This handsome, charismatic scion of New York aristocracy continues to rank at or near the top of nearly every poll concerning America’s greatest Presidents. He led the United States through two of its supreme trials, the Great Depression and World War II. Because Oklahoma suffered the additional cataclysms of a rupturing agricultural system, vast reaches of exhausted farm land, and the Dust Bowl, his bold policies impacted the Sooner State even more than many others.
Distant cousin to former President Theodore Roosevelt—Franklin’s wife Eleanor was Theodore’s niece—his natural skill set lay in politics, rather than in business, the law, and other traditional pursuits of his Groton and Harvard colleagues. He declared to the latter a most prescient master plan for his life. It included serving as a state legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, New York Governor, and President. He subsequently lost his first race in 1910 for the New York State House, but won the seat twice after that, then was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt lost again as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in the 1920 presidential race. Soon after, he contracted the polio which confined him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life, and seemingly derailed his master plan. In retrospect, this sidelining likely proved helpful. Republicans ran roughshod nationally over Democrats for the next decade. Roosevelt, though, was physically unable to mount what might have been career-debilitating campaign losses.
By the time he was able to again compete, in 1928, he won a narrow victory for New York governor. Then the historic Wall Street Stock Market Crash struck, followed by the Great Depression. By 1932, Republicans were absorbing the blame, and Democrats romped to historic victories from coast to coast, including Roosevelt for the Presidency.
FDR brought an unprecedented winsomeness toward the American public with him. The power of the young medium of radio magnified it. He also formed a cohesive and powerful, if economically and constitutionally suspect, strategy of intense and comprehensive federal government activism. He called it the New Deal and unleashed it on the historic economic calamity of the Great Depression.
Voters gave him a chance, and reelection in 1936, especially after he stopped bank runs, created millions of fulltime and part-time government jobs, convincingly professed his concern for the voiceless and struggling American worker, and led the country with charm and confidence.
As the economic flaws of the New Deal began to manifest themselves during his second term, cowed opposition among Republicans and the conservative wing of his own Democratic Party rallied. They began to stymie what they viewed as the wasteful, irresponsible, even ruinous programs of the New Deal. The conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court backstopped them. Midway through his second term, the nation suffered a “depression within a depression,” and unemployment rocketed back up to 21% by 1940. Fresh New Deal initiatives were finished.
Despite numerous assurances to the contrary, Roosevelt ran for a third term and triumphed over a third consecutive politically weak and compromised Republican opponent. Donald Lawrence’s penetrating study uncovered an important reason for the electoral success of Roosevelt and his political allies through the 1930s. No one before or probably since was more expert at determining “swing” districts around the nation that either the Democrats or Republicans might win. And no one has surpassed Roosevelt and his team at dispensing patronage—taxpayer money and/or other incentives—to influential people in those districts, ranging from Congressmen to mayors to business leaders to labor union bosses, in order to turn out the vote in favor of one’s preferred candidate in crucial races.
World War II
Promising to keep the U.S. out of the world war that now raged, Roosevelt covertly instigated numerous provocations against the Axis Powers battling America’s allies. His foreign policy, including cutting Japan off from raw materials their military machine required, influenced Japan, however unwittingly, toward its desperate attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which drew the U.S. into the war.
Supporters maintain that Roosevelt saw immense evil, and in a statesmanlike, even magisterial, manner, led a reluctant public to do its duty. Opponents contend that after nearly a decade of disastrous unemployment, high inflation, business and investment stagnation, and record-setting government expenditures and deficits, he sought with war to divert the nation’s attention, and industrial potential, toward a united effort at ending foreign tyranny, while thus delivering it from its marathon economic depression.
Roosevelt channeled his charismatic leadership into the role of commander in chief, won an historic fourth term, and led America and its allies to decisive victory in World War II. His health declined as the war progressed. This likely contributed to some regrettable diplomatic concessions to Communist ally Soviet Russia. These led to the post-war loss of half of Europe to that tyrannical empire.
He died in office less than three months into his fourth term, not quite living to see the end of the war. Oklahoma voters had resoundingly supported him in the beginning, by a nearly three-to-one margin. His victory margin in the state, however, receded with each election. In 1944, he won the state by a 56-44 margin, despite nearly 90% Democratic voter registration.
Roosevelt left a colossal legacy. He dramatically demonstrated the ability of a confident President possessing both keen political acumen and the skill to communicate with the people, to lead them, in war and peace. Also, programs he birthed with the aim to help those in need, such as Social Security, have not only survived, but continually expanded. He legitimized the philosophy of a much more activist national government—and patronage-fueled campaigning strategy to people it— to address the challenges of the nation than the American founders intended.
FDR led America to victory in history’s most terrible armed conflict. Despite the gleaming legend burnished by mainstream historians, however, his New Deal did not solve, but likely extended, the Great Depression. His close friend and top financial lieutenant, brilliant Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., revealed this more than once, including on the eve of World War II, many years into Roosevelt’s presidency, with this diary entry:
We are spending more (money) than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and now if I am wrong somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosper. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this administration, we have just as much unemployment as when we started. And enormous debt to boot.
The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, demands bold persistent experimentation . . . . It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it freely and try another. But above all else, try something!
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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