A Reference Resource
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Faced with the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, nicknamed "FDR," guided America through its greatest domestic crisis, with the exception of the Civil War, and its greatest foreign crisis. His presidency—which spanned twelve years—was unparalleled, not only in length but in scope. FDR took office with the country mired in a horrible and debilitating economic depression that not only sapped its material wealth and spiritual strength, but cast a pall over its future. Roosevelt's combination of confidence, optimism, and political savvy—all of which came together in the experimental economic and social programs of the "New Deal"—helped bring about the beginnings of a national recovery.
In foreign affairs, FDR committed the United States to the defeat of the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and led the nation and its allies to the brink of victory. This triumph dramatically altered America's relationship with the world, guiding the United States to a position of international prominence, if not predominance. By virtue of its newfound political and economic power, as well as its political and moral leadership, the United States would play a leading role in shaping the remainder of the twentieth century.
Franklin Roosevelt also forged a domestic political revolution on several fronts. In politics, FDR and the Democratic Party built a power base which carried the party to electoral, if not ideological, dominance until the late 1960s. In governance, FDR's policies, especially those comprising the New Deal, helped redefine and strengthen both the American state and, specifically, the American presidency, expanding the political, administrative, and constitutional powers of the office.
Political Rise and Personal Tragedy
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in 1882 in Hyde Park, New York, to James and Sara Roosevelt. James Roosevelt was a land-owner and businessman of considerable, but not awesome, wealth. FDR grew up under the watchful eyes of his mother, whose devotion to her only child was considerable, and a host of nannies. At age 14, Franklin's parents sent him to the Groton School, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts. At Groton, FDR grew increasingly fond of his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, a rising star in the Republican Party. FDR went on to Harvard College, where he spent more time on the college newspaper than he did on his studies. While at Harvard, FDR apparently declared himself a Democrat and began courting his distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Franklin and Eleanor were married in New York City in 1905, a few months after FDR began law school at Columbia. Roosevelt had little interest in the law, however, and his attention soon turned to politics. He ran successfully for the New York State Senate in 1910 and was re-elected in 1912. In 1913, he joined the Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the Navy and played a key role in readying the United States for entry into the world war. FDR was roundly praised for his efforts and the leaders of the Democratic Party tabbed him as a Democrat to watch. Indeed, in 1920, the party named him its vice-presidential candidate. Although the ticket of James Cox and FDR lost, FDR's future seemed bright.
Tragedy struck, however, in 1921. Roosevelt contracted polio, a terrifying and incurable disease that left him paralyzed in his legs. Only through an arduous rehabilitation process—and with the support of his wife, his children, and his close confidantes—was FDR able to regain some use of his legs. In the 1920s, he invested a considerable part of his fortune in rehabilitating a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, whose curative waters aided his own rehabilitation. In later years, the cottage he built there would be called "the Little White House." Though polio devastated FDR physically, his steely will seemed to grow stronger as he fought through his recovery. Eleanor later said of this time: "I know that he had real fear when he was first taken ill, but he learned to surmount it. After that I never heard him say he was afraid of anything."
Successful Governor and Presidential Candidate
FDR's political comeback began in earnest in 1928 when he won the governorship of New York. The crash of the stock market in October 1929 served as a harbinger of tougher times to come and led Governor Roosevelt to focus on combating the state's economic woes. FDR implemented a number of innovative relief and recovery initiatives—unemployment insurance, pensions for the elderly, limits on work hours, and massive public works projects—that established him as a liberal reformer. FDR's efforts also won him reelection as governor in 1930, a rare feat in the midst of depression.
By the presidential election season of 1932, the Great Depression had only worsened and showed no signs of abating. Democrats turned to FDR, a popular and successful two-term governor with a recognizable last name, to challenge President Hoover. Promising a "New Deal" for the American people, FDR was swept into office in a landslide. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt gave hope to dispirited Americans throughout the nation, assuring them that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself."
Fighting the Great Depression
President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" fought the Great Depression on a number of fronts. In the famous "First Hundred Days" of his presidency, FDR pushed through legislation that reformed the banking and financial sectors, tried to cure the ills afflicting American agriculture, and attempted to resuscitate American industry. To meet the immediate crisis of starvation and the dire needs of the nation's unemployed, FDR provided direct cash relief for the poor and jobs programs. Roosevelt's reassuring "fireside chats," in which he spoke to the nation via radio about the country's predicament, calmed a worried public.
In 1935, FDR took the New Deal in a more liberal direction, overseeing the enactment of some of the most far-reaching social and economic legislation in American history. The Wagner Act allowed labor unions to organize and bargain collectively, conferring on them a new legitimacy. The Social Security Act set up programs designed to provide for the needs of the aged, the poor, and the unemployed, establishing a social welfare net that, at least theoretically, covered all Americans. By the end of his second term, FDR and his advisers insisted that the federal government should stimulate the national economy through its spending policies, a strategy that held sway for the next thirty years.
All of these actions, though, could not end the Great Depression. Only American mobilization for war in the early 1940s brought the United States out of its economic doldrums. Nor did New Deal programs, because they reflected the biases of 1930s American politics and culture, offer the same aid to all Americans; white men generally received better benefits than women, blacks, or Latinos.
Nonetheless, FDR did much to reshape the United States. With Roosevelt as its presidential candidate, the Democratic Party won again in 1936, signaling the beginning of 30 years of political dominance that extended long after FDR's death. With FDR in the White House, the federal government played a greater role than ever before in managing the American economy and in protecting the welfare of the American people. In short, FDR oversaw major and important changes in American politics and governance that would define life in the United States for most of the twentieth century.
World War II
In addition to changing life at home, Roosevelt permanently altered America's role in the world. Hamstrung in the 1930s by domestic economic woes and a strong isolationist bloc in Congress and the public, FDR confronted Germany and Japan only tentatively as those powers looked to establish dominance in Europe and Asia, respectively. Nevertheless, Roosevelt did extend massive amounts of aid to Great Britain as that nation successfully held out against the Nazi onslaught during 1940 and 1941 Working with America's allies in the Pacific, FDR also tried to contain the Japanese threat.
Japan's surprise attack on the American Navy at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 officially brought the United States into World War II. FDR proved a talented war-time leader and, by 1943, the United States military, along with its allies, had turned the tide against both Germany and Japan. But Roosevelt did not live to see the war's end., In April 1945, just weeks before the German surrender, the president collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Under Roosevelt's leadership, the United States emerged from World War II as the world's foremost economic, political, and military power. FDR's contributions to domestic life during his presidency were just as vital. While his "New Deal" did not end the Great Depression, Roosevelt's leadership gave Americans hope and confidence in their darkest hours and fundamentally reshaped the relationship between the federal government and the American people. FDR so dominated American politics that he almost single-handedly launched the Democratic Party into a position of prolonged political dominance.. During his tenure, FDR also lifted both the standing and power of the American presidency to unprecedented heights. More broadly, however, his New Deal programs, marked a substantial turning point in the nation's political, economic, social, and cultural life.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born to James and Sara Roosevelt in 1882. James was a land-owner and businessmen of considerable, but not awesome, wealth from New York. He likely joined the Democratic Party in the 1850s and identified with the party for the remainder of his life, although he voted for Republicans on a number of occasions. A widower, he married Sara Delano, who was twenty-six years his junior, in 1880. Sara, one of the five beautiful Delano sisters, came from a family of considerable means and was notable both for her aristocratic manner and her independent streak.
Franklin spent his youth near Hyde Park, about fifty miles north of New York City, on a large estate and farm tended by hundreds of workers. Insulated from the outside world and schooled at home by tutors until a teenager, Franklin had limited contact with his peers. Nonetheless, the family atmosphere was one of support and affection for the only child. Sara Roosevelt proved especially dedicated to Franklin, spending almost all of her considerable energies raising him. This unending devotion would continue throughout her long life, although not without deleterious consequences.
An Exclusive Upbringing
When Franklin was 14 years old, Sara and James sent him to the Groton School, his first serious schooling outside the home. Groton was an exclusive private school that educated the sons of some of the most wealthy and powerful American families. It aimed to instill in its students both mental and physical toughness and a desire to serve the public. Franklin's years at Groton were difficult. The school's rigorous social hierarchy rewarded boys who were good athletes or displayed a rebellious streak. FDR had neither quality, and he thus was never among the most popular of Groton boys, although his letters to his parents barely hinted at these failings. During his years at Groton, FDR grew quite admiring of his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend of Groton's rector and a rising political star in the Republican Party.
After graduating from Groton, FDR went to Harvard College in 1900. He had only been in school for a few weeks when his father, who had suffered from a heart ailment for the previous decade, passed away. At Harvard, Roosevelt threw himself into a wide array of extracurricular activities, helping his social standing but hurting his grades, which were mostly average. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1903 he returned for a year of graduate work; more important, he became editor of Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson. While at Harvard, FDR apparently declared himself a member of the Democratic Party, although he remained fond of then-President Theodore Roosevelt.
FDR also began paying more attention to members of the opposite sex. In his second year at Harvard, he proposed to a Boston heiress, Alice Sohier, who turned him down. He quickly turned his attentions to his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (also known as ER). Eleanor was diffident, serious, and intelligent, as well as the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, all qualities that won her several suitors. While they had been admiring acquaintances as children, Franklin and Eleanor fell deeply in love as young adults. One obstacle remained, however: FDR's mother, Sara, was so protective of her son that it is doubtful she would have approved of any possible match. When, in 1904, FDR revealed to his mother that he was in love with Eleanor and that the two planned to marry, Sara—who had not known of the courtship—insisted that they wait one year. Delayed, but not denied, Franklin and Eleanor married on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away. Between 1906 and 1916, the Roosevelts had six children, one of whom died as an infant.
A few months before his marriage, Franklin began law school at Columbia University. He attended for two years, never graduated, and displayed neither an aptitude nor a passion for the law. He did pass the bar, though, and worked for a few years at the New York City law firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn. In 1910, however, fellow Democrats from upstate asked Roosevelt to run for political office. He quickly agreed. Although historians are unsure of FDR's precise motives for entering politics, a few reasons seem central. First, FDR truly disliked being a lawyer. Second, he enjoyed meeting new challenges and new people, both of which were integral to political life. Third, politics offered him the opportunity to be a leader, which appealed to his sense of self and conformed to his understanding of his role in the world. Finally, FDR's immense admiration for former President Theodore Roosevelt spurred him to try his hand at politics.
On the Rise
Roosevelt ran for the state senate from Dutchess County in upstate New York, a region dominated by Republicans. He was a good candidate because of his name, his family's wealth, and his seemingly endless reservoir of energy, which allowed him to campaign tirelessly on a clean-up-government platform. FDR won the race by over a thousand votes, the clear beneficiary of his own efforts and a split in the Republican Party between progressives and conservatives.
In the state senate, Roosevelt proved a staunch defender of the farmers in his district, who were mostly Republicans, and a determined opponent of the Tammany Hall political machine that essentially ran New York City's Democratic Party. He even went so far as to oppose Tammany's choice for the U.S. Senate seat, earning him the enmity of that powerful group of politicians. Roosevelt's politics in these years were essentially of the progressive, new nationalist variety. Like his distant relative, former President Teddy Roosevelt, he generally believed that the government had to play a role in creating and maintaining a fair and equitable society, and in protecting individuals from concentrations of economic or political power.
In 1912, FDR won re-election to the state senate and, just as important, forged a friendship with the political journalist Louis Howe, who would become his chief political adviser over the next two decades. FDR did not finish out his term, however. Roosevelt had backed the progressive governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, in his successful campaign for the presidency in 1912. Wilson noted FDR's support and wanted to find a place for the young Democrat in his administration. When Wilson's secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, asked Roosevelt to serve as his assistant secretary, FDR accepted without hesitation. It was lost on no one that Teddy Roosevelt had been assistant secretary of the Navy in the first McKinley administration.
FDR loved being assistant secretary of the Navy. With Louis Howe as his assistant, Roosevelt oversaw the daily business of the Department of the Navy, including the ceremonial activities that FDR loved. But FDR also tried to shape the development of U.S. naval policy more generally—a prerogative traditionally of the secretary rather than the assistant secretary. Here, FDR emerged as a dogged advocate of a "big Navy," which won him his fair share of supporters among active and retired Navy personnel. During the world war in Europe, FDR consistently argued that the United States needed to improve its military capabilities. This position put him at odds with much of the Wilson administration, which feared any steps that might appear to violate America's declared neutrality. In 1917, FDR emerged as a forceful advocate of U.S. entry into the conflict. Once in the war, FDR supervised much of the Navy's contribution to the American effort.
Politics was never far from FDR's mind while working in Washington. In 1914, he tried (and failed) to win the Democratic nomination for an open New York seat in the U.S. Senate. He learned an important lesson, though: to succeed in New York politics he needed to mend fences with Tammany Hall. During World War I, Roosevelt endangered his political career in one other, much more significant, way as well. During his tenure in the Wilson Administration, FDR began a romantic relationship with Lucy Mercer, who was Eleanor's social secretary. In 1918, ER discovered the affair and offered FDR a divorce. He refused, in large part, because he knew that a divorcee could never succeed in American politics. He promised Eleanor that he would never see Mercer again—a vow he broke repeatedly later in life. While his political career was safe, his personal relationship with ER, already attenuated because she found being his wife stultifying, was further eroded; while they remained partners, they were no longer intimates in a loving and warm marriage. Eleanor set out to construct a life of her own, one in which she could find intellectual and emotional satisfaction with people other than her husband. Eleanor and Franklin's relationship was thereafter more of a political and social partnership than a loving and passionate marriage.
His service in the Wilson administration only augmented FDR's reputation among Democrats, and the party tapped him in 1920 as its vice presidential candidate. Although the ticket of FDR and presidential nominee James Cox lost in a rout to a Republican slate led by Warren Harding, FDR acquitted himself well, and his political future seemed bright. With the Democrats out of power, Roosevelt returned to the private sector, accepting a position as vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company, a financial firm. His world, however, was about to be turned upside down.
Years of Pain and Comeback
During the summer of 1921, Roosevelt vacationed at Campobello Island, his treasured second home on the Canadian Atlantic coast. After a swim in the cold waters and a two-mile hike home, he went to bed very tired. The next morning he was feverish and his left leg felt numb. By the following day he was partly paralyzed from the abdomen down. He had poliomyelitis—a viral inflammation of the spinal column. "Polio" was a terrifying and rampant disease in the 1920s, a mysterious crippler with no cure. Franklin Roosevelt would never recover the full use of his legs and spent much of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But through years of arduous and painful rehabilitation (and with the assistance of canes, leg braces, wheelchairs, and aides), he did regain some of his lost mobility, even learning to "walk" by using his hips to swing his atrophied legs forward. This partial recovery was remarkable, given the extent to which the disease had ravaged his muscles.
Eleanor and Louis Howe were invaluable to FDR during his convalescence, tending to his physical needs and offering him encouragement. But they followed the lead of their extraordinary patient. FDR maintained his upbeat, positive, and energetic attitude and seemingly never wavered in his belief that he would fully recover. His zest for life and confidence—always his defining characteristics—grew rather than shrank in the face of his trials. He displayed remarkable courage and an indefatigable will, of which Eleanor would later remark: "I know that he had real fear when he was first taken ill, but he learned to surmount it. After that I never heard him say he was afraid of anything."
Roosevelt stayed active in politics during his long recovery, largely because of Howe and ER. Howe kept FDR abreast of the latest news and urged FDR to keep up extensive correspondence with leading Democrats. Just as important, Howe encouraged Eleanor to become more involved in New York's Democratic Party, where she could serve as FDR's legs, eyes, and ears. Such activities were a boon to ER, for they allowed her to work on the progressive causes in which she truly believed, providing her with a life of her own.
In 1922, FDR aided fellow Democrat Alfred Smith's campaign for the governorship of New York. Two years later, he supported Smith's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Smith earned the nomination in 1928, with Roosevelt's backing. Knowing FDR's popularity in New York, Smith asked Roosevelt to run for that state's governorship in the hope that FDR's candidacy would prop up Democratic support in the state. Republicans dominated the national elections that year and Herbert Hoover crushed Smith. (See Hoover biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for details.) Roosevelt, however, eked out a victory by one half of a percentage point and won New York's gubernatorial election.
As governor of New York, FDR was in a prime position to run for the White House. In truth, though, FDR's activities throughout the 1920s, along with ER's and Howe's help, had resuscitated his political career. His public appearances—he "walked" to the podium in 1928 at the Democratic National Convention to nominate Smith—helped dispel rumors about his illness. Just as important, FDR built alliances with Democrats from all over the nation during these years, especially in the rural South and West. He even mended fences with Tammany Hall (to which Smith was affiliated) and reached out to the local Democratic parties in the East, whose constituencies were largely urban, Catholic, and ethnic. These alliances would prove crucial in the future.
Governor Roosevelt and the Great Depression
Governor Roosevelt, though, had a more immediate problem on his hands: the Great Depression. The American economy of the 1920s, while prosperous, was fundamentally unsound. The economy did not collapse at once, nor for one particular reason. Historians have identified four interwoven and reinforcing causes of the nation's most severe economic crisis: the overly speculative and unstable foundations of the American financial sector; structural weaknesses in both American agriculture and industry; and the frailty of the international economy in the late 1920s and the early 1930s.
America's financial sector in the late 1920s was a house of cards. American businesses in the 1920s increasingly raised capital either by soliciting private investment or by selling stock. Over two million Americans poured their savings into the stock market, and many more into investment schemes. But there was little or no regulation of these companies and these supposed investment opportunities, nor much oversight of the process. Too often, Americans put their money into "get rich quick" schemes which had no chance of long-term financial return, or into companies that made no real profits—and sometimes no actual products!
The stock market proved particularly volatile during the 1920s. It soared from 1924 through 1929; the New York Times index of industrial stocks grew from 124 points to 449 points in the summer of 1929 alone. Investors bought stocks "on margin," meaning they produced only a small down-payment and borrowed the rest from their broker or bank. As long as the stock increased in value, all was well. The investor would later sell the stock, repay the broker or the bank, and pocket the profit.
But as the economy slowed in 1929—with fewer consumer purchases, creeping unemployment, and higher interest rates—stock owners tried to sell, but found no buyers; the market tumbled. Two days in particular, October 24 ("Black Thursday) and October 29 ("Black Tuesday"), saw investors desperately trying to dump stocks. On the latter day, brokers sold over 16 million shares. The slide continued for more than two years, with one estimate claiming that investors lost nearly $75 billion.
"The Great Crash," as it came to be known, was only one cause of the economic depression that followed. American farmers suffered in the 1920s, with their income one-third of the national average. The chief problem was overproduction. American farmers benefited from new technologies that increased their productivity, but the glut of product, along with overseas competition, caused prices at market to drop precipitously. Farm earnings plummeted further when the economic crisis began in 1929 as urban areas lacked the income to purchase agricultural goods. With American farmers earning less, they could not pay their bills and mortgages. Rural banks failed without these payments, placing more pressure on a banking system already shaky, due to the stock market crash. After 1932, drought conditions plagued the Midwest, further compounding existing problems.
If the economic outlook looked bleak from the nation's fields, they appeared just as dreary from its factory floors. While industrial productivity and profits increased in the 1920s, wages remained stagnant. These profits, more often than not, were placed in the in the stock market or in speculative schemes, rather than re-invested in new factories or used to fund new businesses, both of which (theoretically) would create new jobs. The combination of agricultural woes and industrial stagnation conspired to grind America's economy to a halt in the early 1930s.
Moreover, the world economy was suffering from a general slowdown in the late 1920s. The Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War required Germany to pay reparations to France and Britain, which, in turn, owed money to American banks. The German economy, wrecked by the war, could not sustain these payments, and the German government turned to the United States for cash. Europe's economic health, then, was built on a web of financial arrangements and hinged on a robust American economy.
Each of these factors helped create and sustain a severely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, where a tiny minority possessed incredible riches. Five percent of the populace held nearly a third of the money and property. Over 80 percent of Americans held no savings at all. Moreover, the American economy depended upon consumption, but because of the stagnation in wages, the collapse of agricultural markets, and rising unemployment (all of which led to the growing gap between rich and poor), most Americans could not buy the products that made the economy hum. Wealthier Americans, by contrast, failed to spend their money, choosing instead to invest it. It was a consumer economy in which few consumed.
Between 1929 and 1933, 5,000 American banks collapsed, one in four farms went into foreclosure, and an average of 100,000 jobs vanished each week. By 1932, over 12 million Americans—nearly one-quarter of the workforce—were unemployed. Statistics alone, however, cannot tell the story of the "Great Depression." For tens of millions, it was a time of panic and poverty, hunger and hopelessness. The nation's will sagged and its future seemed, at least to some, in doubt.
President Hoover took substantive steps to alleviate the crisis, but accomplished little. His political fortunes sagged accordingly. In New York, Governor Roosevelt reacted slowly at first, hoping, much like Hoover, that the economy would turn around. When it did not, FDR determined that "there is a duty on the part of government to do something about this." He supported lower taxes for farmers and urged the state to develop public power utilities. As the depression deepened, FDR got the New York state legislature to pass a public works program for the unemployed and to grant relief to the needy. All of these actions established FDR's credentials as a liberal reformer.
Roosevelt won re-election in 1930, no mean feat for a governor serving during the Great Depression. President Hoover faced no such rosy outlook. As the Great Depression worsened in the early 1930s, Republican prospects for the 1932 presidential election withered. The Democrats, on the other hand, looked to the rising star of their party, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Campaign and Election of 1932
Political observers in the early 1930s were of decidedly mixed opinion about the possible presidential candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many leaders of the Democratic Party saw in Roosevelt an attractive mixture of experience (as governor of New York and as a former vice presidential candidate) and appeal (the Roosevelt name itself, which immediately associated FDR with his remote cousin, former President Theodore Roosevelt.)
FDR's record as governor of New York—and specifically his laudable, if initially conservative, efforts to combat the effects of the depression in his own state—only reinforced his place as the leading Democratic contender for the 1932 presidential nomination. Under the watchful eyes of his political advisers Louis Howe and James Farley, FDR patiently garnered support from Democrats around the country, but especially in the South and the West. In preparation for his presidential bid, Roosevelt consulted a group of college professors, dubbed the "Brains Trust" (later shortened to the "Brain Trust"), for policy advice.
Other observers, however, were not so sanguine about his abilities or chances. Walter Lippmann, the dean of political commentators and a shaper of public opinion, observed acidly of Roosevelt: "He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president." FDR's Democratic Party, moreover, was both factionalized and ideologically splintered. Several other candidates sought the nomination, including Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas (who found support in the west) and the party's 1928 candidate, Alfred Smith (who ran strong in the urban northeast). The party further split on two key social issues: Catholicism and prohibition. Smith was a Catholic and wanted to end prohibition, which pleased Democrats in the Northeast, but angered those in the South and West.
In 1932, though, the key issue was the Great Depression, not Catholicism or prohibition, which gave Democrats a great opportunity to take the White House back from the Republicans. While FDR did not enter the Democratic convention in Chicago with the necessary two-thirds of the delegates, he managed to secure them after promising Garner the vice-presidential nomination. FDR then broke with tradition and flew to Chicago by airplane to accept the nomination in person, promising delegates "a new deal for the American people." FDR's decision to go to Chicago was politically necessary: he needed to demonstrate to the country that even though his body had been ravaged by polio, he was robust, strong, and energetic.
Roosevelt's campaign for president was necessarily cautious. His opponent, President Herbert Hoover, was so unpopular that FDR's main strategy was not to commit any gaffes that might take the public's attention away from Hoover's inadequacies and the nation's troubles. FDR traveled around the country attacking Hoover and promising better days ahead, but often without referring to any specific programs or policies. Roosevelt was so genial—and his prescriptions for the country so bland—that some commentators questioned his capabilities and his grasp of the serious challenges confronting the United States.
On occasion, though, FDR hinted at the shape of the New Deal to come. FDR told Americans that only by working together could the nation overcome the economic crisis, a sharp contrast to Hoover's paeans to American individualism in the face of the depression. In a speech in San Francisco, FDR outlined the expansive role that the federal government should play in resuscitating the economy, in easing the burden of the suffering, and in insuring that all Americans had an opportunity to lead successful and rewarding lives.
The outcome of the 1932 presidential contest between Roosevelt and Hoover was never greatly in doubt. Dispirited Americans swept the fifty-year-old FDR into office in a landslide in both the popular and electoral college votes. Voters also extended their approval of FDR to his party, giving Democrats substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. These congressional majorities would prove vital in Roosevelt's first year in office.
The Campaign and Election of 1936
FDR entered the 1936 election with a strong, but not invincible, hand. The economy remained sluggish and eight million Americans still were without jobs. Critics from various points on the political spectrum—such as Father Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend—had spent much of the previous two years attacking the President. (They supported Representative William Lemke of the newly formed Union Party in the 1936 election.) Likewise, by 1936 FDR had lost most of the backing he once held in the business community because of his support for the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act.
Republicans, though, had few plausible candidates to challenge FDR in 1936. They settled on Alfred "Alf" Landon, a two-term governor of Kansas who was the only Republican governor to win reelection in 1934. Nominated on the first ballot at the Republican convention in Cleveland, Landon was a moderate conservative—and notoriously lackluster public speaker—who the party hoped could take votes from FDR in the rural Midwest. Unfortunately for Landon, his moderation was often drowned out during the campaign by the conservative clamor emanating from the Republican Party, as well as from his running mate, Chicago publisher Frank Knox.
Roosevelt seemed to relish the attacks of Republicans, maintaining that he and his New Deal protected the average American against the predations of the rich and powerful, Referring to "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking," FDR crowed, "Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred." Roosevelt's supporters believed their candidate understood and sympathized with them. As one worker put it in 1936, Roosevelt "is the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a (expletive.)" FDR won the election in a walk, amassing huge majorities in the popular vote and in the Electoral College.
What the 1936 election made most clear was that because of FDR and the New Deal, the Democratic Party was now the majority party in the nation. Roosevelt had put together what came to be called the "New Deal Coalition," an alliance of voters from different regions of the country and from racial, religious and ethnic groups. The coalition combined southern Protestants, northern Jews, Catholics and blacks from urban areas, labor union members, small farmers in the middle west and Plains states, and liberals and radicals. This diverse group, with some minor alterations, would power the Democrats for the next thirty years—and it was Roosevelt who put it together.
The Campaign and Election of 1940
In 1940, Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, breaking the tradition set by George Washington that limited Presidents to eight years in office. FDR had been coy about his future for most of his second term, but finally told confidantes that he would run only if the situation in Europe deteriorated further and his fellow Democrats drafted him as their candidate. Nazi Germany's successful invasion of Western Europe and defeat of France in the spring of 1940 took care of the former condition; FDR's political operatives, especially Chicago mayor Ed Kelly, arranged for the latter. Not all Democrats, most notably long-time political adviser James Farley and Vice President John Garner, were pleased with FDR's decision to break from Washington's precedent. And conservative southern Democrats strenuously objected to FDR's vice presidential choice, Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, a former progressive Republican, but now a staunch liberal New Dealer.
Republicans chose Wendell L. Willkie of Indiana, a corporate lawyer and president of a utility company, as their candidate. It was an unconventional choice. Willkie had voted for FDR in 1932 and had been a Democrat until 1938. While he opposed FDR's public power policies, especially the TVA, Willkie actually supported much of the New Deal's domestic legislation and was an internationalist in foreign affairs—controversial positions in a party with its share of vigorous New Deal opponents and isolationists. In many respects, Willkie was just the type of liberal Republican that FDR wanted to lure into the Democratic Party
During the initial weeks of the election season, FDR looked strong even though he campaigned only from the White House. Willkie proved lackluster on the stump and he seemed to agree with much of FDR's domestic and foreign agenda. In late September, though, Willkie began to tighten the race, largely by charging that if FDR won a third term, "you may expect that we will be at war." Roosevelt countered that he would not send Americans to fight in "any foreign war." Over its last month, the campaign degenerated into a series of outrageous accusations and mud-slinging, if not by the two candidates themselves then by their respective parties. On election day, FDR won 55 percent of the popular vote and the electoral votes of thirty-eight states. Willkie gained only ten states, but for Republicans even this was an improvement over their dismal showing in 1936.
The Campaign and Election of 1944
In 1944, in the midst of war, Roosevelt made it known to fellow Democrats that he was willing to run for a fourth term. Democrats, even conservative southerners who had long been suspicious of FDR's liberalism, backed Roosevelt as their party's best chance for victory. FDR received all but 87 of the votes of the 1,075 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. The real intrigue came with the Democratic nomination for vice president. FDR decided against running with his current vice president, the extremely liberal Henry Wallace, fearing that Wallace's politics would open a rift in the party between liberals (concentrated in the northeast) and conservatives (largely hailing from the south.) Instead, Senator Harry Truman of Missouri, who had the backing of the south, the big-city bosses in the party, and at least the tacit approval of FDR, took the vice-presidential nomination.
Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, the popular governor of New York State, chosen with only one Republican delegate voting against him. Dewey ran as a moderate Republican, promising not to undo the social and economic reforms of the New Deal, but instead to make them more efficient and effective. Dewey, like Willkie four years earlier, was an internationalist in foreign affairs, voicing support for a postwar United Nations. One of Dewey's most effective gambits was to raise discreetly the age issue. He assailed the President as a "tired old man" with "tired old men" in his cabinet, pointedly suggesting that the President's lack of vigor had produced a less than vigorous economic recovery.
FDR, as most observers could see from his weight loss and haggard appearance, was a tired man in 1944. But upon entering the campaign in earnest in late September, 1944, Roosevelt displayed enough passion and fight to allay most concerns and to deflect Republican attacks. With the war still raging, he urged voters not to "change horses in mid-stream." Just as important, he showed some of his famous campaign fire. In a classic speech before the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, FDR belittled the Republican attacks on him. Recalling the charges from a Minnesota congressman who accused FDR of sending a battleship to Alaska to retrieve his dog Fala, FDR nearly chortled "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or my sons. No, not content with that they now include my little dog Fala. Wll, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family don't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them." With his audience abuzz, FDR delivered his punch-line: "I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself . . . But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."
On election day, voters returned Roosevelt to the White House. He garnered almost 54 percent of the popular vote—to Dewey's 46 percent—and won the Electoral College by a count of 432 to 99. Even though the Republicans had improved their totals in both the popular and electoral votes, they could not unseat FDR.
FDR's mandate as a first-term President was clear and challenging: rescue the United States from the throes of its worst depression in history. Economic conditions had deteriorated in the four months between FDR's election and his inauguration. Unemployment grew to over twenty-five percent of the nation's workforce, with more than twelve million Americans out of work. A new wave of bank failures hit in February 1933. Upon accepting the Democratic nomination, FDR had promised a "New Deal" to help America out of the Depression, though the meaning of that program was far from clear.
In trying to make sense of FDR's domestic policies, historians and political scientists have referred to a "First New Deal," which lasted from 1933 to 1935, and a "Second New Deal," which stretched from 1935 to 1938. (Some scholars believe that a "Third New Deal" began in 1937 but never took root; the descriptor, likewise, has never gained significant currency.) These terms, it should be remembered, are the creations of scholars trying to impose order and organization on the Roosevelt administration's often chaotic, confusing, and contradictory attempts to combat the depression; Roosevelt himself never used them. The idea of a "first "and "second" New Deal is useful insofar as it reflects important shifts in the Roosevelt administration's approach to the nation's economic and social woes. But the boundaries between the first and second New Deals should be viewed as porous rather than concrete. In other words, significant continuities existed between the first and second New Deals that should not be overlooked.
One thing is clear: the New Deal was, and remains, difficult to categorize. Even a member of FDR's administration, the committed New Dealer Alvin Hansen, admitted in 1940 that "I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is." Part of this mystery came from the President himself, whose political sensibilities were difficult to measure. Roosevelt certainly believed in the premises of American capitalism, but he also saw that American capitalism circa 1932 required reform in order to survive. How much, and what kind of, reform was still up in the air. Upon entering the Oval Office, FDR was neither a die-hard liberal nor a conservative, and the policies he enacted during his first term sometimes reflected contradictory ideological sources.
This ideological and political incoherence shrank in significance however, next to what former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described as a "first class temperament," exemplified by the President's optimism, self-confidence, pragmatism, and flexibility. Above all, FDR was an optimist, offering hope to millions of Americans who had none. His extreme self-confidence buoyed an American public unsure of the future or even present course. This intoxicating mix made FDR appear the paragon of leadership, a father-figure who reassured a desperate nation in his inaugural address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." FDR also brought to the White House a pragmatic approach to governance. He claimed he would try something to end the depression, and if it worked he would move on to the next problem. If it failed, he would assess the failure and try something else.
Lifting America out of the Depression was a large task. To help him, FDR depended on a sizeable coterie of advisers to a degree unprecedented in the history of the presidency. FDR brought many veterans of his governorship to Washington. Raymond Moley, a professor of public law and a member of the "Brain Trust," joined the administration, as did Harry Hopkins, who ran New York's program for the unemployed. Francis Perkins, who had known FDR since their days in the state legislature, became the first women ever to hold a cabinet office, taking charge at the Department of Labor. In the main, these advisers were political liberals.
With this collection of advisers, FDR set up his White House staff. Eschewing a hierarchical form of organization, or even one with each aide given a clearly delineated duty, Roosevelt instead meted out tasks to his advisers, sometimes charging them with similar duties. Additionally, FDR often appointed advisers of clashing temperaments and beliefs to the same policy issue, leading to internal confrontations and squabbling. The benefits of this system were that FDR received political and policy advice from a range of advisers with different ideological predilections and political connections. It also left the President with an array of options and allowed him to forge a consensus within his own administration about the direction, both in terms of policy and politics, of his presidency. Finally, it produced a degree of flexibility in the policymaking process, which harmonized with Roosevelt's often experimental approach to the New Deal. The main drawback to this type of governance was that the New Deal often appeared to be moving in several directions, many of them contradictory, all at once.
The First New Deal: Saving Capitalism?
The First New Deal began almost immediately upon Roosevelt's assumption of the presidency. FDR invoked the "analogue of war" as he spurred Congress towards a flurry of legislative activity that became known as the "Hundred Days"—from March to June 1933—in which the new President won passage of numerous bills designed to end the nation's economic troubles. In general, the First New Deal looked to stabilize the U.S. financial system, provide relief and jobs to the suffering, and reenergize America's capitalist economy. He sought to achieve this last objective by building partnerships between business and government to resuscitate industrial production. In carrying forward this agenda, FDR began to recreate the role of the federal government in American economic and political life.
Banking and Finance
FDR's immediate task upon his inauguration was to stabilize the nation's banking system. On March 6, Roosevelt declared a national "bank holiday" to end a run by depositors seeking to withdraw their money from faltering banks. FDR also called Congress into emergency session where the legislature enacted, nearly sight unseen, the President's banking proposal. Under this plan, the federal government would inspect all banks, re-open those that were sufficiently solvent, re-organize those that could be saved, and close those that were beyond repair. On March 12, FDR went on the radio—giving the first of many "fireside chats"—to explain his plan to Americans and to assure them that their money would be safe in the re-opened banks. During the following weeks, Americans returned nearly $1 billion dollars to bank vaults.
FDR then won a significant number of other reforms related to the nation's financial sector. In May 1933, he signed the Securities Act, which required corporations and stockbrokers to release accurate information about stocks to investors. In June 1933, he signed the Glass-Steagall Act, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, guaranteeing the savings of average citizens, and prevented commercial banks from engaging in investment banking, which they had been carrying on in scandalous fashion. In 1934, the Securities and Exchange Act created the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which was charged with regulating financial markets.
Roosevelt in 1933 took America off the gold standard, and the Banking act of 1935 gave the country a central banking mechanism for the first time. A reorganized Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) spun off subsidiaries such as the Federal National Mortgage Association ("Fannie Mae") that, along with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) made it possible for millions of Americans to buy or renovate homes. Taken together, these innovations, one write has said, marked the beginning of the end of Wall Street's domination of finance capitalism" and "represented the shift of economic power form the lower part of Manhattan, where it had been for over a century, to Washington."
Relief and Jobs
To meet the immediate crisis of starvation and the dire needs of the nation's unemployed, FDR established several public relief programs in 1933. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) made direct cash allocations available to states for immediate payments to the unemployed.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put 300,000 young men to work in 1,200 camps planting trees, building bridges, and cleaning beaches. Finally, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) spent almost $1 billion on public works projects, including airports and roads. Roosevelt shut the CWA after only four months, however, because it was so costly.
The benefits of these three programs were obvious: they provided relief for millions of Americans on the verge of outright starvation and gave unemployed Americans jobs. Conservative attacked relieve programs as handouts to the undeserving poor and derided the CCC and CWA as "make work" projects that added little to American society. In fact, Americans in the twenty-first century continue to enjoy the picnic tables, the cabins, and the forest roads built by FDR's "tree army."
Agricultural and Rural America
In the hope of spurring the recovery of American agriculture, Roosevelt asked Congress to pass the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which it did in May 1933. FDR and his advisers believed that overproduction had caused gluts in the farm market, dropping prices, and, in turn, sending farmers' incomes plummeting. The AAA aimed to inflate farmers' incomes by offering cash incentives to farmers who agreed cut production. The AAA originally covered wheat, corn, cotton, hogs, milk, rice, and tobacco, but Congress added new commodities to the program in the ensuing years.
Over three million farmers joined the AAA program in its first year, and farm income did increase by more than fifty percent between 1932 and 1935. Despite these impressive gains, the benefits of the AAA too often accrued to large farm-owners rather than the millions of poor white and African-American tenant farmers and sharecroppers who lived in abject poverty. Moreover, AAA policies stressed the lowering of production—which in a few cases in 1933 meant that crops were plowed under and livestock killed. With many Americans hungry and ill-clothed, critics labeled such policies "utterly idiotic."
Roosevelt also believed it imperative to reduce poverty in rural areas. The Farm Credit Association, another offshoot of the RFC, lent more than a billion dollars to families to save their farms from foreclosure. The Federal Emerency Relief Administration and the Resettlement Administration sponsored experimental rural communities and greenbelt towns. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) enabled tenant farmers to buy farms and built modern labor camps for migrants like John Steinbeck's fictional Joads. Perhaps nothing did more to rescue the farm family from isolation than the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) which brought electricity for the first time to millions of rural homes and with it such conveniences as radios and washing machines.
The REA is only one example of FDR's interest in public power, which he had sponsored as governor of New York. Huge dams—Grand Coulee and Bonneville—transformed the economy of the Pacific Northwest. Still more important was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Tennessee Valley stretched some 40,000 square miles from Virginia to Mississippi and was the poorest region in the nation. The TVA aimed to marshal the area's natural resources into an engine of economic uplift by building dams and power plants that would bring jobs, electricity, and flood control to the Valley. A number of Tennessee Valley natives criticized the TVA for displacing thousands of people—usually poor farmers—to make way for power plants and dams. But by the end of the 1930s, the TVA had brought millions of southern Americans electric power, roads, and jobs in regions that previously had no phones, electric lights, or stable employment. In later years, the TVA's dams and power plants wreaked havoc on the environment by spewing pollution. The TVA however, also did a great deal to restore badly eroded hillsides, and another New Deal agency, the Soil Conservation Service, trained farmers in the proper methods of cultivation. As Theodore Roosevelt is the father of forest conservation, Franklin Roosevelt is the father of soil conservation.
Resuscitating American Industry
Finally, in some of the most controversial legislation of his administration, Roosevelt set out to help American industry get back onto its feet. The centerpiece of his industrial recovery program was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) that Congress passed in June 1933. Drawing its inspiration from the federal government's efforts at economic planning during World War I and the voluntary trade associations of the 1920s, the NIRA provided for national economic planning as opposed to individualistic and competitive, laissez-faire capitalism.
The NIRA created two new agencies, the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The PWA, run by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, had a budget of over $3 billion. Overseeing the construction of large-scale public works (including such landmarks San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and New York City's Triborough Bridge), it hoped to stimulate the economy by creating jobs and, more important, by generating orders for materials that American industry produced. To some degree, the PWA accomplished this mission, although Ickes was such a scrupulous administrator—sometimes scrutinizing contracts line by line—that he failed to spend all the money available to him.
The NRA, however, was the cornerstone of FDR's plan for industry. It proposed a business-government partnership in which business leaders, under the watchful eye of the NRA, would draft fair codes of competition regulating prices and wages. The codes would also outlaw cutthroat practices, such as below-cost sales and child labor. Unhealthy competition between businesses would thus become a thing of the past, spurring job creation and economic growth. Additionally, section 7a of the NIRA guaranteed labor the right to organize and bargain collectively. As an enticement to business, the NIRA suspended anti-trust laws that had been reviled by business leaders since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Under the leadership of General Hugh Johnson, the NRA attempted to rally public support to its program, hoping that public pressure, rather than federal government power, would compel American industry to support the NRA. Johnson held rallies and parades and urged businesses which had agreed to the codes to put the NRA's symbol, the Blue Eagle, in their store fronts. In sum, the NRA signified FDR's belief that business, with a little push from government, could regulate itself.
This strategy proved inadequate, and perhaps naive. Businesses heeded the codes when they saw fit, and ignored them when it served their purposes. Small business owners complained, with good reason, that big businesses dominated the code-drafting process and looked to drive their smaller competitors out of the market. Labor unions enjoyed a new-found legitimacy—symbolized by the millions of workers who joined—but found that businesses ignored provisions that guaranteed worker's wages and hours. By the end of 1933, it was clear that the NRA was anything but a success.
New Deal Critics
FDR promised an energetic attack on the Great Depression with his New Deal. He kept his word, urging Congress to pass laws which established dozens of New Deal programs. But the New Deal accumulated a record of notable failures as well as successes. Mixed results were not the only enemy of the early New Deal, however. A host of critics arose on the Political Left and Right to attack Roosevelt and his policies. In 1934, conservative businessmen—and dissident Democrats like 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith—formed the American Liberty League, which tarred the New Deal as a radical and un-American assault upon the basic principles of capitalism and free enterprise.
Others criticized FDR for not doing enough for those hardest hit by the Depression: the poor, the elderly, and the working class. Democratic Senator Huey Long of Louisiana was an early supporter of the New Deal, but soon accused FDR of falling captive to American business interests. Long insisted that his "share our wealth" plan of income redistribution would "make every man a king." Another early supporter of the New Deal, Detroit's Father Charles Coughlin, took to the radio airwaves in 1934 to tell his estimated 40 million listeners that the key to ending the depression was "free silver"—the populist solution of the 1890s. Finally, Dr. Francis Townsend, a California physician, attacked FDR for not doing enough to help elderly Americans.
Another powerful opponent of FDR's New Deal initiatives came from within the government: the United States Supreme Court. In a series of landmark cases, the Court struck down some of the most important pieces of New Deal legislation. In the May 1935 Schechter decision, the Court invalidated the NIRA on the grounds that Congress had improperly delegated its powers to the Executive and that it unconstitutionally interfered with intra-state commerce. In 1936, the Court's Butler decision shut down the AAA because of its tax provisions. FDR legitimately worried that the Court might reject most of the New Deal's legislation as unconstitutional. Moreover, growing criticism of the New Deal—from the Left, from the Right, and from within the government—revealed that FDR's popular support might be ebbing as the 1936 presidential election came into view.
The Second New Deal
Roosevelt, as a result, began to change direction, inaugurating what scholars have come to call the "Second New Deal." In the summer of 1935, during what became known as the "Second Hundred Days" (June to August, 1935) FDR won passage of a slew of progressive legislation that almost single-handedly dedicated the United States government to providing a minimum level of social and economic protection for all Americans. Three major initiatives represented the administration's turn to the political left: the Works Progress Administration (WPA); the Wagner-Connery National Labor Relations Act (or the Wagner Act, for short); and the Social Security Act.
In April—prior to the beginning of the Second Hundred Days—Congress approved the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, creating the WPA .Under the leadership of Harry Hopkins, the WPA aimed to give unemployed Americans jobs rather than signing them up for the dole. By 1937, three million Americans were receiving WPA checks for building schools, hospitals, and airports. and for pursuing cultural projects in theatre, music, literature, and history. Together with the PWA, the WPA transformed the face of the land—from La Guardia Airport and the Triborough Bridge in New York to the Orange Bowl in Miami to the Oregon Coastal Highway. The National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency of the WPA, trained and employed hundreds of thousands of teenagers and made it possible for many more young people, including the future playwright Arthur Miller, to work their way through college.
FDR also belatedly threw his support behind the Wagner-Connery National Labor Relations Act, which had been languishing in Congress. This legislation guaranteed labor unions the right to organize and bargain collectively—and established the National Labor Relations Board to enforce these rights. It also curbed employer use of "unfair labor practices," like blacklisting union organizers or unionized workers. Because of the legitimacy conferred on unions by the Wagner Act, the legislation came to be known as the "Magna Carta" for American labor unions. With this new political power, union membership swelled to more than 13 million Americans during World War II.
Finally, in August, FDR signed the Social Security Act of 1935. Long a goal of liberals, this bill, like the Wagner Act, had been stalled in Congress until FDR declared it vital legislation. With its passage came programs like Old Age Assistance (Title I), Old Age Insurance (Title II), Unemployment Insurance (Title III), Aid to Dependent Children (Title IV) and Aid to the Blind (Title V). Taken together, these programs represented a significant commitment to developing a welfare state in the United States.
This phase of the New Deal did not constitute an uninterrupted revolution of progressive legislation. Roosevelt proposed a tax scheme in 1935 that would have greatly increased the tax bills of wealthy Americans and corporations. Conservatives in Congress, however, watered down the proposal considerably. Likewise, FDR's attempt to break up large public utilities holding companies with the Public Utilities Holding Company Act ignited a political firestorm on Capitol Hill that resulted in a weakened bill—and one that eventually benefited the utilities.
The reforms wrought by FDR's "Second New Deal" also had several weaknesses. The WPA, for all its efforts, failed to lift the country out of its economic doldrums. The Social Security Act financed its programs through deductions from workers' paychecks, which actually stunted economic growth by muting consumer purchasing power. Moreover, the programs and benefits of the Social Security Act were not distributed evenly among all Americans. Agricultural workers (who were likely to be African-Americans or Mexican-Americans of both sexes) and domestic servants (often African-American women) were not eligible for old-age insurance (what is now commonly referred to as "social security"); farm laborers also were ineligible for unemployment insurance. Likewise, since many of these Social Security programs were administered by state governments, the size of benefits varied widely, especially between the North and the South.
Reorganizing the Government
FDR's policies were wildly popular with large segments of the American population, as his overwhelming victory in 1936 made clear. At his inauguration in 1937, FDR vowed to continue fighting for the nation's underprivileged, the "one third of nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." FDR understood, though, that despite his victory in the 1936 election, his New Deal program was by no means safe. The Supreme Court and a phalanx of Republicans and conservative Democrats had at various times proven hostile to FDR's New Deal. FDR set out in his second term to remove these roadblocks. All too often, however, he encountered stiff resistance.
The Supreme Court topped FDR's list of concerns. If the Court had ruled the centerpiece of the early New Deal unconstitutional, FDR reasoned, it was likely to do the same to subsequent programs, such as the Social Security Act, when they appeared on the Court's docket. Roosevelt's best hope was for the composition of the Court to change. But older, conservative justices opposed to FDR's program refused to retire—and some of the most ardent New Deal supporters surmised that these jurists simply refused to die—so FDR sought a more systematic way to shield his policies from court action.
In early February, 1937, he proposed legislation that would expand the membership of the Court, adding a new justice for every sitting justice over the age of seventy-five. This maneuver would have put six new Roosevelt-appointed justices on the Court, giving FDR a comfortable majority that could be expected to validate the New Deal. Though most of the press erupted in fury, denouncing FDR as a would-be dictator, he had so large a majority in both houses of Congress (5-1 in the Senate, 4-1 in the House) that political commentators expected the bill to pass. But in late-March the Court began to uphold state and federal social legislation in what has been called "the switch in time that saved nine." When the bill finally reached the Senate floor in July, Roosevelt no longer had the votes he needed. He claimed, though, with good reason, that though he had lost the battle he had won the war, for never again did the Court strike down a New Deal law. Scholars differ on why the Court changed, but they almost all agree that what happened in 1937 was nothing less than a "Constitutional Revolution." From that day to this, the Court has not invalidated a single piece of major New Deal legislation regulating business or expanding social rights.
In addition to revamping the Supreme Court, FDR believed that he needed to reform and strengthen the Presidency, and specifically the administrative units and bureaucracy charged with implementing the chief executive's policies. During his first term, FDR quickly found that the federal bureaucracy, specifically at the Treasury and State Departments, moved too slowly for his tastes. FDR often chose to bypass these established channels, creating emergency agencies in their stead. "Why not establish a new agency to take over the new duty rather than saddle it on an old institution?" asked the President. "If it is not permanent," he continued, "we don't get bad precedents."
FDR would look at other ways to increase his administrative and bureaucratic power. His 1937 plan for executive reorganization called for the President to receive six full-time executive assistants, for a single administrator to replace the three-member Civil Service Commission, for the President and his staff to assume more responsibility in budget planning, and for every executive agency to come under the control of one of the cabinet departments. The President's conservative critics pounced on the plan, seeing it as an example of FDR's imperious and power-hungry nature; Congress successfully bottled up the bill. But in 1939, Congress did pass a reorganization bill that created the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and allowed FDR to shift a number of executive agencies (including the Bureau of the Budget) to its watch. While FDR did not get the far-reaching result he sought in 1937, the 1939 legislation strengthened the Presidency immeasurably.
Some of the more liberal measures of the New Deal encountered stiff resistance in Congress, often from conservative Southerners within the President's own party. As a result, FDR attempted in 1938 to purge conservative congressional Democrats by supporting their more liberal opponents in the party's primaries. He went after Senators Millard Tydings (MD), "Cotton Ed" Smith (SC), and Walter George (GA), as well as seven other conservative Democrats. FDR's plan failed miserably; of the ten Democrats he targeted for ouster, only one lost. The others returned to Washington even more antagonistic toward the President. In addition, many other Democrats resented the President's meddling in local affairs.
Economic Collapse and a Slow Recovery
These controversies, largely political in scope, occurred against the backdrop of a collapsing economy. Beginning in the fall of 1937, industrial production fell by 33 percent, national income dropped by 12 percent, and industrial stock prices plummeted by 50 percent. Nearly 4 million people lost their jobs, and the total number of unemployed increased to 11.5 million. The "Roosevelt recession" occurred largely because the President, along with some of his advisers (led by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau) were determined to balance the federal budget and had, as a result, reduced government spending. In 1936, the government contributed $4.1 billion to consumer purchasing power, versus less than $1 billion in 1937.
The recession hit hard and, at first, Roosevelt chose to maintain his fiscally conservative course. In April 1938, worried that a continuing recession and the appearance of White House inactivity would doom Democrats in the 1938 congressional mid-term elections, FDR jettisoned Morgenthau's advice. Instead, he listened to Harry Hopkins and other advisers who believed that government spending on relief and public works would revive the economy—even if such spending produced ever larger deficits. Their rationale for this approach was that the depression was the product of under-consumption and that putting money in the hands of consumers—"priming the pump"—would stimulate consumer spending and perk up the economy. Accordingly, FDR asked Congress for a $5 billion relief program, which passed in the spring and summer of 1938.
Despite this infusion of federal money into the economy, the nation still suffered from under-consumption and lay mired in depression. In 1939, over 19 percent of the nation's work force remained unemployed. Stock prices had yet to recover from the crash of the late 1920s. Despite the New Deal, the U.S. economy in 1940, though considerably improved, had not yet regained its former vigor.
In hindsight, many economists and historians claim that FDR's strategy of "deficit-spending" and "pump-priming" was sound, but that $5 billion was too small to jump-start the nation's economy. Nonetheless, as the historian Alan Brinkley has argued, a generation of economic policymakers adopted the view that the manipulation of government fiscal policies was the key to maintaining a healthy economy. As a result, this approach colored federal efforts to regulate the economy for the next thirty years.
The War Years
World War II, not the New Deal, brought an end to the Great Depression. The war sparked the kind of job creation and massive public and private spending that finally lifted the United States out of its economic doldrums. It was a mammoth effort in which the vast majority of America's industrial and human resources were brought to bear. Great ships were built in weeks, then in days. American-made vehicles all but put the entire Russian Army on wheels. Airplanes emerged from factories in days. American industry churned out guns, munitions, and clothing. Women and African-Americans benefited greatly from this war-time economy, as the former joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers while the latter left the rural and poor South to find industrial employment, as well as voting rights and a less oppressive legal and social system, in the North.
Sacrifice was the word of the day. The nation's two main labor union federations, the AFL and the CIO, agreed not to strike. Americans, sometimes begrudgingly, submitted to the federal government's rationing of everything from gasoline to shoes to food. New automobiles, radios, and other big-ticket items were virtually unavailable for purchase. In addition to rationing, the government coordinated the use of raw materials and the production of staple goods. Indeed, during the war the federal government played an even larger role in the functioning of the American economy than it did during the New Deal. In the process, the Roosevelt administration ran up massive deficits.
This extraordinary economic mobilization came with great costs. African-Americans still lived as second-class citizens, helping fight a war against racist and oppressive nations while enduring racism and oppression at home. The new jobs they moved into often paid poorly and offered little chance for advancement. World War II, though, was also a time of advance for African-Americans. The NAACP multiplied its membership, and the Supreme Court struck down the white primary. Women, while joining the workplace at great rates, still suffered from sex discrimination once on the job. They earned less than men for doing the same work and received few opportunities for promotion. Yet, as with African-Americans, women made permanent gains during the war. Some historians have even seen in World War II the origins of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s.
Finally, in the wake of the hysteria following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, loyal Americans of Japanese descent, over 110,000 persons, were relocated by the Roosevelt administration to prison camps. Many of them stayed there until the war's conclusion, even as their sons died in Europe fighting Nazi Germany. It was one of the most disgraceful acts in American history, one sanctioned by FDR and validated by the Supreme Court. Only in the 1980s did the American government admit its flagrant violation of the constitutional rights of these American citizens.
Through his first six years in office, Franklin Roosevelt spent much of his time trying to bring the United States out of the Great Depression. The President, however, certainly did not ignore America's foreign policy as he crafted the New Deal. Roosevelt, at heart, believed the United States had an important role to play in the world, an unsurprising position for someone who counted Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson among his political mentors. But throughout most of the 1930s, the persistence of the nation's economic woes and the presence of an isolationist streak among a significant number of Americans (and some important progressive political allies) forced FDR to trim his internationalist sails. With the coming of war in Europe and Asia, FDR edged the United States into combat. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, however, brought the United States fully into the conflict.
Balancing Internationalism and Economic Problems at Home
In contrast to President Hoover, who believed that the Depression arose from international circumstances, Roosevelt believed that the nation's economic woes were largely home-grown. As a result, FDR rejected Hoover's numerous entreaties (delivered during the period between FDR's election and inauguration) that the incoming administration support Hoover's approach to the upcoming London Economic Conference. Hoover hoped that in London the United States and other leading industrial nations would devise a currency stabilization program and pledge its support for the international gold standard.
In rejecting Hoover's approach, FDR essentially embraced a form of economic nationalism and committed the United States to solving the Depression on its own. He scuttled the London Economic Conference in the summer of 1933 and devalued the dollar by removing the United States from the international gold standard. With this latter maneuver, Roosevelt sought to artificially inflate the value of the American dollar in the hope of putting more currency into the hands of cash-poor Americans. Unfortunately, this measure further destabilized the world economy. Roosevelt soon recognized his mistake and his administration worked with England and France to stabilize the international economic system, negotiating monetary agreements with those nations in 1936.
Despite his early approach to foreign economic policy, FDR quickly demonstrated his internationalist leanings. In 1934, FDR won passage of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, which allowed him to grant "most favored nation" trade status to countries with which the United States worked out trade agreements. In 1933, Roosevelt dramatically altered America's relationship with the Soviet Union, establishing official ties between the two nations. FDR hoped that improved relations with the U.S.S.R. would expand American trade opportunities and deter Japanese expansion. Ultimately, the agreement accomplished neither. Another indication of FDR's commitment to international cooperation came with his unsuccessful fight in 1935 for U.S. membership in the World Court.
During this early period in his administration, Roosevelt scored his greatest foreign policy success through his "good neighbor" policy towards Latin America and countries of the Western Hemisphere. In actuality, Hoover began the "Good Neighbor" initiative and Roosevelt merely followed his predecessor's course. But under FDR's watch, the last American troops withdrew from the Caribbean, and the United States abrogated the Platt Amendment, wherein the government of Cuba had pledged to recognize the right of the United States to intervene in its country. Moreover, the United States supported the 1933 Pan-American Conference resolution which stipulated that no country had the right to intervene in the internal or foreign affairs of another country. FDR even accepted Mexico's 1938 nationalization of its oil industry—which expropriated American assets—rejecting calls for intervention and ordering the State Department to work out a compensation plan instead.
Confronting Germany and Japan
FDR kept a wary eye on events unfolding in Europe and Asia during the mid-1930s, especially the increasingly bellicose behavior of Japan, Germany, and Italy. Roosevelt wanted to curb Japan's growing power in Asia by supporting China, although this policy had strict limits. Previously, the Hoover administration had acquiesced in Japan's flagrant occupation in late 1931 of Manchuria, a Chinese territory, rich in minerals, and the Roosevelt Administration proved no more willing in the intervening years to actively oppose Japanese aggression. Instead, like Hoover before him, Roosevelt merely refused to recognize Japanese control of Manchuria. Likewise, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 provoked no significant response from the United States. To be sure, Ethiopia's dismemberment failed to spur Britain or France to action, either.
The leaders of Japan and Germany surely noted the democracies' failure to respond to aggression in Manchuria and Ethiopia. In Japan, a militarist and expansionist government, still smarting from what it perceived as shabby treatment in the aftermath of the Great War, eyed regional domination. Japan's developing grand strategy involved gaining access to the oil and other raw materials of East Asia and establishing a colonial empire, or what Japanese leaders in 1938 called a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." In Germany, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, blaming old enemies and Jews for his country's woes. Hitler spoke menacingly of the German people's need for more living space ("Lebensraum") and his belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. He also flagrantly announced that Germany would begin to re-arm itself, repudiating disarmament agreements it had signed in the 1920s.
In this ominous environment, the United States adopted an official policy of neutrality. Indeed, between 1935 and 1939, Congress passed five different Neutrality Acts that forbade American involvement in foreign conflicts. The impetus for these laws came from a revitalized American peace movement, the revelations of war-profiteering by American munitions businesses during the Great War, and a widespread belief among Americans that their intervention in the European war had been fruitless. Roosevelt tried to water down these laws—which often made no distinction between the aggressor and the victim—to mixed success. And while he often talked a tough game, especially in his famous Chicago speech of 1937 which warned of the need to "quarantine" aggressors, the President more often than not proved unwilling to buck isolationist sentiment.
Unsurprisingly, then, the United States stood idle as Europe moved closer to war. In 1936, a civil war in Spain erupted, pitting the Republican Spanish government against the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Franco received support from Germany and Italy, while England, France, and the United States—citing their desire to keep the Spanish conflict from becoming a second world war—ignored the Republican forces' calls for aid. Franco emerged victorious in 1939.
Descent into War
Hitler began his ruinous conquest of Europe in 1936, marching his troops into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone that bordered France, Belgium, and Germany. In late 1936, Germany allied with Italy and Japan; it annexed Austria two years later. As Hitler eyed the Sudetenland (a part of Czechoslovakia), France and Britain, who feared a continent-wide conflict, met with Hitler at Munich and struck what they thought was a peace-saving bargain: they would accede to Hitler's conquest of the Sudetenland in exchange for his agreement not to pursue more territory. The deal was struck without the participation of the Czechs—and with the approval of FDR.
Six months later, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, in outright defiance of the Munich agreement. It was clear that Hitler's next target was Poland, and Britain and France pledged themselves to its defense. In a masterful diplomatic move, Hitler concluded a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in late August 1939, removing an adversary to his east. On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. World War II had begun.
In the Spring of 1940, Hitler turned his attentions towards Western Europe, invading and conquering Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Norway, and France. Nazi Germany (along with its allies Italy and the Soviet Union) now controlled all of continental Europe. Only Britain remained free of the Nazi yoke. In the summer of 1940, Hitler began a massive air war against England to soften its defenses in preparation for a full-scale invasion of the British Isles.
Roosevelt's sympathies clearly lay with the British and French, but he was hamstrung by the Neutrality Acts and a strong isolationist bloc in American politics. Upon the outbreak hostilities in September 1939, FDR re-asserted American neutrality, noting, however, that he could not "ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well." He did his best, then, to nudge the United States towards supporting Great Britain, supplying that nation with all aid "short of war." This strategy had three main effects. First, it offered Britain both psychological encouragement and materiel aid, though often more of the former than the latter. Second, it bought the United States time to shore up its military preparedness, which was inadequate for a world war. Finally, it made the United States an active, if undeclared, participant in the war.
In the fall of 1939, FDR won a slight revision of the Neutrality Act, which now allowed belligerents to buy arms in the United States, but only with cash and only if they transported their purchases themselves, a provision called "cash and carry." Nearly one year later, the United States and Great Britain struck a deal in which the Americans loaned the British fifty mothballed destroyers in return for the use of eight British military bases. And in March 1941, FDR won enactment of a Lend-Lease program that allowed the British and other allies continued access to American arms and supplies despite their rapidly deteriorating financial situation. The huge sum of $7 billion that Congress appropriated would eventually reach more than $50 billion.
The war took a vital turn that same year. After failing to subdue the British through the air—the so-called "Battle of Britain" in which the Royal Air Force emerged victorious over the German Luftwaffe—Hitler made two fateful decisions. First, he launched a massive invasion of his former ally, the Soviet Union. Second, he tried to conquer the British by choking that island nation from the sea, ordering Nazi submarines to attack British shipping in the North Atlantic. The two decisions only drew the United States more deeply into the war. FDR extended lend-lease aid to the Soviets. More important, he ordered the American Navy to the North Atlantic first to "patrol" that region and then to "escort" British ships. This latter order allowed the Navy to fire on German subs at sight. By the fall of 1941, Germany and the United States were at war in all but name.
Roosevelt's leadership during this period was crucial, although far from flawless. He and British prime minister Winston Churchill formed an effective team, and crafted a joint statement of their nations' war goals, called the "Atlantic Charter," in August 1941. This cooperation extended to both leaders' subordinates, who began planning in earnest for the coming war. At home, FDR managed to quiet the isolationist howls that greeted his "short of war" strategy and to further the process of rebuilding and re-arming America's military.
Still, FDR rarely staked out policy positions which committed the nation to a clear course of action. Roosevelt's actions essentially placed the United States at war but FDR refused to acknowledge the danger, often responding with evasive answers to press queries about the difference between the nation being "short of war" and at war. Finally, FDR often proved a confusing, frustrating, and spotty administrator as he directed the nation's military and industrial preparations for war. Prominent members of his cabinet and staff found all these failures exasperating.
The immense challenges that Roosevelt faced in the European conflict were compounded by the worsening situation in Asia, and particularly by the downturn in U.S.-Japanese relations. In 1937, that relationship deteriorated further after Japan attacked China, a nation to which a number of Americans had a strong attachment. FDR offered aid to China, although the neutrality laws and the power of the isolationist bloc in American politics ensured that such assistance remain extremely limited. Instead, FDR's strategy, in concert with other Western nations, was to contain and isolate Japan economically and politically. If he could keep the "Japanese dog"—as Churchill referred to Japan—at bay, FDR reasoned that he could deal with what he saw as the more pressing German problem. In practical terms, FDR also realized how difficult it would be for the United States to prepare for—much less to fight—wars simultaneously in Asia and Europe.
The strategy turned out to have significant drawbacks. By isolating Japan, the United States and its allies exacerbated Japan's fears of being denied access to the resources it needed to prosecute further its war in China. By the summer of 1941, Japan's leaders felt increasingly hemmed in by a coalition of America, Britain, China, and the Dutch (the ABCD powers) and adopted overtly aggressive foreign and military policies.
Japan invaded southern Indochina in the summer of 1941 to secure industrial supplies it deemed necessary to maintain its empire and military advantage. The Roosevelt administration responded by freezing Japan's assets in the United States, and restricting its access to petroleum products. Japanese leaders were both furious and even more convinced that the United States imperiled their national interest. Roosevelt and his advisers, meanwhile, girded for war.
War came, but in a most unexpected fashion. On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, America's vital outpost in the Pacific. The attack greatly damaged, but did not devastate, America's Pacific fleet, whose aircraft carriers were at sea. Congress declared war on Japan on December 8; three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which the U.S. Congress acknowledged in a resolution accepting the state of war. By December 1941, the United States had finally entered the war—now a true world war—as a participant, following several years as an interested and active bystander. The country would never be the same.
World War II
The fortunes of the Allies looked bleak in the first months of 1942. By January, the British and the Soviets—who in May would sign a formal treaty of alliance—appeared to have halted the Nazi onslaught, at least temporarily. By no means, however, were these two nations, even with American aid, ready to turn the war decisively in their favor, especially with the Nazis in control of Western Europe and the American war machine still in varying states of readiness. Moreover, during the first months of 1942, German submarines sent nearly one million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom of the Atlantic. In Asia, Japan racked up a string of victories over the United States and its British and Dutch allies as it moved from island to island, evicting Allied defenders; the United States suffered costly defeats in the Philippines (April and May), as well as in the Pacific at the Battle of Java Sea (February).
Allied strategy, agreed upon by the United States and Britain before America had entered the war, called for the United States to fight a holding action in the Pacific while the Allies concentrated on the defeat of Nazi Germany. America's first significant gains, however, came against Japan as the U.S. Navy scored a series of victories in 1942, first in the Coral Sea in early May and then at Midway Island in June, effectively halting the Japanese advance. In Europe, the Soviet Union absorbed devastating attacks from the German Army on the Eastern front, with the Nazis advancing to within thirty miles of Moscow.
In the North Atlantic, British and American ships—utilizing the convoy
strategy and superior technology—reduced the effectiveness of German submarines. By November, Britain and the United States were able to mount a coordinated offensive against Germany, launching an attack in North Africa.
The tide turned against Japan and Germany, and in favor of the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, the following year. In the Pacific, the United States began to tighten the noose around Japanese through an island-hopping campaign. The Americans won major victories at Guadalcanal (February), Bougainville (November), and Tarawa (November). The fighting, however, was exceptionally brutal and casualties were high on both sides; at Tarawa, a 300-acre spit of land, the Americans took 3,000 casualties.
In Europe, the British and the Americans completed the North Africa campaign in May 1943 a few months after the Soviets had turned back the Nazis at Stalingrad, the decisive battle on the Eastern front. Churchill had convinced FDR at the Casablanca conference in January 1943 that the Allies should next invade the "soft underbelly" of Nazi Europe: Italy. Stalin disagreed—he wanted a major assault on France to force the Nazis to shift troops to Western Europe—but to no avail; the joint Anglo-American invasion of Italy began in the summer of 1943. It was a brutal and bloody fight that lasted for two years. In November, the "Big Three"—FDR, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Tehran, Iran, where FDR and Churchill promised a skeptical Stalin that they would invade France in 1944.
Under the command of American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies landed in northwestern France on June 6, 1944, The "D-Day" operation was a grand success, and Paris was liberated by the end of the summer. During the fall of 1944, American and British forces swept across France. The war appeared to be heading towards its final chapter as the Soviets made quick progress on the Eastern front and the Americans and British closed in on Germany.
The Allies made similar gains in Asia in 1944, winning key battles in the Philippines, New Guinea, Saipan, and Guam. These two latter victories gave the United States control of islands from which they could launch bombers to attack major Japanese cities from the air. This air war began in earnest in late 1944, decimating Japan's industrial centers and terrorizing its people. The invasion of Japan, however, lay ahead in 1945 and American war planners feared it would be as bloody as the Pacific campaign that preceded it, only on a larger scale.
Against the backdrop of these developments, FDR and his aides fleshed out plans for the structure of the post-war world, a task they undertook beginning in the early 1940s. In 1942, FDR played a key role in forging a coalition of twenty-six nations which affirmed the ideals set down the Atlantic Charter; FDR called this coalition the "United Nations." The President hoped that the United Nations, as an organization, would outlast the war and thenceforth adopt a new agenda: world peace and cooperation. At Tehran in 1943, FDR managed to secure Stalin's agreement to join that proposed body.
Discussions between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin continued at Yalta, in the Crimea, in January 1945. By this time, FDR was a weak and sick man, run down from his years in office, his energetic campaigning, and his medical condition. The Yalta meeting, moreover, was extremely tense. Victory in Europe was almost assured, but the Allies had not yet agreed on post-war Europe's political or economic future. Stalin was angry that the Americans and British had not crossed the English Channel earlier, leaving the Soviets to absorb the brunt of Germany's military power. Roosevelt appreciated Stalin's complaints, though as early as 1943 he was preparing to recognize a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. For its part, Moscow interpreted the Yalta arrangements, which included a signed Declaration of Liberated Europe, as granting it a free hand to set up puppet governments throughout the region.
One month after Yalta, Allied troops crossed the Rhine River into Germany. German soldiers were now surrendering in the tens of thousands as the Nazi regime crumbled. As they advanced, Allied troops uncovered the realities of Hitler's race policy; the concentration camps that had been built for resettling and working political prisoners from all over Europe, and the extermination camps, set up primarily in central and eastern Europe, charged with exterminating entire groups of people, with Jews as the primary target. FDR and his administration had known for much of the war that the Nazis were killing Jews—although they probably did not, and could not, conceive of the scale of this operation. FDR's policy was to win the war first, which would in turn stop the killing. Many years later, this policy would come under attack by those who believed that America could have, and should have, done more to help European Jews.
As the Allies closed in on Berlin, Hitler, surrounded by a small flock of loyal followers, implored his armed forces—now numbering increasing numbers of teenage boys—to continue the fight. On the other side of the globe, U.S. forces tightened the ring around Japan. Franklin D. Roosevelt would not live to celebrate victory over either adversary, however.
Roosevelt's health was in decline as FDR prepared in 1944 for both a fourth run at the presidency and the aftermath of World War II. A March 1944 examination by his doctors revealed a variety of heart ailments, high blood pressure, and bronchitis. Those close to the President—and even those who saw him speak in public—noted his haggard and weak appearance, his flagging energy, and his increasing lapses of concentration and memory. Most of the American public was unaware of the President's struggles—though rumors about FDR's health often ran wild—and FDR delivered a few key, command performances in 1944 that quieted concerns. Nonetheless, Roosevelt's election victory over Thomas E. Dewey in 1944, in addition to the Yalta Conference the following February, put the President under immense strain.
In April 1945, FDR returned to Warm Springs, Georgia, a destination that had served since the 1920s as his favorite retreat. There, on April 12, while sitting for a portrait, he collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vice President Harry Truman took the oath of office the same day.
Roosevelt's passing stunned the world. Churchill later described learning of FDR's death as comparable to having "been struck a physical blow." Stalin, too, was distressed to learn of FDR's passing. Many Americans no doubt agreed with these leaders. Hundreds of thousands of people, many with tears in their eyes, lined the train route carrying his body from Georgia to Washington, D.C., and then on to Hyde Park, to pay their final respects. Roosevelt was buried in Hyde Park, New York, on April 15, 1945.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had five sons and a daughter, although one son died in infancy. FDR was not deeply involved in raising his children, in part because he was so occupied with his work. But he also believed that childrearing was his wife's (or the family nanny's) task. When FDR entered the White House in 1933, his oldest child, Anna, was in her late twenties and his youngest child, John, was in his late teens. Nonetheless, the children played important roles in their father's life while he was President, offering him emotional comfort, tending to the physical needs of a man withered by polio, and, in some cases, helping him execute his daily duties as chief executive of the United States government.
Anna moved into the White House in 1933 while going through a divorce from her first husband and stayed for more than a year. In 1943, she returned to the White House to serve as her father's confidential assistant. She accompanied him to the Yalta Conference in 1945 and was with him in Warm Springs Georgia in April 1945 when he suffered a fatal stroke. Anna's brother James (the second oldest child) oversaw his father's presidential campaign in Massachusetts in 1932 and later served as an assistant (and later secretary) to his father in 1937. James stayed at the White House for less than a year, departing because of the stress his job entailed and because FDR's political opponents had charged that he received his position through mere cronyism. During the war, James joined the Marines, while his brothers John and Franklin enlisted in the Navy. His other brother, Elliott, served in the Air Force.
FDR's life at the White House was consumed largely by the heavy duties of leading the United States through the Depression and the Second World War. But the President still found time to relax. He enjoyed collecting stamps, bird-watching, playing cards, or swimming in the pool he had built at the White House. FDR was an extremely out-going man who relished the company of others, and hosted a cocktail hour each day for those in his inner circle. He regularly entertained friends and acquaintances, as well as political allies and visiting dignitaries, at the White House.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's smashing victory in the 1936 presidential election revealed that the American political landscape had shifted. With FDR at its head, the Democratic Party put together a formidable coalition whose main components were lower-income groups in the great cities—African-Americans, union members, and ethnic and religious minorities, many from recent immigrant groups—and the traditional source of Democratic strength, "the Solid South." Roosevelt carried every former Confederate state all four times he ran, but no Democrat has done so since 1944, FDR's final race. This "New Deal coalition," as it came to be known, powered the Democratic Party for the next thirty years. Its strong hold on these voters was due largely to the social, political, economic, and cultural changes wrought by the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II.
One important demographic change underlay the experience of African-Americans during the Roosevelt years. The migration of African-Americans from the South to the urban North, which began in 1910, continued in the 1930s and accelerated in the 1940s during World War II. As a result, black Americans during the Roosevelt years lived for the most part either in the urban North or in the rural South, although the Depression chased increasingly large numbers of blacks to southern cities as well. In the North, blacks encountered de facto segregation, racism, and discrimination in housing and public services; nevertheless, they were able to vote and had better job opportunities. In the South, blacks were disfranchised, lived under a segregationist regime enforced by violence, and found fewer avenues for escape from crushing poverty.
No matter where they lived, African Americans were especially hard hit by the Depression. In the rural south, blacks found it increasingly difficult even to survive. In northern and southern cities, blacks saw their jobs—which were usually of the entry level, low paying, and unskilled or semi-skilled variety—disappear, either consumed by the faltering economy or snatched up by desperate unemployed whites. By 1932, over half of blacks in southern cities were unemployed. The employment situation for African Americans in the urban North was only marginally better for the growing black middle class. In Harlem, black ownership or management of property dropped precipitously in the first half of the 1930s.
Did the New Deal improve the lot of African Americans? The record is mixed. The aid provided by the New Deal to America's poor—black and white—was insufficient. Racism reared its head in the New Deal, often because federal programs were administered through local authorities or community leaders who brought their own racial biases to the table. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) offered white landowners cash for leaving their fields fallow, which they happily accepted; they, however, did not pass on their government checks to the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who actually worked the land. Even in the North, blacks found that New Deal programs did not always treat them as well as whites.
There can be little doubt, however, that the New Deal in many instances was a boon to African Americans. In one sense, this was a question of degree. Aid to African-Americans prior to 1933, especially in the South, had been nearly non-existent; the federal help that did come with the New Deal, therefore, was significant. In addition, New Deal agencies like the WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) grew more sensitive throughout the 1930s to the needs of African-Americans, largely because of the leadership of Roosevelt appointees at those agencies. Indeed, African Americans found significant allies in the administration, from Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to the First Lady herself, Eleanor Roosevelt. Enough blacks, like Mary McLeod Bethune, found themselves in leadership positions that there was even talk of a "black Cabinet" of FDR advisers.
Roosevelt's approach towards civil rights legislation was janus-faced. FDR spoke out against lynching, found the poll tax reprehensible, and, at the prodding of his wife, met in the White House with African American civil rights leaders. FDR, though, refused to make an anti-lynching bill a priority, though, in truth, opposition ot the legislation was so strong that it never had a chance. In his defense, FDR claimed—and he was probably correct—that endorsing legislation which threatened the South's racial order would cost him the votes of Southerners in Congress—support he desperately needed.
World War II accelerated many of the trends in African-American life that became clear during the 1930s. Blacks continued to move from rural areas to cities, and more than half a million moved to the North during the war years. The war brought a surge in public and private spending that in turn spurred job creation and created a full-employment economy—which meant that blacks found both more and better jobs. On the other hand, the growing presence of blacks in the urban industrial North exacerbated racial tensions with whites. The result was sometimes deadly violence, as in the riots that shook Detroit in 1943.
Spurred by the U.S. crusade against Nazism, black advocates of civil rights called for a "double V" campaign that would bring victories against fascism abroad and racism at home. The war years saw the growth of black organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Committee (later Congress) for Racial Equality, dedicated to winning civil rights at home. Blacks even met with some success; during the summer of 1941, A. Philip Randolph threatened the Roosevelt administration with a 100,000 person "March on Washington" if discrimination was not ended in the military and the defense industries. Roosevelt capitulated and issued an Executive Order creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
Roosevelt's performance, then was deeply flawed, but blacks rendered their own verdict when in 1936 they abandoned their historic allegiance to the Republicans, the party of Abe Lincoln, and moved in large numbers over to the Democrats, the party of FDR, where they have been ever since. One of Roosevelt's severest critics, Ralph Bunch, said the FDR era "represented a radical break with the past," and W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that Roosevelt "gave the American Negro a kind of recognition in political life which the Negro had never before received."
The experiences of American women during the Roosevelt years, like the experiences of African-Americans, were marked by both victories and setbacks. In one respect, women achieved notable success: in unprecedented numbers, they began to fill important positions in the federal government. FDR appointed Francis Perkins Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to serve in the cabinet. Besides Perkins, women also gained important upper-level administrative positions in a variety of New Deal agencies and programs. In addition, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the most active and prominent woman ever to hold that honorary title.
Since several New Deal programs aimed to provide relief and social welfare—areas in which women reformers had a long history of expertise—it comes as little surprise that these same women found their way into New Deal agencies. The New Deal, however, was not designed to help women in particular, even if some of its programs, like the WPA and Aid to Dependent Children, did at least benefit women indirectly. The New Deal's chief goal, rather, was the resuscitation of the "family wage," a term that assumed the husband was the family's primary wage-earner and the wife ran the home.
As a result, many New Deal relief, employment, and welfare programs were intended primarily for men and offered fewer benefits to American women. In some cases, this targeting was explicit: the 1933 Economy Act prohibited the federal government from hiring members of the same family, which meant women lost their jobs; the NRA allowed employers to pay women less than men, even for doing the same job. In some cases, sex discrimination was more subtle: the Social Security Act did not provide for domestics, large percentages of whom were women. It should also be noted that sex and race discrimination intersected in many New Deal programs, a dynamic that left African-American women outside of the already leaky protective umbrella of the New Deal.
World War II, though, marked an important change in women's lives in at least two ways. First, marriage rates spiked in the early 1940s, rising slowly through the second half of the 1930s after the doldrums of the early Depression. These newlyweds would provide the United States with a "baby boom" during those first several years following the end of the war. Second, government and private spending during the war produced jobs, many of which—because men were increasingly joining the military—went to women. Indeed, women joined the workforce in such unprecedented numbers—19 million undertook wage-work at some point during the war years—that "Rosie the Riveter," the iconic female laborer publicized by the War Manpower Commission, became a staple of wartime propaganda.
Between 1900 and 1930, the number of persons of Mexican descent living in the American southwest jumped from 375,000 to well over 1.1 million. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans found employment, as well as back-breaking and low-paying work, on large farms. The Great Depression, however, reduced the need for farm labor and caused unemployment among Mexicans living in the United States and Mexican-Americans to soar. At the behest of politicians and community leaders in the southwest looking to solve the region's unemployment problem, the U.S. government forcibly sent nearly 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (some of them citizens) to Mexico. Those Mexican and Mexican Americans who remained in the United States faced grinding poverty and little help from the New Deal, which too often failed to help agricultural workers and people of color.
America's entry into World War II, however, marked a watershed moment in the history of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Roughly 350,000 Mexican-Americans would serve in the American military. On the home front, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, like blacks and women, took advantage of new and more lucrative employment opportunities in military-related industries. They moved increasingly into urban areas to work these better paying jobs, though they were not always welcomed with open arms. This racial and ethnic hostility erupted in June 1943 when rampaging American sailors attacked young Mexican Americans (known as "zoot-suiters," in reference to their distinctive style of dress) in the streets of Los Angeles. The police and military refused to intervene in what became known as the "zoot suit riots." The police, in fact, arrested more Mexicans and Mexican-Americans than sailors.
The war had one more important consequence: it reversed the flow of immigrants between the United States and Mexico yet again. The agricultural sector in the southwest needed Mexican labor to meet war-time demands, and the U.S. government worked out an agreement with Mexico for what would be called the "bracero" program, in which Mexicans came to the United States as temporary workers. The bracero program, which brought more than 200,000 Mexicans to the United States (the majority to California) during the war, remained in place until the 1960s.
Between 1933 and 1945, union membership grew from less than 3 million workers to 14 million workers, a number which accounted for nearly thirty percent of all American workers. This fantastic growth resulted largely from changes in American politics and economics wrought by the Great Depression and the New Deal. The passage of the NIRA in 1933, with its "Section 7a" that gave workers the rights to organize and bargain collectively, accelerated the growth of union membership. After the Supreme Court invalidated the NIRA in 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which strengthened labor's rights vis a vis management, and gave real enforcement powers to the National Labor Relations Board. Workers and unions now had tangible evidence that the American government stood behind them.
When Roosevelt came to power, almost no factory worker in America belonged to a union. In no other developed country in the Western world was that true. But during the FDR years, a new labor coalition, the congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), unionized the steel, automobile, textile, and other large industries. The CIO, headed by John L. Lewis, chief of the United Mine Workers, welcomed assembly line laborers, who often came from religious and ethnic minorities; in contrast, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was interested primarily in craft workers, such as carpenters with northern European backgrounds. When in 1937, the auto workers launched sit-down strikes, Roosevelt refused to sanction the use of force to dislodge them. As a result, General motors and other firms were compelled to recognize these new unions. Not until World War II, though, did Henry Ford and other recalcitrant employers yield.
African-American workers increasingly joined unions to protect their employment rights as well. One of the most powerful of such organizations was the Sleeping Car Porters' Union, a group of railroad-passenger attendants that was almost completely composed of African-Americans. Led by the tireless, charismatic A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), the union languished for years until Roosevelt's legislation made it legally viable. It was the first African-American union to be allowed into the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1935, the Porters' Union forced a virulently anti-union company, the makers and operators of Pullman passenger cars, to sit at the bargaining table with the union's members. After two long years of struggle, Pullman agreed to terms, a milestone event in American civil rights history.
During World War II, the effort to make the United States the "arsenal of democracy" aided American workers by making jobs plentiful and raising wages. Most unions agreed to a no-strike pledge at the beginning of the war. Nonetheless, conflict between labor and management still arose, largely over who controlled the shop floor, and who set work rates and salaries. In 1943, half a million coal miners went on strike four separate times to protest low pay. African-American workers, likewise, still confronted discrimination on the job. When A. Philip Randolph in 1941 threatened a "March on Washington" to protest discrimination in military industries and the services, FDR issued an Executive Order directing government agencies and contractors to hire without regard to race or religion. The Executive Order also created a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to monitor its implementation, although the commission had no enforcement powers.
Without a doubt, American workers improved their lot during the Roosevelt years. They, and the unions they joined, achieved a new legitimacy in the American political and economic arena and received hard-won wage increases, although those wages did not rise as much as workers wanted. Conservatives in Congress and many business leaders, moreover, still considered unions illegitimate. The challenges for African-American workers were even greater. Nonetheless, American workers and the unions that represented them believed that in Franklin D. Roosevelt, they had an ally in the White House. They would reward him—and his Democratic successors—with their votes and support for years to come.
Although Congress passed a series of immigration laws in the 1920s which essentially halted the great migration of European immigrants since the last decades of the nineteenth century, recent immigrants continued to play an important role in American political, economic, and social life. The Great Depression hit recent immigrants very hard. They often worked in the low-paying industrial jobs that disappeared during the economic crisis. The ethnic communities that sustained immigrants as they adapted to life in the United States suffered too, as local businesses—from banks to tailors to groceries—failed.
Starting with the 1928 election, the Democratic Party began to win the votes of recent immigrants, in large part because candidate Al Smith rejected prohibition and displayed a sensitivity to life in urban American, where immigrants most often lived. FDR built upon Smith's gains in the 1932 general election. The New Deal especially energized recent immigrants and brought them into the Democratic Party. Roosevelt appointed Jews and Catholics to important positions in his administration, heartening immigrant newcomers who reveled in the appointment of their co-religionists. So great a departure was Roosevelt's attitude from that of previous Presidents, whose appointments were largely restricted to white, northern European, Protestant men, that Time magazine featured on the cover of one of its issues in 1935 two of his advisers, Thomas Corcoran (an Irish Catholic) and Benjamin Cohen (a Jew).
Most important to the party's success, however, was the emotional attachment recent immigrants felt toward FDR. They believed that he was their President and saw him a father-figure who watched after their interests. It was not unusual in the 1930s for FDR's picture to hang in a prominent place in a recent immigrant's home or business. These new Americans joined the Democratic party, and they and their children would vote Democratic for the next generation.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as President from March 1933 to April 1945, the longest tenure in American history. He may have done more during those twelve years to change American society and politics than any of his predecessors in the White House, save Abraham Lincoln. Of course, some of this was the product of circumstances; the Great Depression and the rise of Germany and Japan were beyond FDR's control. But his responses to the challenges he faced made him a defining figure in American history.
Americans elected Roosevelt President in 1932 because they believed he could combat the Depression more effectively than his Republican opponent, President Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt promised a "new deal" and he certainly delivered. By implementing a variety of innovative policies, FDR was able to pull the United States away from the brink of economic, social, and perhaps even political, disaster—and lay the foundation for future stability and prosperity.
Under FDR, the American federal government assumed new and powerful roles in the nation's economy, in its corporate life, and in the health, welfare, and well-being of its citizens. The federal government in 1935 guaranteed unions the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a mechanism for putting a floor under wages and a ceiling on hours that continues to this day. It provided, in 1935, financial aid to the aged, infirm, and unemployed when they could no longer provide for themselves. Beginning in 1933, it helped rural and agricultural America with price supports and development programs when these sectors could barely survive. Finally, by embracing an activist fiscal policy after 1937, the government assumed responsibility for smoothing out the rough spots in the American economy.
Writ large, the New Deal sought to insure that the economic, social, and political benefits of American capitalism were distributed more equally among America's large and diverse populace. The New Deal did this to a remarkable degree. But FDR's New Deal failed to cure completely the Depression-induced ills of the American economy. By 1940, the percentage of Americans without jobs remained in double digits and the American people lacked the purchasing power to jump start the economy. Only American entry into World War II ended this torpor.
If capitalism was still sick in 1940, democracy was also suffering from various maladies. African-Americans and women, despite a number of benefits accrued from the New Deal, still received far fewer of those benefits than white males and, partly as a result, remained at the bottom of the American economic ladder. The New Deal, moreover, did nothing to ensure that rights guaranteed to all Americans via the Constitution, such as the right to vote and the right to a fair trial, were guaranteed to blacks.
If FDR was elected in 1932 to fight the Depression, he was largely re-elected in 1940 because Americans believed he could guide the nation through a period of treacherous international relations. FDR correctly understood that Japan and Germany threatened the United States, which in turn endangered the cherished freedoms Americans enjoyed at home. With the onset of war in 1939, FDR ably guided America's efforts to aid its allies without formally entering into hostilities. When Japan and Germany forced his hand in December 1941, Roosevelt rallied Americans in support of a massive war effort, both at home and abroad.
FDR hoped that the war would produce a more secure and peaceful post-war world, and he became a major proponent of a post-war United Nations, in which the United States would be a leading member. FDR, however, left to his successors the thorny problem of relations with the Soviet Union, which quickly replaced Germany and Japan as America's chief global adversary. Nonetheless, a sea change had occurred in American foreign relations under FDR. By 1945, the United States had become a global power with global responsibilities—and its new leaders both understood this new reality and had the tools at their disposal to shape the world accordingly.
FDR also reshaped the American presidency. Through his "fireside chats," delivered to an audience via the new technology of radio, FDR built a bond between himself and the public—doing much to shape the image of the President as the caretaker of the American people. Under FDR's leadership, the President's duties grew to encompass not only those of the chief executive—as implementer of policy—but also chief legislator—as drafter of policy. And in trying to design and craft legislation, FDR required a White House staff and set of advisers unlike any seen previously in Washington. The President now needed a full-time staff devoted to domestic and foreign policies, with expertise in these areas, and a passion for governance. With enactment of the Executive Reorganization bill in 1939, FDR changed the shape of the White House forever. In sum, President Roosevelt greatly increased the responsibilities of his office. Fortunately for his successors, he also enhanced the capacity of the presidency to meet these new responsibilities.