Megalomaniac Cripple in the House
A Review of William Leuchtenburg’s The FDR Years: On Roosevelt & His Legacy
Leuchtenburg taught at Columbia University for 30 years before moving to North Carolina to teach at Chapel Hills. Winner of the Bancroft and Parkman prizes, he is the author of many books on the 20th century. He has served as president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Historians.
BY SAM LEE
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was and is the one of the most renowned presidents in the history of the United States. Many know him as the man who led America over the two term expectation in office. He is also known for his reaction to Pearl Harbor and his leadership during World War II. However, above all these things, FDR is etched onto the mind of Americans as the man who changed government—the man who gave hope to the hopeless during the Great Depression. The author, who lived during this time of great fundamental changes in American society, conveys his view on Roosevelt’s presidency through nine chapters of vigorously edited essays and an interview. In The FDR Years: On Roosevelt & His Legacy, William Leuchtenburg explains how “the presidency as we know it today [began] with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”1
Within the first section of the book, Roosevelt is weighed on a scale with his pros and cons spelled out clearly as seen by critics and fans as he creates precedents for the modern type of presidency. Critics often disapproved of him for having no grand design; one of his Hudson Valley neighbors even described him as “a swollen headed nitwit.”2 Meanwhile, fans rejoiced at the changes made by the “great economic emancipator” who brought action with his words to the presidency.3 Neither side, however, could deny that Roosevelt was the first modern president. Unafraid of public opinion, he embraced the media like no president before him ever had; utilizing fireside chats and open press conferences, he was a president that opened up to the public. By creating his alphabet agencies, Roosevelt also expanded executive power and made clear the superior authority of the federal government. Though frequently referred to as “a traitor to his class,” Roosevelt did not shirk away from expanding the powers of the central government.4 He created “a heterogeneous administration and encouraged dissenting voices within the government;” something no other president had done before.5 With his brain trust constantly updating him, Roosevelt was always well-informed of the situation from every part of the political spectrum. It was through such unorthodox methods that FDR was able to reach such heights. A major component, explains Leuchtenburg, that helped Roosevelt rise to executive glory was the analogue of war used during his presidency. Straight out of World War I and into an economical rut, America was more than willing to embrace the regulated society of wartime to survive. After all, “by the time Roosevelt was sworn in…more than fifteen million Americans were unemployed.”6 After the 1929 stock market crash, the people instinctively looked back on the war years—an opening that Roosevelt gladly exploited. Through the use of wartime rhetoric such as the forestry army that conserved national resources and preserved the manhood of the national youth, Roosevelt gained much support in his initial attempts at reform. Thanks to the opening created by the time period, the first modern form of the federal government was created.
In the second segment of the book, Leuchtenburg moves onto the political hurdles faced by Roosevelt as he ran for his second term. According to Leuchtenburg, one of Roosevelt’s biggest threats was Huey Pierce Long, the senator of Louisiana better known as the Kingfish. Huey Long was an important supporter of the presidential candidate during Roosevelt’s first election, but relations between the two soon soured due to differing ideals. “Long made a point of showing his contempt for the democratic process” and had opposing political views with Roosevelt.7 FDR simplified his struggle with Long as a battle between democracy and dictatorship—a practical simplification due to the autocratic system being used by Long in Louisiana. Long mocked FDR and his New Deal program, and attempted to run against FDR under the slogan “share the wealth” which involved putting a cap on the wealth one could possess and sharing the rest with the public.8 Just as public support was building for the Kingfish, he was assassinated on the “night of September 8, 1935.”9 If it wasn’t for the timely death of Long, Roosevelt would have had a dangerous rival on his hands. Even with the elimination of FDR’s strongest rival, the outcome of the election of 1936 was much in question at the beginning. The election ranged over a wide variety of issues and internal disputes between parties occurred due to the New Deal programs. Because there was no one of national stature to be nominated as a presidential candidate for the Republicans, the obscure governor of Kansas, Alfred Mossman Landon, was chosen to lead. Inconsistent with his image as a Kansas Coolidge, Landon’s best and only hope was the emergence of a third party that would take away a hefty sum of Roosevelt’s votes. The wish was granted as representative William Lemke of North Dakota showed up on the ballot as a member of the Union Party. In the end, however, Roosevelt faced no serious opposition for renomination thanks to the death of the Kingfish. Roosevelt created a broadly based coalition centered on the masses in cities and didn’t open his formal campaign until the people began to turn their attention from the Republican National Convention, timing it so that the attention could be focused on his campaign. In a landslide victory, Roosevelt swept away the election for his second term with “27,751,841 votes… [and] his proportion of the popular vote (60.8 percent)… [was] the greatest recorded in history.”10 As stated by Leuchtenburg, the reelection of Roosevelt represented a victory for his ideas and made it clear that Big Government was here to stay.
For the third quarter of the book, the author goes on to talk about the regional politics faced by Roosevelt when working on his New Deal policies. A major regional component of politics was the hurricanes hitting New England; in the wake of storms, ancient landmarks disappeared and homes lay demolished. This meant that workable flood control programs had to be drawn up and financed quickly. Luckily, to the delight of the administration, Roosevelt was able to scrape enough money together to fund projects for these flood control programs. Another component of regional politics lay in the valley authorities. Many states wanted regional authorities like the Tennessee Valley Authority which showed a great amount of success. In the early years, Roosevelt took a firm stand against the pressure for more valley authorities, but eventually even he had to bend to the public’s will. Roosevelt introduced legislation to create a Columbia Valley Authority “only to meet stout resistance from corporations (especially utilities), government agencies protective of their turf, and champions of states’ rights resentful of any intrusion by Washington.”11 Roosevelt created seven TVAs which all met with the same kind of resistance. This led to the creation of agencies that only had the ability to plan which, since the TVAs could not enforce any of its plans. In the end, the TVAs failed due to the financial titans who, with the help of key players, minimized the effect of regional authorities. Overall, FDR carefully sidestepped the issues of valley authorities and barely managed to repair the hurricane’s destructive path.
Leuchtenburg closes off with an overview on the Great Depression and the New Deal, and even provides his own opinion on a chapter formatted like an interview. According to him, “the New Deal began the process of change, although painfully inadequately.”12 Whereas the federal government of the past was always rather weak in the face of trouble due to its lack of unity, Roosevelt created a strong central government that could react uniformly in the face of distress. Though there were many shortcomings like the lack of a grand design, the New Deal helped accomplish many things that helped those in need. During the second year of the New Deal, even Winston Churchill had to admit that “it is certain that Franklin Roosevelt will rank among the greatest of men who have occupied that proud position,” further illustrating that Roosevelt accomplished much more than many of his predecessors.13 Though FDR’s management of the administration may have been imperfect, with his constant unfocused experimental agencies, even his critics from overseas in England couldn’t deny the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish and achieving. The New Deal established control over the nation’s money supply, allowed peaceful strikes, carried out projects to generate hydroelectric power, and rebuilt miles of roadway. It encouraged the arts, advocated conservationism, reached out to tenant farmers, imposed regulation on Wall Street, monitored the airwaves, built model communities, transformed home-building, drastically reduced child labor, established minimal work standards, built camps for migrants, introduced social security, and much more. Thanks to FDR, “the nation was now much more cosmopolitan… [and] much more of the world than it had been,” changed permanently into a more centrally focused mammoth.14
Leuchtenburg informs the reader that even though FDR and his New Deal programs were flawed, they ultimately changed America for the better. If it wasn’t for Roosevelt, who worked arduously under the very trying circumstances of the Depression, the government may very well be the flimsy figurehead of unity that existed before his presidency. Based on this assumption that the New Deal improved the American situation, Leuchtenburg makes a firm statement challenging those who belittle the triumphs of the New Deal in order to change the public perception of the time period for their own personal gains and purposes. Surely, looking at the presidency today, one cannot deny that Roosevelt’s presidency had a great impact on the structure of American society. Amidst all the dissenting voices in the government and populace, Leuchtenburg does not waver and defends Roosevelt’s “[rank] as the second greatest president in our history, surpassed only by the legendary Abraham Lincoln.”15 Even when taking the side of critics and explaining their complaints, Leuchtenburg always returns to the positive impacts of the New Deal to show that his true allegiance lies with advocates of Roosevelt and his policies. Though often jumping to topics that seem irrelevant to the Depression and the impact of the presidency, like Roosevelt’s intense power struggle with the Kingfish and hurricane politics, these issues all relate to FDR’s tough but amazing presidency. Repetitive at times, his constant reminders list the accomplishments of Roosevelt’s administration to admonish critics that seem to conveniently forget that the presidency pulled off an amazing feat during a time of disaster. Leuchtenburg’s writing is a reminder of the great achievements accomplished by the Roosevelt administration that cannot be disparaged due to some perceived flaw.
Even the professional reviews of Leuchtenburg’s book cannot help but acknowledge the validity of his statements. John Syrett, of the Canadian Journal of History, voiced his sympathy when testifying that “Leuchtenburg’s thesis certainly challenges the conservatives’ attack on the welfare state, which has helped to obscure the benefits that F.D.R. and his colleagues left the American people.”16 As previously mentioned, this book serves as a reminder to those swayed by the twisted arguments of politicians that Roosevelt served American citizens to the best of his abilities. With the men and women who could testify for the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal passed away, politicians believe that they can now rip out the period of time from the pages of history. According to Michael R. Beschloss of the Washington post, the book will most likely stir up controversy among more than just the right-winged conservatives. “Conservatives will likely turn up the heat against Roosevelt’s role in the establishment of a permanent welfare state. Left-liberals will probably be [angrier] than ever that he failed to do more. Neo-isolationists will fire new fusillades against the four-term one-worlder in the White House.”17 To put it bluntly, no one will be satisfied with what Roosevelt accomplished now that the Cold War is over because every section of the political spectrum always wants more. Since the emergency is over and the urgency passed, people forget that there once was a time when unemployment sky rocketed and people struggled to survive and only think to see the past as an opportunity to be exploited. The book is one that will make one truly consider the importance of the New Deal, the man behind the program, and the consequences of the project.
Leuchtenburg himself clearly states that “the Depression was a watershed in American history” because of the massive, long lasting imprint it left in its pages.18 It politically reformed the government into a more centralized government, economically changed the market into a more regulated economy, and socially changed the cultural foundation of America. Politically, today’s government plays a more active role thanks to Roosevelt who also happened to unite the people like never before in his landslide election victories. He also gave government a more active role in the economy. After all, it was thanks to Roosevelt’s active engagement in the national market that “the federal government in the 1930s came to supervise the stock market, establish a central banking system… and regulate a range of business activities hitherto regarded as private.”19 As a man who “made conscious use of the media almost from the moment he entered the White House,” he also changed what is culturally expected of presidents.20 The president belongs to the public, similar to the way Roosevelt gave his time to the people in his fireside chats, and the people now demand their share of time with the president. Leuchtenburg views America in the 1930s as a shift from state government to federal government which set precedents for the modern presidency.
America in the 1930s marks a watershed in American history in that it literally changed everything. It’s thanks to Roosevelt that Obama can now push for a federal healthcare bill for the populace and can propose new regulation on energy sources to curb global warming. If it wasn’t for Roosevelt marching on into territory that was once thought to be private and pull out the weeds of greed, there would be no Fair Pay Act which relaxes statute of limitations for equal-pay lawsuits today. Roosevelt also started the trend of presidential publicity where press conferences are open and nothing is hidden from the public. The previous idea of big business is squashed and national resources are no longer being swallowed up by greedy entrepreneurs. Conservationism and environmentalism is now an important part of the culture of America, as witnessed each time one passes by a recycling bin, thanks to Roosevelt’s original forestry army. Looking at the way government operates today, it can easily be claimed that “the New Deal transformed the nature of American politics by drastically altering the agenda.”21
The FDR Years: On Roosevelt & His Legacy, by Leuchtenburg is a staunch reminder of what was done by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many critics complain of the perpetual welfare state and the death of entrepreneurship, but the truth is revealed in the pages of this book. Though the New Deal contained its own set of flaws, Roosevelt’s method of handling the Depression yielded results and left lasting changes in America’s personality. The social security system, Federal Reserve, regulated business, and other changes made by Roosevelt were here to stay. As asserted by Beschloss, “against…[the unrecognizable] evaluations [of historians who began writing about Roosevelt in the 1950s and 1960s], The FDR Years will provide us with a point of comparison.”22
1: Leuchtenburg, William Edward. The FDR Years: on Roosevelt and His Legacy. New York: Columbia
Sam Lee is a 1.5 generation Korean immigrant. He enjoys fresh kimchi, afternoon naps, and fooling around with friends. Motivated to learn about his new surroundings and its history, he decided to take the AP U.S. History class over the regular class.
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