The figure of Franklin Roosevelt looms ever more imposing in the minds of Americans. In the two centuries or so of our history, it has happened that a few of our leaders — a very few — became symbols of some powerful idea, one that left a permanent imprint on the life of our country. Thomas Jefferson is one such symbol. With Jefferson, it is the idea of a free, self-governing people, dedicated to the enjoyment of their God-given natural rights, in their work, their communities, and the bosom of their families. Abraham Lincoln symbolizes a rather different idea — of America as a great centralized nation-state, supposedly dedicated to individual freedom, but founded on the unquestioned authority and power of the national government in Washington.
And now Franklin Roosevelt, too, has come to represent a certain conception of America, one that is worlds apart from Jefferson’s vision, and different from anything that even Lincoln could have imagined. Roosevelt stands for the national government as we know it today, a vast, unfathomable bureaucratic apparatus that recognizes no limits whatsoever to its power, either at home or abroad. Internationally, it gives every evidence of intending to run the whole world, of extending its hegemony — now that the Soviet Union is no more — to every corner of the globe. Domestically, it undertakes, through an annual budget of close to $2 trillion, to assuage every real or invented social ill and thus enters into every aspect of the people’s lives. In particular, it is engaged in what even a couple of decades ago would have seemed fantastic — a campaign to annihilate freedom of association, subjecting the American people to a program of radical social engineering, in order to transform their voluntarily held traditional beliefs and values and way of life.
More than anyone else, Franklin Roosevelt is responsible for creating the Leviathan State that confronts us today.
In his own time, FDR had many influential enemies in business, politics, and the press, men and women who recognized what he was doing to the Republic they loved and who fought him tenaciously. They were proud to be known as "Roosevelt-haters." Today, however, practically the whole of the political class in the United States has been converted into idolaters of Franklin Roosevelt.
This state of affairs was epitomized last May, when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. Situated on a 7.5-acre site by the Tidal Basin, it includes an 800-foot wall, six waterfalls, outdoor galleries, and nine sculptures. Congress voted $42.5 million to fund the memorial, Republicans (those wild revolutionaries) joining Democrats with equal enthusiasm. No one breathed a word about Roosevelt’s failure to end the Depression, his lying us into war, his warm friendship with Joseph Stalin, and similar milestones in his long career — the major controversy was over whether or not he should be shown with his signature jaunty cigarette-holder. (In deference to the forces of political correctness, he wasn’t.)
Most revealing was that self-styled conservative organs such as National Review and the American Spectator joined in the hosannas. It is a sign of how far things have moved that abject adulation of Franklin Roosevelt is now the order of the day even at the Wall Street Journal. The Journal has long been supposed to be the voice of American business, a quality paper that stood for the market economy and limited government, and so was the counterpart to the New York Times in the American press. On the occasion of the dedication of the FDR memorial, the Journal expressed its opinion through an article by one of its editors, a certain Dorothy Rabinowitz (who used to review movies). Rabinowitz was outraged that Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, had dared to refer to her hero as "a lousy president." No, she insisted, Roosevelt was a great one. Why? Well, because of "the depth of his hold on minds and hearts," because in the midst of the Depression he gave the people hope, because he stood firm against Hitler, because when he died even Radio Tokyo called him a "great man." Roosevelt’s many enemies, in his time and even now, never had any good reason to condemn this man who changed America so radically; they were merely "maddened by hatred of him." In all of Rabinowitz’s effusion there were no hard facts, no analysis, no argument (and certainly no mention of FDR’s great friend Joseph Stalin — a lot more about this later). It was all sentimental gush. And so the Wall Street Journal enters the age of Oprah Winfrey journalism.
Such productions by FDR’s devotees are by no means mere exercises in historical myth-making. They perform a vital political function for the anti-freedom forces in contemporary America. Simply put: the glorification of Franklin Roosevelt means the validation of the Leviathan State. Thus it is of great importance to those on the freedom side to understand who this man really was, what he really stood for, and what, as a matter of historical truth, he inflicted on the American Republic.
Franklin Roosevelt was born in 1882, in the family mansion overlooking the Hudson River, on the 1300-acre estate that came to be known as Hyde Park. On his father, James’s, side, Franklin could trace his ancestry back to the middle of the 17th century, when a forebear immigrated from Holland to what was then New Amsterdam. Part of the family settled in Oyster Bay, Long Island, eventually producing Franklin’s distant cousin, Theodore. The Hudson Valley Roosevelts tended to marry well, mainly into affluent families of English descent — by the time Franklin came on the scene he was, despite his name, of nearly purely English heritage. His mother, Sara, was from an equally prominent family, the Delanos. Franklin was his doting parents’ only child. While by no means fabulously rich, the family was of the sort that mingled freely with the Astors and the Vanderbilts and the rest of the high society of nearby New York City.
Until the age of 14, Franklin was tutored at home. Not at all a bookish boy, he loved nature and, above all, boating on the Hudson and at the family summer home in Campobello, Maine. He developed a passion for stamp-collecting, which he pursued all his life. His admirers later claimed that this hobby gave him great insight into the geography, resources, and character of all the world’s nations — more pro-Roosevelt blather. He often visited New York and toured Europe every year with his parents. The inevitable word to describe the Roosevelts and their lifestyle is patrician.
Franklin’s prep school was Groton, near New London, Massachusetts, as close to an English "public" (i.e., private) school as one could get on this side of the Atlantic. The whole ethos of the place was "Old English," an attempt to copy the educational experience of schools such as Eton and Harrow, whose job it was to shape the future ruling class of the great world empire. At Groton, Franklin lived and studied among the progeny of his own class, those who felt themselves to be the fated future leaders of American business, education, religion, and, above all, politics. Ironically, a fellow Grotonian in Franklin’s day was the young Robert McCormick, whose father owned the Chicago Tribune — ironically, because Colonel McCormick, as he was known in later life (after his service in the First World War), went on to become the greatest and best-known "Roosevelt-hater" of them all.
Franklin was a mediocre student at Groton in every respect. His top grades were no better than B, he did not stand out in debating or sports, nor was he particularly popular with the other boys. In 1900, he went on to Harvard, where he showed as little interest in studies or ideas as he had at prep school. Franklin coasted through college with the traditional "gentleman’s C" average that was perfectly acceptable in the sons of the elite at that time. His social life, however, improved dramatically. Franklin was already beginning to display the affability and charm that so bedazzled politicians and the press in the years ahead. Of course, his popularity was helped along by his family name. Cousin Theodore had been elected vice president, and then, in 1901, through the assassination of William McKinley, had become president of the United States.
It was only natural that Franklin, already toying with the idea of a career in politics, should pay close attention to the doings of his presidential relation. Theodore was the first president in the distinctively modern mold: he had a sense of drama and timing and a natural grasp of how to exploit the press to create a persona for himself in the eyes of the people. Beyond that, TR, as he was commonly known, had a rare ability to make personal use of popular causes and resentments. It was the age of "progressivism," a vague term, but one that connoted a new readiness to use the power of government for all sorts of grand things. H.L. Mencken, the great libertarian journalist and close observer and critic of presidents, compared him to the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, and shrewdly summed him up: "The America that [Theodore] Roosevelt dreamed of was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented within."
Particularly fascinating to Franklin must have been the way TR was able to turn his patrician background to his advantage. After all, in the past, the Americans had shown themselves wary of upper-class leaders, who were suspected of being insufficiently "democratic" and not in tune with the people. What TR did brilliantly was to introduce caesarism into American politics. This term refers to the political strategy adopted by Julius Caesar to gain power. Although himself from a wealthy and high-born family, Caesar castigated his fellow patricians and appealed instead to the lower classes for support. They, in turn, loved the favors they received from on high, and, perhaps even more, the sight of Caesar trouncing and humbling his fellow blue bloods. Julius Caesar was thus one of history’s great demagogues; and ever since his time the tactic of a politician from society’s elite pandering to the "have-nots" against the upper classes has been known by his name. In fabricating his persona as the great "trustbuster," Theodore Roosevelt’s form of American caesarism proved wildly successful.
While Franklin was learning from his cousin’s political stratagems, he also entered into a closer personal relationship with the Oyster Bay branch of the family. Looking around for a bride, he had become acquainted with the daughter of one of TR’s younger brothers, and after a whirlwind courtship won her hand. In 1905, in a suitably elaborate ceremony, Theodore Roosevelt gave away his niece, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, to Franklin in marriage. Eleanor proved herself to be an astonishing phenomenon and deserves our close scrutiny in her own right.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Franklin took as his wife and life-long helpmate, was quite a phenomenon in her own right. In our time, Eleanor Roosevelt (as she was always known) has become a kind of secular saint, an icon perhaps more sacred than FDR himself. Even to breathe a hint of criticism of her, in today’s climate of opinion, is to commit blasphemy. Hillary Rodham Clinton has claimed Eleanor as her role model (if not her personal confidant). That is not surprising, considering that Eleanor pioneered the role, which Hillary has tried desperately to play, of a president’s wife who continually and conspicuously involves herself in the nation’s politics. Before Eleanor, first ladies might very well have exercised influence behind the scenes; in the unique case of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, she actually governed the country for a short while to cover up her husband’s incapacity in his last months. But in bygone days, presidential wives as a rule kept a low profile. After all, they had been elected to nothing, nor had they undergone close scrutiny through any process of nomination and confirmation. It was looked on as unseemly for them to exploit the prestige and power of their husbands’ office to meddle openly in political affairs.
Eleanor broke decisively with that tradition. In the years to come, indeed virtually until her death in 1962, she was to write and speak on public issues practically nonstop (leading a former friend turned bitter enemy, the journalist Westbrook Pegler, to dub her, cruelly, La Boca Grande, "Big Mouth"). Often her stands made news, helping to publicize one or another of her favorite causes. She lectured around the country, spoke on the radio, even held press conferences (a first for the wife of a president). She wrote hundreds of thousands of words, many of them in her syndicated column, "My Day" (again, her critics could not resist the jibe that it should have been called "My Daze"), and she had millions of readers for her endless verbiage. Yet — as with Hillary today — her prominence in the public eye was in no way a victory for feminism. Nothing that Eleanor was or did or accomplished on her own warranted anyone’s paying the slightest attention to her banal opinions. It was solely by virtue of her husband’s office — on account of his accomplishments — that Eleanor Roosevelt exercised any influence at all.
We know a great deal concerning her family, her early life, her education (or rather, lack of it), and her feelings about herself and those around her, because Eleanor kept telling the world all about it, in books and articles for decades on end. Her father was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother, her mother another child of inherited wealth and social prominence. Yet while Eleanor was born into the same class as Franklin, in contrast to her husband’s pampered childhood, she had a father who was an alcoholic and died in a sanitarium and a mother who died when Eleanor was a small child. Eleanor was given little tutoring and no formal education, except for a brief stint in a convent in France and three years at a school for upper-class girls run by an aging French lady, a friend of the family, in London. In her grandmother’s home, she was lonely and isolated — by her own description, an unattractive and gauche young woman with few friends or acquaintances.
Eleanor "came out" in New York society and quickly attached herself to her handsome and debonair cousin. A whirlwind courtship ended in marriage in 1905 while Franklin was still a law student at Columbia. Presumably the groom found much to admire in the young Eleanor, even aside from her family connections and an inheritance that brought in an income of $25,000 a year. In time, she gave him five children and raised them with loving care, while suffering, as she complained again and again, from the domineering interference of her mother-in-law, the matriarch Sara.
In her outlook, Eleanor began as a typical product of her milieu, entertaining the vaguely "progressive" views that were de rigueur among the women of her class. She was all for Uplift — woman suffrage, a national child labor amendment, government tinkering with this and that, and, above all, Prohibition. In those early years she was a fervent supporter of the "noble experiment," the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. In 1924, when her husband had become a leading figure in Democratic politics, Eleanor chaired a platform subcommittee at the national convention which called for vigorous enforcement of Prohibition. This she continued to work and agitate for to the very end. That the prohibition of alcohol was a massive assault on individual rights, that it turned America’s cities into gangsters’ killing fields meant as little to her as exactly the same catastrophic results of drug prohibition mean to, say, a William Bennett today. What was important was that an enlightened, progressive government should show the benighted people the proper and decent way to live — according to Eleanor’s sadly parochial understanding of life.
One thing no one ever denied her: that, in spite of all the problems that developed in her marriage, including her feud with her mother-in-law, and, later, the lovers on his side and probably hers, she always unfailingly devoted whatever talents she had to furthering her husband’s path to power. What this might involve was at first far from clear. Franklin’s choice of a profession presented something of a puzzle, since he seemed to have no particular aptitudes. He dropped out of Columbia Law but finally did pass the bar exam. A succession of Wall Street law firms hired him, principally because of his valuable contacts through his and his wife’s relations.
Franklin was not particularly successful on Wall Street, and when, in 1910, the Democrats asked him to run for the state senate from his Hudson Valley district, he gladly accepted. The district had been traditionally Republican, but now, for the first time, FDR demonstrated his remarkable political skills and vote-getting abilities. He was elected, and went on to serve in Albany. At this time, he had no notable political views, aside from a hazy "progressivism." He began to make a name for himself by standing up for "good government" — which in the New York of that era largely meant opposition to Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine in New York City.
His appetite piqued for politics, Roosevelt assembled an entourage of friends who were fiercely loyal and furnished him with constant aid and encouragement. His closest friend and advisor, Louis Howe, never tired of urging him to strive ever higher; Howe was convinced that Franklin Roosevelt had in him the makings of a president of the United States.
In the 1912 campaign for the Democratic nomination, FDR threw in his lot with Woodrow Wilson, governor of the neighboring state of New Jersey. The convention was deadlocked until the 46th ballot, when Wilson, with the support of William Jennings Bryan, finally attained the necessary two-thirds majority. (Wilson later repaid Bryan by making him secretary of state, which explains how the pacifist Bryan found himself in an administration bent on getting into the European war.) The country, however, was basically Republican; Grover Cleveland had been the only Democrat elected president since the War Between the States. But Wilson was saved by a feud among the top Republicans. The incumbent, William Howard Taft, refused to step aside for another bid by Theodore Roosevelt. Both of the men ran, and with Republican votes split two ways, Wilson was elected president.
When it came to selecting his cabinet, Wilson made Josephus Daniels secretary of the Navy. In choosing his assistant secretary, Daniels hit on the young FDR. Franklin was owed something for his support, and anyway he had always been interested in the navy and naval history. Wilson was pleased by the idea of "a Democratic Roosevelt" in his administration and in the very same post that Theodore had filled under McKinley. While Franklin’s achievements as assistant secretary of the navy could in no way match his cousin’s — TR, after all, had been a key member of the cabal that led the country into the war with Spain and made the United States a Caribbean and Pacific power — his tenure in the office was one of the most formative experiences of his life.
In the course of the next eight years, young FDR witnessed an unprecedented eruption of government activism in Washington — unequaled, in fact, until the days of his own regime. Woodrow Wilson assumed office announcing the arrival of "the New Freedom," supposedly the culmination of the progressive movement. In foreign affairs, too, the new administration pioneered novel modes of interventionism that left a permanent impression on Franklin’s mind.
His immediate concern, however, was his own department. Franklin soon revealed himself to be as ardent an imperialist as McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and the other Republican leaders. No one surpassed him in his ardor for a Big Navy. In 1914, he wrote: "Our national defense must extend all over the Western Hemisphere, must go out a thousand miles to sea, must embrace the Philippines, wherever our commerce may be." Mere defense of America was not nearly enough. "We must create a navy not only to protect our shores and our possessions, but our merchant ships in time of war, no matter where they may go." This became one of the constants in his political creed — the urgent necessity of a great U.S. Navy, capable of projecting American power across the globe, the destined instrument of American world hegemony.
In August 1914, war broke out in Europe. Like virtually everyone else in the administration — with the exception of the poor beleaguered Secretary of State Bryan — Roosevelt was a passionate booster of the Allied cause from the start. (Bryan resigned in 1915, when, after the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson insisted on laying down a policy on submarine warfare that Bryan believed would inevitably lead to war with Germany. It turned out he was right.) As a high official of the navy department, Roosevelt might have been expected to express outrage at Britain’s repeated violations of the rights of American (and other neutral) ships at sea. Instead, he favored American entry into the war on England’s side as soon as possible. No surprise here. His family background, his elite education, his social milieu — everything he had ever been practically dictated that he should become a champion of England’s cause.
The complex process by which the United States went to war was a major learning experience for FDR. He observed how his cousin Theodore beat the war drums, leading "preparedness" marches and defaming any objectors to the United States’s joining in the bloody European festivities — and got away with it. In Wilson’s diplomatic maneuverings and public pronouncements, he witnessed at first hand how a president could lead a reluctant people into a world war while seeming to be fighting every waking moment for peace. Learning experiences indeed.
Niccolò Machiavelli, the famous Renaissance political philosopher, had a low opinion of his fellow man. In The Prince, he advised rulers to make free use of deception in their quest for power. "Men are so simple that the deceiver will always find those ready to be deceived." The average run of humanity, fools that they are, judge by appearances rather than realities. For instance, "a certain contemporary ruler is forever preaching peace and good faith," and, since people go by words instead of deeds, he is believed. His deeds, however, show him to be an "an enemy of both, who has never honored either one."
Woodrow Wilson spoke incessantly of his passion for peace and his hatred of war, and he has usually been taken at his word, by historians and the public alike. Yet the realities of his presidency were quite different. Even prior to embroiling the United States in the carnage of World War I, Wilson repeatedly intervened with military force in Latin America. Arthur S. Link, the most celebrated of Wilson scholars (and the most pious of worshippers), conceded that the years of his administration witnessed intervention "on a scale that had never before been contemplated, even by such alleged imperialists as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft."
Since the Navy and Marines were Wilson’s chief instruments, Franklin Roosevelt, his energetic and ambitious assistant secretary of the Navy, barely 31 at the time, was a key collaborator. In these forays south of the border, Roosevelt advocated and supervised what liberals traditionally denigrated as "gunboat diplomacy."
The United States sent troops into Cuba, extended a protectorate over Nicaragua, and imposed a military occupation on the Dominican Republic. In 1915, Haiti was invaded and subjugated, at the cost of about 2,000 Haitian lives. Marine Gen. Smedley Butler was commander of the operation in Haiti, which he ruled as a police state. He boasted that roads were being built at the cost of only $250 a mile. Since General Butler had thousands of Haitians kidnapped, compelled them to live in camps under Marine guard, and forced them to work on the roads, it is small wonder that he was able to show such excellent cost control. His boss, Franklin Roosevelt, visited Haiti on a tour of inspection. Roosevelt found Butler’s regime eminently satisfactory. The Haitians had been raised to the level of civilization by true progressive principles and were now ready for democracy.
The Caribbean and Central America were sideshows, however, to Wilson’s meddling in Mexico, where he tried to manipulate the course of a civil war. This led to the fiascoes at Tampico and Vera Cruz.
In April 1914, a group of American sailors landed their ship in Tampico without permission of the authorities and were arrested. As soon as the Mexican commander heard of the incident, he had the Americans released and sent a personal apology. That would have been the end of the affair "had not the Washington administration been looking for an excuse to provoke a fight" (in Link’s words), in order to benefit the side Wilson favored in the civil war. The admiral in charge demanded that the Mexicans give a 21-gun salute to the American flag. Washington backed him up, issuing an ultimatum insisting on the salute, on pain of dire consequences. Naval units were sent to seize Vera Cruz. The Mexicans resisted; 126 Mexicans were killed and close to 200 wounded (according to U.S. figures), and, on the American side, 19 were killed and 71 wounded. Plans were being made for a full-scale war with Mexico.
As the crisis heated up, Franklin Roosevelt, on a trip to the West, kept issuing statements on the likely outcome of events. It would be "War! And we’re ready!" he told reporters. With barely concealed hypocrisy, he stated, "I do not want war," adding, "but I do not see how we can avoid it." But Roosevelt was unaware that, in the meantime, the senseless bloodshed in Vera Cruz had given Wilson cold feet. Moreover, in Mexico both sides in the civil war now denounced Yanqui aggression. Wilson backed off and accepted mediation. The crisis was defused — no thanks to the surprisingly trigger-happy assistant secretary of the Navy, who had never experienced combat and who was destined, of course, never to experience it.
In later years, Eleanor wrote: "Franklin’s job in the Navy Department was, I believe, one of the milestones of his life. It would have been easy for him to have become a nice young society man." Instead, Roosevelt found himself in the middle of what has been called "the Wilsonian Revolution in government." Today, the presidency of Woodrow Wilson is increasingly recognized as a turning point in American history. In the years of peace but especially in the war years, it effected an immense transfer of power from civil society to the state and prepared the way for even greater transfers in the future.
As a high official of the administration, Roosevelt was able to observe firsthand Wilson’s method of governing. One aspect that must have struck him, as it did others, was the peculiar role that the president devolved upon his intimate friend, wealthy Texan and Democratic Party politico Col. Edward Mandell House. Mostly forgotten now, Colonel House was a curious personage. The prevailing climate of opinion in Wilson’s Washington in those days is suggested by the extraordinary influence he wielded. Never elected to any office, never confirmed by Congress, Colonel House nonetheless exercised more power in America than anyone except the president himself. Wilson once went so far as to say, "Mr. House is my second personality. His thoughts and mine are one."
In 1912, House published a strange novel, Philip Dru, Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow, which tells much about the progressive mentality of the period. In this story, Americans had become virtual serfs of the barons of industry and finance. Philip Dru, a brilliant young West Point officer turned social worker and writer, decides to fight against the corrupt and selfish cabal oppressing the masses: "He comes panoplied in justice and with the light of reason in his eyes. He comes as the advocate of equal opportunity, and he comes with the power to enforce his will." Dru leads the people against the selfish capitalists and their minions, and after a brief bloody, cleansing (civil) war — the last war required before justice prevails forever — he sets out to remake America. He appoints himself dictator, writes a new constitution, and creates a welfare state. Then Dru turns to world affairs, and, together with the leaders of the other powers, establishes a permanent order of peace and justice. This work, by Wilson’s "second personality," was oddly prophetic as well as revelatory, and surely deserves to be better known today than it is.
At all events, House, totally beholden to Wilson, enjoyed a position never before known in American government. A personal confidant and emissary of the president, entrusted to carry out secret missions of particular importance, he became the role model for the man who would play the same part once Franklin Roosevelt was president — Harry Hopkins.
Like House, Wilson himself, and virtually all of the other leaders in the administration, Franklin Roosevelt was dedicated to the dual aims of the progressive movement as they understood it — the centralization and organization of American life through the national government and the application of American power to spread progressivism throughout the world.
As soon as he entered on to his job, Roosevelt proved himself much more aggressive than the secretary of the Navy under whom he served, the kindly, slow-moving newspaper editor from North Carolina, Josephus Daniels. Where Daniels was cautious and penny-pinching, Roosevelt was flamboyant and ready to spend the taxpayers’ money with gay abandon. Understandably, the Navy brass much preferred him to Daniels, since Roosevelt was much quicker to sign big requisitions for supplies.
In the years immediately prior to U.S. entry into the European war, a "preparedness" movement gained ground, spreading the idea that America needed a vast new armaments program to guard against the potential Hunnish invaders of our shores. Though "preparedness" was originally spearheaded by Theodore Roosevelt, his bitter enemy, Wilson climbed on the bandwagon. Franklin Roosevelt was probably the most bellicose member of the administration, and certainly the one with the most grandiose plans for the armed forces. The Navy appropriations bill presented to Congress in 1916 (which was approved) appropriated $600 million to build 250 ships — the largest allocation ever voted for the navy by any nation. (Once war came, the sky was the limit for Roosevelt’s empire: by the end of the war, the Navy had expanded from 65,000 men to nearly half a million and more than 2,000 ships.)
As part of the "preparedness" campaign, Roosevelt advocated universal military training for all American youth. Others did as well, but he went much further. He asserted that all citizens "owe a personal obligation to the Government to assist in time of war." Roosevelt pushed a plan for total mobilization: "It will include both men and women, some for the trenches, some for the machine shops, some for the offices, some for the railroads, and some for the sewing machines." Yet, "national mobilization will not make us militaristic," he insisted. One of Roosevelt’s major biographers, Frank Freidel, characterized this plan, bluntly, as "a labor draft." Those are small words regarding the frivolous ideas of the young Roosevelt, but the reader is invited to ponder what they would have meant for our country.
Aside from military preparations, Wilson’s peacetime years saw other innovations that augured ill for traditional American freedoms. In the year 1913, two fateful novelties were introduced. In February, the Sixteenth Amendment, legalizing the federal income tax, was declared in effect. In December, Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act. Government power was reaching qualitatively higher levels. But this was nothing compared with what would occur once war came.
The process by which America became embroiled in the First World War can be followed in a number of reliable and very readable works, including Walter Karp’s brilliant book, The Politics of War. It is the story of such manifold deception and credulity as would have brought the wry little smile to Machiavelli’s lips that the cynical philosopher was famous for. The gullible American public was deceived by the reigning political class working in tandem with the British propaganda machine. The U.S. ambassador to England constantly deceived the State Department, which was eager to believe his lies. Above all, Woodrow Wilson deceived the people and his lieutenants as well as himself.
After William Jennings Bryan resigned as secretary of state, none of the leaders in Washington was truly neutral, least of all Franklin Roosevelt. Anglophile to the core, they were all partisans of the British cause. Thus, they really saw nothing wrong with the illegal British hunger-blockade of Germany that was starving millions, while they righteously denounced the retaliatory German submarine campaign as sheer murder. When the threat of mass famine led the Germans to announce unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, the result, on April 2, was the American declaration of war on the German Empire.
When the United States entered the First World War, in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced his policy. It would be, "Force! Force to the utmost! Force without stint or limit!" That it would be force directed against the American people themselves soon became evident.
On the economic front, as Murray Rothbard wrote, World War I was "the critical watershed for the American business system." A war-collectivism was instituted which "served as the model, the precedent, and the inspiration for state corporate capitalism for the remainder of the century." The Lever Act alone put Washington in charge of the production and distribution of all food and fuel in the country. One of the chief progressives, Herbert Hoover, was appointed food administrator of the United States. As such, among his many initiatives, Hoover — afterwards a revered "conservative" elder statesman — had the government purchase the entire U.S. and Cuban sugar crops. Another progressive, Bernard Baruch, head of the War Industries Board, fixed prices and allocated priorities throughout much of the economy.
Robert Higgs, in Crisis and Leviathan, lists some of the major statist intrusions in the course of the war:
"By the time of the armistice, the government had taken over the ocean-shipping, railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered hundreds of manufacturing plants; entered into massive enterprises on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding, wheat trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend huge sums to business directly or indirectly and to regulate the private issuance of securities; established official priorities for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many raw materials; fixed the prices of dozens of important commodities; intervened in hundreds of labor disputes; and conscripted millions of men for service in the armed forces."
Shrewdly, the Washington planners assured themselves of the collaboration of big business and organized labor by guaranteeing high profit margins and by pushing wherever possible for unionization of the sectors of the economy they now controlled.
Franklin Roosevelt, the dynamic young assistant secretary of the Navy, who already cherished presidential ambitions, was an avid spectator of this statist tidal wave. Hoover and Baruch were among his close friends; the latter was to remain so to the end of FDR’s life. Much in Roosevelt’s early New Deal, especially the National Recovery Administration (NRA), was copied from what he himself called "the great cooperation of 1917 and 1918."
Besides wholesale violations of economic freedom, the war years saw the brutal suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, especially by means of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Anyone who voiced dissent from the government’s line was branded a traitor and treated accordingly. This, too, was noted by the young Navy bureaucrat, as was the supine acquiescence of the U.S. Supreme Court in these blatant infringements of the constitutional rights of Americans.
Over at the Navy Department, when Roosevelt wasn’t conspiring against his boss, Josephus Daniels, he was coming up with one brainstorm after another. If one scheme didn’t pan out, he would go off in a different direction. The main thing was just to keep on doing things — the model for his conduct in the New Deal. Of course, the U.S. Navy lent its full support to Britain in tightening the hunger-blockade around Germany, with the aim, and result, of starving the civilian population. Roosevelt’s pet project was the building of a barrage of mines across the entrance to the North Sea, between Scotland and Norway, to prevent U-boats from reaching the Atlantic. The cost was $80 million. But the U-boat commanders found it easy to maneuver under and around the barrage. At most, it cost the Germans six submarines. It had no effect whatever on the course of the war in the North Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Eleanor had her hands full, raising five children and learning the social graces required by the Washington set she and her husband were obliged to travel in. She was given to occasional gaffes. When a reporter asked her how she was managing her household under wartime conditions, she replied that her ten servants were very good at coming up with cost-cutting suggestions. It didn’t help that Eleanor was under the constant eye of her first cousin, the wonderfully bitchy Alice Roosevelt Longworth (her most famous quip, to an unattached lady at a dinner party: "Well, if you don’t have anything good to say about anyone here — come sit by me"). "Alice of Malice," as Bill Kauffman called her, in one of the best essays in his brilliant collection, America First!, was Teddy’s daughter and a matron of Washington high society. A carping critic and constant thorn in the side of the Hyde Park Roosevelts, she would outlive them all, dying in 1980. Not by chance, Alice played a role in the dreadful predicament that confronted Franklin and Eleanor in 1917.
Three years earlier, Eleanor had engaged a social secretary, Lucy Mercer, who was charming, poised, lovely, and 22 years old. When Eleanor was out of town with the children, as during the summers spent at Campobello, Lucy remained in the capital. It was obvious that Franklin was attracted to Lucy and that she returned his interest. Alice Roosevelt Longworth fueled the fire by inviting them to dinners when Eleanor was away. As Alice of Malice later put it: "It was good for Franklin. He deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor." Now very much in love, Franklin had Lucy commissioned a yeoman in the Navy, and transferred to his office. One day, going through some of her husband’s papers, Eleanor discovered love letters from Lucy. Further evidence of the affair came to light in the register of a motel in Virginia Beach, where Franklin and Lucy had checked in as husband and wife.
Eleanor was devastated. She raised the possibility of divorce. But divorce would, it was thought, harm the children; it would certainly have ended Franklin’s political career. Through the mediation of Louis Howe and other intimates, a modus vivendi was arrived at. Roosevelt had to give up Lucy, but as far as Eleanor was concerned, marital relations were over. In any case, she was tired of childbearing, and, as she later confided to her daughter, Anna, she was totally ignorant of contraceptive methods and too bashful to inquire about them. Their son James wrote: "Father and mother had an armed truce that endured to the day he died, despite several occasions I was to observe in which he in one way or another held out his arms to mother, and she flatly refused to enter his embrace." According to James, for Eleanor the episode "left a residue of bitterness that remained with her all her life."
Unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt turned increasingly to political affairs, lecturing anybody who would listen on everything under the sun. As for Franklin, though he ended his liaison, he and Lucy remained close friends. The portrait he was sitting for in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945, had been commissioned by Lucy Mercer.
In the summer of 1918, Roosevelt left on an official visit to Europe. His plan was to hobnob with the elite in the Allied countries, travel to the blood-drenched Western Front, and inspect units of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that had seen combat. FDR looked on it all as a grand adventure. Crossing the Atlantic, he was practically bursting with excitement, despite the danger of German submarines. In Britain, he met with the top echelon of the military and political establishment, including King George V. For a fervent Anglophile like Roosevelt, it was like coming home. He conferred with Clemenceau and the chief French generals in Paris.
Touring the Western Front, Franklin witnessed combat, viewed the remains of the men and horses on the battlefield, and saw the shattered survivors. Yet, as a highly sympathetic biographer, Frank Freidel, wrote, "He was fascinated rather than repelled." In fact, FDR was as boyishly delighted by the sights and sounds of war as the man who would later become his friend, Winston Churchill. Of course, patriotism played its part, as well. It was so inspiring to experience the might of America being deployed for the first time on European killing-fields. The AEF had been instrumental in halting the last German offensive and turning the tide of battle. In high spirits, Roosevelt wrote to Eleanor: "The counter-attack in the Rheims salient [by American forces] has heartened everybody enormously. Our men have undoubtedly done well. One of my Marine regiments has lost 1200 and another 800 men."
FDR’s euphoria continued after his return to Washington. He even decided to apply for a commission. This would put him on a par with his cousin Teddy, who had fought in the Spanish-American War, and even one-up old TR, whose request to serve in the European War had been refused by Wilson. But Franklin’s appeal for a combat role was belated — the war was nearly over, and Wilson turned him down. Still, the excitement of it all remained with him — the thrill of mingling with the other masters of men, the dark yet alluring drama of warfare, and, not least, the exhilaration of wielding power over the lives, liberties, and property of the great American people. To William Castle, a friend and State Department official, Roosevelt confided: "It would be wonderful to be a war President of the United States."
The Germans finally surrendered on November 11, 1918. It was argued by some that the war-collectivism imposed by Wilson on the United States was a major reason for the splendid victory. Roosevelt certainly believed so. But considering that Germany was in the forefront of the countries that embraced war-collectivism, that would be a hard argument to sustain.
In early 1919, the Peace Conference convened in Paris. Here America and the world finally would reap the harvest of eternal peace and justice for which so much had been sacrificed. But the British, French, Italian, and other foreign leaders had their own agendas. Wilson, woefully ignorant of the realities of European politics and befuddled by his own high-sounding rhetoric, floundered helplessly. One thing he held on to, the prize that was supposed to make up for all his deceptions of the American people and of himself — the League of Nations. The League Covenant was added to the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson brought back to the United States for ratification by the Senate. In the end, the Senate rejected it.
In retrospect — and contrary to what countless globalists have insisted — it is clear that American participation in the League would have been a disaster for our country. According to the Covenant, the United States pledged itself to join in punishing "aggressors" against world peace — by military means, if necessary. An aggressor was defined as any power that attempted to use force to change international boundaries as they existed in 1919. Thus, America would have been obligated to defend the international order created at Paris, the order of Anglo-French world hegemony. (By 1922, Germany and Soviet Russia were already collaborating to undermine that order.) Joining the League would have instantly plunged America into the midst of the seething hatreds and rivalries of the Old World. But, in submitting the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate, that is precisely what Woodrow Wilson intended to do. Perhaps needless to say, Franklin Roosevelt was a passionate enthusiast of Wilson’s League of Nations.
End of the War; 1920 Campaign
As he was constitutionally mandated to do, Woodrow Wilson submitted his grand scheme for the League of Nations and the Versailles Peace Treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification. In his self-righteous arrogance, Wilson refused to permit the slightest compromise or modification. This spelled the doom of his utopian vision at the hands of the Senate opposition, led by Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.). So distraught was the president by the emotional struggle that he suffered a stroke, becoming a feeble invalid in his last months in office. Thus ended the ignominious administration of Woodrow Wilson, which had transformed America beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy, a small but significant part of that administration, was having his own troubles. At a speech in Brooklyn, Franklin Roosevelt boasted that his first priority had always been to render the Navy ready for war. In doing so, he jovially blurted out, he had committed "enough illegal acts to put me in jail for 999 years," including spending money on munitions before Congress or anyone else had given him authorization.
While FDR received only mild criticism for this gaffe, another problem had the potential to do much more damage. It seems that the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, had become a center for such things as excessive drinking, prostitution, and drug dealing as well as homosexual activity. It was principally this last that disturbed a number of prominent local citizens. Roosevelt set up a secret investigating team, called "Section A — Office of the Assistant Secretary," to uncover and root out the licentious miscreants. He stipulated that there was to be no written communication regarding the case. Instead, his appointees were to report to him from time to time in person.
Since it is exceedingly difficult, in the nature of things, to obtain evidence of consensual sexual acts, the diligent inquisitors employed the default method in such cases — entrapment. Homosexuals were enticed by the use of "straight" sailors, some as young as 16, who allowed lewd acts to be performed upon them. When this became known, there was outrage in Newport. In Washington, a naval commission, headed by an old friend of Roosevelt’s, was formed to probe the question. One member of Section A testified that he had, indeed, reported the relevant facts to Roosevelt; the other member was excused from testifying on account of "illness." Franklin himself vehemently denied any knowledge of the immoral methods used by the secret team he had set up — in essence, his claim was that his attitude had been "don’t ask, don’t tell." In the end, the naval commission exonerated him, thus saving his career.
Had Roosevelt known all along? Had he brazenly lied about his involvement? His devoted biographers have mostly just taken him at his word. But it is hard to believe that in all his dealings with Section A, Roosevelt never once inquired how the evidence was being gathered, or that his investigators never once informed him of their methods, if only to protect themselves. On the face of it, the Newport scandal is an early example of FDR’s singular skill — and near-miraculous success — in the arts of duplicity and deception.
In 1920, the Democratic convention in San Francisco gave its presidential nomination to James M. Cox, a three-time governor of Ohio, whose main advantage was that he had had no connection with the despised Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt, aided by the delegate-hunting efforts of his friend Louis Howe, was selected for the second spot on the ticket. Once again, there was an echo of the career of his cousin Teddy, who had served as vice president under William McKinley, and once again the Roosevelt name played a major role in FDR’s ascending career.
Franklin barnstormed the country, concentrating on the West and incessantly invoking what he claimed was TR’s legacy. His nonstop winning smile and easy charm showed that he was a born campaigner. For lack of anything better, he stressed entry into the League of Nations, which, however, did not sell well anywhere, especially not in the West. Interestingly for a leader who afterwards would pride himself in his "Good Neighbor" policy towards Latin America, Roosevelt on one occasion let the cat out of the bag. Referring to the period following the invasion and occupation of Haiti, he said: "The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself, and if I do say so, I think it is a pretty good constitution." He bragged that, in the Navy Department, he had "had something to do with running a couple of little republics."
Roosevelt always tried to ingratiate himself with his audience, and he usually succeeded. But at a speech in Washington state to the local chapter of the American Legion, he went a little too far. He praised the Legionnaires’ patriotism as demonstrated in their dealing with some antiwar Wobblies (members of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World). Though he mentioned none of the details, what the patriots had done, after a shootout with the Wobblies, was capture their leader, then castrate him and shoot him to death.
But Roosevelt’s efforts availed not at all. He and Cox lost the election, suffering the worst defeat in the history of presidential politics to that time. Warren Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, triumphed by nearly two to one. It wasn’t that Cox was particularly disliked, and certainly not that Harding was beloved. But Harding campaigned on a platform of returning the country to "normalcy." This was a slogan that resounded mightily with a public sick to death of Woodrow Wilson and everything he stood for — the government controls, the taxes and deficits, the draft, and, above all, the entanglement in a world war that everyone could now see had been merely another bloody struggle among rival gangs of imperialist powers.
Despite the ringing defeat, the 1920 election was a great step forward for FDR. Even to be nominated by a major party for vice president at the age of 38 was a singular honor. Franklin had proven himself as a campaigner, gained national attention, and made innumerable valuable contacts. Still, he no longer held political office, and was not to do so again until 1928. He returned to his law practice in New York and once more exploited his political and family connections. The Fidelity and Deposit Company, a firm of corporate insurers, made him vice president in charge of the New York office, at a salary of $25,000 a year, and he, Eleanor, and the children and servants took up residence again at their home on East 65th Street, next door to his mother’s.
After he had become president, FDR was in the habit of castigating the business climate in the 1920s as "a mad chase for riches" — reminiscent of the Clintons’ hypocritical attack on the 1980s as a "decade of greed." The fact is that while the going was good, FDR tried to cash in on that "mad chase" at every opportunity. He engaged in risky business ventures, most of which failed — a company to fly dirigibles between New York and Chicago; another to buy up firms in Germany; still another, called the Consolidated Automatic Merchandising Corporation, to replace clerks in retail shops with vending machines (this one with his new friend and devotee, Henry Morgenthau Jr.). Occasionally, he made money, but there were many times when he had cause to be grateful for his and Eleanor’s inherited wealth.
In August 1921, FDR and his family were at their summer home at Campobello. It was a turning point in his life. One day, slipping on the deck of a boat, Franklin was plunged into the icy waters of the Bay of Fundy, from which he emerged with a slight chill. The next day, a series of exhausting activities resulted in his going to bed early, complaining of achiness. In the morning, dizziness and pain in his leg were added to his symptoms. When the sharp pain spread to his other leg and his back, medical assistance was clearly called for. Paralysis was setting in, in his lower body. After two doctors misdiagnosed the condition, a specialist from Boston finally discovered the terrible truth. Roosevelt had fallen victim to poliomyelitis, known also as infantile paralysis, which that summer was rampant across the northeast.
Before long, Roosevelt could no longer walk and had to endure constant pain. He was moved by stretcher to a hospital in New York and then to his home. In the next months, Eleanor proved to be a dedicated nurse to her husband. She also fought fiercely against her mother-in-law. If Sara had had her way, Franklin would have retired to Hyde Park, to live out his life as an invalid. Eleanor had important allies in fighting for an active future for Franklin in politics — his friends, such as Howe, and, most of all, Roosevelt’s own ambition.
For the next seven years, Franklin’s chief preoccupation was regaining the ability to move around normally. He learned to walk with the aid of braces and crutches, and developed his upper-body muscles, ultimately coming to present, when seated, a rather imposing physical figure. Still, he had to be carried up and down stairs, and the pain of trying to exercise his leg muscles was excruciating. Through it all, he maintained his habitual good cheer and affable disposition.
His admirers often claim that his struggle with polio transformed FDR from a rather superficial, pampered child of the elite into a man who understood life deeply and empathized with the less fortunate. But whatever benefits it may have produced for his character, however edifying his long fight may have been for his soul, it should be obvious that Franklin Roosevelt must still be judged according to his actions and policies and the consequences that followed from them.
Still believing that he could overcome his affliction, Roosevelt investigated the facility at Warm Springs, Georgia, whose waters were reported to effect remarkable improvement in polio sufferers. Trying them out, he concluded that they were helping greatly in his case. He bought the hotel, pool, and some 1,200 acres of surrounding land, and set up the Warm Springs Foundation. Eventually, contributions from many donors turned Warm Springs into the best-known center in the country for treating the disease, and thousands of persons of all ages, including many with meager means, were treated there.
Gradually, Franklin resumed his public activities. He served in a number of capacities in philanthropy, in connection with Harvard and other institutions, and acted as chairman of the fundraising efforts for the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in Manhattan. From time to time, he wrote on politics for the press, although his contributions were never noteworthy for any depth or originality. On the question of immigration, which was being hotly debated at the time, FDR took the then-popular position that large-scale immigration had to be stopped. His special ire was reserved for the Japanese who came to America. "Californians have properly objected … that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population." We should be candid, he declared, about the grounds for exclusion of the Japanese, namely "the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples."
Now Roosevelt’s political ambitions were more intense than ever. But many doubted that, disabled as he was, he was fit for public office. At the Democratic convention of 1924, he brilliantly confounded the doubters.
1924 Campaign; 1928 Campaign — Roosevelt Becomes Governor of New York
In the course of the 1920s, Roosevelt had grown close politically to the major figure in Democratic politics in New York, Alfred E. Smith. On the face of it, this was a curious alliance. Smith’s base was the powerful Tammany Hall machine, in New York City. In contrast, Roosevelt liked to pose as an independent and reformer, an enemy to everything Tammany stood for: wholesale patronage and systematic graft. Yet each man had something the other could use: Smith, Irish and Catholic, an adamant foe of Prohibition, was so rooted in the great city that his theme song was "The Sidewalks of New York." Roosevelt, a Protestant from "upstate," who could appease "drys" on the liquor question, offered his many connections among the social and financial elite. Franklin quickly patched up his old quarrel with the Tammany machine. In 1924, he was ready to lend Smith, now governor of New York, something of his patrician glamour, as he nominated him for president of the United States. The Democratic convention was held in the old Madison Square Garden, where the sweltering New York summer was particularly oppressive. Smith’s chief rival, William Gibbs McAdoo, had been treasury secretary under Wilson and was considered friendly to the Ku Klux Klan, then enjoying a great revival. In those days (and until 1936) a two-thirds majority was needed for nomination by the Democrats — a means of ensuring a southern veto over any candidate the party would select.
When the moment came to put Smith’s name in nomination, Roosevelt, supporting himself on crutches, made his painful way across the platform. It was his first political speech since he had fallen ill, and his courage and good cheer were palpable to the thousands of spellbound onlookers. Literally in the spotlight, he delivered his speech in his fine, strong tones. Clearly, here was a man who, in spite of dreadful physical disability, was vibrant and robust. The speech had been composed primarily by Judge Joseph Proscauer. In the end, what everyone remembered was the phrase from William Wordsworth, which Judge Proscauer had insisted on and which Roosevelt had found too "poetic":
"This is the Happy Warrior, this is he Whom every Man in arms should wish to be."
From then on, Al Smith would be known as the Happy Warrior.
The balloting went on for days — roll call followed roll call, each beginning with the head of the Alabama delegation famously intoning, "Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood." Finally, on the 103rd ballot, the compromise candidate passed the two-thirds hurdle. He was John W. Davis, a wealthy corporate lawyer, hailing from West Virginia, but now associated with the J.P. Morgan interests and ensconced on Long Island. (It was a period when the reputation of big business was running high.)
Franklin was the only real star of the ill-fated convention. In the November election, Davis lost to the Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge by a landslide. Nearly 5 million votes were cast on the Progressive line for Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson’s bitter antagonist on war with Germany.
During the next four years, FDR kept building up his network of contacts in the national party. But everything seemed rosy for the Republicans for the foreseeable future, and Roosevelt’s plan was to make recovering his health his major concern. He purchased the establishment at Warm Springs, set up a foundation to run it, and spent more and more time there. In 1928, he once again put Al Smith’s name in nomination at the convention, in Houston, incidentally speaking for the first time to a national radio audience of millions. Radio was to be the medium of which FDR would become the acknowledged master. It created a sense of intimacy with the listeners that perfectly fit his personal style, besides allowing him to bypass the newspaper press, often controlled by his unrelenting enemies.
In Houston the nomination took only one ballot. But Al Smith’s candidacy was doomed. Not only was the country basking in what seemed to be an indefinite prosperity under the Republicans, but what had been advantages for Smith in New York hurt him badly in most of the rest of the country: his pronounced opposition to Prohibition (he was himself a notorious drinker), his links to Tammany, and his religion. It did nothing to dampen anti-Catholic suspicions when, on a visit by Smith and his wife to Rome, the Pope referred to him as "my beloved son, Governor Smith." (Mrs. Smith was no asset either; to many, including Eleanor’s set, Katie was unspeakably vulgar — so Irish, you know.)
The Smith camp believed they had no chance at all if they failed to carry New York. Upstate, the religious issue swayed many. But with the Protestant Roosevelt on the ticket as candidate for governor, the chances would be good. (Herbert Lehman, candidate for lieutenant governor, could be counted on to attract the Jewish vote.) Roosevelt, however, demurred; he and his advisors feared a Democratic catastrophe that would sink the whole ticket, even in New York. Besides, Roosevelt had great hopes for the water cure at Warm Springs. Smith made a personal plea. Then John J. Raskob, the self-made tycoon and high DuPont executive Smith had appointed as Democratic national chairman, sweetened the pot by promising to cover the deficits of the Warm Springs center. The year before, a relative had left FDR a fortune of $600,000. Still, given his family’s lifestyle, money was always to some degree a problem for him. He accepted the offer, and Raskob made the first installment of $25,000. In the end, Raskob donated $100,000 to the cause so dear to Franklin’s heart.
Roosevelt was once again in his element as he threw himself into campaigning up and down the state, and, thus, not coincidentally, demonstrated that his paralysis was no disqualification for high office. Yet there was a strong Republican tide running, and the Roosevelt camp was deeply worried.
Although Herbert Hoover had never held elective office before, he was the heavy favorite in the election of 1928. He had what nowadays would be called "very low negatives." He was widely respected as a successful engineer (the world’s richest, it was said) and even more as the food relief administrator in Europe during the World War and in Russia during the first Soviet famine. Woodrow Wilson, whom he admired greatly, made him "food czar" of the United States. Oddly, no one knew whether Hoover was a Democrat or a Republican, until he agreed to serve as secretary of commerce in Harding’s and then in Coolidge’s cabinet.
The election was a triumph for Hoover, who managed to carry a number of states in what was then the "Solid [Democratic] South." Smith even lost New York, by more than 100,000 votes. At first it looked as if Roosevelt would be buried in Smith’s debacle. But after a tense night of ballot counting, he squeaked through with a margin of 25,000 over his Republican opponent, Albert Ottinger, out of the 4.2 million votes cast. A defeat would probably have ended Roosevelt’s political career. Instead, he now found himself — like his cousin Teddy before him — governor of the Empire State.
Al Smith expected that Roosevelt, of whose talents, aside from campaigning, he had no very high opinion, would allow himself to be guided by his older, more experienced ally. But the new governor soon made it clear that he was the power in Albany. It was the beginning of Smith’s enmity towards his former protégé, which lasted to the end of his life.
Roosevelt brought with him to Albany a coterie of loyal aides and supporters who would later accompany him to Washington, among them: Frances Perkins, to head the state labor department; his Hyde Park neighbor Henry Morgenthau Jr., to help deal with agricultural matters; Samuel Rosenman, lawyer and sometime state politician, to ghost-write his speeches; and Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, his faithful personal secretary. Felix Frankfurter, still a Harvard Law School professor, was an eager source of frequent advice. But Roosevelt fired Robert Moses, who had thwarted his attempt to get his friend Louis Howe on the state payroll as a parks commissioner. Roosevelt never forgave the highhanded but scrupulously honest Moses for his refusal to countenance a bit of cronyism and continued his vendetta for years.
With a state legislature controlled by the Republicans, Roosevelt could not have accomplished much of a program, even if he’d had well-thought-out ideas. He continued the mildly interventionist policies of Al Smith in regard to labor unions and working conditions, expanded workmen’s compensation, and spoke out for state generation of electric power and a state-controlled unemployment insurance system. Roosevelt boasted that one of his greatest achievements was prison reform, which emphasized rehabilitation rather than punishment of the criminal. Attica prison, in western New York, was the showcase of his efforts in this field.
At that time, governors of New York stood for election every two years. The 1930 campaign raised once more the thorny question of Prohibition. By now it was clear that the "noble experiment" had not only failed utterly, but would soon be a thing of the past. Still, Roosevelt was cautious. While the delegates to the Democratic state convention — mostly Al Smith Democrats — insisted on outright repeal of the 18th Amendment, Roosevelt favored a new constitutional amendment, permitting liquor to be sold (in states that legalized it) only through state-run stores. His great fear was the return of the "saloon." It goes without saying that through the whole period of Prohibition, Franklin, along with the rest of the elite, enjoyed their cocktails whenever they wished. (His own favorite tipple was the fashionable martini.)
In the election, the Republicans put up Charles H. Tuttle, a New York City district attorney who had fought Tammany corruption. He was no match for Roosevelt, who was reelected by a margin of 725,000, carrying even the upstate vote. FDR’s circle of friends and advisors, now including James A. Farley, the former boxing commissioner whom Roosevelt made the head of the state Democratic party, was ecstatic. Back then, New York, with 47 electoral votes, enjoyed roughly the same position in national politics that California does today. FDR was the clear front-runner for the presidential nomination in 1932.
There were still problems, though. Roosevelt was embarrassed by the scandals erupting in the Tammany machine. On the one hand, he needed Tammany support for 1932; on the other, his mild reputation for "liberalism" would suffer if he was seen to curry favor by overlooking the turpitude of the New York City bosses. Unfortunately, there was no way he could stop the investigations of the implacable Judge Samuel Seabury (a kind of Kenneth Starr of the time). But he was able to dawdle in bringing charges against the main culprits. Finally, Jimmy Walker, Tammany mayor of New York, resigned, and let Roosevelt off the main hook.
All subsidiary issues were overshadowed, however, by one great fact: the Depression had begun. Republican prosperity was over, and suddenly Hoover was vulnerable in the upcoming presidential election. But first Roosevelt, as governor, would have to cope as best he could with the consequences of the Depression in his own state.
Governor Roosevelt: 1928—1932
Two major grounds are put forward nowadays for the unbounded greatness of Franklin Roosevelt, both stemming from major national tragedies. The second is his supposed brilliance as leader of the forces of democracy in the Second World War. The first is the role claimed for him as the nation’s savior in the Great Depression. According to Newt Gingrich (erstwhile leader of the never-to-be-forgotten Republican Revolution), it was because Roosevelt “did bring us out of the Depression,” that he must be considered “the greatest figure of the 20th century.”
The Depression, which began in 1929, was the worst and longest-lasting in our history. It was, in truth, devastating for many millions of those who lived through it. Ever since it occurred, statists have exploited it in their attack on the free market. If only a far-seeing government had taken the anarchic private enterprise system in hand, if only it had exercised a wise and firm supervision and control over the economy, vast suffering could have been prevented. The culprit in this scenario, of course, is horrid laissez faire, together with the greedy businessmen and corrupt apologists who upheld it.
As economist Roger Garrison has recently analyzed the matter, there are two basic questions: (1) How did the boom of the 1920s turn into the Depression? and (2) Why did the Depression last so long? Leaving aside the second question for the time being, and dealing with the first, one thing is clear: no “anarchic,” unfettered private-enterprise system existed in America in the 1920s. In fact, a government-sponsored and government-supported institution had been created in 1913 whose very function was to supervise the economy and ensure its stability. That institution was the Federal Reserve Board. As late as the spring of 1929, the politician-financier Bernard Baruch complacently assured the country that, with the Fed giving us “coordinated control of our financial resources and a unified banking system,” there was nothing to fear. The boom could go on forever.
The most complete and satisfactory interpretation we have linking booms and busts is the Austrian theory of the business cycle, originated by Ludwig von Mises and developed by F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and others. (Mises was the only major economist who actually predicted the Great Depression.) In America’s Great Depression, Rothbard sets forth in detail how the Federal Reserve acted to stimulate economic growth in the 1920s. Through the artificial creation of bank credit — i.e., credit not based on real savings — the Fed distorted market signals such as interest rates. That induced businessmen to go on an investment spree that could not be indefinitely sustained. Finally and inevitably, the bubble burst. As has recently been suggested, the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression should more aptly be called “Federalreservevilles.”
After his reelection as governor in 1930, the overarching concern of Roosevelt and his circle of intimates was the next presidential election. First, though, he had somehow to deal with the economic crisis as it affected his state. The flood of bank failures that swept the country hit New York particularly hard. Among many others, City Trust and the Bank of the United States, both with hundreds of thousands of depositors, failed. On the Bank of the United States, Robert Moses had warned the governor that the directors, some of them with Tammany connections, were engaging in seriously unsound practices. Roosevelt, who by that point considered Moses a political enemy, had ignored the warnings. Now he ostentatiously set up commissions to study the bank failure problem, but nothing was done.
As more and more thousands of New Yorkers joined the ranks of the jobless, FDR pushed for an unemployment insurance scheme, financed through insurance companies, under state supervision. But employees, he insisted, had to contribute to the fund, since otherwise it would amount to a mere dole and undermine individual character. That would be un-American, Roosevelt declared.
Thus, in the first couple of years of the crisis, Franklin was still in his middle-of-the-road mode. While he invoked once again the memory of his cousin Theodore to sanctify a positive attitude towards government activism, he remained cautious and even oddly conservative. He ordered all state departments to pare down expenses, including the number of employees. He attacked President Herbert Hoover for setting up federal relief efforts funded by deficit financing. FDR established a state agency, TERA, the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, with an initial appropriation of $20,000,000. (A social worker named Harry Hopkins was brought in as executive director.) But he stipulated that this was all to come out of current revenue; under no circumstances was the state to resort to borrowing money for the program. When the Republican legislature appeared to be too open-handed with relief appropriations, Roosevelt fought it. The legislators were threatening the state with bankruptcy, he announced.
As the Depression deepened, Roosevelt rummaged around for further remedies. He proposed a five-day work week, with an eight-hour day, as a means of “sharing the work,” an idea that went nowhere. What about a back-to-the-land movement, which would “adjust the balance” between urban and rural living? A program was set up and 244 families relocated to farms. For a while Franklin looked on this as a promising breakthrough on the unemployment front. But farmers in New York, and then the Midwest, began to grumble that food prices were already too low. They didn’t need any competitors transplanted from the cities. Roosevelt, fearing a loss of the farm vote in the upcoming election, shelved his plan and nothing more was heard of it.
Roosevelt’s floundering for solutions to the economic crisis — his “empirical” approach to government that his devotees admire so much — would continue to be his trademark for the rest of the decade. That is hardly surprising, since he lacked any understanding of what had caused the breakdown in the first place. While still governor, FDR held that the Depression had been caused by the absence of organization in the economy. He wrote to his brother-in-law that overproduction was at the root of the problem. Industry and agriculture were simply producing too much, a propensity that had to be curbed. Overconsumption, too, would have somehow to be brought under control. Here new-fangled schemes for consumer credit were at fault, and Roosevelt recalled that for years he had fretted over “installment buying by the individual consumer” as “the most dangerous thing we had to contend with.”
Roosevelt’s multiple confusions may seem downright comical. Yet no one in Washington had any better idea of how to cope with the crisis, least of all President Hoover. Today, Hoover’s name is a synonym for “reaction,” for a fuddy-duddy adherence to an obsolete and dreadful laissez faire. But, in fact, as president, Hoover was what he had been from the start: a Progressive, a veteran of Wilson’s war-collectivism, a believer in government leadership in economic affairs, but on a “voluntary” basis if possible. Faced with the Depression, Hoover had funds allocated for relief. He set up the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a resurrected version of Wilson’s war-collectivist War Finance Corporation, to shore up failing businesses. (In the decades to come, the RFC became one of the major founts of corporate welfare.)
Most important, Hoover constantly pushed businessmen to keep wages up. Nothing could have been more wrong-headed in the midst of an economic downturn, when the market dictated a fall in real wages, which would have sopped up much of the unemployment. But Hoover was a captive of the smiley-face, topsy-turvy philosophy of the ’20s, whereby high wages were the cause — rather than the effect — of high productivity. The big businessmen who heeded the president’s preachings did their patriotic duty, kept wages high, and saw the unemployment rolls rise ever higher.
There were some things Hoover would not do, however. In the summer of 1932, veterans converged on Washington, demanding the payment of the bonus that was, by law, due them in 1945. Some of these “Bonus Marchers” encamped on the Anacostia Flats, in the District of Columbia. Hoover had them cleared away by army troops, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Two of the Bonus Marchers were killed. The beleaguered president was more politically vulnerable than ever.
The dream that Louis Howe had years before instilled in Franklin, that someday he would be president of the United States, seemed on the point of being realized. FDR played his hand brilliantly, acting the part of the statesman amidst the economic disaster. He called together conferences of governors to discuss the crisis, where he could perform the leadership role that naturally fell to him as chief executive of the Empire State — meanwhile continuing to build bridges to influential politicians. Jim Farley, New York state Democratic chairman, was put in charge of the presidential campaign and toured the Middle West and West, lining up support. Even old Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s confidante, was brought on board.
FDR looked to be the inevitable candidate at the Democratic convention that was to gather in Chicago in June. But while he was clearly the front-runner, there was still that two-thirds rule for nomination. Was it possible that Al Smith would try again, and, together with the numerous favorite sons, deny Roosevelt the necessary super majority? Smith had maintained overtly friendly relations with Roosevelt, even renominating him for governor in 1930. But the Happy Warrior, bitter that, as he saw it, his Catholicism and his opposition to Prohibition had cost him the presidency in 1928, felt he should be given one more chance, now under vastly more favorable circumstances.
While Democratic leaders across the country were flocking to Roosevelt, many still had qualms. The nagging doubts were summed up by the nation’s best-known and most influential pundit, Walter Lippmann of the New York Herald Tribune: “Governor Roosevelt belongs to the new post-war school of politicians who do not believe in stating their views unless and until there is no avoiding it.” He was “an amiable man with many philanthropic impulses,” but also “a highly impressionable person, without a firm grasp of public affairs and without very strong convictions.” In targeting Roosevelt’s opportunistic political style, these remarks hurt FDR to the quick and caused consternation among his staff. Soon he was delivering speeches which at least appeared to put him on record on the issues. While he was once an enthusiast for the League of Nations, he declared, he now opposed entering the League, which had not lived up to Woodrow Wilson’s vision. This mollified the powerful newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, who had distrusted FDR as an internationalist. Roosevelt now clearly called for repeal of the Prohibition Amendment, but added that the states should control liquor sales to prevent excesses and bring in much-needed revenue — a clever sop to the Drys in the South.
Still, what about the main issue? What was his economic program for the nation? To help him with ideas, Roosevelt turned to the academic world. A professor from Columbia University, Raymond Moley, was brought to his attention. The two men hit it off, and Moley assembled a group from Columbia that came to be known as “the Brain Trust.” They were all eager-beaver reformers to one degree or another. The most radical was an economist, Rexford Guy Tugwell, who entertained many rather curious notions for a basic transformation of the American system. Roosevelt was now ready to deliver a major address on subduing the Depression. It became known as “the Forgotten Man” speech and would provoke a savage retort from Al Smith.
The 1932 Campaign — Roosevelt Is Elected President of the United States
In January 1932, Franklin Roosevelt announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. He began at once to reap the benefit of years of carefully nurtured contacts with party leaders, great and small, all across the country. As more and more of them pledged their support, Jim Farley, FDR’s campaign manager, tried to get an unstoppable bandwagon going for his boss. But while Roosevelt was clearly the front-runner, he still faced serious opposition.
The gravest threat was from Franklin’s for-mer patron, Al Smith. Smith, still smarting from his humiliating defeat in 1928 at the hands of Herbert Hoover, felt that his last, golden opportunity had come. With the Depression under way, even an Irish-Catholic Prohibition-flouter could win the White House against the increasingly despised Hoover. But where was the suave, popular, and ever-amiable Roosevelt vulnerable to attack? Smith soon had his chance.
Since he seemed destined to become the next president, Roosevelt came under growing pressure to stake out a distinctive philosophical position for himself. This he attempted to do in April, in a 10-minute radio speech. The talk was written for him by Raymond Moley, the Columbia professor who had gathered together FDR’s first "brain trust" and had acted as its unofficial chairman. Moley chose as his theme "the Forgotten Man."
The choice of that term, "the Forgotten Man," concealed a great irony. For Moley borrowed it from the free-market social scientist William Graham Sumner, who had made it famous. Sumner (who died in 1910) was the first professor of sociology in the United States (at Yale), a brilliant thinker, and in his time the great champion of laissez faire at home and nonintervention abroad. His defiant address on "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" in 1898, when the euphoria of America’s great victory over Spain was at its height, remains a classic of anti-imperialist thought.
Sumner’s essay on the Forgotten Man is a distillation of his political thought. The Forgotten Man is the person the do-gooders and social engineers never think of, as they busily concoct their plans to raise up this or that "underprivileged" group.
"He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all, he pays. He does not want a political office. He is the one who keeps production going. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He gives no trouble. He is not in any way a problem (unlike tramps and outcasts); or notorious (unlike criminals); or an object of sentiment (unlike the poor and the weak); or a burden (unlike paupers and loafers). Therefore, he is forgotten. All the burdens fall on him — or on her, for it is time to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman."
Moley’s — and Roosevelt’s — Forgotten Man was a very different being from Sumner’s. Instead of the man, or woman, of the middle classes, who keeps production going and who is victimized by taxes and bureaucrats, the new silent hero was the one "at the bottom of the economic pyramid." For far too long, Roosevelt argued, those at the top had enjoyed all the benefits of economic progress. Now it was time for the government to come to the aid of society’s disadvantaged, those who form "the infantry of our economic army."
Many commentators were aghast at FDR’s stirring up of class prejudices in the volatile atmosphere of the Depression. Al Smith, happy that his adversary had slipped, stated that he was ready "to fight to the end against any candidate who persists in any demagogic appeal to the masses of working people of this country to destroy themselves by setting class against class and rich against poor."
The unexpectedly harsh reaction to his "Forgotten Man" speech from many quarters must have given Roosevelt second thoughts, for he soon reverted to his customary vagueness and ambiguity. This sometimes exasperated academic advisors like Moley, who marveled at Franklin’s ability to assert categorically several contradictory things at the same time. But Roosevelt’s well-honed skill at being all things to all men served him well throughout his career, and particularly in the nomination campaign that was now heating up.
Franklin won most of the early primaries, showing strength everywhere except in his own Northeast. But John Nance Garner, of Texas, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives, won his own state, and, to Roosevelt’s chagrin, California as well. There the deciding factor was the influence of the Hearst newspapers. William Randolph Hearst still did not trust Roosevelt, recalling FDR’s early enthusiasm for the League of Nations. To Hearst, Garner was the only candidate whose policy was "America first" (a phrase the powerful publisher seems to have coined). Al Smith carried the big cities of the Northeast, which had always been his strongholds. He won the primaries in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and was assured of the bulk of the huge New York delegation as well. In addition, a number of states put forward favorite son candidates.
When the assembled Democrats cast the first ballot at their convention in Chicago, Roosevelt had 666 1/2 votes, Smith more than 200, and Garner 90, with the rest locked up by the favorite sons. The party was still bound by the two-thirds rule, however, and FDR had fallen some 100 votes short of victory. On the second and third ballots, his total inched up, but not enough. Farley was frantic. Would the convention start looking around for a compromise candidate?
It was at this point that a young Boston businessman and Roosevelt supporter, Joseph Kennedy, went to Hearst to arrange a deal. In return for bringing the Garner delegates into the Roosevelt camp, Garner could have the vice-presidential nomination. This was acceptable to Hearst and the Texans, though Garner himself would have preferred to remain Speaker.
On the fourth ballot, California broke for Roosevelt, stampeding the convention. Franklin was nominated by acclamation, though Al Smith’s supporters refused to make it unanimous. In the years to come, Joseph Kennedy enjoyed the benefits of one government favor after another, founding the immense fortune that permitted his sons and grandsons to devote themselves to politics, where they contributed so selflessly to the freedom and well-being of their fellow Americans.
In Albany, Roosevelt and his entourage were delighted at the culmination of so many years of planning. He decided, contrary to precedent, to address the convention in person. (The plane had to stop in Buffalo and Cleveland to refuel, and the flight took nine hours.) Roosevelt stressed the symbolism of his personal appearance before the delegates: "Let it be from now on the task of our Party to break foolish traditions." His brief address to the convention ended with the words: "I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people." At the time, the phrase sparked no particular interest, although it was to become even more closely identified with FDR than "the Forgotten Man." Party bigwigs rallied around the nominee, as they looked forward to taking over the Washington power and money machine — then barely in its childhood — after a hiatus of 12 years. Bernard Baruch contributed $50,000 to the campaign — in Depression-era dollars.
Hoover had been renominated by the Republicans with no opposition, likewise in Chicago. But with 12 million unemployed and conditions worsening daily, his prospects were bleak. FDR’s main ghostwriter, Charlie Michelson, ground out venomous speeches, portraying the president as a virtual monster, ice-cold to the people’s sufferings and haughtily unconcerned with the disaster his own policies (allegedly) had produced, a heartless millionaire-reactionary and last-ditch defender of horrid laissez faire. This was a tissue of much worse than your average political lies, but it became the model for FDR’s treatment of his opponents for the rest of his life. Michelson’s caricature helped determine the picture of Hoover harbored by many millions during the campaign, and even to the present day.
As for a concrete program of his own, Roosevelt was characteristically vague. He spoke of the excesses of speculation on Wall Street and the excesses of production on the country’s farms, but with no suggestion of what he would do about them. For the last weeks of the campaign, he hewed to an oddly conservative line. He attacked Hoover for his wild spending and budget deficits, promising to balance the federal budget and cut the bureaucracy. Roosevelt vowed that though he would bring stability to industrial, financial, and agricultural markets, government interference would be "kept at a minimum."
The outcome of the election was practically predetermined. It was a Roosevelt landslide. He won by close to 23 million votes to Hoover’s 15.5 million. Outside of four small New England states, Hoover carried only Pennsylvania and Delaware. The new Congress, too, was overwhelmingly Democratic.
A week before he was to be inaugurated, Franklin was in Miami, returning from a refreshing sea voyage aboard Vincent Astor’s yacht. The city was swarming with Democratic politicians hungry for federal patronage. Among the most prominent was Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago, who had opposed Roosevelt for the nomination, but had now come, hat in hand, to plead for reconciliation. When Roosevelt, seated in an open touring car, addressed a crowd of thousands, Cermak found himself next to the president-elect. A 33-year-old Italian immigrant named Joseph Zangara fired a cheap pistol at Roosevelt, who was saved by a woman who struck the assassin’s arm. As Zangara emptied the gun’s five chambers, a number of onlookers were hit, including Cermak, who died of his wounds. To the amazement even of his friends, Franklin displayed perfect composure throughout the incident, and afterwards. His nonchalant courage thrilled the country.
The lame-duck Congress had already voted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing Prohibition, and repeal was making its speedy way through the state legislatures. In those days everyone understood that a federal law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages required a constitutional amendment.
Today, after the Roosevelt revolution in constitutional law, everyone believes that the federal government possesses such authority, and, indeed, practically any authority it wants. In any case, back in 1932, it was not any love of individual liberty that motivated the repealing politicians. As John T. Flynn wrote, "A more powerful appetite was aroused. The country, the states, the towns needed money — something to tax. And liquor was the richest target." Great changes were in the air — and not only in America: on January 30, 1933, in Berlin, the aged President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of the Reich.
On March 4, the intense anticipation of the entire nation focused on the scene in Washington, where Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administered the oath of office before Franklin’s family, the assembled dignitaries, and a great crowd of well-wishers. When Hughes asked Roosevelt whether he swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the firm reply was: "I do." Thus FDR began his long reign as he would rule for the next 12 years: in carefree deception. Then he proceeded to his inaugural address.
First Inaugural Address; He Closes the Banks
March 1933 proved to be a momentous time in the history of the 20th century.
On March 4th, in Königsberg, in eastern Germany, on the Polish border, Adolf Hitler climaxed weeks of frenzied campaigning. The next day, elections for the Reichstag would be held — the last relatively free elections for years to come. Hitler was already the appointed chancellor. But he needed a compliant Reichstag to surrender total power to his Nazi-dominated government. Now, before a great crowd, in a speech that was carried by radio, he urged his followers on to victory. Calling on God’s help, Hitler promised that Germans would once again be able to hold their heads high.
Yet, in the next day’s voting, even with control of most of the police in their hands, the Nazis could not muster a majority. Later in the month, Hitler addressed the new Reichstag. He depicted Germany’s desperate situation and the crying need to meet it by resolute action, and requested an "enabling act" from the assembly. Most of the other parties seconded the Nazi deputies. Hitler had become dictator of the Third Reich, which he promised would endure for a thousand years, but which ended in 1945, as did Hitler’s own life.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Saturday, March 4, a chilly, overcast day, saw another revolution taking place. As hordes of aspiring bureaucrats converged on the city, an open-air limousine carried a dour and taciturn Herbert Hoover and a smiling, self-assured Franklin Roosevelt to the porch of the Capitol building. A crowd estimated at 100,000 awaited the new president. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administered the oath of office. Franklin solemnly swore to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States," thereby launching his long term of office — which would also end in 1945 — on a suitably mendacious note.
Then he turned to the nation that had given him a landslide victory in the election. Throughout America, in homes and businesses and schools, in factories and churches and the last of the speakeasies, the people were gathered in front of their radios. It was the largest audience ever to hear a speaker to that time. Enthralled, the nation listened to their president.
FDR’s first inaugural address
His first inaugural address is one of Roosevelt’s most famous orations. Its fame derives primarily from a single sentence at the beginning: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
These words, spoken in Franklin’s sunny, supremely confident voice, came as an instant balm to millions of suffering and anxious Americans. He was starting, as his idolaters today claim, "to give the people hope." But what exactly was his analysis of the causes of the economic disaster? And what were his prescriptions for dealing with it? This first speech of his 12-year tenure deserves closer scrutiny.
According to Roosevelt, the country’s predicament was "primarily" the fault of the "rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods." These "unscrupulous money-changers" have adhered to "the rules of a generation of self-seekers"; they are blind to any "social values more noble than mere monetary profit." Roosevelt hammered away at the men who let themselves be duped by "the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success," as well as the leaders who sought public office motivated by nothing more than "pride of place and personal profit." In other words, at the root of the nation’s plight was that old demon, Greed.
No one today thinks that Roosevelt was correct. Greed explains nothing in the debacle the nation was facing. And if Roosevelt’s analysis was foolish and empty, the remedies he proposed were nebulous and contradictory. He resurrected his peculiar notion of redressing "the overbalance of population in our industrial centers" by some kind of unspecified "redistribution" of the population to the countryside. This would somehow make farmers out of the unemployed. At the same time, though, there would be efforts "to raise the values of agricultural products." Roosevelt referred to the need for "national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and communications," as well as other "utilities." What he might have had in mind by planning and supervising all forms of communications, and why this should at all be necessary, was not clarified.
Mixed in with the eccentric ideas for radical change were oddly conservative-sounding sentiments as well. At one point, FDR obliquely responded to a growing movement that is practically forgotten today. Historian David Beito has told its story, however, in his important work, Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance during the Great Depression. Such resistance was breaking out all over the country.
Clearly, nothing could be more dangerous in the eyes of Roosevelt and his fellow politicians than such a revolt by the folks who pay for it all, and the new president tried to defuse it. "Taxes have risen," he complained, and the solution was for all levels of government to slash expenditures "drastically." In particular, the federal government must put its own house in order, "making income balance outgo." So, no deficit spending. Along the same conservative lines, Roosevelt insisted that a "sound currency" had to be maintained at all costs. This was reassuring, since in the America of that time that meant preserving the gold standard.
A military model for America
But what was most pronounced in his speech was the constant invocation of the military model. Here Roosevelt was adapting the rhetoric of his old boss Woodrow Wilson, in World War I. Putting people back to work must be treated "as we would treat the emergency of war." Americans must "move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline." They must be inspired by a sense of duty "hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife." This "great army of our people" will launch "a disciplined attack" on the problems facing the nation.
Of course, in every army there are the common soldiers and there are the generals. FDR laid down, in no uncertain terms, who was going to be who:
"I shall ask Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were invaded by a foreign foe."
But wouldn’t such a massive grant of power to the president run into constitutional restraints? Roosevelt disclosed the interpretation of the basic instrument of American government which he would maintain for the next 12 years: "Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangements without loss of essential form."
This was the conception of the U.S. Constitution that progressive judges, justices, and law professors had been preaching for years — of a living Constitution, amenable to being stretched and wrenched and twisted to cover anything that power wished to inflict on society. Now it had become the announced, official policy of the federal government. And FDR sounded an ominous note, for those with ears to hear it. In the event that the Congress should fail to grant him the powers he felt were necessary, "I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me."
A lack of resistance
But for anything Roosevelt might choose to do, there was no need to fear any resistance, either from the new Democrat-dominated Congress or from the citizens of the American Republic. A reporter, Finis Farr, who heard the speech as a young man, later became one of FDR’s very few skeptical biographers. In describing the reaction to this first inaugural address, Farr wrote of a troubling characteristic of his countrymen, namely, the American public’s canine desire to fawn on authority and crawl before the whip. This doglike aspect of our great nation is its least attractive and also perhaps most seldom-mentioned trait. In 1933 the pain of empty bellies and empty pocketbooks had the people on their knees, and Roosevelt gave them what they wanted to hear.
FDR immediately set to work, assembling his cabinet and framing bills to send to Congress, which he called into special session. That total confusion on how to end the Depression reigned in his mind is shown by the message he sent to the Hill six days later, requesting "authority to effect drastic economies in government." Flaying the record of poor Herbert Hoover, FDR intoned: "For three long years the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy." Deficits totaling $5 billion had contributed to the collapse of the banks and the soaring unemployment. Congress must join the president in pledging "to immediate economy," for history shows that free governments have been "wrecked on rocks of loose fiscal policy." Roosevelt asked for authority to cut government spending. If it was granted, then there was "a reasonable prospect" that within a year the budget would be balanced.
Here once more was FDR as frugal husbander of the people’s monies and scourge of the spendthrift Hoover. It was the last time Roosevelt would appear in that role.
But the first decision Roosevelt had to make was how to deal with the banking crisis. The tottering financial system — supposedly a Rock of Gibraltar governed by the all-wise Federal Reserve Board — had caused many people to try to withdraw their savings. Under the government-sanctioned fractional-reserve system, however, many of the banks, including some of the biggest, could not meet their liabilities. Some of the states had declared "bank holidays," which just fueled the fears of depositors. They now thronged to get their hands on their money, which led to the proclamation of still more "bank holidays."
By the time Roosevelt took office, all of the country’s banks were shut down. The president proceeded to declare all the banks closed until March 13th. Instead of allowing the unsound banks to fail, they were permitted to default on their contractual obligations. Along with this, foreclosures on homes and farms were suspended in many of the states. Greeted with hosannas from the public and later historians, these measures — which Murray Rothbard correctly characterized as blatant attacks on the rights of private property — were a foretaste of what was to follow.
Roosevelt Seizes the Country’s Gold; the NRA and Fascism
When it comes to the question of money, mankind made its preference abundantly clear long ago. For millennia it has looked to the precious metals — above all, gold — as the ideal medium of exchange. So central has this standard been to any thinking about value that concepts like the Golden Age, the Golden Mean, and the Golden Rule were woven into the cultural fabric of civilized peoples. In modern history, gold was esteemed by the productive classes of society, the artisans and independent merchants and business-people, who trusted it as a shield against the inflationist machinations of state-connected financiers. As the economist Benjamin M. Anderson wrote in Economics and the Public Interest:
Gold needs no endorsement. It can be tested with scales and with acids. No act of faith is called for when gold is used in payments, and no compulsion is required. Gold is an unimaginative taskmaster. It demands that men and governments and central banks be honest. It demands that they keep their promises on demand or at maturity. Gold was old-fashioned and it was honest. America’s — and the Western world’s — vast economic growth and rising prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were undergirded by the international gold standard. By it, each of the national currencies, the dollar, the pound, the franc, and so on, was defined as a specific quantity of gold.
To be sure, there had been occasional lapses. In 1862, in order to finance its war against Southern independence through inflation, the Lincoln administration went off the gold standard. The period of the greenbacks, of unbacked paper money, lasted until 1879, with the value of the dollar in constant turmoil.
But despite the clamor of inflationist lobbies, clear-sighted leaders saw to it that the greenbacks experience was not repeated. In 1895, when U.S. gold stocks reached a dangerously low point, Grover Cleveland, the last decent American president, nonetheless defended the dollar. The Treasury continued to pay out gold on demand, and the crisis was weathered. Even during World War I, the United States did not go off the gold standard, when all the other major belligerents abandoned it, again, in order to finance the war through inflation.
Gold an obstacle in FDR’s path
However, even before Roosevelt’s inauguration, rumors that he intended to forsake the traditional standard intensified the run on the banks and the hoarding of gold. Knowledgeable men rushed to gold’s defense. In January 1933, a letter was sent to the president-elect, urging him not only to lower tariff barriers to revive international trade, but to maintain the gold standard unflinchingly. The letter was signed by a number of prominent traditional economists, headed by the American Austrian, Frank A. Fetter, of Princeton.
But the new president understood that the old standard was a major stumbling block to his plans. On April 5, 1933, Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring the possession of gold coins, bullion, or certificates unlawful and subject to criminal penalties. It was the first step in dismantling the monetary system that had served the nation so well. A few reactionaries protested. Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.) declared, simply: It’s a dishonor, sir. He was right. The 1932 Democratic Party platform had pledged to defend the gold standard, as had Roosevelt himself in the campaign. Federal Reserve notes and U.S. government bonds stated on their face that they were redeemable in gold. None of these solemn promises meant anything to Franklin.
In May, the Thomas Amendment to the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed, giving the president the authority to increase the money supply by $3 billion in unbacked bills and to reduce the value of the gold dollar by up to half. In June, a supine Congress delivered to FDR the joint resolution he had requested, forbidding private debtors to fulfill their obligations in gold and relieving the government of its own sworn obligations. One of the last holdouts was another reactionary, Thomas P. Gore, Democrat of Oklahoma, who, though blind, was one of the most learned men in the U.S. Senate. When FDR asked him what he thought of the new policy, Gore replied: Well, that’s just plain stealing, isn’t it, Mr. President.
Roosevelt never forgave Gore, who committed the added sin, from the president’s standpoint, of being a confirmed isolationist in foreign affairs. In 1936, FDR made sure that Gore was defeated in the Democratic primary. But many of the old gentleman’s ideas were carried on, late into the 20th century, by his grandson, Gore Vidal, caustic critic of the banksters and American global imperialism.
Finally, in January 1934, came the Gold Reserve Act. All the gold held by the Federal Reserve banks was seized by the U.S. Treasury. In return, the banks received something called gold certificates. These could not be exchanged for actual gold, but functioned merely as receipts for the gold stolen. By executive decree, Roosevelt reduced the value of the gold dollar — for purposes of foreign exchange transactions — from $20 an ounce to $35, a devaluation of 40 percent.
The upshot of FDR’s gold confiscation was described by Murray Rothbard, in For a New Liberty: [Before] 1933, there was an important shackle upon the Fed’s ability to inflate and expand the money supply: Federal Reserve Notes themselves were payable in the equivalent weight of gold. …The government cannot create new gold at will. But Federal Reserve Notes can be issued at will, at virtually zero cost in resources. In 1933, the United States government removed the gold restraint on its inflationary potential by shifting to fiat money: to making the paper dollar itself the standard of money, with government the monopoly supplier of dollars. The age of unending inflation, sometimes slow, sometimes faster, had arrived. Still, gold continued to be used to settle international accounts, and the United States guaranteed that dollars could be exchanged for gold by foreign governments and central banks. This last remaining pledge was finally broken in 1971. In response to the deteriorating position of the U.S. dollar because of galloping domestic inflation, Richard Nixon — another arch-deceiver, though not, of course, in Roosevelt’s class — closed the gold window, making the dollar irredeemable in gold under any and all circumstances.
The first New Deal
Meanwhile, the plans and programs that constituted the first New Deal proliferated. Wide-ranging acts were passed and agencies set up in FDR’s first Hundred Days, as they were called, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s reconquest of France following his escape from Elba.
In May, the Agricultural Adjustment Act became law. Among other provisions, it established acreage and production controls, paying farmers not to grow or raise wheat, corn, cotton, hogs, etc., and to plow under crops and destroy livestock. The aim was explicitly to raise the prices of all farm commodities. The preposterous economic theory behind this was that if prices and wages were jacked up, that would increase purchasing power, which was the way to lift the country out of the Depression. In the two years of the AAA’s existence, before the U.S. Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional, it distributed some $700 million to farmers to restrict production and destroy their crops, in an attempt to make food (and textiles) dearer for consumers. And that at a time when millions were going hungry.
In June, the most ambitious program of the Hundred Days came into being. It was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), setting up the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Its aim was nothing less than total control of American industry, again in order to raise prices and wages and hence purchasing power.
For years, many big businessmen had been looking for ways to restrict competition and cartelize their industries with the help of government. High tariffs had been a major part of their program. Their crowning achievement in this area was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, passed by a coalition of big business with farmers’ groups and the labor unions, and signed into law by President Hoover. The Act promulgated the highest tariff rates in American history. Its impact on international trade, already reeling from the Depression, was devastating.
The figure of Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator and founder of fascism, also exercised a strange attraction. It is nearly impossible now, more than half a century after his death, to realize the effect Mussolini had on many of his contemporaries in the 1920s and early 1930s. Today he is seen as part buffoon and part the sinister junior partner of Adolf Hitler. But before he involved himself with the conquest of Ethiopia and, more seriously, with Nazi Germany, Mussolini was widely admired by many businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians (Churchill was particularly fervent in his praises). By 1933, he had instituted the Third Way between free enterprise and communism, a system he called the Corporate State. He had replaced cutthroat and destructive competition, he claimed, by cooperation and organization. The whole Italian economy was divided into corporations, for steel, textiles, chemicals, etc., each corporation governed by a board representing capital, labor, and the government, which was ultimately in charge. The boards planned, regulated, and monitored every aspect of the industry’s operation. For his Corporate State idea, Mussolini was hailed as a visionary leader by many who, for their various reasons, feared competitive capitalism.
Fascism comes to America
Under the NRA, the president had the power to establish codes of fair competition for every industry in the country. The codes soon came to cover 95 percent of the industrial workers in the country. A retired Army general, Hugh Johnson, was put in charge. The Blue Eagle, which became the symbol of the NRA, displayed by every cooperating firm and organization, was the brainstorm of Bernard Baruch, the head of the War Industries Board during the First World War and a former business associate of Johnson’s. General Johnson’s philosophy of administration is illustrated by his heartfelt cry: May Almighty God have mercy on anyone who attempts to trifle with that bird!
The NRA won the hearty support of big business. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated: A freedom of action which might have been justified in the relatively simple life of the last century cannot be tolerated today. We have left the period of extreme individualism. But, after all, why wouldn’t established businesses enthuse over a plan that permitted them to curtail production, fix prices, and suppress competition from chiseling rivals, while wrapping themselves in the mantle of superpatriotism? Union leaders quickly saw the potential benefits for their own monopolistic aims. The promotion of collective bargaining, minimum wages, and a 30-hour week were added to the program. Not coincidentally, there was a great upsurge in unemployment in the South, especially among blacks. One economist estimated that an additional 500,000 black workers were unemployed because of the minimum wage.
But hundreds of industry codes, thousands of new bureaucrats, and a blizzard of confusing and conflicting regulations could not prevent people from engaging in free exchanges whenever they could evade the talons of that bird. Within a year, a commission appointed by Roosevelt to look into the matter blasted the NRA as an oppressive fraud. In 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional, as a surrender of Congressional law-making powers to the president, and the NRA ceased to exist. It was the most colossal of Roosevelt’s failed attempts to cure the Depression. And still the New Deal rolled on.
Making America Over and the Communist ‘Ideal’
It would be a mistake to think that the New Deal represented a total break with the past trends of American history. From the beginning, we have always had a Hamiltonian element, statist and centralizing, at war with our Jeffersonian legacy of individualism and decentralized government. The notion that Franklin Roosevelt overthrew a basically laissez-faire system is untenable. One has only to recall, amid countless other interventions, the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve System, both put in place under Woodrow Wilson, as well as Wilson’s war-socialism, never entirely stamped out after World War I. Herbert Hoover, during his long post-presidential period, used to boast that his administration had decisively rejected laissez faire. He was the last president who thought that splendid accomplishment even worth mentioning.
But the changes under FDR that started with his first Hundred Days were on such a scale and left such an enduring ideological residue that they represent a quantum leap of statism in American history.
The cutting edge of the revolution was the hordes of New Dealers who manned the old and newly minted bureaucracies. As the archestablishment historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: They brought with them an alertness, an excitement, an appetite for power, an instinct for crisis and a dedication to public service which became during the thirties the essence of Washington. No group was filled with more excitement or had a greater appetite for power than those quintessential New Dealers, the Brain Trust. The impact of those erstwhile professors, first assembled by Raymond Moley for the 1932 campaign, could be discerned in most of the new legislation and in its overall collectivist thrust.
Rexford Tugwell and making America over
The most prominent of the Brain Trusters and the man often considered the chief ideologist of the first New Deal (roughly, 1933—34), was Rexford Guy Tugwell. Tugwell was a follower of the school of thought known as Institutional Economics, founded by the eccentric writer on economics, Thorstein Veblen. His official position was assistant secretary of agriculture, that is, second in command to Henry A. Wallace, but his influence and empire-building extended far beyond that. In more ways than one, Tugwell is reminiscent of Ellsworth Toohey, in Ayn Rand’s great novel, The Fountainhead.
Tugwell was another of the progressive thinkers enamored of the experiment in war-socialism under Wilson, especially of Bernard Baruch’s War Industries Board (WIB). The First World War, Tugwell gushed, was an industrial engineer’s Utopia. He lamented the Armistice, which prevented the WIB from expanding into a great experiment in control of production and consumption.
While still in academe, Tugwell was eager to observe a land where such a great experiment was well under way. In 1927, he traveled to the Soviet Union. Certain aspects of the dictatorial political system he found offensive, of course, but the mighty changes in society and the economy dazzled him.
Through scientific economic planning the Soviets were able to carry out their industrial operations with a completely thought-out program. The future, he announced, is becoming visible in Russia.
As the Depression set in, terms like planned economy and national planning became the watchwords of the day. They had been bruited about by advanced thinkers for years and popularized by best-selling writers like George Soule and Stuart Chase, who lauded the Soviet Gosplan (central planning), asking plaintively, Why should the Russians have all the fun of remaking a world? The flagship of progressivism, The New Republic, made the cant phrases its constant refrain. (Just as a matter of curiosity: when was The New Republic ever right about anything?) Now, with FDR in charge, fervent apostles of the nebulous creed wielded real power in Washington.
Tugwell could not have been as effective as he was if he’d been merely a dry-as-dust economist. Instead, he was a True Believer, filled with a messianic sense of mission. This he once expressed in a poem he composed as a young man, entitled The Dreamer: I am strong. I am big and well made. I am sick of a nation’s stenches. I am sick of propertied czars. I have dreamed my great dream of their passing. I have gathered my tools and my charts. My plans are finished and practical. I shall roll up my sleeves — and make America over. America — with its tens of millions of people — had to be made over, because its market economy was thoroughly obsolete, headed for the scrapheap of history: The traditional incentives, hope of money-making and fear of money-loss, will be weakened, and a kind of civil-service loyalty and fervor will need to grow gradually into acceptance. Echoing socialist critics from the early 19th century on, Tugwell scorned the free market as anarchical, an uncoordinated muddle of hopelessly conflicting aims and purposes. It would have to be replaced by national planning, or technocracy, another shibboleth of the day, implying rule by the technical experts, like himself.
In the future, for instance, New industries will not just happen, as the automobile industry did; they will have to be foreseen, to be argued for, before they can be entered upon — so, innovation by bureaucratic committee, bringing to mind another work by Ayn Rand, Anthem.
The constitutional structure of America was as archaic as the economic, according to Tugwell. It would have to be radically overhauled, and many a sacred precedent would have to go, he declared, adding ominously that this entailed calling on an enlarged and nationalized police power for enforcement. Here we’re getting into Atlas Shrugged territory.
Communism and the New Deal
Nowadays, anyone who alludes to the manifold impact of Communism on 20th-century America must face the dread accusation of McCarthyism. This has become a term of abuse in the political lexicon rivaled only by fascism and Nazism. It well serves the left-liberal agenda, which demands that much of what really happened in history be relegated to an Orwellian memory hole. But it is impossible to understand the New Deal and, later on, FDR’s wartime relationship with Joseph Stalin, unless we engage in what might be called a bit of scholarly McCarthyism.
Was FDR a Communist? Of course not, and neither were his big-business cronies, such as Bernard Baruch and Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), who dispensed government billions to some of the largest corporations in the country. And although, as we shall later see, Franklin’s administration came to be riddled with Communists, fellow travelers, and Soviet agents of influence, it would be ridiculous to think of any of the members of his cabinet as Reds.
Moreover, FDR and his followers were disdainful of the small and noisy Communist Party. For one thing, in the early 30s the CPUSA bitterly assailed Roosevelt and all his doings. The time of the United, or Popular, Front of Red collaboration with all progressive forces against the Right lay a few years in the future.
Still, even the apologist Schlesinger had to concede that some New Dealers felt a bond of sympathy, vague but real, with Communism. The Communists, after all, were underdogs; they were supposedly working for the common man; in the greedy business leader, Communist and New Dealers shared an enemy. What Schlesinger neglected to mention is the potent, continuing attraction that the model of the Soviet Union exerted on the minds of New Dealers in and out of government.
Among Tugwell’s mentors was the icon of progressivism, John Dewey, famed educator, social philosopher, and insufferable windbag. In 1928, in a series of articles in The New Republic, Dewey praised the new Soviet regime to the skies. It represented the release of courage, energy, and confidence in life, the liberation of a people to consciousness of themselves as a determining power in the shaping of their ultimate fate, a release of human powers on such an unprecedented scale that it is of incalculable significance not only for that country, but for the world. Dewey confessed that words simply failed him in expressing his unbounded admiration for Soviet education and its democratization of the arts. In Soviet Russia, they were attempting scientific regulation of social growth.
Harry Hopkins, who would soon become Franklin’s closest advisor, also fell under the spell of fervent admirers of the Soviet Union. John A. Kingsbury, one of the country’s leaders in the field of social work, was a kind of father figure to Hopkins. He provided Hopkins with his first job as a social worker, and their intimate friendship continued; years later Hopkins made Kingsbury his assistant at the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which he headed. Kingsbury was another progressive dazzled by what he saw in Soviet Russia in 1932, and became an apostle in spreading the Good News.
Even Hopkins’s personal psychiatrist, Frankwood E. Williams, whom he began seeing at the time of his troubles in his first marriage, was a devotee of the new order he observed in Russia. A 1932 voyage convinced Williams (a nationally prominent psychiatrist, editor of The Journal of Mental Hygiene) that the Communists were shaping a society that was free of the mental illness caused by the atmosphere of competition and rivalry that vitiates everything from the start and at every step in America. Inspiringly, this shrink was for once in his life overcome by a religious experience. It happened while he was packed into a Moscow streetcar, when he felt that for a moment we are just one body, he and the commuting Muscovites, as he later explained.
The real Russia
These are only a small sample of the innumerable cheerleaders for Soviet Russia during those years, in the government and among the opinion molders throughout American culture.
Yet it was not hard to discover the truth about Russia, for anyone who discounted the incessant propaganda and ventured beyond carefully arranged tours where secret police agents served as guides.
Lenin had erected the first totalitarian state, and his repressive policies were intensified by Stalin. By 1932, the standard of living of average Soviet workers was lower than that of the unemployed in Western countries. Tens of thousands had been shot as dissenters and as speculators, i.e., for engaging in trade. The Gulag was rapidly filling up with millions condemned to hunger and death. And then came the great terror-famine of 1932—33.
In this, the forgotten holocaust, some five or six or more millions died of starvation and diseases of malnutrition, mostly in Ukraine, but also in the North Caucasus and other regions. From the villages stretching across this vast area, Red functionaries nervously informed Moscow that conditions were so bad that cannibalism was becoming common.
The correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, staunchly denied in print that any famine existed, although he admitted it in private. For his reporting from Russia, Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize, on which the Times preens itself to this day.
But news of the horrors began surfacing around the world, in the New York Herald Tribune and the Chicago Daily News and elsewhere. Malcolm Muggeridge exposed them in the British press. On the basis of accounts in the Paris press, the American ambassador to France informed the State Department that the Soviet Union was in the throes of a cruel, unprecedented, unbearable famine.
Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York — later, because of his noninterventionist stance, one of Franklin’s pet peeves — introduced a resolution in the House taking cognizance of the bloody ordeal of millions of peasants in Russia, but it was buried in committee.
This is the background of FDR’s decision to break with the line laid down by four presidents from 1917 on and to grant official recognition to the Communist regime as the legitimate government of Russia.
Recognizing the USSR; the Affinity for Dictatorship; the CCC
In granting official diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union November 1933, Franklin Roosevelt was unintentionally, of course returning to the traditions of American foreign policy.
From the early days of the Republic, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th — in the days, that is, of the doctrine of neutrality and nonintervention — the U.S. government did not concern itself with the morality, or, often, rank immorality, of foreign states. That a regime was in effective control of a country was sufficient grounds for acknowledging it to be, in fact, the government of that country.
Woodrow Wilson broke with this tradition in 1913, when he refused to recognize the Mexican government of Victoriano Huerta, and again a few years later, in the case of Costa Rica. Now moral standards, as understood in Washington, D.C. — the new, self-anointed Vatican of international morality — would determine which foreign governments the United States deigned to have dealings with and which not.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Wilson applied his self-concocted criterion, and refused recognition. Henry L. Stimson, Hoover’s secretary of state, applied the same doctrine when the Japanese occupied Manchuria, in northern China, and established a subservient regime in what they called Manchukuo. It was a method of signaling disapproval of Japanese expansionism, though there was no doubt that the Japanese soon came into effective control of the area, which had been more or less under the sway of competing warlords before.
In later years, Roosevelt would adopt the Stimson doctrine of nonrecognition and even make Stimson his secretary of war. But in 1933 all moral criteria were thrown overboard. The United States, the last holdout among the major powers, gave in, and Roosevelt began negotiations to welcome the model killer-state of the century into the community of nations.
Recognizing Soviet Russia
To the Soviet negotiator, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, FDR presented his two chief concerns. One had to do with the activities of the Comintern. This worldwide organization is often ignored or slighted in accounts of the interwar years, but the fact is that the history of the period from 1918 to the Second World War cannot be understood without a knowledge of its purpose and methods.
With his seizure of power in Russia, Lenin turned immediately to his real goal, world revolution. He invited members of all the old socialist parties to join a new grouping, the Communist International, or Comintern. Many did, and new parties were formed — the Communist Party of France (CPF), the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), and so on, all under the control of the mother party in Moscow (CPSU).
The openly proclaimed aim of the Comintern was the overthrow of all capitalist governments and the establishment of a universal state under Red auspices. Hypocrisy was not one of Lenin’s many vices: the founding documents of the Comintern explicitly declared that the member parties and movements were to use whatever means, legal or illegal, peaceful or violent, might be appropriate to their situations at any given time.
This was the stark specter facing the non-Communist nations in the decades before World War II: a power covering one-sixth of the earth’s surface had at its command a global movement that was fighting to wrest control of organized labor everywhere, fomenting revolutions in the colonial regions, vying for the allegiance of the western intelligentsia, and planting spies wherever it could — all with the goal of bringing the blessings of Bolshevism to the all of the world’s peoples.
The first commitment FDR asked of Litvinov was that the Comintern should cease subversion and agitation within the United States. This the Soviet minister readily agreed to. When, less than two years later, Washington complained that Russia was not living up to its agreement, Litvinov, in true Leninist fashion, denied that any such pledge had been given.
The second major point brought up in the negotiations involved freedom of religion in Soviet Russia. Ever the politician, Roosevelt was worried about Catholic hostility to the Red regime, a hostility based on the murder of thousands of priests, the wholesale destruction of churches, and the ongoing crusade to stamp out all religious faith.
In discussing the issue with Litvinov, FDR caused the foreign minister acute embarrassment. He brought up Litnivov’s parents, who, Franklin supposed, had been pious, observant Jews. They must have taught little Maxim to say his Hebrew prayers, the president averred, and deep down Litvinov could not be the atheist he, as a good Communist, claimed to be. Religion was very important to the American people, and many would oppose recognition unless the regime ceased its persecutions. That’s all I ask, Max — to have Russia recognize freedom of religion. It was Franklin at his most fatuous.
In the end, Roosevelt got Litvinov to concede that Americans in the Soviet Union would have religious freedom, which was never in doubt anyway, and palmed this off as a major Communist concession. FDR had won the public-relations contest once again. When Ukrainian-Americans tried to hold protest rallies in New York and Chicago, they were broken up by Communist goons.
Roosevelt’s strange bias towards the Stalinist regime continued to the end of his life. The massive documentation accumulating in the hands of the State Department on the real events in Russia was never made public, although it could have affected the great debate going on, in the United States and throughout the world, on the relative merits of communism and capitalism.
Nor did FDR’s State Department ever issue any complaints on Soviet crimes, not on the terror-famine, not on the Gulag, not on the purge trials, not on the never-ending executions, including the Katyn massacre of Polish POWs. Yet before the United States entered the war, Secretary of State Cordell Hull frequently called the German envoy on the carpet for the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
The grotesque double standard in judging Communist and Nazi atrocities, which Joseph Sobran keeps pointing out and which continues to this day, originated with the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
The collectivist wave
There was a peculiar affinity between Roosevelt’s New Deal and the European dictatorships that on occasion extended even to fascism and national socialism (the correct term, incidentally, for which Nazism is a nickname). Early on, FDR referred to Benito Mussolini as the admirable Italian gentlemen, stating to his ambassador in Rome, I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished (though Franklin’s praise of the founder of fascism stopped far short of Winston Churchill’s gushing admiration of Il Duce at this time).
Mussolini, in turn, was flattered by what he saw as the New Deal’s aping of his own corporate state, in the NRA and other early measures. When Roosevelt torpedoed the London Economic Conference of June 1933, Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht smugly told the official Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter that the American leader had adopted the economic philosophy of Hitler and Mussolini. Even Hitler had kind words at first for Roosevelt’s dynamic leadership, stating that I have sympathy with President Roosevelt because he marches straight to his objective over Congress, over lobbies, over stubborn bureaucracies.
What linked the New Deal to the regimes in Italy and Germany, as well as in Soviet Russia, was their fellowship in the wave of collectivism that was sweeping the world. In an essay published in 1933, John Maynard Keynes observed this trend, and expressed his sympathy with the variety of politico-economic experiments under way in the continental dictatorships as well as in the United States. All of them, he gloated, were turning their backs on the old, discredited laissez faire and embracing national planning in one form or another.
It goes without saying that the New Deal was a much milder form of the collectivist plague. (Italian fascism, too, never remotely matched the brutality and oppression of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.) It is a matter of family resemblances. All of these systems tilted the balance sharply towards the state and away from society. In all of them, government gained power at the expense of the people, with the leaders seeking to impose a philosophy of life that subordinated the individual to the needs of the community — as defined by the state.
The inner affinities of the New Deal with the continental dictatorships is well illustrated by a program that was one of FDR’s favorites.
The Civilian Conservation Corps
One of the first measures passed during FDR’s first Hundred Days was the act establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Young men were enrolled as amateur forest rangers, marsh-drainers, and the like, on projects designed to improve the countryside. The recruits were given room and board, clothing, and a dollar a day. More than two and half million of them passed through the camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, until the program was abolished in 1942, when the men were needed for the draft.
In 1973, John A. Garraty published an important article on the CCC in the American Historical Review. Garraty was Gouverneur Morris Professor of American history at Columbia and later general editor of the American National Biography, a distinguished historian, and a pillar of the historical establishment. By no stretch of the imagination could he be considered one of the wretched band of Roosevelt haters.
Yet, while a warm admirer of FDR, Garraty was compelled to note the striking similarities between the CCC and parallel programs set up by the Nazis for German youth. Both were essentially designed to keep young men out of the labor market. Roosevelt described work camps as a means for getting youth ‘off the city street corners,’ Hitler as a way of keeping them from ‘rotting helplessly in the streets.’ In both countries much was made of the beneficial social results of mixing thousands of young people from different walks of life in the camps…. Furthermore, both were organized on semimilitary lines with the subsidiary purposes of improving the physical fitness of potential soldiers and stimulating public commitment to national service in an emergency. Garraty listed many other similarities between the New Deal and National Socialism. Like Roosevelt, Hitler prided himself on being a pragmatist in economic affairs, trying out one panacea after another. Through a multitude of new agencies and mountains of new regulations, both in Germany and America, owners and managers of enterprises found their freedom to make decisions sharply curtailed.
The Nazis encouraged working-class mobility, through vocational training, the democratizing youth camps, and a myriad of youth organizations. They usually favored workers as against employers in industrial disputes and, in another parallel to the New Deal, supported higher agricultural prices. Both FDR and Hitler tended to romanticize rural life and the virtues of an agricultural existence and harbored dreams of the rural resettlement of urban populations, which proved disappointing. Characteristically for the collectivist movements of the time, enormous propaganda campaigns were mounted in the United States, Germany, and Italy (as well, of course, as in Russia) to fire up enthusiasm for the government’s programs.
It is no wonder, then, as Professor Garraty writes, that during the first years of the New Deal the German press praised him [Roosevelt] and the New Deal to the skies…. Early New Deal policies seemed to the Nazis essentially like their own and the role of Roosevelt not very different from the Führer’s.
America under FDR did not, of course, follow Germany and Russia on that fateful road to the bitter end. The main reason for this lies, as scholars such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Aaron L. Friedberg have recently written, in our deeply rooted individualist and anti-statist tradition, dating back to colonial and Revolutionary times and never extinguished. Try as he might, Franklin Roosevelt could bend the American system only so far.