Saint Franklin

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by Gary North GaryNorth.com

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On October 30, I visited the Georgia residence of President Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia. The visit was part of a weekend seminar on America’s entry into World War II, which was sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. It was held at Callaway Gardens, which is just a few miles down the road from Warm Springs.

I have believed ever since 1958 that Roosevelt took steps throughout 1940 and 1941 which were designed to provoke the Japanese attack in late 1941. My view was shared by the speakers at the conference. So, visiting the presidential home in warm Springs was sort of cathartic for me. It reminded me of how much work there remains to do in re-writing the textbooks.

The national park at Warm Springs serves as a kind of shrine for Roosevelt. Roosevelt died in his home in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945. He had been President for a little over 12 years. He had been President during the worst economic disaster in the history of the United States, and also the worst disaster, economically speaking, in the history of the modern world. Then he presided over World War II. When you consider the magnitude of these two disasters, back to back, it is understandable why Roosevelt became the closest thing to a political saint in twentieth-century American history.

When we look back at the textbook versions of the great presidents, only one of them presided over the country for eight years without any major crisis. That was George Washington. Washington’s time of trial had been when he served as commanding general during the American Revolution. The other men who are most likely to be named as a great President were wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Each presided over a national crisis.

Because of his polio-induced paralysis, Roosevelt visited Warm Springs intermittently from 1924 until 1945. The waters let him enjoy himself in the pool. It was a vacation time for him.

THE MUSEUM

There is a museum on the property. As part of the tour through the museum, there is a brief documentary about Roosevelt’s years at Warm Springs. It is narrated by Walter Cronkite. The documentary is filled with praise for the fact that Roosevelt used government power to help the poor.

As I watched that video, I thought back to my years as a high school student in the late 1950s. I wrote a term paper on Pearl Harbor in the fall of 1958, in my senior year. In preparation, I read a book by John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth, which had been published in 1948. Flynn was a long-time opponent of Roosevelt, stretching back to the mid-1930s. This book served as his culminating critique of Roosevelt’s presidency.

The book was unique in 1948, because it was critical of Roosevelt’s domestic economic policies, and was also critical of his foreign policies. Both can be described as interventionist. Today, almost 70 years after Roosevelt’s death, there remains only one book that is negative about both his foreign policy and his domestic policy. That book is The Roosevelt Myth. The book is not what I would call a scholarly book. When I read it in 1958, I thought it needed more footnotes. Some of its claims were insufficiently substantiated.

There has never been a book written by a professional historian that is critical of Roosevelt’s foreign policy and domestic policy, There is a reason for this. In academia, there is no widespread commitment to non-interventionism. Ron Paul represents this tradition. He spoke at the seminar on non-interventionism. His views are getting a wider hearing than anyone else since Robert A. Taft, who died in 1953.

There is screening in academia. Those who hold these views are not encouraged to go on with their studies. They are not granted tenure at major universities. This has been true for over 50 years.

A SECULAR SAINT

Roosevelt really does function as a kind of secular saint for most Americans. It is still considered poor etiquette to criticize Roosevelt, despite the fact that there has been a stream of books, beginning in 1947, that indicate that he deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. These books are called revisionist history.

Furthermore, there have been a series of well-written books by professional historians that are critical of his domestic economic policies. But still we lack a one-volume treatment of Roosevelt’s presidency from the point of view of non-intervention.

When you find a political figure who is essentially untouchable in the textbooks, you can be sure that the textbooks are favorable to whatever policies that political figure pursued. The textbooks function as a kind of whitewashing operation. The worldview governing the writing of the textbooks was also the official outlook and public justification for the political career of the untouchable saint. If we look back at the rhetoric of that political figure, we can conclude that his political policies were victorious in his day, and they remain victorious today.

I have written on several occasions that the absence of that anti-New Deal treatise is a mark of the weakness in academic circles of the conservative movement. You might imagine that, 67 years after his death, at least one PhD-holding historian would have stepped forward to publish a well-documented book that is critical of Roosevelt on this basis: it is critical of Roosevelt’s policy of government intervention. But we do not have that book.

The book should rest on multiple volumes of research. It would be much easier to do a critical analysis of Roosevelt’s foreign policy than to criticize his economic policy. There is a large body of material that has been critical of his foreign policy. Not many people have read this, but it does exist.

His economic policies are still the reigning policies of the United States government and virtually all other Western industrial nations. The welfare state is still triumphant in the thinking of most voters.

It is considered a breach of faith to point out that the welfare state rests on government coercion and bad economics. One is not even supposed to point to the fact that Medicare and Social Security will inevitably bankrupt the United States government if the two programs are not radically revised so as to bankrupt the aged voters who have become dependent on the two programs. In other words, bankruptcy is inevitable, but it is a political question as to which groups will get bankrupted first in the process. No presidential candidate is allowed to say these things if he expects to be elected.

It is considered the kiss of political death to say publicly that Franklin Roosevelt undermined the Constitution of the United States on a systematic basis in order to expand the power of the federal government. Yet that is what he did.

Textbooks that survey what he did will often admit that his actions ignored the Constitution, but the authors of the textbooks always say that this was necessary politically, as well as a good thing economically. So, Ronald Reagan ran for President by praising Roosevelt. So did the professionally trained historian Newt Gingrich. When the supposedly most conservative candidates to run for the office of President in the Republican Party praise Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, this is clear testimony to the failure of the conservative movement in the United States. In the 1930s, no journalist could survive for long who opposed Roosevelt, but there were still politicians who had the courage to call his power grabs what they were. This is no longer true.

I think that it will be possible for historians and economists who were critical of Roosevelt to gain the public’s hearing sometime in the future, but only after the Keynesian experiment has visibly hit the shoals of bankruptcy. For as long as half of the American electorate is dependent on checks from Washington, either during their working years or after, Roosevelt’s position as a sainted politician will be maintained.

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Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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