A new generation of Roosevelt chroniclers

Michael Raffety

Sept. 25, 2009

At 824 pages it took me most of summer to read the newest biography of Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, I finished it last weekend during a slow Friday while participating in the annual Studio Tour. “Traitor to His Class” was written by H.W. Brands, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his biography of Benjamin Franklin. His most recent biography prior to this Roosevelt tome was on Andrew Jackson. The full name of the book is “Traitor to His Class, the Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Copyright is 2008.

Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in the liner notes, “H.W. Brands has accomplished a remarkable feat in this terrific work. As if he were creating characters in a novel, he has brought to vivid life the central figures in his story — FDR, Eleanor, Sara Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the inner circle in the White House — while at the same time providing a fresh understanding of the rich historical context for their thoughts and actions at every step along the way.”

High praise from an author who won a Pulitzer in 1995 for her biography of Roosevelt.

It was an engrossing story, but there were times that I felt pressed down by Brands’ copious research. Though he did gloss over the analysis of Roosevelt’s economic program, he didn’t soft pedal it. It just wasn’t the emphasis of this book, being more a personal profile of the 32nd president, the only four-term president.

Recent revisionism has seriously questioned whether Roosevelt’s experimental approach, his creation of the minimum wage, price controls and government sponsored cartels may have prolonged the Great Depression. His optimistic and soothing radio voice helped people feel more assured, but in the end he didn’t crack the Depression. Amity Schlaes’ 2007 book, “The Forgotten Man,” gave the fullest account of the economic team Roosevelt assembled, including their earlier visit with Stalin and Trotsky, where they were impressed with the economic organization of the Soviet Union. Schlaes provided the first fully researched book that broke with the long line of “received wisdom” and great man biographies that were paeans to FDR. The book provided fresh and engaging economic analysis of the Great Depression. She showed how the distortions wrought by Roosevelt’s economic policies made the Depression worse and longer than it should have been.

That was followed by the 2008 book, “New Deal or Raw Deal, How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America,” by Burton Folsom Jr. The Hillsdale College history professor details the economic blunders of the New Deal and particularly the way members of Roosevelt’s administration used the millions in relief and program funds to influence elections. The safe states actually got the least amount of government funds. The greater amount of money went into swing states like Pennsylvania. Roosevelt freely used the IRS and the Justice Department to punish his enemies.

Born into wealth, Roosevelt was something of a personal free spender and never made money at the business enterprises he dabbled int. There were some successful new government programs for which we have to give due credit to Roosevelt’s administration. Among those are Social Security, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Securities Exchange Act of 1933 and 1934 that regulate the stock market and the issuance of stocks through the Securities Exchange Commission.

After reading Brands’ biography of Roosevelt I’ve come to the conclusion that the one area where he really knew what he was doing was running the war. And he knew it instinctively. The key was his service as assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration. He pressed for construction of a new blue water fleet of destroyers and battle ships. After the country joined the Great War he came up with innovative tactics such as deep water mines to deter German submarines. He traveled to directly observe the front line. Besides following in the footsteps of uncle Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt was an expert sailor, understood naval warfare and he had a long-term strategic outlook.

His experience in the Navy Department before and during the war gave him the foundation to prepare for and administer the Second World War. And it gave him a vision beyond the war.

In meeting with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in 1943 Roosevelt talked about forming the United Nations and observed, “The real decisions will be made by the United States, Great Britain, Russia and China, who will be the powers for many years to come that will have to police the world.” They are still the great powers, though not so much Russia.

At a villa in Casablanca where Roosevelt met with Churchill, he told his son Elliot, “DeGaulle is out to achieve one-man government in France. I can’t imagine a man I would distrust more. His whole Free French movement is honeycombed with police spies. He has agents spying on his own people. To him, freedom of speech means freedom from criticism — of him.”

He also, in the same late night conversation with Elliot summarized the future of colonialism:

“The thing is the colonial system means war. Exploit the resources of an India, a Burma, a Java; take all the wealth out of those countries, but never put anything back into them, things like education, decent standards of living, minimum health requirements — all you’re doing is storing up the kind of trouble that leads to war.”

Roosevelt, unlike Wilson, got a resolution of approval from Congress for what later became the United Nations. Roosevelt had been careful to cast it first as a wartime alliance and then later as a framework for peace, as Brands put it.

The big picture strategy of winning the war in Europe first proved to be the best approach. His friendship with Churchill, another leader with naval administration experience, was also crucial to the boosting pre-war production and then coordinating war strategy.

Roosevelt really showed he knew what he was doing as a war president. His domestic and economic policies were more scattershot and often counterproductive. Reading some of his speeches it is often hard to figure out what he is saying. Frequently his speeches were the kind that people would interpret according to their own beliefs. His speeches about pre-war production, the draft and about the war itself, were clear and persuasive.


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