Franklin D. Roosevelt served longer than any other president of the United States. He held office from 1933 until his death in 1945 at the beginning of his fourth term. During his presidency he led the United States through two great crises –the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II. Roosevelt was a man of unusual charm and great optimism which he was able to communicate to others. He had a broad smile and an easygoing way of nodding agreement to whatever proposals were made to him. But beneath his outward friendliness was an inner reserve and an iron will. He became one of the most beloved as well as one of the most hated U.S. presidents. His admirers emphasized the way in which he met the nation’s problems. They praised him for insisting that the federal government must help the underprivileged and that the United States must share in the responsibility for preserving world peace. Roosevelt’s opponents denounced him for increasing the role of the government in the economic life of the country and claimed that he unnecessarily involved the United States in World War II. Yet friend and foe alike agreed that Roosevelt made a vital impact upon his times and that his policies exerted great influence on the future.
Roosevelt was born on a comfortable estate overlooking the Hudson River at Hyde Park, New York, on January 30, 1882. He had a pleasant, sheltered childhood. His father, James Roosevelt, was a well-to-do investor and vice president of a small railroad. His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, came from a wealthy family of New England origin. During his childhood Franklin was taught by a governess and was taken on frequent trips to Europe. Once his father took him to the White House to see President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland, saddened and worn by the burdens of office, said he hoped that young Franklin would never have the misfortune of becoming president. At 14, Roosevelt entered Groton School in Massachusetts. From Groton he went to Harvard College where he concerned himself more with social life and other activities than with his studies. He was especially proud of the fact that he was president (chief editor) of the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. He graduated in 1904 and went on to Columbia University Law School. Meanwhile, he had become engaged to his slim, attractive distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt. At the wedding in 1905, Eleanor’s uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt (who was Franklin’s fifth cousin), gave her in marriage. Roosevelt was an indifferent law student and did not bother to complete work for his degree after passing his bar examination. Nor was he much interested in his work with a prominent Wall Street law firm.
In 1910 the Democratic leaders in Dutchess County, New York, persuaded Roosevelt to run for the state senate. The senate contest seemed hopeless for a Democrat. Nevertheless, Roosevelt conducted an energetic campaign, touring the Hudson River farming communities in a red Maxwell automobile. The Republicans were split that year, and the 28- year-old Roosevelt won his first election.
Roosevelt supported Woodrow Wilson for the presidential nomination in 1912, and when Wilson became president in 1913, Roosevelt was appointed assistant secretary of the navy. He still seemed too handsome and and too unpredictable dashing from one place to another to be taken very seriously. Yet he was especially successful as an administrator during World War I. He was also achieving a reputation as a rising young progressive. In 1920, at the age of 38, Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination for Vice President, running with the presidential candidate, James M. Cox (1870- 1957). However the Democrats were buried in the landslide victory of the Republican Warren Harding.
Biding his time, Roosevelt entered private business. Then, in the summer of 1921, while vacationing at Campobello Island in Canada, he was suddenly stricken with polio which paralyzed him from the waist down. Not yet 40, he seemed finished in politics. But his wife, Eleanor, and his private secretary, Louis Howe, felt that his recovery would be aided if he kept his political interests. Eleanor, now the mother of five children (a sixth child had died in 1909), cast aside her acute shyness and learned to make appearances for her husband at political meetings. In spite of his illness, which left him unable to walk without leg braces, a cane, and a strong arm upon which to lean, Roosevelt remained one of the dominant figures in the Democratic Party.
In 1928, Roosevelt ran for governor of New York at the urging of the incumbent-governor, Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944), who was the Democratic candidate for president. Although Smith was defeated by Republican Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt was elected governor by a narrow margin. His re-election in 1930 by a record majority made him the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932. During the 1932 election campaign, the Depression overshadowed all other issues. In accepting the nomination, Roosevelt had promised the American people a “new deal,” and they voted for him in overwhelming numbers. Roosevelt defeated Hoover, running for re-election, by more than 7 million popular votes, and he received 472 electorial votes to Hoover’s 59. Conditions became worse between Roosevelt’s election on November 8, 1932, and his inauguration on March 4, 1933. (The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, changing the presidential inauguration date to January 20, did not go into effect until October 1933.) Thousands of banks failed as depositors, fearful of losing their savings, withdrew their money. A quarter of the nation’s wage earners were unemployed. Families on relief sometimes received no more than 75 cents a week for food. Farmers were in an equally desperate plight because of low prices on basic crops.
Amid these grim conditions, Roosevelt took his oath of office as president. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said in his inaugural speech. The words were not new, but the way Roosevelt said them gave people new hope. As a first step, he closed all U.S. banks to prevent further collapse. Then he called Congress into special session to pass emergency banking legislation. Within a few days most banks were reopened, and people who had withdrawn their money redeposited it. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was established soon after. It insured bank deposits and protected people from losing their savings.
During the first one hundred days of his administration, Roosevelt presented to Congress a wide variety of legislation. This became the first New Deal program. These early measures contained one notable reform –the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA provided flood control, cheap electricity, and better use of the land for the entire poverty-stricken Tennessee River area. For the most part, the early New Deal measures were meant to bring immediate relief to the needy and recovery to the economy. A federal agency was set up to provide the states with funds to feed the hungry. Legislation was passed to aid farmers and homeowners in danger of losing their property because they could not keep up mortgage payments.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was organized, providing jobs for unemployed young men in forest conservation and road construction work. At the president’s urging, Congress took the United States off the gold standard and devaluated the dollar. This lowered its exchange value, allowing American products to be sold to better advantage abroad. At the heart of the recovery program of the early New Deal were the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Under the AAA, production of basic crops and livestock was limited in order to raise prices and thus increase farmers’ incomes. Farmers were rewarded by benefit payments for reducing production. The NRA, created by the president under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, was meant to aid both business and labor. The NRA established codes of fair competition in major industries. In turn, businessmen were expected to pay at least minimum wages and to work their employees for no more than established maximum hours. Furthermore, under the terms of the Recovery Act, workers were given the right to bargain collectively– that is, to join unions of their choice, which would negotiate wages and working hours with employers. These collective bargaining provisions were replaced in 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), which gave strong protection to unions and encouraged the growth of the labor movement.
None of Roosevelt’s recovery measures worked quite satisfactorily, and the road to recovery was one of ups and downs. In 1935 the Supreme Court declared the NRA code system unconstitutional, and in 1936 they ruled against part of the AAA. Still, the economy was showing a marked improvement. But although recovery seemed on the way, unemployment remained high. In 1935, Roosevelt undertook a large-scale work program–the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Then, in the summer of 1935, he pushed through Congress three important reform measures. The Public Utility Holding Company Act placed restrictions on gas and electric utilities. The Revenue Act of 1935 placed heavier tax burdens on those in the upper income brackets. Roosevelt’s opponents, who criticized the government’s heavy spending, called it the “soak the rich” tax. Most important was the Social Security Act. This provided for unemployment insurance, pensions for the aged, and aid to widows and orphans.
In the 1936 election, Roosevelt won re-election over the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon (1887-1987), sweeping every state except Maine and Vermont. The electoral vote was 523 for Roosevelt to 8 for Landon, with Roosevelt receiving nearly 11 million more popular votes than Landon. Re-election by such an overwhelming margin seemed a call for further reform. “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” Roosevelt declared in his second inaugural address. As a first step, Roosevelt wanted to end the Supreme Court’s invalidation of New Deal measures. Roosevelt felt that these laws were constitutional but that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of them was sadly out of date. In February 1937, he asked Congress to authorize him to appoint as many as six new justices to the Court. A great controversy swept Congress and the country. Many people denounced the proposal to “pack” the Court. Roosevelt’s plan failed, but the gradual retirement of the older justices brought more liberal ones to the Supreme Court. Even while the debate was going on, the Court had modified its decisions. Thereafter it approved of most government regulation of the nation’s economy.
By 1937 the economy had almost reached the prosperity levels of the 1920’s although unemployment continued to be high. When Roosevelt cut New Deal spending in an effort to balance the federal budget, a sharp recession followed. He returned to heavy spending, and the trend toward recovery resumed. Large sums were provided for a vast public works project–the Public Works Administration. Roosevelt also obtained from Congress the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This set a national standard of minimum wages and maximum hours for workers and prohibited the shipping in interstate commerce of goods made by child labor. It was the last important piece of New Deal reform legislation. Thereafter, Roosevelt and the American people were concerned with events in Europe and Asia, where the aggressive policies of Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan, known as the Axis powers, threatened to lead to war.
In taking office in 1933, Roosevelt had pledged the United States to a “good neighbor” policy. Roosevelt had carried out this pledge in Latin America. Indeed, he tried to follow a policy of goodwill throughout the world. As the threat of war became more ominous during the mid-1930’s, both the president and the American public wished to remain neutral. But at the same time, Roosevelt did not want to see the aggressors triumph. When Japan invaded northern China in 1937, he declared in a speech that war, like a dangerous disease, must be quarantined. War finally broke out in Europe when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Roosevelt wished to help the democratic nations–Britain and France–without involving the United States in war. But gradually, as the crisis deepened, he took greater risks of involvement. After the fall of France in 1940, Roosevelt, with the approval of Congress, rushed all possible weapons to Britain in order to help the British in the fight against Germany.
In the 1940 election, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent was Wendell Willkie (1892-1944), who held similar views on aid to Britain. Isolationists, who wished the United States to keep out of European affairs, campaigned vigorously against Roosevelt. In spite of their opposition, he was elected to a third term, winning 449 electoral votes to Willkie’s 82. He also received over 5 million more popular votes than Willkie. Early in 1941, at the president’s urging, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. This provided further aid to Britain and other nations fighting the Axis.
At the same time, Roosevelt was trying to block Japan’s advances into China and Southeast Asia. The Japanese felt they faced a choice of giving up their policy of expansion or fighting the United States. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked U.S. air and naval bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day Congress declared war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. With the United States now involved in a world conflict, Roosevelt sought to increase U.S. war production and to lead the country in a great alliance against the Axis powers. As commander in chief of the armed forces, he helped plan major offensives in Europe, leading to the Normandy invasion in 1944. At the same time, the Japanese were gradually pushed back in the Pacific. Even before the United States entered the conflict, Roosevelt had been concerned with planning a better postwar world. As the war progressed, he hoped that an international organization could be created to prevent future wars. This organization was to be the United Nations. Roosevelt felt that the keeping of peace would depend to a considerable extent upon goodwill between the United States and the Soviet Union. He thus tried to establish friendly relations with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference (in Iran) in 1943 and at the Yalta Conference (then part of the Soviet Union; now in Ukraine) in 1945.
In 1944, Roosevelt was nominated for a fourth term, running against Thomas E. Dewey (1902-71), the governor of New York. Roosevelt appeared thin, worn, and tired, but late in the campaign he seemed to gain renewed energy. Again he was re-elected by a substantial margin, with 432 electoral votes to 99 for Dewey and close to 4 million popular votes. But his health, which had been declining since early in 1944, did not improve. After returning from the Yalta Conference, he went to Warm Springs, Georgia, to rest. There, on April 12, 1945– less than a month before the war in Europe ended–he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. As the world mourned Roosevelt’s death, Vice President Harry S Truman took over the duties of office as the new president.