Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president in both war and peace, leading the United States through both the Great Depression and World War II. His unprecedented three terms in office testify to his popularity and success during a period of severe economic conditions and wartime pressures. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt told the battered nation when he was first inaugurated in 1933. Over the next 12 years, FDR, as he was known, managed to restore the economy, create jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and win the World War on both the German and the Japanese fronts. As the 32nd president of the United States, Roosevelt is still ranked with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of the three greatest presidents in American history.
He seemed to be optimistic about the nation even in the difficult days of the Depression when 13 million Americans were out of work. He struggled to create a sense of national identity where people could feel responsible for each other’s welfare. Despite his patrician background, Roosevelt was a true liberal, a Democrat who believed that the agent of that responsibility was the government. To reverse Ronald Reagan’s later formulation, in the Roosevelt years government was not the problem; it was the solution.
FDR’s solution was the New Deal, a series of programs that would help the unemployed, regulate the financial system, and help the economy to recover. Such was the feeling of urgency that Congress passed every one of FDR’s programs during his first term, including the Social Security Act (1935), the Work Project Administration (WPA) (1935), the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933), which put young unemployed men to work in rural areas, and the Wagner Act (1935), which strengthened labor unions. Barely two months into office, Roosevelt also signed a bill, the Cullen-Harrison Act, to allow certain kinds of alcohol to be sold and consumed; this led to the end of 13 years of Prohibition in the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution.
Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had taken office in the prosperous year of 1927 by declaring that the United States was on the verge of abolishing poverty forever. When the stock market crashed two years later in 1929, business and the economy collapsed. Drought, bank failures, and homelessness deepened the crisis. Hoover’s solutions, though earnest and generally underappreciated today, were inadequate to the situation. It is mainly remembered that he put too much reliance on the concept of volunteerism and laissez-faire to bring about the necessary solutions, believing that too much government assistance to people in distress would harm the American character.
The nation lost confidence in his administration and, worse, in its ability to change its situation. Many influential voices, including those of journalists Walter Lippmann and William Randolph Hearst, called for drastic action. Looking across the seas to the “efficiencies” of Fascist Italy, they called for a strong leader to suspend the Constitution, if necessary, to address the nation’s economic distress. Popular movies of the early 1930s, like Gabriel over the White House, The Phantom President, and The President Vanishes portrayed such figures as heroes who save the day.
Although a space had been prepared in the American imagination for a benign tyrant to take unprecedented power as president, Roosevelt took no advantage of it. Instead, he urged the nation to take collective efforts on its own behalf. Solutions were possible and were available, if only people would take heart and have confidence in themselves and their abilities. He painted a dim but accurate picture of the national condition in his inaugural address:
Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.
Tough as the times were, however, Roosevelt tried to assure Americans that they could, as a people, face them down if they remained brave, disciplined, and true to their best traditions:
We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.
In particular, it fell to the executive to provide these solutions, and Roosevelt was prepared to play the appropriate role: “For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.” He also pledged to engage—by any means necessary—the cooperation of the Congress in implementing and funding them:
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
And should Congress not act, Roosevelt warned, he would demand “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
The achievements of his first 100 days were many. Two days after taking office, he closed all the national banks for a month to establish their soundness, thus ending the bank panics that were destroying the economic system as depositors clamored to withdraw their money beyond the capacity of the banks to cover. Even though no one could access their money or savings accounts, one of the main orders of business was to convince the public that their money was safely deposited and that the institutions that held them could be trusted with it. After a month of inspection and review, 90 percent of national banks were declared sound and reopened. Roosevelt also set up in the WPA a federal jobs program that put the unemployed to work immediately on infrastructure projects, building roads, parks, and schools; at its peak, the WPA had 3.3 million workers. Roosevelt also initiated a farm subsidy program for farmers who were producing too many crops and seeing a decline in prices for their products.
Roosevelt addressed the nation again at the 100-day mark of his administration to explain the steps he had taken. Looking ahead to establishing “a more lasting prosperity,” he called for a program of coordinated action to spread wealth more evenly throughout the population by establishing a minimum wage and cutting working hours to ensure that as many workers as possible had jobs. He urged that the policies be made universal in order that employees who continued to exploit workers would not have an advantage over those who did not:
If all employers will act together to shorten hours and raise wages we can put people back to work. No employer will suffer, because the relative level of competitive cost will advance by the same amount for all. But if any considerable group should lag or shirk, this great opportunity will pass us by and we will go into another desperate Winter. This must not happen.
He cited the Cotton Textile Code, which eliminated child labor in that industry, declaring “That makes me personally happier than any other one thing that has happened since I came to Washington.” This was a reform made possible only by eliminating the possibility of benefit for those who defied it.
The United States that Roosevelt envisioned in his 100 Days speech was a place with a special concern for the unemployed and the poor and a willingness to work together for the benefit of all. It was a United States with a single vision of itself, realizing that “People acting as a group can accomplish things which no individual acting alone could ever hope to bring about.” FDR appealed to the conscience of business and industrial leaders to supplement his legal efforts, calling on them to implement these policies voluntarily and preemptively, and to display their commitment by wearing badges with the legend “We Do Our Part.” He assured workers that no “aggression” on their part was needed: “the whole country” was united in ensuring that they would have their rights.
Prosperity had certainly not returned to the United States in 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, but FDR was elected in a landslide, losing only one state to opposition candidate Alf Landon. When he took his second oath as president, Roosevelt measured the situation from the perspective of the past. Describing the United States of 1933 as “single-minded in anxiety,” he described the first inaugural as a moment when the United States dedicated itself to the fulfillment of a vision—“to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.” It was, he said, “our covenant with ourselves”:
We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.
“We” in this formula was the American people as a whole, with “government the instrument of our united purpose.” Government alone, Roosevelt proclaimed, was able “to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind”; only government could impose “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.”
Roosevelt was careful to stress that the actions of his administration were not novel innovations, but, rather, were seamlessly linked to the American past: “We Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government.” Despite the lofty rhetoric, Roosevelt had faced fierce opposition to his policies from the first, particularly from business interests and bankers. His attempts to unite the country and restore prosperity made slow progress. In his second term, Republicans won back in the 1938 midterms the Congressional seats they had lost when he was first elected, and Democrats who were opposed to the New Deal joined forces with them to shut down the WPA and other New Deal programs. Social Security survived, as did the Securities and Exchange Commission, which FDR had established to regulate the financial system, along with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which still protects bank deposits. The concept of the New Deal was revived in the 36th president’s term of office (1963–1969) as Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”
Looming over all of Roosevelt’s attempts to revive the American economy was a war in Europe, begun when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and eventually involving all of Europe and Russia. The Japanese, seeking to enlarge their conquests in the Pacific and fearing U.S. naval intervention, bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941, killing or wounding 3,500 Americans and sinking and damaging 18 ships, including all eight U.S. battleships. Calling it “a date which will live in infamy,” Roosevelt signed a declaration of war against Japan the next day. Joining its ally Japan in the conflict was Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
The United States, now in full war mode, was also pulled out of its economic slump by its involvement in what would be World War II. Going from 25 percent unemployment in the Great Depression to below 2 percent for the duration of the war, the nation prospered as munitions and equipment manufacturing increased and Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program, begun earlier to help Britain with equipment in its fight against Germany, was extended to other countries including the Soviet Union. Roosevelt was now in his third term of office, reelected in 1940. His State of the Union speech in January 1941 became famous for its enunciation of the “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These inspired artist Norman Rockwell to illustrate them; his paintings appeared on consecutive Saturday Evening Post covers in February and March 1943.
The war raged on during Roosevelt’s third term, and his own health, rarely discussed in the press, declined. He was actually paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair most of the time, though the public never saw that, and was suffering an undiagnosed disease, probably polio, along with heart problems, high blood pressure, and emphysema. Nonetheless, he was elected in 1944 for a fourth term, one he would not complete.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been born in Hyde Park, New York, on January 30, 1882, into an affluent family with deep roots in the United States. His parents, James and Sara Roosevelt, had Dutch, French, and English connections going back to the Mayflower. He was educated at the Groton School and Harvard University, and spent two years at Columbia Law School until he passed the bar and went to work for a Wall Street firm. In 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin, whose uncle Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, gave her away at the ceremony. They were to have six children, five of whom survived.
Roosevelt’s entry into politics began with his election—and reelection—to the New York State Senate. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, appointed him as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913, and he went on to an unsuccessful run for office as vice president on the ticket with James M. Cox in 1920. By 1929, Roosevelt was back on the campaign trail and was elected as governor of New York State, a post he held for two terms, successfully enough to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1932. And the rest is history.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not live to see the end of World War II and the Allied victories in Europe and Japan in August and September 1945. He died on April 12, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and is buried at Hyde Park where his Presidential Library was established. His legacy is enormous and memorable, leading the United States successfully through two of its most severe crises, the Great Depression and World War II, and bequeathing a philosophy of liberalism and the role of government that would animate many political movements to come.
—Harry Keyishian and Mary Cross
Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: American Political Biography Press, 2006.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.