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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

He raised the edifice of the American Century by restoring a nation's promise of plenty and by intervening to save a world enveloped in darkness

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

cover photo

December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:32 p.m. EST (1732 GMT)

From Warm Springs, Ga., where he died, the funeral train moved slowly through the rural South to a service in Washington, then past the now thriving cities of the North, and finally to Hyde Park, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, where he was born. Wherever it passed, Americans by the hundreds of thousands stood vigil, those who had loved him and those who came to witness a momentous passage in the life of the nation. Men stood with their arms around the shoulders of their wives and mothers. They stood in clusters, heads bowed, openly weeping. They clasped their hands in prayer. A father lifted his son to see the last car, which carried the flag-draped coffin. "I saw everything," the boy said. "That's good," the father said. "Now make sure you remember."

He had been President of the United States for 12 of the most tumultuous years in the life of the nation. For many, an America without Roosevelt seemed almost inconceivable. He had guided the nation through democracy's two monumental crises--the Great Depression and World War II. Those who watched the coffin pass were the beneficiaries of his nation's victory. Their children would live to see the causes for which he stood--prosperity and freedom, economic justice and political democracy--gather strength throughout the century, come to dominate life in America and in much of the world.

It is tempting to view these triumphs as the consequence of irresistible historical forces. But inevitability is merely an illusory label we impose on that which has already happened. It does not tell us what might have happened. For that, we need to view events through the eyes of those who lived them. Looked at that way, we understand that twice in mid-century, capitalism and democracy were in the gravest peril, rescued by the enormous efforts of countless people summoned to struggle by their peerless leader--Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House," the New York Times editorialized at the time of his death. "It was his hand, more than that of any other single man, that built the great coalition of the United Nations. It was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people."

Even through the grainy newsreels, we can see what the people at the time saw: the radiant smile, the eyes flashing with good humor, the cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, the good-natured toss of the head, the buoyant optimism, the serene confidence with which he met economic catastrophe and international crisis.

When Roosevelt assumed the presidency, America was in its third year of depression. No other decline in American history had been so deep, so lasting, so far reaching. Factories that had once produced steel, automobiles, furniture and textiles stood eerily silent. One out of every four Americans was unemployed, and in the cities the number reached nearly 50%. In the countryside, crops that could not be sold at market rotted in the fields. More than half a million homeowners, unable to pay their mortgages, had lost their homes and their farms; thousands of banks had failed, destroying the life savings of millions. The Federal Government had virtually no mechanisms in place to provide relief.

As the Great Depression circled the globe, democracy and capitalism were everywhere in retreat. The propaganda of the day proclaimed that the choice was one of two extremes--fascism or communism. In Germany, economic collapse led to the triumph of the Nazi party and the installation of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor; in Italy, Benito Mussolini assumed dictatorial power with an ideology called Fascism; in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and the communist ideology held sway.

"Capitalism is dying," theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued. "Let no one delude himself by hoping for reform from within." The American Communist Party believed its moment had come. "If I vote at all," social critic Lewis Mumford said, "it will be for the Communists." "The destruction of the Democratic Party," argued University of Chicago professor Paul Douglas (who would later become a pillar of the same party), "would be one of the best things that could happen in our political life." "The situation is critical," political analyst Walter Lippman warned Roosevelt two months before he took office. "You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial power."

It was Roosevelt's lasting accomplishment that he found a middle ground between the unbridled laissez-faire of the '20s and the brutal dictatorships of the '30s. His conviction that a democratic government had a responsibility to help Americans in distress--not as a matter of charity but as a matter of social duty--provided a moral compass to guide both his words and his actions. Believing there had never been a time other than the Civil War when democratic institutions had been in such jeopardy, Roosevelt fashioned a New Deal, which fundamentally altered the relationship of the government to its people, rearranged the balance of power between capital and labor and made the industrial system more humane.

Massive public works projects put millions to work building schools, roads, libraries, hospitals; repairing bridges; digging conservation trails; painting murals in public buildings. The Securities and Exchange Commission regulated a stock market that had been run as an insiders' game. Federal funds protected home mortgages so that property owners could keep their homes; legislation guaranteed labor's right to organize and established minimum wages and maximum hours. A sweeping Social Security system provided a measure of security and dignity to the elderly.

No factor was more important to Roosevelt's success than his confidence in himself and his unshakable belief in the American people. What is more, he had a remarkable capacity to transmit his cheerful strength to others, to make them believe that if they pulled together, everything would turn out all right. The source of this remarkable confidence can be traced to his earliest days. "All that is in me goes back to the Hudson," Roosevelt liked to say, meaning not simply the peaceful, slow-moving river and the big, comfortable clapboard house but the ambiance of boundless devotion that encompassed him as a child. Growing up in an atmosphere in which affection and respect were plentiful, where the discipline was fair and loving, and the opportunities for self-expression were abundant, he came to trust that the world was basically a friendly and agreeable place. After schooling at Groton, Harvard and Columbia, he practiced law for a short period and then entered what would become his lifelong profession: politics. He won a seat in the New York State senate, became an Assistant Secretary in the Navy Department and ran as the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic Party's unsuccessful ticket in 1920.

He was 39, at the height of his powers, when he was stricken with polio and became a paraplegic. He had been an athlete, a man who had loved to swim and sail, to play tennis and golf, to run in the woods and ride horseback in the fields. Determined to overcome his disability, he devoted seven years of his life to grueling physical therapy. In 1928, however, when he accepted the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York, he understood that victory would bring an end to his daily therapy, that he would never walk under his own power again. For the remainder of his life--through four years as Governor of New York and 12 years as President--the mere act of standing up with his heavy metal braces locked in place would be an ordeal. Yet the paralysis that crippled his body expanded his mind and his sensibilities. After what his wife Eleanor called his trial by fire, he seemed less arrogant, less superficial, more focused, more complex, more interesting. "There had been a plowing up of his nature," Labor Secretary Frances Perkins observed. "The man emerged completely warmhearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of philosophical concepts." He had always taken great pleasure in people. But now, far more intensely than before, he reached out to know them, to pick up their emotions, to put himself in their shoes. No longer belonging to his old world in the same way, he came to empathize with the poor and the underprivileged, with people to whom fate had dealt a difficult hand.

No other President had so thoroughly occupied the imagination of the American people. Using the new medium of the radio, he spoke directly to them, using simple words and everyday analogies, in a series of "fireside chats," designed not only to shape, educate and move public opinion forward but also to inspire people to act, making them participants in a shared drama. People felt he was talking to them personally, not to millions of others.

After his first address on the banking crisis, in which he explained to families why it was safer to return their money to the banks rather than keep it hidden at home, large deposits began flowing back into the banking system. When he asked everyone to spread a map before them in preparation for a fireside chat on the war in the Pacific, map stores sold more maps in a span of days than they had in an entire year. When he announced a rubber shortage that Americans could help fill, millions of householders, delighted at the call for service, reached into their homes and yards to recover old rubber tires still hanging from trees as swings for their kids, as well as old garden hoses, rubber shoes and even rubber girdles.

Roosevelt purposely limited his fireside talks to an average of two or three a year, in contrast to the modern presidential practice of weekly radio addresses. Timed at dramatic moments, they commanded gigantic audiences, larger than any other program on the radio, including the biggest prizefights and the most popular comedy shows. The novelist Saul Bellow recalls walking down the street on a hot summer night in Chicago while Roosevelt was speaking. Through lit windows, families could be seen sitting at their kitchen table or gathered in the parlor listening to the radio. Under the elm trees, "drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by."

The press conference became another critical tool in reaching the hearts and minds of the American people. At his very first conference, he announced he was suspending the wooden practice of requiring written questions submitted in advance. He promised to meet reporters twice a week and by and large kept his promise, holding nearly 1,000 press conferences in the course of his presidency. Talking in a relaxed style with reporters, he explained legislation, announced appointments and established friendly contact, calling them by their first name, teasing them about their hangovers, exuding warmth. Roosevelt's accessibility to the working reporters helped explain the paradox that though 80% to 85% of the newspaper publishers regularly opposed his policies, his coverage was generally full and fair.

Though the national economy remained in a depressed state until the war broke out, the massive programs of the New Deal had stopped the precipitous slide and provided an economic floor for tens of millions of Americans. "We aren't on relief anymore," one woman noted with pride. "My husband is working for the government." The despair that had hung over the land was lifted, replaced by a bustling sense of movement and activity, a renewed confidence in the future, a revived faith in democracy. "There is a mysterious cycle in human events," Roosevelt said when he accepted his party's nomination for a second term. "To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny."

In 1940 the U.S. and the democratic way of life faced a second crisis even more fearful than the first as Hitler's armies marched through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, leaving Britain standing alone against the Nazi juggernaut. "Never," Winston Churchill admitted, after the British army was forced to evacuate from Dunkirk, "has a nation been so naked before its foes." At that moment, in all of Britain, there were only 600,000 rifles and 500 cannons, many of them borrowed from museums. With Britain on the verge of defeat, U.S. military leaders were unanimous in urging Roosevelt to stop sending our limited supply of weapons overseas and instead focus on rearming at home. At that time the U.S. Army stood only 18th in the world, trailing not only Germany, France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan and China, but also Holland, Spain, and Romania! So strong had been the recoil from war after 1918 that both the government and the private sector had backed away from making weapons, leaving the military with almost no modern planes, tanks or ships.

But Roosevelt was determined to send whatever he could to Britain, even if it meant putting America's short-term security in jeopardy. It was a daring decision. For if Britain were to fall in six months' time, as was predicted, and if Germany turned on the U.S. using our captured weapons, then, one general warned, everyone who was a party to the deal might expect to be found hanging from a lamppost. Undaunted, Roosevelt placed his confidence in Britain and its Prime Minister, Churchill. And his confidence proved well placed, for despite the terrifying situation the British found themselves in, with bombs raining down every night on their cities and homes, they picked their way through the rubble every morning to get to work, refusing to be broken, proving Churchill's prediction that if the British and their empire were to last a thousand years, this would be their finest hour.

In those desperate days the seeds were planted for a historic friendship between the British Prime Minister and the American President. In the months that followed, Churchill spent weeks at a time at the White House, living in the family quarters on the second floor in a bedroom diagonally across from Roosevelt's. There was something so intimate in their friendship, Churchill's aide Lord Ismay noted. They would stroll in and out of each other's rooms as two schoolboys occupying adjacent dorm rooms might have, staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. talking, drinking brandy and smoking cigars. After each of Churchill's visits, Roosevelt was so exhausted he had to sleep 10 hours a day for three days straight until he recovered. But they took the greatest delight in each other. "It is fun to be in the same decade with you," Roosevelt told Churchill. "If anything happened to that man, I couldn't stand it," Churchill told a U.S. diplomat. "He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known."

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Roosevelt once again defied prevailing opinion. To the isolationists, the invasion of Russia confirmed the wisdom of keeping America out of the war. America should rejoice, they argued, in watching two hated dictatorships bleed each other to death. Within the government, Roosevelt's military advisers argued that Russia had almost no chance of holding out. Still, Roosevelt insisted on including Russia in the lend-lease agreement. In the first year alone, America sent thousands of trucks, tanks, guns and bombers to Russia, along with enough food to keep Russian soldiers from starving, and enough cotton, blankets, shoes and boots to clothe the entire Russian army. The forbearance of the Russian army, in turn, bought the Allies the precious asset of time--time to mobilize the U.S. economy to produce the vast supply of weapons that was needed to catch up with and eventually surpass the Axis powers.

Roosevelt's critics were certain he would straitjacket the free-enterprise system once America began mobilizing for war. Through his first two terms, business had been driven by an almost primitive hostility to Roosevelt, viewing his support for the welfare state and organized labor as an act of betrayal of his class. Indeed, so angry were many Republican businessmen at Roosevelt that they refused even to say the President's name, referring to him simply as "that man in the White House." Yet, under Roosevelt's wartime leadership, the government entered into the most productive partnership with private enterprise the country had ever seen, bringing top businessmen in to run the production agencies, exempting business from antitrust laws, allowing business to write off the full cost of investments and guaranteeing a substantial profit. The output was staggering. By 1943, American production had not only caught up with Germany's 10-year lead but America was also outproducing all the Axis and the Allied powers combined, contributing nearly 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks, 2 million trucks and 87,000 warships to the Allied cause. "The figures are all so astronomical," historian Bruce Catton marveled. "It was the equivalent of building two Panama Canals every month, with a fat surplus to boot."

Above all, Roosevelt possessed a magnificent sense of timing. He understood when to invoke the prestige of the presidency and when to hold it in reserve. He picked a first-class military team--General George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King, General Henry Arnold and Admiral William Leahy--and gave its members wide latitude to run the war. Yet at critical junctures he forced action, and almost all those actions had a salutary effect on the war. He personally made the hotly debated decision to invade North Africa; he decided to spend $2 billion on an experimental atom bomb; and he demanded the Allies commit themselves to a postwar structure before the war was over.

Still, there were many days in the early years of the war when the situation looked bleak, when it seemed impossible that the Allies could overcome the lead the Axis powers enjoyed. Through those dark days, Roosevelt retained an imperturbable calm. To the endless wonder of his aides, he was able to relax and replenish his energies each night to face the struggles of the following day. Every evening he held a cocktail hour where the rule was that nothing could be said of politics or war; instead the conversation was deliberately turned to gossip, funny stories or reminiscences. Only Eleanor was allowed to bring up serious subjects, to talk of civil rights or slum clearance. Roosevelt spent untold hours sorting his stamp collection, playing poker with his Cabinet members, watching mystery movies. Only when Eleanor chose the movies did he agree to sit through serious pictures--The Grapes of Wrath or a documentary on civil rights.

It was said jokingly in Washington that Roosevelt had a nightly prayer: Dear God, please make Eleanor a little tired. But as Roosevelt himself would be the first to admit, he would never have become the kind of President he was without his tireless wife. She was the agitator dedicated to what should be done; he was the politician concerned with what could be done. It was Eleanor who insisted that the government's wartime partnership with business must not be forged at the expense of labor. It was Eleanor who insisted that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home. It was Eleanor who championed the movement of women into the work force during the war. Many joined her in these efforts--civil rights leaders, labor leaders, liberal spokesmen. But her passionate voice in the highest councils of decision was always influential and often decisive.

To be sure, Franklin Roosevelt was far from perfect. Critics lamented his deviousness, his lack of candor, his tendency to ingratitude. His character flaws were widely discussed: his stubbornness, his vanity, his occasional vindictiveness, his habit of yessing callers just to be amiable. At times, his confidence merged into arrogance, diminishing his political instincts, leading to an ill-defined court-packing scheme and an unsuccessful attempt to purge his opponents in the 1938 by-elections. One must also concede the failures of vision that led to the forcible relocation of Japanese Americans, which deprived tens of thousands of men, women and children of Japanese descent of their fundamental civil liberties, and the devastating failure to bring more Jewish refugees into America before Hitler finally closed the doors to emigration.

But in the end, Roosevelt's great strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. As the tide of war began to turn decisively, in the year before his death, Roosevelt began to put in place the elements of his vision for the world that would follow the titanic conflict. It was to be a world in which all peoples were entitled to govern themselves. With this aim, he foresaw and worked toward the end of the colonial imperialism that had dominated much of the globe. Through the U.N., which he was instrumental in establishing, we would, he hoped, finally have an international structure that could help keep the peace among the nations. His call for recognition of four universal freedoms so firmly established the still unfinished agenda for humanity that a recent British publication, assessing the century, noted that Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms--from fear and from want, and of belief and expression--are possessed by more people, more securely, than ever before. Today, more than a half-century after his death, Roosevelt's vision, still unfulfilled, still endangered, remains the guardian spirit for the noblest and most humane impulses of mankind.

When he died, even his most partisan adversaries felt compelled to acknowledge the immensity of the man they had opposed. Senator Robert Taft, known as Mr. Republican, considered Roosevelt's death one of the worst tragedies that had ever happened to the country. "The President's death removes the greatest figure of our time at the very climax of his career, and shocks the world to which his words and actions were more important than those of any other man. He dies a hero of the war, for he literally worked himself to death in the service of the American people."

As Eleanor traveled the country in the months after her husband's death, she was overwhelmed by the emotion of all the people who came up to her, telling her how much they had loved her husband. Porters at the station, taxi drivers, doormen, elevator operators, passengers on the train, riders in the subway told her how much better their lives were as a result of his leadership.

Blacks talked of the pride they felt in the work they had accomplished at home, the courage they had shown in their battalions abroad--a pride that would fuel the civil rights movement in the decade ahead. Women talked of the camaraderie, the feelings of accomplishment they had experienced in the shipyards and the factories. And even though the factories were firing the women that summer and closing down the day-care centers that would not reopen for a generation, Eleanor could see that there had been a change of consciousness that would mean no turning back. She talked to G.I.s who were going to college on Roosevelt's G.I. Bill of Rights, the remarkable piece of legislation that opened the door to the upward mobility of an entire generation. A social revolution had taken place; a new economic order had come into being; a vast middle class had been born.

An image formed in Eleanor's mind, that during the course of her husband's presidency a giant transference of energy had taken place between him and the people. In the early days, the country was fragile, weak and isolationist, while her husband was full of energy, vital and productive. But gradually, as the President animated his countrymen with his strength and confidence, the people grew stronger and stronger, while he grew weaker and weaker, until in the end he was so weakened he died, but the country emerged more powerful, more productive and more socially just than ever before. It was, to be sure, a romanticized view of her husband's presidency, but it suggests the ultimate mystery of Roosevelt's leadership--his ability to use his moral authority, the degree of confidence he inspired, to strengthen the people and bind them together in a just cause.

His example strengthened democracy everywhere. "He became a legendary hero," the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued. "Peoples far beyond the frontiers of the U.S. rightly looked to him as the most genuine and unswerving spokesman of democracy. He had all the character and energy and skill of the dictators, and he was on our side."

It may well be true that crisis and war provide a unity of purpose and an opportunity for leadership that are rarely present in more tranquil times. But as the history of other countries illustrates, war and domestic upheaval are no guarantee of positive social change. That depends on the time, the nation and the exercise of leadership. In providing the indispensable leadership that preserved and strengthened democracy, Franklin Roosevelt emerges as the greatest political leader of the age.

Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about the Roosevelts in No Ordinary Time (1994)


Cover Date: December 31, 1999

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