Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure

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Roosevelt’s high place rests, too, on his role in leading the nation to accept the responsibilities of a world power. When he took office, the United States was firmly committed to isolationism; it refused to join either the League of Nations or the World Court. Roosevelt made full use of his executive power to recognize the USSR, craft the good-neighbor policy with Latin America, and, late in his second term, provide aid to the Allies and lead the nation into active involvement in World War II. So far had America come by the end of the Roosevelt era that the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was to say that the United States could never again “be an island to herself. No private program and no public policy, in any sector of our national life, can now escape from the compelling fact that if it is not framed with reference to the world, it is framed with perfect futility.”

As wartime President, FDR demonstrated his executive leadership by guiding the country through a victorious struggle against the Fascist powers. “He overcame both his own and the nation’s isolationist inclination…,” the historian Robert Divine has concluded. “His role in insuring the downfall of Adolf Hitler is alone enough to earn him a respected place in history.”

Whatever his flaws, Roosevelt came to be perceived all over the globe as the leader of the forces of freedom. The British political scientist Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that in the “leaden thirties, the only light in the darkness was the administration of Mr. Roosevelt…in the United States.”

For good or ill, also, America first became a major military power during Roosevelt’s Presidency. As late as 1939 the U.S. Army ranked eighteenth in the world, and soldiers trained with pieces of cardboard marked “Tank.” Under FDR, Congress established peacetime conscription and after Pearl Harbor put millions of men and women in uniform. His long reign also saw the birth of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and the atomic bomb. At the conclusion of FDR’s Presidency, one historian has noted, “a Navy superior to the combined fleets of the rest of the world dominated the seven seas; the Air Force commanded greater striking power than that of any other country; and American overseas bases in the…Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific rimmed the Eurasian continent.”

A Light in a Dark Age

But there is an even more important reason for FDR’s high ranking: his role in enlarging the presidential office and expanding the realm of the state while leading the American people through the Great Depression.

Roosevelt came to office at a desperate time, in the fourth year of a worldwide depression that raised the gravest doubts about the future of the Western world. “In 1931,” commented the British historian Arnold Toynbee, “men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work.” And in the summer of 1932, the economist John Maynard Keynes, asked by a journalist whether there had ever been anything before like the Great Depression, replied, “Yes, it was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years.”

By the time Roosevelt was sworn in, national income had been cut in half and more than fifteen million Americans were unemployed. Every state in the Union had closed its banks or severely restricted their operations, and on the very morning of his inauguration, the New York Stock Exchange had shut down. For many, hope had gone. “Now is the winter of our discontent the chilliest,” wrote the editor of Nation’s Business.

Only a few weeks after Roosevelt took office, the spirit of the country seemed markedly changed. Gone was the torpor of the Hoover years; gone, too, the political paralysis. “The people aren’t sure…just where they are going,” noted one business journal, “but anywhere seems better than where they have been. In the homes, on the streets, in the offices, there is a feeling of hope reborn.” Again and again, observers resorted to the imagery of darkness and light to characterize the transformation from the Stygian gloom of Hoover’s final winter to the bright springtime of the Hundred Days. People of every political persuasion gave full credit for the revival of confidence to one man: the new President.

In April the Republican senator from California, Hiram Johnson, acknowledged: “The admirable trait in Roosevelt is that he has the guts to try....He does it all with the rarest good nature....We have exchanged for a frown in the White House a smile. Where there were hesitation and vacillation, weighing always the personal political consequences, feebleness, timidity, and duplicity, there are now courage and boldness and real action.” On the editorial page of Forum, Henry Goddard Leach summed up the nation’s nearly unanimous verdict: “We have a leader.”