David M Kennedy. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
It was the worst of times when Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency in March 1933. Following the ruinous stock market crash of late 1929, the bottom seemed to drop out of the American economy. By 1933, securities listed on the New York Stock Exchange had lost more than three-quarters of their 1929 value. Industrial production had fallen to half its 1929 level. Agricultural income had plummeted even more sharply. Piles of unmarketable wheat flanked railroad tracks across the plains states. Desperate Iowa farmers blockaded the approaches to Sioux City in the summer of 1932, assaulting vehicles that tried to breach the makeshift barricades of logs and spiked telephone poles.
Americans had earned some $88 billion in 1929. Those still lucky enough to be working earned less than half that amount four years later. One wage earner in four—some 13 million people—had no job in 1933. Some 5,000 banks collapsed in the first three years of the depression, carrying down with them the life savings of tens of thousands of citizens. Those cold statistics only hinted at the human suffering that the Great Depression inflicted. Anxious men and women postponed or canceled plans to marry. Struggling couples had fewer children. Even the divorce rate declined, as the contracting economy sealed the exits from unhappy marriages. Disillusioned immigrants forsook the fabled American land of promise and returned by the thousands to their old countries. Nearly 100,000 down-and-out Americans responded to an advertisement in 1931 offering employment in the Soviet Union. More than a million homeless hoboes drifted about the country in search of work. “Hoovervilles,” tar-paper and cardboard shanty-towns derisively named for the incumbent president, sprang up on the outskirts of virtually every major city.
One such encampment of the unemployed arose in the summer of 1932 on the damp flatlands along the Anacostia River, in the District of Columbia. Bivouacked in old pup tents and huts fashioned from packing cases, some fifteen thousand veterans of World War I sought by their presence in Washington to wring from Congress the early award of a war-service bonus scheduled to be paid in 1945. President Hoover responded by putting the White House under guard, chaining its gates, and mobilizing four troops of cavalry under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Exceeding his orders to contain the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” in their campsite at Anacostia Flats, MacArthur cleared the area with tear gas and put the marchers’ shacks to the torch.
Against this background of deepening economic distress and rising social tension, Democrats met in Chicago in June 1932 to nominate their presidential candidate. Their party had not commanded the White House since Woodrow Wilson’s departure in 1921. In the intervening years, the party had been riven by apparently irreconcilable conflicts between its stunningly disparate factions: agriculturalists opposed industrialists; the largely rural, Protestant, old-stock Anglo-Saxon South, still the party’s principal power base, struggled to accommodate the growing influence of the Catholic American body politic. Their effort to coalesce, to agree on a candidate, and to govern thus tested the ability of the society itself to cope with the crisis of the depression in a coherent, effective way.
The Road to the White House
Well before 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had established himself as the favorite candidate of progressive, or liberal, elements in the Democratic party. Yet he was in many ways an improbable progressive. Born on 30 January 1882 into a life of sumptuous privilege, he had passed as a young man through the rituals customary to the upbringing of sons of the Hudson River valley squirearchy: excursions abroad, instruction from tutors, preparatory school at Endicott Peabody’s exclusive academy at Groton, Massachusetts, and attendance at Harvard.
Yet, even as an undergraduate, Roosevelt displayed remarkable qualities of leadership and political belief. He remained an extra year at Harvard to serve as editor of the Crimson, the student newspaper. In an undergraduate essay on the decline of the once-famous Dutch families of New York, he made an exception of the Roosevelts. “They have never felt,” he wrote, “that because they were born in a good position they could put their hands in their pockets and succeed. They have felt, rather, that being born in a good position, there was no excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community.”
Impelled by that sense of noblesse oblige, Roosevelt set out almost immediately after his graduation from Harvard on a career of public service. He drew inspiration from the example of his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. With uncanny and Jewish immigrant political machines and labor unions of the northern cities; states’ righters battled centralizers; prohibitionist “drys” warred against opposing “wets”; reformist progressives clashed with old-fashioned conservatives. To a far greater extent than Republicans, who tended to be more homogeneous socially and like-minded politically, Democrats contained among themselves the many contentious forces that pulsed in the precision he retraced the path to the White House that Theodore had blazed, serving first as a New York state legislator (1910–1913), then as Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy (1913–1920), and as governor of New York (1928–1932).
Stricken by polio in 1921, Roosevelt spent the next several years trying to recuperate, though he never regained the use of his legs. His disease became, in a sense, a political asset. Rising to eminence from birth in a humble log cabin evidenced the indomitability of character of other presidential aspirants; Roosevelt, denied that proof, found its equivalent in his struggle against paralysis. So thoroughly did he triumph over his handicap that many Americans, even after his many years in office as president, remained unaware that Roosevelt could neither walk nor stand unassisted.
Even during the gravest period of his illness, Roosevelt remained politically active, working to modernize the ramshackle organizational structure of the Democratic party and to move it in a progressive direction. “The Democratic Party is the Progressive Party of the country,” he said in 1924, and two years later he explained that “a nation or a State which is unwilling by governmental action to tackle the new problems, caused by immense increase of population and by the astounding strides of modern science, is headed for decline and ultimate death.” Those sentiments were strikingly at odds with the free-market philosophy of 1920s Republicanism and with the Jeffersonian origins of his own party, but they showed Roosevelt’s fidelity to the principles of the early-twentieth-century progressive movement that his cousin Theodore had so colorfully led.
As governor of New York, Roosevelt tried to put those principles into practice. He called for the state government to take an active role in developing the St. Lawrence River waterway. He championed reforestation and other resource-management projects under state direction. He proposed legislation to improve credit facilities for farmers and to protect women and children factory workers. In 1931, in telling contrast to the timid response that the Hoover administration made to the problem of unemployment, Roosevelt established the state’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration to provide jobs to victims of the depression.
Democrats knew that they had an excellent opportunity to recapture the presidency from the battered Hoover in 1932, and Roosevelt was clearly the preferred candidate of the progressive wing of the party. But he was not without opposition, particularly from old-guard elements led by John J. Raskob, the enormously wealthy and powerful national party chairman, and from southern Democrats who rallied to the candidacy of Speaker of the House John Nance Garner, a Texan. At the crucial moment in the balloting at Chicago, Garner threw his support to Roosevelt, who secured the nomination on the fourth round of voting.
Many observers were little impressed with the party’s choice. One commentator opined that Roosevelt “would probably make the weakest President of the dozen aspirants.” Columnist Walter Lippmann offered a judgment destined to become infamous as a monument of underestimation. Roosevelt, he concluded, was “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” The venerable Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., came closer to the mark when he described Roosevelt as a man of “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”
Unfathomably mysterious is the alchemy that shapes the temperament of leadership out of ordinary human clay, but in Roosevelt’s case his aristocratic upbringing and long struggle against disability were crucial elements. He was almost preternaturally self-confident, restlessly active, unflaggingly optimistic, and endowed with a fine instinct for sensing the mood of the nation.
Roosevelt exhibited those qualities immediately upon receiving notice of his nomination. Shattering precedent, he flew to Chicago and gave the first acceptance speech ever delivered to a presidential nominating convention. “I pledge you, I pledge myself,” he declared to the assembled delegates, “to a new deal for the American people.” But the campaign that followed also seemed to confirm the truth of Holmes’s judgment about the nominee’s intellectual limitations. Though Roosevelt conscientiously listened to the advice of a “brain trust” of economic nationalists, including Rexford G. Tugwell, Raymond Moley, and Adolf A. Berle, Jr., historians have sought in vain to discover in his 1932 campaign speeches a consciously wrought blueprint for the New Deal. He never mentioned later landmark developments such as the Social Security Act or the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Much of his attack on Hoover focused on the incumbent’s alleged determination to expand the federal government and to be “the greatest spending Administration in peace times in all our history”—accusations given a sharply ironic ring by later events.
Roosevelt’s warm, ebullient, yet comforting personality contrasted irresistibly with the hapless Hoover’s efforts to portray his opponent as a confused and vacillating “chameleon on plaid.” On election day, 8 November 1932, Roosevelt rolled up an impressive victory with 22,809,638 votes to Hoover’s 15,758,901. He carried all but six states, for an electoral college count of 472 to 59. He pulled into office with him sizable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Roosevelt thus began the longest presidency—three times reelected, twelve years in office—in American history.
Roosevelt’s first election marked the last time that a four-month interval separated a president’s election and inauguration. (Since 1937, presidents have been inaugurated in January.) The wait in this case was especially long and cruel. The downward-spiraling depression sucked the entire nation’s banking and credit structure into its vortex. Nearly five thousand banks failed between 1929 and 1933, wiping out billions of dollars of savings. As the crisis thickened, panicky depositors accelerated their withdrawals from savings accounts, further jeopardizing the precarious liquidity of many institutions. The governor of Nevada ordered a “bank holiday” in October 1932 to slow the vicious cycle. The governor of Michigan followed suit in February 1933, and by inaugural eve, banks had barred their doors in thirty-eight states. Outgoing President Herbert Hoover tried several times to secure President-elect Roosevelt’s agreement to various emergency measures, but Roosevelt warily refused to commit himself. On the very morning of the inauguration, the governors of New York and Illinois announced the closing of banks in their states, the twin pillars of the nation’s financial edifice. A few hours later, the New York Stock Exchange stopped all trading in securities. This was the grim setting for Roosevelt’s inauguration and the occasion for his famous admonition that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The Hundred Days
“Rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence,” Roosevelt charged in his inaugural address. “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.” With that belligerent battle cry against the bankers, Roosevelt summoned Congress to convene in special session to deal with the banking crisis. By the time the representatives and senators settled into their seats in the Capitol on 9 March, every bank in the nation was closed by presidential order. Rumors flew that the new president intended to take the radical step of nationalizing the banks.
When the emergency banking bill was read aloud to a tense House of Representatives at 1:00 P.M.(it had been drafted too hastily for copies to be distributed), conservatives were greatly relieved. The bill extended the helping hand of government to assist private bankers back to their feet. It authorized the Federal Reserve Board to issue additional currency secured by bank assets; it directed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC)—an agency created in the Hoover administration to provide capital to private businesses—to purchase preferred bank stock; it extended the government’s control over gold holdings; and it mandated Treasury Department supervision of the reopening and reorganization of the banks. Less than eight hours after it was introduced, the banking bill swept virtually unexamined through both houses of Congress and was back on the president’s desk for his signature.
Conservatives again took heart six days later when the administration pushed through a stringent budget-cutting measure and followed it up with legislation designed to increase federal revenues from the sale of beer and wine. In a fortnight of dazzling political initiative, the supposedly progressive Roosevelt had enacted almost the entire program of the reactionary Raskob wing of his party. “Capitalism,” one New Dealer later reflected, “was saved in eight days.”
But the president was not finished. He had shored up the private banking system and had moved to restore business confidence in the soundness of his administration’s fiscal policies. Now he saw further opportunities. “Things moved so fast,” he wrote of the period just after the Emergency Banking Act was launched, “that during the next two days it became obvious that other matters had to be taken up to meet the financial and economic crisis.” Some of the matters next taken up addressed the immediate goals of unemployment relief and economic recovery. Others had their origins deep in the history of the progressive reform movement; they aimed at governmental restructuring of broad areas of American life in ways destined to endure well beyond the depression.
In the next three months, Roosevelt induced Congress to pass a dozen additional pieces of major legislation. The Federal Emergency Relief Act funded the unemployment compensation programs of the states, whose treasuries had long since been overwhelmed by the scale of the depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put hundreds of thousands of jobless young men and a handful of young women to work on federally directed projects in reforestation, road building, and flood control. Financial institutions, as well as homeowners and farmers, were further aided by the Homeowners’ Loan Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, and the Farm Credit Act, all of which provided in various ways for the refinancing of private debts under government auspices. As many as one-fifth of the nation’s homes and farms were saved from foreclosure by these measures, securing the lifelong political gratitude of large sections of the middle class. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, insuring bank deposits up to $5,000—a measure that at a single stroke virtually eliminated the prospect of further “runs” on banks by nervous depositors. The Tennessee Valley Authority Act initiated a comprehensive development plan for the vast Tennessee River basin. The Agricultural Adjustment Act sought to stabilize agricultural prices by crop limitation and government subsidy. It also carried an amendment authorizing the president to undertake various steps to inflate the currency. The National Industrial Recovery Act called for the establishment of codes governing production, pricing, and labor practices in major industries; it additionally provided for a $3.3 billion public works program. Other measures promoted the financial reorganization of railroads, as well as tighter federal controls over securities markets and gold.
On 16 June 1933 the special congressional session ended. The famous “Hundred Days” that commenced Roosevelt’s presidency left the country somewhat breathless and a bit baffled, but nonetheless bolstered in spirit. The new president had displayed awesome powers of political leadership, though the precise ideological sum of the Hundred Days legislation remained almost impossible to define. Roosevelt seemed to offer something for every-body—but the gift of hope, precious beyond measure at that volatile moment, he offered equally to all.
Roosevelt took extraordinary steps to project his reassuring presence into every American home. He was the first president to master the new electronic medium of radio, with its powerful ability to touch millions of persons instantaneously and simultaneously. He began the second week of his presidency with a radio broadcast explaining in plain, simple language the purpose of his banking program—the first of many such “fireside chats.” He cultivated journalists by abolishing the practice of responding only to written questions in press conferences. In studied contrast to President Hoover’s treatment of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, Roosevelt provided food and medical services for all the veterans who had remained along the Anacostia River, and sent his wife, Eleanor, to lead them in group singing. This was an early instance of the extraordinary role that Eleanor Roosevelt played in her husband’s administrations. A dedicated reformer and humanitarian, she developed an independent public career as an advocate for disadvantaged Americans and served as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to such constituencies as blacks, women, farmers, workers, and young people. She was unquestionably the most activist First Lady in American history up to that time.
The New Deal in Action
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) formed the spearhead of the administration’s attack on the economic crisis. Roosevelt had voiced its informing philosophy in a speech to San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club in September 1932. His keynote was a call for stability, not stimulus. “Our task now,” he had said, “is not … necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand.” Headed by General Hugh Johnson, the NRA set out to secure the agreement of major industries to government-backed codes designed to stop the downward slide of payrolls, prices, and production. Johnson offered exemption from antitrust prosecution to industries that consented to put a floor under wages and to cease cutthroat price slashing. Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act appealed for labor support of these arrangements, by offering guarantees of the right of unions to organize and bargain collectively.
Fearing a court test of the NRAs constitutionality, Johnson avoided legal coercion and relied instead on a massive publicity campaign to achieve his aims. He plastered the country with the NRA symbol, a stylized blue eagle, and organized monster parades to induce businessmen to do their part. Within months, some 2 million employers in most major industries had signed code agreements.
The codes brought stability to the failing economy, but they did not bring instant recovery. More than 20 percent of the work force remained idle in 1934. The codes also brought controversy. Small businessmen in particular chafed under the labor regulations of the codes; virtually all businessmen resented the weight of government bureaucracy with which they were suddenly saddled; other critics charged that the codes maintained prices at artificially high levels and promoted monopoly.
On 27 May 1935 the United States Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional. The administration soon rebounded with a series of “Little NRA” bills targeted on specific industries, including coal mining and oil refining. These measures, together with the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 and the Miller-Tydings Act of 1937, both of which prohibited “unfair” price competition in the retail trades, showed the persistence of the stagnationist economic philosophy that had originally generated the NRA.
In agriculture, which in the 1930s still employed more than one-fifth of all American workers, the administration pursued similar policies. It aimed at achieving equilibrium, not growth, by raising prices and lowering production. In 1933 those ends compelled the distasteful means of crop destruction. Farmers were required to plow under millions of acres of cotton and to slaughter millions of baby pigs. Thereafter, debate raged within the administration over the best method of increasing farm income. George Peek, head of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and a fierce economic nationalist, favored dumping American surpluses in foreign markets. Rexford Tugwell, then assistant secretary of agriculture and an economist devoted to government-directed economic planning, advocated stricter production controls. For the moment, at least, Tugwell won. In the years immediately following 1933, the AAA relied on loan subsidies and a variety of compulsory crop-reduction laws to reduce the agricultural glut.
Farm income rose nearly 50 percent by 1936, though some of this gain was achieved by exporting rural unemployment to the cities. A combination of spectacular dust storms in the Great Plains and AAA policies forced many small farmers off the land, especially black sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the cotton South. The Resettlement Administration was established in 1935, and its replacement, the Farm Security Administration, in 1937, to deal with the problems of displaced agricultural workers, but neither agency significantly deflected the shift of labor out of agriculture that the depression, the AAA, and the weather had catalyzed.
The Supreme Court declared certain key provisions of the AAA unconstitutional in early 1936, though Congress, as in the case of industrial policy, moved swiftly to replace it with only minor modifications. The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 perpetuated the early New Deal policies of subsidizing crop reductions. Yet none of these measures solved the problem of over-production, and the growing mountain of agricultural surpluses severely strained the government’s ability to maintain prices. By the late 1930s, the United States was dumping millions of bushels of wheat overseas. It would take a world at war to absorb fully the paradoxically baleful bounty of America’s farms.
Despite the drama of the Hundred Days and the efforts of the NRA and the AAA, the economy remained sickly. Desperate for some means to raise prices and lift the crushing burdens of debtors, especially farmers, Roosevelt set out in October 1933 on a deliberate program of monetary inflation. He had already cleared the way for such action by taking the United States off the international gold standard on 19 April 1933. A few weeks later, he had repudiated the efforts of the London Economic Conference to stabilize international exchange rates. Now he launched a bold but somewhat ill-advised scheme to devalue the dollar by ordering the Treasury Department to buy gold at ever-increasing prices. These purchases ended in January 1934, with the price of gold pegged at $35 an ounce, the level at which it remained for decades. The dollar had been reduced to about 59 percent of its pre-1933 value relative to gold, but prices had not risen correspondingly.
Roosevelt’s disappointment at that result was aggravated by the sharp criticism his gold-buying program evoked in orthodox financial circles. Several high officials in the administration resigned or were fired because of this episode. But pressure to inflate the currency persisted. Congress in June 1934 directed the Treasury Department to monetize large amounts of silver. These inflationary measures, together with chronic though unintended federal budget deficits and the creation in June 1934 of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate the securities market, helped to precipitate the first organized business opposition to the New Deal—the American Liberty League, chartered in August 1934. Executives of the Du Pont and General Motors corporations, including conservative Democrats like Raskob, dominated the new organization.
If the Liberty League represented the nucleus of an emerging anti-New Deal coalition, its influence was negligible in the congressional elections of 1934. Voters gave the Democratic party a whopping three-to-one majority in the House and an unprecedented sixty-nine seats in the Senate. Many newly elected Democrats came from urban, industrial areas whose unemployed voters hungered for drastic, even radical, solutions to the seemingly endless depression. If anything, the center of political gravity in the new Congress was well to the left of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The Second New Deal
Other pressures inclining Roosevelt toward the left were also building as the new Congress convened in 1935. Louisiana’s flamboyant Senator Huey Long, who had unmistakable presidential ambitions, had founded the national “Share Our Wealth” movement in 1934, advocating sweeping redistribution of national income from the wealthy to the poor. The Reverend Charles Coughlin, Michigan’s “radio priest” who claimed a weekly radio audience of some 40 million listeners, increasingly lashed out at Roosevelt for his failure to tame the bankers and unleash an aggressively inflationary program. California physician Francis Townsend championed the cause of the elderly with a warmhearted but actuarially daffy scheme to pay $200 a month to all citizens over sixty years of age. Industrial unionists, led by the president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, pressed with growing ardor and occasional violence to grasp the benefits that the National Industrial Recovery Act’s Section 7a had put so tantalizingly within their reach.
All those forces worked to push the president in a more radical direction. In April he approved the enormous Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, allocating some $4.8 billion dollars to create jobs on public projects under the auspices of the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA). Roosevelt named a close confidant, social worker Harry Hopkins, to head the WPA, which emphasized “work relief,” rather than the dole, for the unemployed. Under authority provided by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, Roosevelt later created the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to rural areas; the National Youth Administration (NYA) to provide employment and educational benefits to persons under twenty-six years of age; and the National Resources Planning Board to draw up plans for the long-range development of natural resources. (Only the first of these agencies survived World War II.)
Then, on 27 May 1935, the Supreme Court decision that the NRA’s code-making activities were unconstitutional removed the centerpiece from Roosevelt’s economic program. The Court’s action provided the final shove propelling Roosevelt on a fresh round of legislative activity that eventually eclipsed even the formidable achievements of the Hundred Days. The early New Deal had emphasized stabilization and relief, and had made some hesitant efforts to stimulate economic recovery. Roosevelt’s legislative program in 1935 emphasized far-reaching social and institutional reforms. It represented a triumphant victory for progressives, who now saw much of their decades-old political agenda finally enacted. And it permanently transformed vast sectors of American society.
The first measure to pass owed more to the new composition of Congress than it did to Roosevelt’s leadership. Senator Robert Wagner, whose New York constituents exemplified the urban, working-class elements now rising to dominance in the Democratic party, introduced a bill establishing a permanent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to replace an earlier board that had collapsed under management pressure. It provided for considerably stronger government guarantees than the National Industrial Recovery Act’s Section 7a had afforded for the rights of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with employers. Neither the president nor Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the nation’s first woman cabinet officer) bothered until the eleventh hour to lift a finger in support of the bill, which was signed into law on 5 July.
The Wagner Act revolutionized the condition of American labor. Union membership doubled in the half dozen years following 1935. Organizers, protected by the government, rallied workers with the slogan “The President Wants You to join a Union.” The Wagner Act also contributed to a profound change in the character of the union movement. It speeded the developing schism between the old-line craft-based unions and the much more rapidly growing industry-based unions, which concentrated on recruiting low-skilled workers. The split became official in 1938 when John L. Lewis led his Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) out of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Other legislative landmarks followed in quick succession in the summer of 1935. The Banking Act of 1935 brought the Federal Reserve system under closer government control. In the teeth of fierce opposition from privately owned utility companies, the Public Utility Holding Company Act mandated the elimination of monopolistic practices in the utilities industry. It further enabled the Federal Power Commission to regulate the interstate transmission of electrical power, and the Federal Trade Commission to perform a similar function for natural gas.
Most important of all was the passage of the Social Security Act. It provided for joint federal-state programs of unemployment compensation, financed by a federal tax on payrolls. It also created an exclusively federal system of old-age and survivors’ insurance funded by a tax shared equally between employers and employees. Though modest in its initial benefits and regressively financed by a uniform tax on the current earnings of workers, the Social Security Act nevertheless represented a milestone on the road to a comprehensive welfare state. It offered a modicum of protection from the historic scourge of unemployment and guaranteed a minimum level of comfort for workers in their old age. It also created the potential for enormous demands on the public purse, diminished incentives for individuals to save, and reduced the sense of responsibility of families to care for their own elderly members. Probably no other New Deal measure did more in the long run to change the character of American life.
Roosevelt now had a broadly based, thoroughly progressive platform on which to stand for reelection in 1936. A handful of unreconstructed conservatives, including the two previous presidential nominees of his own party, bitterly denounced him as a traitor to his own class, a dangerous experimenter with his country’s most sacred traditions, and an architect of permanent bloc divisions in the body politic. (“They are unanimous in their hatred for me,” Roosevelt told an election-eve crowd at Madison Square Garden, “and I welcome their hatred!”) A ragtag coalition of radical populist groups, badly weakened by the assassination in September 1935 of their ablest leader, Huey Long, fielded a Union party presidential ticket, with pathetic results. The Republican party nominated Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, a sincere but inept campaigner who proved no match for Roosevelt.
The president campaigned as a serenely confident incumbent. Though nearly 9 million Americans were still without work, Roosevelt pointed to the progress that had been made against unemployment since 1933. He reaped the political benefits of his myriad programs to halt foreclosures on homes and farms. Black voters, long loyal to the party of Lincoln, switched their allegiance massively to the party of Roosevelt, who had avoided civil rights initiatives but had provided black Americans with unemployment relief and access to newly created agencies like the NYA. Perhaps most dramatic, Roosevelt harvested the rich crop of political goodwill he had sown in the ethnic, working-class communities of the big industrial cities. Fifty-two of Roosevelt’s appointments to the federal bench were Catholics; only eight Catholics had been appointed by his three Republican predecessors. John L. Lewis’ CIO contributed more than $770,000 to the campaign, and laborers voted for Roosevelt in overwhelming numbers. Roosevelt carried all but 2 of the nation’s 106 cities with populations of a hundred thousand or more. He carried every state except Maine and Vermont, scoring the largest victory margin (523 to 8) in the electoral college since James Monroe in 1820. His share of the popular vote was 27,752,869 to Landon’s 16,674,665. Democrats also tightened their grip on Congress, with unassailable majorities of 76 to 16 in the Senate and 331 to 89 in the House.
Roosevelt had thus forged a political coalition that would sustain the Democrats in power for nearly a generation. He had successfully wedded to the traditional southern and agricultural elements in his party the newly potent urban working class, including a variety of ethnic and racial minorities, and large sections of the middle class, grateful for the preservation of their threatened way of life. His party’s enormous preponderance in Congress apparently afforded him almost unlimited power. And when he declared in his second inaugural address on 20 January 1937 that I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” there seemed little doubt that he intended to use that power for progressive ends.
Roosevelt at Bay
Within weeks of that triumphant moment, Roosevelt was ensnared in paralyzing political difficulties. He and his party unquestionably commanded the executive and legislative branches of government, but not the third branch, the judiciary, designedly insulated from the flow and surge of popular political tides. The Supreme Court, made up entirely of pre-Roosevelt appointees, six of them over seventy years of age in 1937, had declared seven major pieces of New Deal legislation unconstitutional by the end of Roosevelt’s first term. As he began his second, he determined to confront that judicial obstacle head-on.
On 5 February 1937, Roosevelt proposed to a surprised Congress and nation that he be allowed to appoint one additional justice, up to a maximum of six, for every justice who remained on the Court after reaching the age of seventy. Disingenuously, he tried to justify his proposal with the argument that an overburdened Court needed an expanded membership to handle its caseload—an allegation peremptorily squelched by the respected Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.
Roosevelt’s “Court-packing plan,” as it was soon called, amounted to one of the worst political blunders of his career. Conservatives gagged at the notion of tampering with one of the Republic’s sacred institutions. (Though it had been done before, when President Grant had added two justices to the Court, primarily in order to secure a favorable ruling on the Legal Tender Act. Unlike Roosevelt, Grant had taken care to cultivate political support in the Senate before he acted.) Even friends of the New Deal objected to the president’s high-handed tactics.
While the battle raged, the Court itself moved to spike Roosevelt’s guns. On 29 March 1937 it upheld a Washington State minimum-wage law (in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish) and two weeks later it declared the Wagner Act constitutional (in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.). This shift in judicial sentiment, effected largely by the conversion of Justice Roberts to a more liberal point of view, has been dubbed “the switch in time that saved nine.” The president’s Court-reform bill died an ignominious death—though eventually Roosevelt appointed eight Supreme Court justices, more than any president save George Washington.
The Court-packing controversy marked the beginning of the end of the New Deal. More than any other single episode, it helped to crystallize a powerfully obstructionist congressional coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. In one brief season the president squandered much of the political capital he had so impressively amassed at the polls just a few months earlier.
Other problems soon beset him. Middle-class Americans grew restive at the mushroom growth of industrial unions, especially when daring organizers introduced the “sit-down strike,” which amounted to the peaceful seizure of factories by striking workers. The United Auto Workers (UAW) used the sit-down with great effect against General Motors in early 1937. The UAW won recognition as the sole bargaining agent for General Motors employees, but its tactics alienated many nonunionists from the Roosevelt camp.
The worst was yet to come. The economy had improved slowly but perceptibly since 1933, making especially vigorous gains after 1935 under the stimuli of relief expenditures and the one-time-only payment of the budget-busting veterans’ bonus, which passed over Roosevelt’s veto in January 1936. Incredibly, this display of economic vitality raised the dread specter of inflation in many influential minds, including that of the president. In June 1937, Roosevelt severely curtailed federal spending. Simultaneously, the new Social Security taxes began to bite into paychecks. By late summer these deflationary developments had precipitated an economic downturn at least as bad as that of 1929. Within months, more than 2 million workers lost their jobs.
The “Roosevelt recession” rubbed salt into the president’s already smarting political wounds, but it did bring to eventual resolution a long-running debate within his administration about fiscal policy. Orthodox financial advisers had until then dominated the government’s inner policymaking circles. As the devil views holy water, so did they look upon the radical notion that the government might deliberately incur deficits as a means of economic stimulus. Though Roosevelt had not yet produced a single balanced budget, that had continued to be his aim. He had tolerated deficits, not sought them, but now he hearkened to the counsel of another group of advisers. Armed with the recently formulated theories of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, the advisers argued that the government should consciously embrace deficit spending in order to bolster consumption and stimulate the economy.
In April 1938, Roosevelt sent to Congress an avowedly stimulatory multibillion-dollar deficit-spending bill. After almost ten years of depression, this was the first purposeful effort to effect economic recovery through the means of countercyclical fiscal policy. For the millions of Americans who for a decade had paid the price of economic collapse, it came assuredly too late; as events were to prove, it was also woefully too little.
It was also among the last gasps of the New Deal. Roosevelt did manage to push through Congress in June 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act, which defined a federally guaranteed minimum wage and maximum workweek and outlawed child labor. By then the conservative congressional coalition had crystallized, and even members of the president’s own party were openly flouting his will. Roosevelt tried to purge conservatives from his party in the 1938 primary season but failed utterly. In the congressional elections in November, Republicans scored their first gains since 1928, picking up eight seats in the Senate and seventy-nine in the House.
With that, the New Deal was effectively ended. It had carried the country, however minimally, through a dark hour. It left a large and lasting legacy of major institutional reforms. Added together, those reforms embodied the various, often contradictory pressures of the decade—particularly those pulsing in the still disparate Democratic party—rather than a coherent expression of any particular ideology. The problem of the depression, the problem that had been midwife and companion to those reforms, was never solved by the New Deal. Roosevelt’s principal achievement was political, not economic. He had enabled his countrymen to keep their heads while peoples all about them in the world were losing theirs. He had, against not inconsiderable odds, maintained social peace in a depressed and sometimes desperate America. As the decade of the 1930s drew on, the president’s attention turned more and more to preserving peace in the increasingly brutal world beyond America’s borders.
To the conduct of American foreign policy Franklin Roosevelt brought credentials that were rare in the history of the presidency. His cosmopolitan upbringing as a late-nineteenth-century American aristocrat, including his intellectual formation on two continents, gave him a sophisticated appreciation of the world that was approximated among modern presidents only by his cousin Theodore. Yet the precise imprint of that international background on his policies was sometimes difficult to define. He had served in the government of the archinternationalist Woodrow Wilson and, as his party’s vice presidential candidate in 1920, had faithfully echoed Wilson’s call for American membership in the League of Nations. Yet during his own presidential campaign in 1932 he repudiated the idea of American entry into the League.
Roosevelt sounded an especially isolationist note in his first inaugural address when he declared that “our international trade relations, though vastly important, are, in point of time and necessity, secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy.” He acted consistently with these sentiments when he helped to scuttle the London Economic Conference in June 1933 and embarked thereafter on a highly nationalist monetary policy of drastically devaluing the dollar.
Yet Roosevelt also displayed distinctly internationalist colors in the early years of the New Deal. He chose Senator Cordell Hull of Tennessee, an indefatigable paladin of liberalized international trade, as his secretary of state. He restrained AAA administrator George Peek from dictating narrowly nationalist agricultural policies. He blessed Hull’s campaign to secure passage of the Trade Agreements Act of 1934, as well as the secretary’s subsequent efforts to negotiate reciprocity treaties incorporating the unconditional most-favored-nation principle. Defying the fierce invective of some conservatives—and the scolding of his own mother—he extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union on 16 November 1933. He made partial amends for his destructive role at the 1933 London Economic Conference when he concluded an exchange stabilization agreement with Britain and France in 1936.
Roosevelt also sought to implement the “Good Neighbor policy” with Latin America. He allowed Secretary Hull to vote in favor of a resolution at the Pan-American Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1933, proclaiming that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.” That statement effectively repudiated the belligerent “corollary” Theodore Roosevelt had attached in 1904 to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the claim of the United States to exercise international police power in the western hemisphere. Hull prevailed upon his chief to follow up on that dramatic announcement by renouncing the Platt Amendment (1901), whereby the United States had asserted its right to intervene in Cuban affairs, and by ending in 1934 the twenty-year-old American military occupation of Haiti. Mexico put Roosevelt’s good-neighborliness to a demanding test in 1938 when it nationalized its oil industry, expropriating the interests of many American firms. Roosevelt resisted pressure to intervene, and successfully negotiated adequate compensation for the confiscated American properties.
Roosevelt’s Latin American policies suggested that he had at most a limited internationalist agenda in the early years of his presidency, confined to making the United States an influential regional power, but no more. That impression was strengthened in March 1934, when Congress mandated the granting of independence to the Philippines within ten years—an apparent signal that the United States intended to diminish its role in Asia.
Roosevelt’s halting steps toward a more active international role for the United States took place against a backdrop of gathering isolationist feeling in the country and in Congress. Isolationism had roots sunk deeply into the soil of American history and culture. “Rejection of Europe,” the novelist John Dos Passos once wrote, “is what America is all about.” The earliest Pilgrims had sought separation from the corruptions of the Old World. George Washington in his farewell address had formulated those sentiments into high political doctrine. “Why … entangle our peace and prosperity,” he had asked, “in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”
Americans of Roosevelt’s generation had temporarily forsaken that ancient wisdom when they entered the European war in 1917. A decade and a half later, many of them deeply regretted that lapse. Fifty thousand of their countrymen had died, Woodrow Wilson had failed miserably to shape a liberal peace, and Europe, so far from being redeemed by the American intervention, had apparently lost its soul in the postwar era to Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Regret was powerfully reinforced in 1934 when Senator Gerald P. Nye’s Munitions Investigating Committee began to publicize sensational accusations that the United States had been cynically maneuvered into the war in 1917 by American bankers and arms manufacturers.
The full force of this isolationist tide was revealed in January 1935, when Roosevelt proposed that the United States join the World Court. Inspired by a savage anti-court radio sermon from Father Coughlin, opponents of the president’s plan poured a Niagara of telegrams onto the Senate, drowning the court agreement. Ever sensitive to the public temper, a chastened Roosevelt quickly grasped the implications of this episode for foreign policy: “We shall go through a period of non-co-operation in everything … for the next year or two.”
For the next year or two and longer, Roosevelt witnessed the simultaneous deepening of the isolationist mood in America and the sorry deterioration of the fragile structure of international peace. Adolf Hitler announced in March 1935 his intention to train a half-million-man army, and a long-simmering dispute between Italy and Ethiopia exploded into a shooting war in October of that year. Alarmed at these events, Congress, in August 1935, passed the Neutrality Act, which imposed a mandatory embargo on arms shipments to all belligerents. Roosevelt disliked the limits on his discretionary power dictated by the act’s mandatory features; but, giving top priority to his domestic reform package in that remarkable summer, he did little to shape the neutrality law. The act was strengthened in February 1936 to include a ban on loans or credits to any nation at war. In early 1937, Congress tightened the law still further by confining the sale even of nonmilitary goods to belligerents who could pay cash and carry their cargoes away from American ports in their own ships.
Brazenly flouting the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland in March 1936. Four months later, civil war erupted in Spain, which quickly became a proving ground for the newly developed military machines of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. “The whole European panorama is fundamentally blacker than at any time in your life … or mine,” Roosevelt wrote in early 1936 to his ambassador in Paris; these, he said, “may be the last days of … peace before a long chaos.” Hitler rolled on, virtually unchecked. He marched into Austria in March 1938. At the infamous Munich conference in September 1938, he secured the acquiescence of Britain and France to his annexation of the Sudetenland. Unappeased, he swallowed up the rest of Czechoslovakia six months later. After signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939, Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.
The Shadow of War
A second world war had “come at last,” Roosevelt said on hearing the news from Poland. “God help us all.” When the war ended, more than five years and 50 million deaths later, the United States would be indisputably the most powerful nation on the ravaged planet. But in 1939, America wavered uncertainly on the periphery of these ominous events.
Roosevelt hoped to preserve the United States from the scourge of war, but he also hoped, from at least 1935 on, to bring the power of his country to bear against the prairie fire of armed aggression that was licking its way around the globe. Three forces constrained him: the lack of political will in his potential allies, Premier Édouard Daladier of France and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, cowering in the face of Hitler’s bullying; the isolationist mood in America, codified into formal statutes purposely designed to tie the president’s hands; and his own uncertainty, both about the means to be employed abroad and about the political risks of frontally challenging the isolationists at home.
Roosevelt did manage to align the United States with the League of Nations sanctions against Italy in the Ethiopian crisis, simply by enforcing the 1935 neutrality law. It prohibited arms shipments to all belligerents, but since Ethiopia could not have afforded to purchase American arms in any event, the real force of the ban fell exclusively on Italy. Similarly, Roosevelt artfully invoked the Neutrality Act during the Spanish civil war, reinforcing the Anglo-French Nonintervention Committee’s effort—pusillanimous and myopic though it may have been—to contain the conflict within Spain’s borders.
Japan in mid-1937 escalated its six-year-old incursion in Manchuria into a full-scale invasion of China, once again testing Roosevelt’s ingenuity in finding ways to check aggression while fettered by the neutrality laws. He responded by refusing to proclaim that a formal state of war existed between the two nations. (Japan officially labeled the conflict an “incident.”) He thus forestalled activating the arms embargo and cash-and-carry provisions of the neutrality statutes and preserved China’s ability to secure supplies in the United States.
Using isolationist legislation to achieve internationalist ends was a kind of political jujitsu, and the president could employ the tactic only so long. “If Germany invades a country and declares war,” Roosevelt explained to a senator in 1939, “we’ll be on the side of Hitler by invoking the [neutrality] act. If we could get rid of the arms embargo, it wouldn’t be so bad.” But the president’s efforts to revise the neutrality statutes were repeatedly frustrated by congressional isolationists. Their political power waxed while Roosevelt’s waned in the declining days of the New Deal. He called for a “quarantine” against aggression in an eloquent speech in Chicago on 5 October 1937, but still smarting from the lacerations of the Supreme Court reform fight and freshly wounded by the sharp recession then setting in, he failed to capitalize on the generally favorable public response. The foreign press accurately described the quarantine speech as “an attitude without a program.” Three months later, isolationists in Congress pointedly reminded Roosevelt of the obstacles confronting an avowedly internationalist program when they mustered 188 votes in the House in favor of a constitutional amendment requiring a national referendum on a declaration of war. Throughout the rest of 1938 and most of 1939, Roosevelt could do little to prepare for the inescapable conflict. Only after the German invasion of Poland did Congress, in November 1939, repeal the mandatory arms embargo. The cash-and-carry provisions of the neutrality laws remained.
Roosevelt moved thereafter to make the United States, as he later described it, “the great arsenal of democracy.” Yet he and his countrymen had waited so long to make their weight felt in the scales of diplomacy that the cause they even now so hesitantly joined came perilously close to being lost. After a deceptive lull following his swift conquest of Poland, Hitler unleashed lightning assaults on Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940. A month later, Germany and Italy invaded France, which crumpled quickly and ingloriously. Jackbooted Fascists now stood astride Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. Only Britain, lonely and besieged, stood between them and the United States.
As Hitler’s air force pounded Britain in the summer of 1940, the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill, beseeched Roosevelt for aid, especially for destroyers to secure Britain’s sea-lanes. Roosevelt had already, in the opening months of 1940, induced Congress to appropriate several billion dollars for defense measures, including an aircraft production program with the then incredible goal of building fifty thousand planes a year. Now, fulminating against isolationists who deluded themselves that the United States could survive as “a lone island in a world dominated by force … handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents,” he desperately sought ways to bolster beleaguered Britain. In August he hit upon a bold idea: to give Britain fifty American destroyers in exchange for long-term leases on naval bases in the western Atlantic.
With that exchange, Roosevelt inaugurated a collaboration with Churchill that in the history of relations among sovereign states was uniquely intimate and comprehensive. He also risked the wrath of isolationists—and in an election year. While the Battle of Britain raged, Americans waged their own quadrennial political battle to elect a president. Roosevelt, reluctant to relinquish the stage at such a dramatic historical moment, stood for an unprecedented third term. His opponent was Wendell Willkie, a liberally inclined businessman who had swept out of obscurity to capture the Republican nomination. Fortunately for the cause of American internationalism, Willkie shared much of Roosevelt’s appraisal of the international scene and largely refrained from attacking the president’s foreign policies. (Roosevelt had earlier taken steps to secure bipartisan cooperation in foreign affairs when in June 1940 he appointed Republicans to head the War and Navy departments.) Roosevelt won by his smallest margin to date, with 27,307,819 popular votes to Willkie’s 22,321,018. The electoral tally was 449 to 82. Both houses of Congress remained safely in Democratic hands.
During the campaign, Roosevelt declared that “this country is not going to war.” But in the months after the election, events pushed the United States into ever-closer cooperation with Britain and eventually into what amounted to an undeclared naval war against Germany in the Atlantic. Secret talks between British and American military planners in early 1941 established the cardinal principle that in the event of war with both Germany and Japan, the United States and Britain would give priority to defeating Germany. Churchill wrote the president in December 1940, laying out Britain’s military plight with sobering candor. To prevail, even to survive, he must have American war matériel and, above all, American money. Roosevelt, still constrained by the cash-and-carry clauses of the neutrality laws, devised another inventive means to meet Britain’s needs: the so-called lend-lease program, pledging American goods secured only by a deliberately vague promise of repayment “in kind” at some unspecified later date. Artfully numbered House Resolution 1776, the Lend-Lease Act passed Congress in March 1941. Its enactment marked the effective end of American neutrality and the opening of a floodgate of American largesse through which more than $50 billion in aid was to flow by the war’s end.
Lend-lease provided goods and credits principally to Britain and, after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, to the Soviet Union as well. But the task remained of delivering the promised matériel safely to British and Russian ports. Wolf packs of German submarines stalking the Atlantic sea-lanes inflicted enormous losses on British shipping. Churchill pleaded for American naval convoys, but Roosevelt balked. He extended American sea and air patrols to Greenland in April and to Iceland in July, but stopped short of authorizing convoys. He at last took that fateful step in August, after a dramatic meeting with Churchill aboard the American cruiser Augusta, off the coast of Newfoundland. There, in Argentia Harbor, the two leaders formulated the Atlantic Charter, a joint statement of war aims affirming their lack of interest in territorial gain and support for self-determination, a liberalized world economic order, and the creation of a permanent international peacekeeping organization. Having thus secured a public declaration of British war aims, Roosevelt was apparently ready for war, though surely not eager for it.
“Everything [is] to be done to force an ‘incident’ on the Atlantic, Churchill informed his cabinet. The incidents were not long coming. A German submarine fired on the USS Greer off the coast of Iceland on 4 September, and the American destroyer Kearny was torpedoed in the same area a few weeks later. On 30 October the Reuben James sank under German fire, taking more than one hundred American sailors down with it. But before these deliberately provoked incidents could precipitate war in the Atlantic, an unexpected blow in the far-off Pacific in December at last catapulted the United States into the conflict.
Roosevelt had long opposed the Japanese invasion of China, even while the United States paradoxically remained a major supplier of critical war matériel, including aviation fuel, to Japan. Following Hitler’s successes in Europe in mid-1940, Japan began to look covetously on the orphaned French and Dutch colonies in the Far East. On 26 July 1940, Roosevelt sought to discourage the Japanese by slapping an embargo on the shipment of aviation gasoline and high-grade scrap metal to Japan. He cinched the economic noose more tightly when Japan signed a pact of military alliance with Germany and Italy in September 1940, and more tightly still when Japanese troops marched into Indochina in July 1941. Jolted by these American moves, Japan made several last-ditch efforts at reconciliation with Washington in late 1941. But Roosevelt, encouraged by Secretary Hull, insisted that Japan withdraw not only from Indochina but also from China, as the precondition for restoring economic relations with the United States. On other matters the Japanese might have been disposed to yield, but on China they were adamant. Diplomacy reached a dead end in late November. Japan now took the fateful step of breaking the deadlock by military means.
American cryptanalysts in late 1940 had cracked the Japanese diplomatic codes, including the top-secret “Purple Cipher.” Military leaders therefore knew, as did Roosevelt, that Japan had abandoned diplomacy in early December and was about to strike an armed blow. American forces throughout the Pacific stood on alert. Because the blow was expected to fall in Southeast Asia, Japan scored a devastating surprise when its aircraft swarmed out of the dawn sky over the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. Within minutes the Japanese sank or crippled several American warships, killing over twenty-five hundred military personnel and civilians. The next day Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States three days later. Roosevelt, so long the hesitant neutral, now faced battle on two fronts.
America in World War II
Roosevelt had now to decide which front should command greater attention. The British and American decision in early 1941 to concentrate first on defeating Germany came under question after Pearl Harbor. Japan, treacherous perpetrator of the sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet, loomed as much the more hated enemy in the mind of the American public. Moreover, the Japanese followed their murderous strike at Pearl Harbor with overpowering assaults on Hong Kong, Singapore, Java, Burma, and the Philippines. They seemed to be positioning themselves for further attacks on India or Australia, while in Europe Hitler was preoccupied on the Soviet front, reducing the immediate danger to the Western Allies.
Disagreement over strategic choices in Europe complicated the issue. The British, remembering the ghastly war of attrition they had fought in 1914–1918, preferred to weaken the enemy by bombing, blockading, and probing about his periphery. The Americans, reflecting the wisdom conventionally taught at West Point and Annapolis, favored an assault in massive force aimed directly at the enemy’s stronghold. These differences came to a head during Churchill’s visit to Washington in June 1942. The prime minister advocated delaying a massive invasion of France and undertaking instead a joint landing in North Africa, where British forces defending Egypt and the Suez lifeline to India were under heavy German pressure. The chiefs of staff of the army and navy protested to Roosevelt that the American objective should be “to force the British into acceptance of a concentrated effort against Germany, and if this proves impossible, to turn immediately to the Pacific.”
The president flatly overruled his military advisers in a decision with far-reaching consequences. The North African invasion went ahead, with American troops under Dwight D. Eisenhower landing in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942. After subduing the Germans in North Africa, the combined Anglo-American force pushed on to Sicily and the Italian mainland in the summer of 1943, further delaying the invasion of France. The Pacific theater remained distinctly subordinate to the effort in Europe, though Roosevelt from time to time found it useful to discipline his British allies by threatening to renege on his Europe-first commitment.
After spectacular American naval victories over the Japanese in the Coral Sea in early May 1942 and at Midway the following month, the United States launched a counteroffensive in the Solomon Islands with an attack on Guadalcanal in August. That bloody engagement initiated a tortuous campaign of fighting up the Pacific island chains to within striking distance of the Japanese homeland. At the price of some forty-five thousand American lives, this effort was to come to a blinding climax on 6 and 9 August 1945, when American aircraft dropped atomic bombs, developed at Roosevelt’s initiative, on two Japanese cities. Japan surrendered on 14 August.
In Europe, the prospective landing in France dominated Roosevelt’s agenda in the early period of the war. Russia, at frightful cost, bore almost the entire brunt of Hitler’s onslaught. The German invasion ultimately cost some 20 million Soviet lives, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin ardently urged his Anglo-American allies to open a second front in the west. Roosevelt promised to do so virtually from the outset, but it took him more than two years to make good on his word. In the interim, he sought to reassure Stalin about the reliability of his Western partners by declaring at Casablanca in January 1943 that he would accept nothing less than the “unconditional surrender” of the enemy. Stalin, he suggested, need not worry that Churchill and Roosevelt would cut any deals with the Fascist powers—an assurance that lost much of its credibility just a few months later when the Americans and the British entered into negotiations with the Italians over terms of surrender.
By the time Roosevelt and Churchill conferred in Quebec in August 1943, Roosevelt had clearly established himself as the dominant partner in the Anglo-American alliance. That conference, too, confirmed the spring of 1944 as the target date for the invasion of France. With that issue settled at last and with allied victory in sight, however distantly, Roosevelt began to turn his energies toward planning for the postwar era. He had already, in the opening days of American belligerency, secured the agreement of twenty-six nations, including the major allies, to the United Nations Declaration, which affirmed the principles of the Atlantic Charter. In July 1944 he convened the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. There delegates established the International Monetary Fund, to undertake global exchange-rate stabilization, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to help rebuild the shattered world. The following month Allied representatives, including those from the Soviet Union, gathered at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., to draw up a charter for a permanent international peacekeeping organization.
At meetings with Churchill and Stalin in Teheran in late November 1943 and at Yalta in February 1945, Roosevelt worked to secure Soviet participation in the new organization and to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan when the conflict in Europe was settled. His critics later charged that he conceded too much to Stalin to achieve those goals, but he had, in fact, little choice. In Eastern and Central Europe, the Red Army stood supreme and unchallengeable. In Asia, uncertainties about the still untested atomic bomb made it seem imperative that the Soviet Union’s weight be added to that of the Western Allies in order to speed Japan’s surrender.
The long-awaited invasion of France finally came on D day, 6 June 1944. Within a month a million Allied troops had crossed the English Channel. After breaking out of their Normandy beach-head in August, they raced toward Germany, halted only briefly by a fierce German counterattack in the Ardennes, known as the “Battle of the Bulge,” in December. The Allies crossed the Rhine in March.
Roosevelt was victorious at home as well as abroad. He had won reelection in 1944 to a fourth term (though by his smallest margin yet), defeating the youthful Republican Thomas E. Dewey by a margin of 25,606,585 votes to 22,321,018. His electoral count was 432 to 99. The fantastic scale of government spending in the war had finally wiped out the Great Depression. Ending the economic crisis had also extinguished the last sputtering flames of reform. The New Deal spirit was evident in some wartime measures, such as the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which Roosevelt established to ensure the rights of black workers, and the “G.I. Bill of Rights” of 1944, conferring enormous educational benefits on returning veterans. But the war’s effect on reform was best summarized by Roosevelt himself in December 1943 when he declared that the American body politic was no longer to be ministered to by “Dr. New Deal,” but by “Dr. Win-the-War.” In that spirit, he dropped his exultantly New Dealish vice president, Henry Wallace, from the Democratic ticket in 1944 and replaced him with the supposedly “safer” Harry S. Truman.
On 11 April 1945, while American Marines battled on the beaches of Okinawa and American soldiers sped toward Berlin, Franklin Roosevelt was in Warm Springs, Georgia, working on the draft of a speech for Jefferson Day. His nation’s arms were vindicated, his enemies were routed, his principles had everywhere been embraced by men and women of goodwill. This was his triumphal hour; but he was not to enjoy it. The next day, 12 April, he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He had sustained his people through the bleak years of the depression and led them to victory in a nightmarish war. Even at the end, he looked to the future with characteristic buoyancy. The last words that he dictated on that spring afternoon were a fitting epitaph: “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”