In the 1930s the U.S.A. was in the worst economic crisis of modern times. By the 1940s the nation faced unprecedented wars on two fronts. The country was in desperate need for leadership and was willing to elect a presidential candidate and his party in Congress by large majorities to get the job done. Perhaps only when a nation is on its knees is there an opportunity for real change. Unquestionably Franklin Delano Roosevelt did more than any other modern president to shape American society. He envisaged Social Security to be a universal insurance system to provide a safety net for Americans in time of unemployment, disability, sickness, and retirement. He wanted to include health insurance as well but that did not make it into the Social Security Act of 1935. His Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) set the rules which govern employment practices to the present day. His efforts to put Americans to work through the Civil Works Administration and then the Works Progress Administration are legendary. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was one of several pieces of legislation to solve the financial crisis, and many think that the dismantling of that law during the 1990s contributed to the financial recession of 2008. The GI Bill of 1944 created an educated workforce since half the 15 million WWII veterans took advantage of it. These are just a few of his accomplishments in making government work on behalf of the American people to create a society where there was “freedom from want and freedom from fear” (9th State of the Union).
I had long wanted to read a biography of Roosevelt and chose “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith (Random House, 2007), a professor at Marshall University, West Virginia. It is a great biography of a great man, and well worth reading. Today we seemed to be fighting many of the same battles FDR won in the 1930s. It was amazing to read the same arguments used by the opposition in the 1930s, as have been used by those opposing many of President Obama’s initiatives during the last four years. Of the Social Security Act one Republican, Representative John Tabor of New York, said, “Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought in here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of employers providing work for the people.”
In the biography Smith pays close attention to the man, his personal relationships and the people and influences which shaped him. FDR’s great self-confidence came from his mother, Sara Delano, who was devoted to him, providing him with the assurance and security needed in childhood. He spent many summers at the Delano ancestral home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Jean and I stayed there a couple of years ago, since it is now a very pleasant Bed and Breakfast. FDR was by nature and by religious training optimistic. His Episcopalian faith gave him a serene confidence in the divine purposes governing the universe. On Inauguration Day in 1933 he went to church for prayers and remained on his knees for several minutes after the end of the service. His remarkable struggle against polio at age 33 demonstrated his faith and fearlessness. His famous words, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” were born out of the depths of personal experience.
He had failings, of course. His family life suffered under the strains of the presidency. His attack in 1935 against the justices of the Supreme Court was misguided. His attempts to interfere in the Democratic Party’s Primary process in 1938 were high-handed. He failed to support the Anti-Lynching Legislation. His lack of supervision of the negotiations with Japan in 1942 led to an oil embargo against Japan and to the breakdown of diplomacy, contributing to the Japanese perception that they had no other recourse but war. Also he acquiesced in the shameless treatment on the West Coast of American citizens of Japanese descent in 1943. It is to the credit of Jean Smith, the biographer, for not covering up any of these failings.
The world was fortunate that FDR was at the helm of American foreign policy in 1939 because he was one of the few in our nation who understood the true meaning of Adolph Hitler, perhaps the greatest manifestation of evil the world has ever seen. The United States has been involved in many unjust wars, but World War II was not one of them. FDR guided the plans for supporting the British and Russians in their fight against Hitler and made friends with Churchill and even Stalin. Lend Lease was FDR’s own idea. He chose able commanders to win the battles. He inspired industrial production on a scale never seen before to supply a huge effort on several fronts. It was a monumental effort in a conflict that in the end tragically claimed the lives of 50 million people.
What most appeals to me about Roosevelt is his political philosophy. He had genuine compassion for those who suffer from economic hardship. His acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia included these words which are just as meaningful today:
“Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor –other people’s lives.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution… Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”