Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt, known as "FDR," was the 32nd president of the United States (1933–45) and was the only president elected to that office four times. He led the United States through two major crises: the Great Depression of the 1930s and then World War II, which saw the emergence of the United States as a world power. His New Deal programs were extremely controversial at the time, and Roosevelt's moves, although nowadays seen as progressive and necessary, were subject to bitter criticisms when enacted.

Franklin Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, at Hyde Park, New York, the only child of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt. The family was wealthy but discreet, spending much of their time at their estate in the Hudson River valley, New York State, or traveling in Europe.

As a boy, Franklin Roosevelt attended Groton Preparatory School in Massachusetts and in 1900 went to Harvard University, where his academic results were mediocre, but he made a major impression on the social scene.

He also came to know his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, marrying Theodore's niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, on March 17, 1905. It was through his wife's work that Franklin came to see the condition of the poor in New York.

Progressive Reform

After graduating from Columbia University Law School and passing the New York bar exam, Roosevelt worked as a clerk for Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn of Wall Street, but by this time he had decided to enter politics.

In 1910 Franklin Roosevelt was elected for the state senate seat for Dutchess County, New York. It was not long before he achieved national attention in opposing the choice of a candidate for the U.S. Senate by Tammany Hall, the New York City Democratic Party organization.

Soon Roosevelt started to urge for progressive reform and supported the 1912 presidential bid of New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson became president, he appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the navy in March 1913.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving speech
Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving speech

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Roosevelt supported the rearmament of the United States, which entered the war in 1917. In 1918 he toured naval bases and battlefields. It was on his return from his major tour in summer 1918 that Eleanor realized that Franklin had been having an affair with Lucy Mercer, her social secretary.

Franklin rejected the divorce that Eleanor offered and agreed to end the affair and not see Mercer again, but he was to break this promise 20 years later. Although the marriage held, Franklin and Eleanor were never close again.

Franklin Roosevelt had supported U.S. membership in the League of Nations and in 1920 was nominated as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, running on a ticket with James M. Cox. However, the Republicans won convincingly, and Roosevelt became disenchanted and went into business as vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland.

Soon after this, while on holiday at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, Franklin Roosevelt discovered that he had poliomyelitis. Paralysis set in, but Roosevelt believed that he would be able to walk again, although he had to withdraw from active politics.

In 1924 he appeared at the Democratic Convention, amid cheers, to support the nomination of Alfred E. Smith as the Democratic presidential candidate. Roosevelt supported Smith's second bid in 1928, and Smith urged Roosevelt to run for the governorship of New York, which Roosevelt did, winning even though New York voted Republican in the presidential election on the same day.

Roosevelt learned to campaign from his car and soon was making many appearances in public, often holding on to one of his sons as he literally dragged himself from engagement to engagement.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt gained much support from farmers for whom he gave tax relief. In 1930 he turned his original majority of 25,000 votes into one of 725,000 votes. His public works programs were becoming increasingly popular as the Great Depression forced more and more people out of work.

In 1931 he established the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, giving unemployment assistance to up to 10 percent of all the families in New York. The popularity of this quickly made Roosevelt a likely contender for the 1932 presidential elections.

He won the election comfortably, with 472 of the Electoral College seats, to Hoover's 59, and with 22,829,277 votes, as against 15,761,254 for Hoover. He also had good Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The economy declined considerably between the election and the inauguration, with industrial production at 56 percent of its 1929 level and unemployment running at 13 million. In his first "Hundred Days" he sought to massively boost the economy by public spending through poor relief and other reforms in the economy.

He declared a bank holiday, closing all banks until Congress could pass legislation to support the banking system, which was facing the possibility of widespread destruction, with "runs" on many banks. This restored public confidence in the banking system, and Roosevelt explained his actions in regular radio broadcasts that became known as the "fireside chats."

Roosevelt guided into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The former resulted in the establishment of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which helped provide subsidies for wheat, corn, cotton, and some other goods in exchange for reduced production levels. This raised the prices of these commodities and hence the income of small farmers.

Although there were some immediate successes, many critics saw it as immoral to destroy fields of crops at the same time that some people were going hungry and while there were famines overseas. However, it was not until 1941 that farm income reached the level of 1929.

The NIRA started public works programs, but many of these began slowly, with Roosevelt anxious that none of the $3.3 billion allocated to them should be wasted. A major part of this was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), with a massive hydroelectric scheme established to improve flood control and generate power in the Tennessee River basin.

There was also the establishment of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which set minimum wage levels and guaranteed workers could bargain collectively. However, in May 1932 it was declared illegal by the Supreme Court, resulting in a bruising battle between the administration and the Court.

Roosevelt's initial programs were very successful, but because of his wanting to moderate them and cautious of critics seeing the country's debt expanding rapidly, they only mitigated the effects of the depression rather than ending it. However, in November 1936 Roosevelt was reelected, winning every state except Maine and Vermont with 27,752,648 votes as against 16,681,862 for his opponent, Kansas governor Alfred Landon.

Supreme Court

Seeing that the main opposition to the New Deal programs was from the Supreme Court, Roosevelt came up with a very controversial program to nominate another new justice for each existing one aged 70 years or more.

This bill was voted down, but the Supreme Court was nervous and upheld the constitutionality of the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act (known as the "Wagner" Act). In 1937 the economy recovered, and Roosevelt was able cut back government spending to create a balanced budget. However, this produced a recession, and Roosevelt immediately increased spending.

The outbreak of World War II started to overshadow the last year of Roosevelt's second term as president. He had recognized the Soviet Union, improved relations with Latin America, but did nothing to oppose the rising power of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The latter's sinking of a U.S. gunboat in December 1937 led to a Japanese apology to avoid war. In June 1940, with the German capture of France, Roosevelt was keen to aid the British with "all aid short of war."

He managed to send 50 old ships to Britain in exchange for naval bases. Most people in the United States remained isolationist, with the 1940 presidential election being fought largely on home issues. Roosevelt decided to break with the tradition set by George

Washington, and he was nominated for a third term— his Republican opponent, Wendell L. Willkie, also supporting Roosevelt's policy of supporting Britain. Although Roosevelt won comfortably with 449 to 82 Electoral College seats and 27,313,945 to 22,347,744 in the popular vote, there was a great fear of Roosevelt drawing the United States into war.

Tensions rose when in March 1941 Roosevelt ordered the navy to fire at German submarines, and in August 1941 he met with the British prime minister Winston Churchill on a battleship off Newfoundland, Canada. The result was the Atlantic Charter.

The close personal trust between the two men was to be the keystone of the Allied war effort. However, it was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that would result in the United States going to war with Japan and Germany.

By restricting the export to Japan of certain war supplies, essentially the Japanese felt that their only way out of the impasse was to attack. It now seems accepted that Roosevelt saw that the Japanese would attack—U.S. intelligence having broken the Japanese ciphers—but was uncertain about the place and the time of the attack.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor "on December 7, a day that will live on in infamy," took the U.S. government by surprise, and on December 8 Congress, at the request of Roosevelt, declared war on Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which was now committed to war in Europe.

Massive war production programs began immediately, ending the depression and seeing the industrial might of the United States dedicated to the war effort. Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill and the other Allied leaders at various conferences, the most famous being Casablanca (January 1943), Teheran (November 1943), Cairo (November-December 1943), and Yalta (February 1945). Roosevelt saw that peace in the postwar world would depend on friendly relations with the Soviet Union, and a strong but brief alliance resulted.

By this time, however, Roosevelt was becoming increasingly ill. He defeated New York's governor, Thomas Dewey, in the 1944 presidential election, with Roosevelt standing for a fourth time. He won the Electoral College comfortably, with 432 against Dewey's 99 and 25,612,916 votes to 22,017,929 for the Republicans.

After returning from Yalta, Roosevelt was forced to give his address to Congress while sitting down. In early April he went to Warm Springs, Georgia, to rest and had a massive cerebral hemorrhage while sitting for a portrait on April 12, 1945; he died soon afterward.