Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Franklin Roosevelt broke the two-term tradition for presidents that Washington had established. He was president from the age of 51 until his death twelve years later, early in his fourth term of office. Energetic despite a severe disability, he guided the United States through the crisis of the Great Depression and the worse crisis of the Second World War.
A distant cousin of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat. Rising through the party ranks in his 30s, he contracted polio in 1921, which paralyzed his lower body and confined him to a wheelchair. Undeterred, he ran for governor of New York in 1928, won, and ran for the presidency four years later. President Hoover, the incumbent, had become a national scapegoat for the Great Depression and was not hard to defeat, so Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House in early 1933.
Depression conditions called for drastic remedies and he offered them at once. Working closely with Congress in his first hundred days, he introduced legislation to shore up threatened banks, to put unemployed young people to work on projects of national significance, to protect farmers, and to arrange cooperation among businesses in the major industries. This was the “New Deal.” Each law created a new bureaucracy, marking the beginning of a great increase in the size and reach of the federal government.
Radio had spread rapidly across America in the 1920s, but Roosevelt was the first to exploit it politically. Regularly, he made broadcasts, his “fireside chats,” direct to citizens nationwide. He recognized that he could appeal over the heads of congressmen and senators, arrange for his listeners to lobby their representatives, and in effect, increase his own power. His benevolent tone and rhetorical skill gave anxious voters the sense that he was personally concerned for their welfare.
A second round of New Deal legislation in 1935 created Social Security, greatly enhancing the economic prospects of retired Americans for whom old age had previously spelt vulnerability. Trade unions’ legal rights were strengthened, and federal regulation over the stock exchange increased to prevent the kind of reckless conduct that had led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Much to Roosevelt’s annoyance, the Supreme Court began to rule that many of his anti-Depression measures were unconstitutional.
Winning a landslide in 1936 led Franklin Roosevelt to overplay his hand the next year. He shocked traditionalists by proposing to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court up to a maximum of 15. Even loyal Democrats balked. He was forced to back down, leaving the court with its traditional nine members, but a timely retirement of one among them enabled him to nominate a judge more sympathetic to the New Deal.
The great issue of his second term was the deepening European crisis and the onset of the Second World War in 1939. It had the welcome local effect of reducing American unemployment. Aware that public opinion was against involvement in a second great war, he nevertheless sympathized with the plight of Britain and supplied it with “lend-lease” exports. Using the war crisis to justify a third term of office, he won again in the election of November 1940. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year later brought America into the war.
Working closely with the American business community, Franklin Roosevelt was able to arrange phenomenal increases in production as the economy converted to support the war effort. He flew to Tehran in Iran and later to Yalta in southern Russia to meet his allies, Stalin and Churchill, hammering out arrangements for the post-war world. He took the calculated risk of supporting the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atomic bombs), hoping but not knowing whether it would create a war-ending master weapon. In any event, he died three months before it was ready for its first test and just weeks before Allied armies brought the war in Europe to a triumphant end.
Tomorrow, we’ll meet Harry Truman, the man who succeeded him and who was forced almost at once to make a series of momentous decisions whose effects were felt for the rest of the century.
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