A Review of Nathan Miller’s FDR: An Intimate History
Nathan Miller grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. After returning from the Navy, he earned a bachelors and masters degree in history at the University of Maryland. After a successful career as an investigative journalist, Miller left his job to study and write about American history. He is best known for his writings on naval history and the Roosevelt family.
BY BRIGITTE DONAHUGH
In his work, FDR: An Intimate History, Nathan Miller examines the life of the unique leader who guided the nation through its toughest crisis. Miller follows Franklin Delano Roosevelt from his birth to his ascent to the presidency, providing a complete analysis of the people and events that contributed to the making of a four-term president whose sense of “Noblesse Oblige” established a connection between the politically powerful and the unemployed American during the Great Depression.1
Miller’s work first explores the people and experiences that served the greatest influence in shaping Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal and political ideals. In the work, Roosevelt’s childhood years are portrayed as both blissful and isolated. His family’s wealth allowed him to grow up with his “mind on nice things,” without any knowledge of the wrongs in the world.2 Sara Roosevelt, his mother, is acknowledged as having a key role in the shaping of Roosevelt’s values and ideals by emphasizing noblesse oblige—the idea that with wealth and power come responsibilities. Because he was an only child, Roosevelt’s interaction with other children was limited and most of his early socialization was with the wealthy and influential crowd his parents belonged to, which Miller credits as a crucial factor Roosevelt’s ability to communicate effectively with older generations. A main focus of the book is Roosevelt’s education. Groton Boarding School—the single most influential factor that contributed to Roosevelt’s overall ideals—was where Roosevelt first learned to socialize with people his own age. The School’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody, influenced Roosevelt’s basic social ideals during “a critical stage in his development” by involving the young Roosevelt in religious and charitable services.3 Established and successful people, like Theodore Roosevelt, were invited to speak at Groton in order to “expose…students to the outside world.”4 Miller cites this exposure as a contributor to the development of Roosevelt’s interest in people and politics. While his mother and headmaster shaped his values, Roosevelt’s political motivation came from his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt “idolized Cousin Theodore” as a man with “courage, goodness, and brains.” 5 Throughout his work, Miller highlights the importance of Theodore Roosevelt as Franklin Roosevelt’s inspiration to become an active participant in American politics.
The second portion of the book focuses greatly on the significance of Roosevelt’s early political career as the assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the events that prepared him for his future presidency. Roosevelt first gained political recognition during his campaign for New York state senator in 1910. His young age and limited experience caused many senior officers to perceive Roosevelt as “cocky, impulsive, and self-centered.”6 Yet a desire to make a name for himself and elite social status allowed him to circulate with the well-established political leaders. Out of both luck and ambition, Roosevelt won the campaign and the 1910 Democratic seat. Miller acknowledges this victory as the groundwork for Roosevelt’s political career that allowed him to grab hold of every new opportunity. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson personally appointed Roosevelt as the assistant Secretary of the Navy. During his seven and a half years with the Navy, Roosevelt developed an uncanny love for the excitement of war. Although young, Roosevelt was “far more militant” than any of his peers in the Wilson administration.7 The outbreak of World War I instilled not fear but rather exhilaration into Roosevelt. Realizing the impact the war would have on the future, Roosevelt aimed to expand and strengthen the navy’s forces and was one of the nation’s “most ardent advocates of preparedness.”8 At the time of the United States’ entrance into World War I, Roosevelt was ready to fight rather than to lead behind a desk. At this point in the book, Miller explains Roosevelt’s desire to fight as not only because of his patriotism, but because of his political role model, Theodore Roosevelt’s, participation in the war. Though he did not end up physically fighting in the war, Roosevelt made sure his actions counted towards victory. The war, however, had a greater impact on Roosevelt than Roosevelt had on the war. In his work, Miller describes the war as a unique time for Roosevelt in which he absorbed the process of war and gained vast knowledge of its workings. After the war, Roosevelt was nominated to be Vice President to James Cox in the 1920 election. This event marked a turning point for Roosevelt where his focus became directed more on foreign policy. Despite the obvious defeat ahead, Roosevelt demonstrated his persistence and finished the race strong. After the defeat, Roosevelt kept himself in the public eye through various political and civil causes and committed his time to business. Roosevelt regarded himself as “one of the younger capitalists” and saw the bonding business in which he was involved as the “balance wheel of industry” that “prevented dishonesty and fraud.”9 Miller draws attention to Roosevelt’s brief break from politics because it provided him a familiarity with industry and the ups and downs of the economy; a familiarity that aided his ability to address the issues contributing to the Great Depression.
Miller’s work continues by addressing Roosevelt’s struggle with infantile paralysis and the factors contributing to his election as the thirty-second president of the United States. At the unexpected start of his declining health, Roosevelt removed himself form the public eye fearing the rumors. Miller acknowledges, however, Roosevelt’s constant positive attitude and belief that he would be “walking in a very few weeks.”10 Eleanor, Roosevelt’s wife, is emphasized as the key to Roosevelt’s recovery by providing constant care and support. Although Miller does not cite Eleanor’s influence on Roosevelt politically, he does consider her important in encouraging Roosevelt’s recovery and return to politics. The loss of movement in his legs left Roosevelt with even more zeal for a strong political future. His infantile paralysis earned Roosevelt the patience that he lacked and the dedication that he needed to focus on his work—qualities Miller deems beneficial to Roosevelt’s overall ability to effectively address the nation’s economic crisis during his presidency. Paralysis also led Roosevelt to take interest in the needs of the disabled. Roosevelt’s paralysis is considered by Miller to be the sole factor which allowed Roosevelt to understand the needs of minorities and the disabled during the Great Depression. After his recovery, Roosevelt began his transition back into politics through business. Appointed president of the American Construction Council in 1922, Roosevelt learned the ins and outs of business self regulation. Although Roosevelt was not paid for the position, Miller states the position as important in providing Roosevelt with “a platform from which to keep his name before the public.”11 As part of one of Herbert Hoover’s business regulation committees, Roosevelt saw that “government regulation was not feasible,” yet maintained that public service and welfare were as important as monetary gains.12 Finally ready to step back into office, Roosevelt ran for Governor of New York in 1928. His campaign for governor provided him with a base of voters that aided his 1932 election to the presidency. Following his success as governor of New York, Roosevelt felt prepared to finally run for president.
After analyzing the factors that prepared Roosevelt for becoming president, Miller’s work exposes the challenges Roosevelt faced coming into the presidency during the Great Depression and pulling the country through another world war. When entering the presidency, Roosevelt understood work and security to be the public’s main concern. Roosevelt immediately instituted the Emergency Banking Act. Although the government did eliminate questionable banks, Miller clarifies that its main purpose was to give “renewed confidence” to both the banks and the public.13 For the next hundred days, relief, recovery, and reform remained his main goals and on March 21st he established the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed young men and created national parks, and Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which dealt directly with those suffering the most. To aid farmers Roosevelt introduced the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which aimed to restore farm income and reduce surpluses, and the Farm Credit Administration, which provided loans to farmers. Miller credits Roosevelt’s New Deal for changing the relationship between the American people and the federal government by centralizing government power and transforming the United States into a “social-minded community.”14 The success of the New Deal gave the American people confidence in Roosevelt’s ability to lead and he was reelected in 1936. Although he had already served the maximum two presidential terms, the outbreak of World War II caused the nation to rally Roosevelt’s reelection. And in the 1942 election, Roosevelt won the democratic nomination and became the first president to be elected to a third term. Roosevelt’s experience in managing the Navy made him an ideal president to handle war. Though his time as assistant Secretary of the Navy demonstrated his zest for war, Roosevelt reacted to World War II with strong support for neutrality. Inevitably, the Roosevelt administration could not turn a blind eye to Hitler’s conquest of Europe and the United States joined the war. In the 1946 election, Roosevelt’s name was again nominated and the nation’s overwhelming trust in him left no better candidate to help the nation through the end of World War II, making Roosevelt the first and only president to server four terms. Though his internment of Japanese-Americans mirrored the idea of concentration camps, his policies transformed him into a global leader. Miller concludes his profile of Franklin Roosevelt with his peaceful retirement in the Warm Springs polio and paralysis rehabilitation center—established during his own recovery—and, eventually, his death in March of 1945.
In writing this biography, Nathan Miller attempts to translate Franklin Roosevelt from a mere “figure in grainy film clips” to a great man with “humane, decent, and civilized values.”15 Throughout his book, Miller focuses on the factors that contributed the most to Roosevelt’s development as political leader; thus implying that Roosevelt was not a man who was born knowing all the answers, but rather a man who knew how to absorb his surroundings and learn from the mistakes of others. Although his work weighs the importance of Roosevelt’s textbook education, Miller credits the people—like Sara, Eleanor, and Theodore Roosevelt—in Roosevelt’s life as his greatest inspiration. In the biography, Miller exposes Roosevelt’s personal and social life to help the readers understand him as a person, not just a political leader. He acknowledges Roosevelt’s flaws yet tries to portray him as “an essentially great man.”16 His ultimate purpose being to help younger generations understand the significance of the man who dominated sixteen years of American history, Miller explores the social, economic, and political conditions during Roosevelt’s lifetime to better relate the conditions in which Roosevelt was president.
It is clear throughout Miller’s work that he idolizes Roosevelt as a great leader. As a member of the generation that grew up with Roosevelt holding four terms of office, Miller is able to give insight to the impact Roosevelt had on the public and the effectiveness of his policies. Roosevelt had “dominated [Miller’s] life” so greatly that his death was “like a death in the family.”17 Because Miller was young during Roosevelt’s presidency, his personal influences in the book may be inaccurate in relation to the feelings of the adult population during that time. A Navy veteran himself, Miller’s focus on Roosevelt’s career as assistant Secretary to the Navy may have received more attention than its true significance is worth—leaving fewer pages to be spent on Roosevelt’s experience in the Senate and as Governor of New York. With his work profiling a time where businesses’ economic self-interest destroyed the economy and World War II dominated every aspect of life, Miller commits himself towards the New Realist School of historiography. Though he shows Roosevelt’s reluctance to enter World War II, Miller stresses the nation’s commitment to the war effort as a distraction from domestic woes.
In a critique of Miller’s work, Thomas A. Krueger from the University of Illinois criticizes Miller’s lack of depth. Though he acknowledges that “coverage is broad,” Krueger argues that Miller neglects to identify key relationships—like that with J. Edgar Hoover—and overlooks Roosevelt’s decision to do nothing to save the non-Jews who were persecuted in Nazi camps.18 In an ending note, Krueger goes as far as to criticize the editors for allowing the use of the “flaccid conjunction” however.19 Kikus Book Review comments that although Miller’s work is not great, it has “done nothing wrong” and profiles the life of Roosevelt accurately and organized.20 The review states that Miller’s work serves its purpose as a biography but is “in no way mesmerizing.”21
Nathan Miller’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt provides an intricate view of the many influences in Roosevelt’s life. His analysis of Roosevelt’s ideal of “noblesse oblige” depicts Roosevelt as a noble and charitable individual whose social status provided a platform for political distinction and as a man who took advantage of every opportunity given.22 Though lengthy, Miller’s work does not seem complete. Too many facts and quotations were used as attempts to provide accurate detail and left no room for some needed elaboration. Many pages are wasted on small biographies of the people surrounding Roosevelt, which are often inserted in the middle of one of Miller’s key points. The biographies are not only distracting but irrelevant to Roosevelt’s personal or political life. For a biography, Miller uses very little dates or years in order to help readers adjust their perspective of the time period. Overall, the book is relatively interesting and easy to follow and provides a clear perspective on the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
According to Miller’s work, the 1930s were a time when people had no trust in the government. Hoover’s handouts to the unemployed did not stimulate the economy, but rather moved the public’s confusion to anger. Miller’s work shows the people of the United States as “truly helpless” and “unable to cope” with the rising unemployment and plunging economy.23 When Roosevelt took over the presidency, His effect was immediate. Within two short weeks the spirits of the American people rose and many started to feel hope for an end to the Great Depression. To Miller, it was not so much the Great Depression that marked a watershed in history, but rather the way Roosevelt handled it that significantly changed politics in America. The New Deal “altered for all time the relationship between Americans and their government” by centralizing government power and giving more power to the president.24 The Emergency Banking Act standardized the monitoring of banks and the abandonment of the gold standard resulted in the establishment of the currency system used today. New Deal acts, such as the Social Security Act and Federal Emergency Relief Association, readjusted the government’s goals from interest in managing the people to working for the development of a better way of life for all Americans.
The idea of the government taking care of its citizens is extremely apparent in America today. As the federal government has begun to provide services for citizens, the public has begun to expect more and more services from them. Roosevelt’s aid to minorities brought the needs of the disabled to national attention and provided a platform for minorities to take a stand and be heard, as seen in the 1960s. The New Deal expanded the government’s awareness of both social and political issues. Had it not been for Roosevelt’s “new deal for the American people”, government provided services would have been developed much slower and received greater criticism.25 Miller’s book shows that with time, even Hoover could have brought an end to the Great Depression. Yet it was Roosevelt’s New Deal plan, not the Great Depression itself, which had the greatest impact on America’s political view of helping its citizens.
Nathan Miller’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt profiles a man whose New Deal plan changed the way government and politics work forever. His ardent advocacy of providing government services stimulated both the economy and public spirit while laying the foundation for future government services and standards. Although many viewed his New Deal acts as communist, fascist, or just too radical, Roosevelt sought only to “cement society…rich and poor” and to rally for the protection of Democracy.26
1: Nathan, Miller. FDR: An Intimate History. Garden City: Doubleday, 1987. 17
Brigitte Donahugh was born and raised in Irvine, CA. She enjoys riding her horse competitively and her favorite thing to do is to travel and learn about different cultures. She looks forward to attending a four-year university and plans to major in International Relations.
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