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Franklin Delano Roosevelt
1882 - 1945


He lifted the U.S. out of economic despair and revolutionized the American way of life. Then he helped make the world safe for democracy


"Perhaps no form of government," said Lord Bryce, "needs great leaders as much as democracy." For democracy is not self-executing. It takes leadership to bring democracy to life. Great democratic leaders are visionaries. They have an instinct for their nation's future, a course to steer, a port to seek. Through their capacity for persuasion, they win the consent of their people and call forth democracy's inner resources.

Democracy has been around for a bit, but the 20th century has been the crucial century of its trial, testing and triumph. At the century's start, democracy was thought to be spreading irresistibly across the world. Then the Great War, the war of 1914-18, showed that democracy could not assure peace. Postwar disillusion activated democracy's two deadly foes: fascism and communism. Soon the Great Depression in the 1930s showed that democracy could not assure prosperity either, and the totalitarian creeds gathered momentum.

The Second World War found democracy fighting for its life. By 1941 there were only a dozen or so democratic states left on earth. But great leadership emerged in time to rally the democratic cause. Future historians, looking back at this most bloody of centuries, will very likely regard the 32nd President of the U.S., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the leader most responsible for mobilizing democratic energies and faith first against economic collapse and then against military terror.

F.D.R. was the best loved and most hated American President of the 20th century. He was loved because, though patrician by birth, upbringing and style, he believed in and fought for plain people — for the "forgotten man" (and woman), for the "third of the nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." He was loved because he radiated personal charm, joy in his work, optimism for the future. Even Charles de Gaulle, who well knew Roosevelt's disdain for him, succumbed to the "glittering personality," as he put it, of "that artist, that seducer." "Meeting him," said Winston Churchill, "was like uncorking a bottle of champagne."

But he was hated too — hated because he called for change, and the changes he proposed reduced the power, status, income and self-esteem of those who profited most from the old order. Hatred is happily more fleeting than love. The men who sat in their clubs denouncing "that man in the White House," that "traitor to his class," have died off. Their children and grandchildren mostly find the New Deal reforms familiar, benign and beneficial.

When pollster John Zogby recently asked people to rate the century's Presidents, F.D.R. led the pack, even though only septuagenarians and their elders can remember him in the White House. Historians and political scientists are unanimous in placing F.D.R. with Washington and Lincoln as our three greatest Presidents.

Even Republicans have come to applaud this most successful of Democrats. Ronald Reagan voted four times for F.D.R. Newt Gingrich calls F.D.R. the greatest President of the century. Bob Dole praises F.D.R. as an "energetic and inspiring leader during the dark days of the Depression; a tough, single-minded Commander in Chief during World War II; and a statesman."

F.D.R. was not a perfect man. In the service of his objectives, he could be, and often was, devious, guileful, manipulative, evasive, dissembling, underhanded, even ruthless. But he had great strengths. He relished power and organized, or disorganized, his Administration so that conflict among his subordinates would ensure that the big decisions would come to him. A politician to his fingertips, he rejoiced in party combat. "I'm an old campaigner, and I love a good fight," he would say, and "Judge me by the enemies I have made." An optimist who fought his own brave way back from polio, he brought confidence and hope to a scared and stricken nation.

He was a realist in means but an idealist in ends. Above all, F.D.R. stood for humanity against ideology. The 20th was the most ideological of centuries. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin systematically sacrificed millions to false and terrible dogmas. Even within the democracies, ideologues believed that the Great Depression imposed an either/or choice: if you abandon laissez-faire, you are condemned to total statism. "Partial regimentation cannot be made to work," said Herbert Hoover, "and still maintain live democratic institutions."

Against the worship of abstractions, F.D.R. wanted to find practical ways to help decent men and women struggling day by day to make a happier world for themselves and their children. His technique was, as he said, "bold, persistent experimentation ... Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Except for the part about admitting failure frankly, that was the practice of his Administration.

When he came to office in 1933, laissez-faire had undermined the temples of capitalism, thrown a quarter of the labor force out of work, cut the gross national product almost in half and provoked mutterings of revolution. No one knew why things had gone wrong or how to set them right. Only communists were happy, seeing in the Great Depression decisive proof of Karl Marx's prophecy that capitalism would be destroyed by its own contradictions.

Then F.D.R. appeared, a magnificent, serene, exhilarating personality, buoyantly embodying new ideas, new courage, new confidence in America's ability to regain control over its future. His New Deal swiftly introduced measures for social protection, regulation and control. Laissez-faire ideologues and Roosevelt haters cried that he was putting the country on the road to communism, the only alternative permitted by the either/or creed. But Roosevelt understood that Social Security, unemployment compensation, public works, securities regulation, rural electrification, farm price supports, reciprocal-trade agreements, minimum wages and maximum hours, guarantees of collective bargaining and all the rest were saving capitalism from itself.

"The test of our progress," he said in his second Inaugural, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." The job situation improved in the 1930s, aided by the Works Progress Administration, the famous WPA, with which government as employer of last resort built schools, post offices, airfields, parks, bridges, tunnels and sewage systems; protected the environment; and fostered the arts. By the 1940 election, the anti-capitalist vote, almost a million in 1932, had dwindled to 150,000.

The New Deal never quite solved the problem of unemployment. Though F.D.R. was portrayed as a profligate spender, his largest peacetime deficit was a feeble $3.6 billion in 1936 — far less, even when corrected for inflation, than deficits routinely produced 50 years later by Reagan. It took World War II and the Defense Department to create deficits large enough to wipe out unemployment, proving the case for a compensatory fiscal policy.

Before F.D.R., the U.S. had had a depression every 20 years or so. The built-in economic stabilizers of the New Deal, vociferously denounced by business leaders at the time, have preserved the country against major depressions for more than a half-century. F.D.R.'s signal domestic achievement was to rescue capitalism from the capitalists.

"We are fighting," he said in 1936, "to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world." F.D.R.'s brilliant (and sometimes not so brilliant) improvisations restored America's faith in democratic institutions. Elsewhere on the planet, democracy was under assault. Hitler was on the march in Europe. Japan had invaded China and dreamed of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese domination.

F.D.R.'s education in foreign affairs had been at the hands of two Presidents he greatly admired. Theodore Roosevelt, his kinsman (a fifth cousin), taught him national-interest, balance-of-power geopolitics. Woodrow Wilson, whom he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, gave him the vision of a world beyond balances of power, an international order founded on the collective maintenance of the peace. F.D.R.'s internationalism used T.R.'s realism as the heart of Wilson's idealism.

But Americans, disenchanted with their participation in the Great War, had turned their backs on the world and reverted to isolationism. Rigid neutrality acts denied the President authority to discriminate between aggressor states and their victims and thereby prevented the U.S. from throwing its weight against aggression.

To awaken his country from its isolationist slumber, Roosevelt began a long, urgent, eloquent campaign of popular education, warning that unchecked aggression abroad would ultimately endanger the U.S. itself. "Let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy," he said. The debate in 1940-41 between isolationists and interventionists was the most passionate political argument of my lifetime. It came to an abrupt end when Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbour.

As war leader, F.D.R. picked an extraordinary team of generals and admirals. In partnership with Churchill, he presided over the vital strategic decisions. And also, in the footsteps of Wilson, he was determined that victory should produce a framework for lasting world peace.

He saw the war as bringing about historic changes — the rise of Russia and China, for example, and the end of Western colonialism. He tried to persuade the British to give India its independence and tried to stop the French from repossessing Indochina. In the Four Freedoms and, with Churchill, in the Atlantic Charter, he proclaimed war aims in words that continue to express the world's aspirations today.

Remembering America's reversion to isolationism after World War I, he set out to involve the U.S. in postwar structures while the war was still on and the country still in an internationalist frame of mind. "Anybody who thinks that isolationism is dead in this country is crazy," he said privately. "As soon as this war is over, it may well be stronger than ever."

In a series of conferences in 1944, he committed the country to international mechanisms in a variety of fields — finance and trade, relief and reconstruction, food and agriculture, civil aviation. Most of all, he saw the United Nations, in the words of the diplomat Charles E. Bohlen, as "the only device that could keep the U.S. from slipping back into isolationism." He arranged for the U.N.'s founding conference to take place in San Francisco before the war was over (though it turned out to be after his own death in April 1945 at the age of 63).

The great riddle for the peace was the Soviet Union. Perhaps Roosevelt, as some argue, should have conditioned aid to Russia during the war on pledges of post-war good behaviour. But the fate of the second front in the west depended on the Red Army's holding down Nazi divisions in the east, and neither Roosevelt nor Churchill wanted to delay Stalin's military offensives — or to drive him to make a separate peace with Hitler.

With the war approaching its end, the two democratic leaders met Stalin at Yalta. Some say that this meeting brought about the division of Europe. In fact, far from endorsing Soviet control of Eastern Europe, Roosevelt and Churchill secured from Stalin pledges of "the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people." Stalin had to break the Yalta agreements to achieve his ends — which would seem to prove the agreements were more in the Western than the Soviet interest. In fact, Eastern Europe today is what the Yalta Declarations mandated in 1945.

Take a look at our present world. It is manifestly not Adolf Hitler's world. His Thousand-Year Reich turned out to have a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. 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. Of the figures who for good or evil dominated the planet 60 years ago, he would be least surprised by the shape of things at the millennium. And confident as he was of the power and vitality of democracy, he would welcome the challenges posed by the century to come.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said Isaiah Berlin, was one of the few statesmen in any century "who seemed to have no fear at all of the future."


Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), thirty-second president of the United States, led the nation out of the Great Depression and later into World War II. Before he died, he cleared the way for peace, including establishment of the United Nations.

Franklin Roosevelt was born on Jan. 30, 1882, of his father's second marriage, to Sara Delano, the daughter of a prominent family. The Roosevelts had been moderately wealthy for many generations. Merchants and financiers, they had often been prominent in the civic affairs of New York. When Franklin was born, his father was 51 years old and semi-retired from a railroad presidency, and his mother was 28. Franklin was often in the care of governesses and tutors, until at the age of 14 he went to Groton School. Here he received a solid classical, historical, and mathematical training and was moderately good at his studies. His earnest attempts at athletics were mostly defeated because of his tall, ungainly frame.

Roosevelt wanted to go to Annapolis, but his parents insisted on preparation for the position natural for the scion of the Delano and Roosevelt families, so he entered Harvard University. He was a reasonably good student and found a substitute for athletics in reporting for the Harvard newspaper, of which he finally became editor. While seeming to be a Cambridge socialite, he spent an extra year studying public affairs. He also met and determined to marry his cousin, Eleanor, to his mother's annoyance. Eleanor was the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt, a weak member of the family who had died early. Raised by relatives, she received a lady's education but little affection. She was shy and retiring, but Franklin found her warm, vibrant, and responsive.

Despite his mother's opposition, they were married in 1905, and Franklin entered Columbia University Law School. He prepared for the bar examinations and without taking a degree became a lawyer and entered a clerkship in the Wall Street firm of Carter, Ledyard and Milburn. He took his duties lightly, however, and it was later recalled that he had remarked to fellow clerks that he meant somehow to enter politics and finally to become president. There was never any doubt of his ambition.

Roosevelt's chance came in 1910. He accepted the Democratic nomination for the New York Senate and was elected. Opportunity for further notice came quickly. Although his backing had come from Democrats affiliated with New York City's notorious Tammany Hall, he joined a group of upstate legislators who were setting out to oppose the election of Tammany's choice for U.S. senator. The rebels were successful in forcing acceptance of another candidate.

Much of Roosevelt's wide publicity from this struggle was managed by Albany reporter Louis McHenry Howe, who had taken to the young politician and set out to further his career. (This dedication lasted until Roosevelt was safely in the White House.) The Tammany fight made Roosevelt famous in New York, but it also won him the enmity of Tammany. Still, he was re-elected in 1912. That year Woodrow Wilson was elected president; Roosevelt had been a campaign worker, and his efforts had been noticed by prominent party elder Josephus Daniels. When Daniels became secretary of the Navy in Wilson's Cabinet, he persuaded Wilson to offer Roosevelt the assistant secretaryship.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy

As assistant secretary, Roosevelt began an experience that substituted for the naval career he had hoped for as a boy. Before long he became restless, however, and tried to capture the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from New York. Wilson and Daniels were displeased. Daniels forgave him, but Wilson never afterward really trusted the brash young man. This distrust was heightened later by Roosevelt's departure from the administration's policy of neutrality in the years preceding World War I. Roosevelt openly favoured intervention, agitated for naval expansion, and was known to be rather scornful of Daniels, who kept the Navy under close political discipline.

America soon entered the war, however, and Roosevelt could work for a cause he believed in. At that time there was only one assistant secretary, and he had extensive responsibilities. Howe had come to Washington with him and had become his indispensable guardian and helper. Together their management of the department was creditable.

Though Roosevelt tried several times to leave his civilian post to join the fighting forces, he was persuaded to remain. When the war came to an end and Wilson was stricken during his fight for ratification of the Versailles Treaty, there was an obvious revulsion throughout the United States from the disappointing settlements of the war. It seemed to many that the effort to make the world safe for democracy had resulted in making the world safe for the old empires.

The Allied leaders had given in to Wilson's insistence on the creation of the League of Nations only to serve their real interest in extending their territories and in imposing reparations on Germany. These reparations were so large that they could never be paid; consequently the enormous debts the Allies owed to the United States would never be paid either. The American armies had saved Europe and the Europeans were ungrateful. Resentment and disillusion were widespread.

The Republican party had the advantage of not having been responsible for these foreign entanglements. In 1920 they nominated Warren G. Harding, a conservative senator, as their presidential candidate. The Democrats nominated Governor James Cox of Ohio, who had had no visible part in the Wilson administration; the vice-presidential candidate was Roosevelt.

It was a despairing campaign; but in one respect it was a beginning rather than an ending for Roosevelt. He made a much more noticeable campaign effort than the presidential candidate. He covered the nation by special trains, speaking many times a day, often from back platforms, and getting acquainted with local leaders everywhere. He had learned the professional politician's breeziness, was able to absorb useful information, and had an infallible memory for names and faces. The defeat was decisive; but Roosevelt emerged as the most representative Democrat.

Victim of Poliomyelitis

Roosevelt retreated to a law connection in New York's financial district again and a position with a fidelity and deposit company. But in the summer of 1921, vacationing in Canada, he became mysteriously ill. His disease, polio-myelitis, was not immediately diagnosed. He was almost totally paralyzed, however, and had to be moved to New York for treatment. This was managed with such secrecy that for a long time the seriousness of his condition was not publicized. In fact, he would never recover the use of his legs, a disability that seemed to end his political career. His mother, typically, demanded that he return to Hyde Park and give up the political activities she had always deplored. He could now become a country gentleman. But Eleanor, joined by Howe, set out to renew his ambition.

Roosevelt's struggle during the convalescence of the next few years was agonizing and continually disappointing. Not much was known then about rehabilitation, and he resorted to exhausting courses of calisthenics to reactivate his atrophied muscles. In 1923 he tried the warm mineral waters of Warm Springs, Ga., where exercise was easier. He was so optimistic that he wrote friends that he had begun to feel movement in his toes. It was, of course, an illusion.

Roosevelt invested a good part of his remaining fortune in the place. It soon became a resort for those with similar ailments. The facilities were overwhelmed, but gradually an institution was built up, and the medical staff began to have more realistic knowledge of aftereffects. There were no cures; but lives could be made much more tolerable. Meanwhile Roosevelt, realizing that cures were impossible, turned to the encouragement of prevention. (Ultimately, an effective vaccine was found.)

New York Governor

While at Warm Springs in 1928, Roosevelt was called to political duty again, this time by Al Smith, whom he had put in nomination at the Democratic conventions of 1924 and 1928. Almost at once, however, it became clear that Smith could not win the election. He felt, however, that Roosevelt, as candidate for governor, would help to win New York. Roosevelt resisted. He was now a likely presidential candidate in a later, more favourable year for the Democrats; and if he lost the race for the governorship, he would be finished. But the New Yorkers insisted, and he ran and was narrowly elected.

Roosevelt began the 4 years of his New York governorship that were preliminary to his presidency, and since he was re-elected 2 years later, it was inevitable that he should be the candidate in 1932. Since 1929 the nation had been sunk in the worst depression of its history, and Herbert Hoover's Republican administration had failed to find a way to recovery. This made it a favourable year for the Democrats.

First Term as President

It would be more true to say that Hoover in 1932 lost than that Roosevelt won. At any rate, Roosevelt came to the presidency with a dangerous economic crisis at its height. Industry was paralyzed, and unemployment afflicted some 30 percent of the work force. Roosevelt had promised that something would be done, but what that would be he had not specified.

Roosevelt began providing relief on a large scale by giving work to the unemployed and by approving a device for bringing increased income to farmers, who were in even worse straits than city workers. Also, he devalued the currency and enabled debtors to discharge debts that had long been frozen. Closed banks all over the country were assisted to reopen, and gradually the crisis was overcome.

In 1934 Roosevelt proposed a comprehensive social security system that, he hoped, would make another such depression impossible. Citizens would never be without at least minimum incomes again. Incidentally, these citizens became devoted supporters of the President who had given them this hope. So in spite of the conservatives who opposed the measures he collectively called the New Deal, he became so popular that he won re-election in 1936 by an unprecedented majority.

Second and Third Terms

Roosevelt's second term began with a struggle between himself and the Supreme Court. The justices had held certain of his New Deal devices to be unconstitutional. In retaliation he proposed to add new justices who would be more amenable. Many even in his own party opposed him in this attempt to pack the Court, and Congress defeated it. After this there ensued the familiar stalemate between an innovative president and a reluctant Congress.

Nevertheless in 1940 Roosevelt determined to break with tradition and run for a third term. His reasons were partly that his reforms were far from finished, but more importantly that he was now certain of Adolf Hitler's intention to subdue Europe and go on to further conquests. The immense productivity and organizational ability of the Germans would be at his disposal. Europe would be defeated unless the United States came to its support.

The presidential campaign of 1940 was the climax of Roosevelt's plea that Americans set themselves against the Nazi threat. He had sought to prepare the way in numerous speeches but had had a most disappointing response. There was a vivid recollection of the disillusion after World War I, and a good many Americans were inclined to support the Germans rather than the Allied Powers. So strong was American reluctance to be involved in another world war that in the last speeches of this campaign Roosevelt practically promised that young Americans would never be sent abroad to fight. Luckily his opponent, Republican Wendell Willkie, also favoured support for the Allies. The campaign, won by a narrow majority, gave Roosevelt no mandate for intervention.

Roosevelt was not far into his third term, however, when the decision to enter the war was made for him by the Japanese, whose attack on Pearl Harbour caused serious losses to American forces there. Almost at once the White House became headquarters for those who controlled the strategy of what was now World War II. Winston Churchill came immediately and practically took up residence, bringing a British staff. Together the leaders agreed that Germany and Italy must have first attention. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander in the Pacific, was ordered to retreat from the Philippines to Australia, something he was bitterly reluctant to do. But Roosevelt firmly believed that the first problem was to help the British, and then, when Hitler turned East, to somehow get arms to the Soviets. The Japanese could be taken care of when Europe was safe.

Hitler's grand strategy was to subdue the Soviet Union, conquer North Africa, and link up with the Japanese, who were advancing rapidly across the Eastern countries. Roosevelt wanted an early crossing of the English Channel to retake France and to force Hitler to fight on two fronts. Churchill, mindful of the fearful British losses in World War I, instead wanted to attack the underbelly of Europe, cut Hitler's lines to the East, and shut him off from Africa. The invasion of Europe was postponed because it became clear that elaborate preparation was necessary. But Allied troops were sent into Africa, with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in command, to attack Field Marshal Erwin Rommel from the rear. Eventually an Allied crossing to Sicily and a slow, costly march up the Italian peninsula, correlated with the attack across the English Channel, forced the Italian collapse and the German surrender.

Meanwhile MacArthur was belatedly given the support he needed for a brilliant island-hopping campaign that drove the Japanese back, destroyed their fleet, and endangered their home island. After the German surrender, the Pacific war was brought to an end by the American atomic bomb explosion over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By this time Roosevelt was dead. He had not participated in that doubtful decision; but he had been, with Churchill, in active command during the war until then.

Roosevelt had gone to Warm Springs early in 1945, completely exhausted. He had recently returned from a conference of Allied leaders at Yalta, where he had forced acceptance of his scheme for a United Nations and made arrangements for the Soviet Union to assist in the final subjugation of Japan. The strain was visible as he made his report to the nation.

At Warm Springs he prepared the address to be used at San Francisco, where the meeting to ratify agreements concerning the United Nations was to be held; but he found himself unable to enjoy the pine woods and the gushing waters. He sat wan and frail in his small cottage, getting through only such work as had to be done. He finished signing papers on the morning of April 12, 1945. Within hours, he suffered the massive cerebral hemorrhage that killed him.

A special train carried Roosevelt's body to Washington, and there he lay in the White House until he was taken to Hyde Park and buried in the hedged garden he himself had prepared. His grave is marked by a plain marble slab, and his wife is buried beside him. He had given the estate to the nation, and it is now a shrine much visited by those who recall or have heard how great a man he was for his time.









This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008