the special legal status of tribes and the federal government’s accompanying obligations to them, and also by relocating native people from rural reservation communities to urban areas. The standard work on the subject is Donald Lee Fixico’s Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986).

Critiques of Roosevelt have also altered. Whereas he was once condemned by the New Left for not revolutionizing America, he is still criticized from the right for excessive intervention in the economy. Whereas he was once denounced for manipulating America into war against the Axis, he is now castigated for not standing up to Hitler soon enough or stoutly enough. And old and baseless charges — that he knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, was naïve about the Soviets or a captive of the British — have been trotted out as if brand-new.

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Page last modified: 11-08-2020 20:18:33 ZULU