|Term of office||March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945|
|Preceded by||Herbert Hoover|
|Succeeded by||Harry S. Truman|
|Date of birth||January 30, 1882|
|Place of birth||Hyde Park, New York|
|Date of death||April 12, 1945|
|Place of death||Warm Springs, Georgia|
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945) was the 32nd president of the United States, the longest-serving holder of the office and the only person to be elected president more than twice. He was one of the central figures of the twentieth century—Roosevelt led the U.S. through the Great Depression and led the military alliance that defeated Nazi Germany, Italy and the Empire of Japan in World War II.
A child of economic and social privilege, he overcame a crippling illness to place himself at the head of the forces of reform. Universally called “FDR,” he was both loved and hated in his day, but is now generally considered to be one of the greatest of American presidents. With his friend Winston Churchill, Roosevelt was a defender of freedom and democracy against tyranny. His concern for the poor and the socially disadvantaged was reflected in his New Deal programs, which did much to try to raise living standards for Americans who had suffered through the Great Depression.
Although Roosevelt's personal morality fell short, and his attitude towards Americans of color and Jews attracted criticism, yet his commitment to public service and stoic perseverance in the face of illness were exemplary. His leadership—marked by personal courage, conviction and compassion—gave the American people the confidence to persevere through some of their darkest times and rise to victory.
Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, at Hyde Park, in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York. His father, James Roosevelt, Sr. (1828–1900), was a wealthy landowner and vice-president of the Delaware and Hudson Railway. The Roosevelt family had lived in New York for more than two hundred years: Claes van Rosenvelt, originally from Haarlem in the Netherlands, arrived in New York (then called Nieuw Amsterdam) in about 1650. In 1788, Isaac Roosevelt was a member of the state convention in Poughkeepsie, New York which voted to ratify the United States Constitution—a matter of great pride to his great-great-grandson Franklin.
Roosevelt's mother Sara Ann Delano (1854–1941) was a French Protestant of Huguenot descent, her ancestor Phillippe de la Noye having arrived in Massachusetts in 1621. Since James was an elderly and remote father (he was 54 when Franklin was born), Sara was the dominant influence in Franklin's early years.
Roosevelt grew up in an atmosphere of privilege. He learned to ride, to shoot, to row and to play polo and lawn tennis. Frequent trips to Europe made him conversant in German and French. The fact that his father was a Democrat set the family apart from most other members of the Hudson Valley aristocracy. The Roosevelts believed in public service, and were wealthy enough to be able to spend time and money on philanthropy.
Roosevelt went to Groton School, an elite Episcopal Church boarding school near Boston. He was influenced by the headmaster, Endicott Peabody, who preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate. He graduated from Groton in 1900 and was admitted to Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1904 without much serious study. While at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States, and his vigorous leadership style and reforming zeal made him Franklin's role model. In 1903 Roosevelt met his future wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore's niece (whom he had known as a child), at a White House reception.
After attending Columbia University Law School, Roosevelt passed the bar exam and completed the requirements for a law degree in 1907 but did not bother to graduate. In 1908 he took a job with the prestigious Wall Street firm of Carter, Ledyard and Milburn, as a corporate lawyer.
Roosevelt was engaged to Eleanor, despite the fierce resistance of his mother Sara, who was terrified of losing control of Franklin. They were married on March 17, 1905, and moved into a house bought for them by Sara, who became a frequent house-guest, much to Eleanor's mortification. Eleanor was shy and hated social life, and at first she desired nothing more than to stay at home and raise Franklin's children, of which they had six in ten years:
The five children who survived infancy all led tumultuous lives overshadowed by their famous parents. They had between them 15 marriages, ten divorces and 29 children. All four sons were officers in World War II and were decorated for bravery. Their postwar careers, whether in business or politics, were disappointing. Two of them were elected briefly to the House of Representatives but none attained higher office despite several attempts. One became a Republican.
In 1910 Roosevelt ran for the New York State Senate from his district, which had not elected a Democrat since 1884. The Roosevelt name, money, and the Democratic landslide that year carried him to the state capital in Albany, New York, where he became a leading reformer who opposed Manhattan's Tammany Hall political machine that dominated the Democratic Party. Roosevelt was young (30 in 1912) and popular among New York Democrats, and when Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, was given the position of assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1914 he ran for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate, but was defeated in the primary by Tammany Hall-backed James W. Gerard.
Between 1913 and 1917 Roosevelt worked to expand the navy (in the face of considerable opposition from pacifists in the administration such as the secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan), and founded the United States Navy Reserve to provide a pool of trained men who could be mobilized in wartime. Wilson sent the Navy and Marines to intervene in Central American and Caribbean countries. Roosevelt personally wrote the constitution which the U.S. imposed on Haiti in 1915. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, Roosevelt became the effective administrative head of the United States Navy, since the actual secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was a political appointee who political handled ceremonial duties.
Roosevelt liked the Navy, showed administrative talent, and quickly learned to negotiate with Congress and government departments to get budgets approved to rapidly expand the Navy. He was an advocate of the submarine and developing the means to combat the German submarine menace to Allied shipping. He proposed building a mine field across the North Sea from Norway to Scotland. In 1918 he visited Britain and France to inspect American naval facilities—where he met Winston Churchill for the first time. When the war ended in November 1918, he was in charge of demobilization, although he opposed plans to completely dismantle the Navy.
The 1920 Democratic National Convention chose Roosevelt as the candidate for vice-president on the ticket headed by James M. Cox, governor of Ohio. Republican opponents denounced eight years of Democratic "mismanagement" and called for a "Return to Normalcy." The Cox-Roosevelt ticket was defeated by Republican Warren Harding in a landslide. Roosevelt then retired to a New York legal practice, but few doubted that he would soon return to public office.
Roosevelt, a handsome and socially active man, found romantic outlets outside his marriage during Eleanor's repeated pregnancies. One liaison was with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer, with whom Roosevelt began an affair soon after she was hired in 1914. In September 1918, Eleanor found letters in Franklin's luggage that revealed the affair. Eleanor was mortified and angry, and confronted him with the letters, demanding a divorce.
Franklin's mother Sara Roosevelt heard about it and intervened, arguing that a divorce would ruin Franklin's political career. She emphasized that Eleanor would have to raise five children on her own if she divorced him. Since Sara was financially supporting the Roosevelts, she had a strong say. The couple decided to preserve the facade of a marriage but sexual relations would cease. Sara paid for a separate home at Hyde Park for Eleanor, and also helped fund Eleanor's philanthropic interests. When Franklin became president—as Sara was always convinced he would—Eleanor would be able to use her position as wife to support her causes. Eleanor accepted these terms, and in time Franklin and Eleanor developed a good relationship as friends and political colleagues, while living separate lives. Franklin continued to see various women, including his secretary, Missy LeHand.
In August 1921, while the Roosevelts were vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis, a viral infection of the nerve fibers of the spinal cord, probably contracted while swimming in the stagnant water of a nearby lake. The result was total and permanent paralysis from the waist down. At first the muscles of his abdomen and lower back were also affected, but eventually recovered. Thus he could sit up and, with aid of leg braces, stand upright, but he could not walk. Unlike in other forms of paraplegia, his bowels, bladder and sexual functions were not affected.
Although the paralysis had no cure (and still does not, although polio is greatly contained), Roosevelt refused to accept that his condition was permanent. He tried a wide range of therapies without effect. He became convinced of the benefits of hydrotherapy. In 1926 he bought a resort at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he founded a hydrotherapy center for the treatment of polio patients that still operates as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation (with an expanded mission). He spent a lot of time there in the 1920s. This was, in part, to escape from his mother, who doted on him following his illness.
At a time when media were more respectful of the private lives of public figures, Roosevelt was able to convince many people that he was getting better. He felt this was necessary to run for public office again. Fitting his hips and legs with iron braces, he laboriously taught himself to walk a short distance by swiveling his torso while supporting himself with a cane. In private he used a wheelchair, but he was careful never to be seen in it in public, although he sometimes appeared on crutches. He usually appeared in public standing upright, while being supported on one side by an aide or one of his sons. For major speaking occasions an especially solid lectern was placed on the stage so that he could support himself from it. If one watches films of him speaking one can see he used his head to make gestures while his hands remained gripped to the lectern. Despite his dislike of being seen in a wheelchair, a statue of him in a wheelchair was later placed at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.
By 1928 Roosevelt believed he could resume his political career. In 1924 he had attended the Democratic Convention and made a presidential nomination speech for the governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith. Although Smith was not nominated, in 1928 he ran again with Roosevelt's support and became the Democratic candidate. He urged Roosevelt to run for governor of New York. To gain the Democratic nomination, Roosevelt reluctantly made peace with Tammany Hall. At the November election, Smith was defeated by Herbert Hoover, but Roosevelt was elected governor by a narrow margin of 25,000 votes out of 2.2 million ballots cast. As a native of upstate New York, he was able to appeal to voters outside New York City better than other Democrats.
Roosevelt entered office in 1929 as a reform Democrat, but with no overall plan. He tackled official corruption by dismissing Smith's friends and instituted a Public Service Commission. He acted to address New York's growing need for power through the development of hydroelectricity on the St. Lawrence River. He reformed the state's prison system and built a new state prison at Attica, New York. He feuded with Robert Moses, the state's most powerful public servant, whom he removed as secretary of state but kept on as parks commissioner and head of urban planning. Following the Wall Street crash, he initiated a relief system in New York that anticipated his "New Deal." On Eleanor's recommendation, he appointed Frances Perkins as labor secretary, who undertook a sweeping reform of the labor laws. He established the first state relief agency under Harry Hopkins, who became a key advisor, and urged the legislature to pass an old age pension bill and an unemployment insurance bill.
The main weakness of the Roosevelt administration was the blatant corruption of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City. In 1930 Roosevelt was elected to a second term by a margin of more than 700,000 votes.
Roosevelt's strong base in the largest state made him an obvious candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president, which was hotly contested since it seemed clear that Hoover would be defeated in 1932. Al Smith also wanted the nomination, and was supported by some city bosses, but he was tagged as a loser—and he had lost control of the New York Democratic party to Roosevelt. Roosevelt built his own national coalition using powerful allies such as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Irish leader Joseph P. Kennedy, and California leader William G. McAdoo. When Texas leader John Nance Garner switched to support Roosevelt, he was given the vice presidential nomination.
The election campaign was conducted under the shadow of the Great Depression. The prohibition issue solidified the wet vote for Roosevelt, who noted that repeal would bring in new tax revenues. During the campaign Roosevelt said: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people," coining the slogan that was later adopted for his legislative program. Roosevelt did not put forward clear alternatives to the policies of the Hoover administration, but nevertheless won 57 percent of the vote and carried all but six states. During the long interregnum, Roosevelt refused Hoover's requests for a meeting to come up with a joint program to stop the downward spiral. In February 1933, while in Miami, assassin Giuseppe Zangara fired five shots at Roosevelt, missing him but killing the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.
Roosevelt had few systematic economic beliefs. He saw the Depression as mainly a matter of confidence—people had stopped spending, investing, and employing labor because they were afraid to do so. As he put it in his inaugural address: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He therefore set out to restore confidence through a series of dramatic gestures.
During the first hundred days of his administration, Roosevelt used his enormous prestige and the sense of impending disaster to force a series of bills through Congress, establishing and funding various new government agencies. These included the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), which granted funds to the states for unemployment relief; the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to hire millions of unemployed to work on local projects; and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), with powers to increase farm prices and support struggling farmers.
He called an emergency session of Congress to stabilize the financial system. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created to guarantee the funds held in all banks in the Federal Reserve System, and called a "bank holiday" to prevent a threatened run on the banks and thus prevent runs and bank failures. Roosevelt's series of radio speeches known as “Fireside Chats” presented his proposals to the American public.
Following these emergency measures came the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which imposed an unprecedented amount of state regulation on industry, including fair practice codes and a guaranteed role for trade unions, in exchange for the repeal of anti-trust laws and huge amounts of financial assistance as a stimulus to the economy. Later came one of the largest pieces of state industrial enterprise in American history, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations, controlled floods, and improved agriculture in one of the poorest parts of the country. The repeal of prohibition also provided stimulus to the economy, while eliminating a major source of corruption.
In 1934, retired Marine General Smedley Butler, who was at the time a prominent left-wing speaker, reported that leading capitalists had invited him to lead a march on Washington, seize the government, and become their dictator. This alleged attempt was known as the "Business Plot."
After the 1934 Congressional elections, which gave the Democrats large majorities in both houses, there was a fresh surge of New Deal legislation, driven by the "brain trust" of young economists and social planners gathered in the White House, including Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell and Adolf Berle of Columbia University, attorney Basil O'Connor, and economists Bernard Baruch and Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School. Eleanor Roosevelt, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins (the first female cabinet secretary) and Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace were also involved. Measures included bills to regulate the stock market and prevent the corrupt practices which had led to the 1929 crash; the Social Security Act (SSA), which established economic security for the elderly, the poor and the sick; and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which established the rights of workers to organize labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes.
These measures helped restore confidence and optimism, allowing the country to begin the long process of recovery. Some people believe that Roosevelt's programs, collectively known as the New Deal, cured the Great Depression, but historians and economists continue to debate this, some saying the United States recovered during World War II. Several scholars believe that the New Deal actually prolonged the Great Depression. The New Deal ran up large deficits implementing some of the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated government intervention to mitigate the depression. It is unclear whether Roosevelt was influenced by these theories directly; he primarily relied on his advisers. After a meeting with Keynes, who kept drawing diagrams, Roosevelt remarked, "He must be a mathematician rather than a political economist."
The extent to which the large appropriations for relief and assistance to industry provided a sufficient fiscal stimulus to revive the U.S. economy is also debated. The economy recovered significantly during Roosevelt's first term, but fell back into recession in 1937 and 1938, before making another recovery in 1939. While gross national product had surpassed its 1929 peak by 1940, unemployment remained about 15 percent. Some economists said there was a permanent structural unemployment; others blamed the high tariff barriers that many countries had erected in response to the Depression. Although foreign trade was not as important to the U.S. economy as it is today, the economy did start to grow after 1940, but many simultaneous programs were involved, including massive spending, price controls, bond campaigns, controls over raw materials, prohibitions on new housing and new automobiles, rationing, guaranteed cost-plus profits, subsidized wages, and the draft of 12 million soldiers. It is difficult for analysts to determine how a specific policy impacted the economy.
In the 1936 U.S. presidential election, Roosevelt campaigned on his New Deal programs against Kansas governor Alfred Landon, who accepted much of the New Deal but objected that it was hostile to business and created excessive waste. Roosevelt and Garner got 61 percent of the vote and carried every state except Maine and Vermont. The New Deal Democrats won enough seats in Congress to outvote both the Republicans and the conservative Southern Democrats (who supported programs which brought benefits for their states but opposed measures which strengthened labor unions). Roosevelt won traditional Democrats across the country, small farmers, the "Solid South," Catholics, big city political machines, labor unions, northern African-Americans, Jews, intellectuals and political liberals. This group, frequently referred to as the New Deal coalition, remained largely intact for the Democratic Party until the 1960s. Roosevelt's liberal policies sapped the growth of both communism and fascism.
Roosevelt's second term agenda included the creation of the United States Housing Authority (1937), a second Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which created the minimum wage. When the economy began to deteriorate again in late 1937, Roosevelt responded with an aggressive program of stimulation, asking Congress for $5 billion for relief and public works programs.
With the Republicans powerless in Congress, the conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court was the only obstacle to Roosevelt's programs. During 1935 the Court ruled that the National Recovery Act and some other parts of the New Deal legislation were unconstitutional. Roosevelt's response was to propose enlarging the Court so that he could appoint more sympathetic judges. This "court packing" plan was the first Roosevelt scheme to run into serious political opposition, since it seemed to undermine the separation of powers, one of the cornerstones of the American constitutional structure. Eventually Roosevelt was forced to abandon the plan, but the Court also drew back from confrontation with the administration by finding the Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act to be constitutional. Deaths and retirements on the Supreme Court soon allowed Roosevelt to make his own appointments to the bench. Between 1937 and 1941 he appointed eight justices to the court, including liberals Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, reducing the possibility of further clashes.
Determined to overcome the opposition of conservative Southern Democrats in Congress, Roosevelt actively campaigned, in the 1938 Democratic primaries, for challengers who were more supportive of New Deal reform. Unfortunately for Roosevelt, this effort backfired, and the Southern Democrats he had failed to replace ended up forging an alliance with Republicans, further impeding Roosevelt's ability to get new proposals enacted into law.
By 1939, Roosevelt's reform momentum—already slowed down by the Court packing fiasco and the "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937-1938—came to a virtual standstill. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was the last substantial New Deal reform act passed by Congress.
Also in 1939, Roosevelt endeavored to move the date of the American Thanksgiving celebration forward a week in an attempt to increase retail sales for the holiday shopping season. This controversial decision led many to deride the "new" holiday as "Franksgiving" and it split the country between those who celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving and Franksgiving. Congress passed a law, which Roosevelt signed in 1941, making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November official.
The rejection of the League of Nations treaty in 1919 marked the dominance of isolationism in American foreign policy. Despite Roosevelt's Wilsonian background, he and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, acted with great care not to provoke isolationists. The main foreign policy initiative of Roosevelt's first term was the Good Neighbor Policy, a re-evaluation of American policy towards Latin America, which ever since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 had been seen as an American sphere of near-colonial influence. American forces were withdrawn from Haiti, and new treaties signed with Cuba and Panama ended their status as protectorates. At the Seventh International Conference of American States in Montevideo in December 1933, Roosevelt and Hull signed the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, renouncing the presumed American right to intervene unilaterally in Latin American countries. Nevertheless, American support for various Latin American dictators, often to serve American corporate interests, remained unchanged. It was Roosevelt who made the often-quoted remark about the dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza: "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."
Meanwhile, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany aroused fears of a new world war. In 1935, at the time of Italy's invasion of Abyssinia, Congress passed the Neutrality Act, applying a mandatory ban on the shipment of arms from the U.S. to any combatant nation. Roosevelt opposed the act on the grounds that it penalized the victims of aggression such as Abyssinia, and that it restricted his right as president to assist friendly countries, but he eventually signed it. In 1937 Congress passed an even more stringent act, but when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Roosevelt found various ways to assist China, and warned that Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were threats to world peace and to the U.S. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt became increasingly eager to assist Britain and France, and he began a regular secret correspondence with Winston Churchill, in which the two freely discussed ways of circumventing the Neutrality Acts.
In May 1940 Germany attacked France and rapidly occupied it, leaving Britain vulnerable to German air attack and possible invasion. Roosevelt was determined to prevent this and sought to shift public opinion in favor of aiding Britain. He secretly aided a private group, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, and he appointed two anti-isolationist Republicans, Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox, as secretaries of war and the Navy respectively. The fall of Paris shocked Americans, and the isolationist sentiment declined. Both political parties gave strong support for plans to rapidly build up the American military, but the remaining isolationists bitterly denounced Roosevelt as an irresponsible, ruthless warmonger. He successfully urged Congress to enact the first peacetime draft in 1940 (it was renewed in 1941 by one vote in Congress).
America should be the "Arsenal of Democracy" he told his fireside audience, but he did not tell the people or Congress that he was overruling his senior generals and sending the best new airplanes to Britain. In August, Roosevelt openly defied the Neutrality Acts with the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, which gave 50 American destroyers to Britain and Canada in exchange for base rights in the British Caribbean islands. This was a precursor of the March 1941 Lend-Lease agreement which began to direct massive military and economic aid to Britain.
After the 1938 Congressional elections, the Republicans staged their first comeback since 1932. They made major gains in both Houses and by forming the Conservative Coalition with southern Democrats ended Roosevelt's ability to pass more social reform legislation. A minimum wage law passed, but only because of support from Northeastern Republicans who wanted to force higher wages in competing southern textile mills.
The no-third-term tradition had been an unwritten rule since the 1790s, but Roosevelt, after blocking the presidential ambitions of cabinet members Jim Farley and Cordell Hull, ran for a third term. He won a nasty campaign against Wendell Willkie in the U.S. presidential election in 1940 with 55 percent of the popular vote and 38 of the 48 states. A shift to the left within the administration was shown by naming Henry A. Wallace as his vice president in place of the conservative Texan John Nance Garner, an enemy of Roosevelt since 1937.
Roosevelt's third term was dominated by World War II. Overcoming the isolationist sentiment that supported disarmament, Roosevelt slowly began re-armament in 1938. By 1940 war production was in high gear with bipartisan support, partly to expand and re-equip the United States Army and United States Navy and partly to support Britain, France, China and, after June 1941, the Soviet Union. After 1939, unemployment fell rapidly as the unemployed either joined the armed forces or found work in arms factories. By 1941 there was a growing labor shortage in all the nation's major manufacturing centers, accelerating the Great Migration of African-American workers from the Southern states, and of underemployed farmers and workers from all rural areas and small towns.
Roosevelt turned to Harry Hopkins for foreign policy advice. They sought innovative ways to help Britain, whose financial resources were exhausted by the end of 1940. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941, allowing America to "lend" huge amounts of military equipment in return for "leases" on British naval bases in the Western Hemisphere. In sharp contrast to the loans of World War I, there would be no repayment after the war. Instead, Britain agreed to dismantle preferential trade arrangements that kept American exports out of the British Empire. This reflected Roosevelt's free-trade and anti-imperialist global view—ending European colonialism was one of his objectives. Roosevelt's good friend Winston Churchill became the British prime minister in May 1940.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Roosevelt extended Lend-Lease policies to the Soviets. During 1941 Roosevelt also agreed that the U.S. Navy would escort allied convoys as far east as Iceland, and would fire on German ships or submarines if they attacked allied shipping within the U.S. naval zone. Moreover, by 1941, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers were secretly ferrying British fighter planes between the U.K. and the Mediterranean war zones, and the British Royal Navy was receiving supply and repair assistance at bases in the United States.
Thus by mid-1941 Roosevelt had committed the U.S. to the Allied side with a policy of "all aid short of war." He met with Churchill on August 14, 1941 to develop the Atlantic Charter in what was to be the first of several wartime conferences.
Roosevelt was less keen to involve the U.S. in the war developing in East Asia, where Japan occupied French Indo-China in late 1940. He authorized increased aid to China, and in July 1941 he restricted the sales of oil and other strategic materials to Japan, but he also continued negotiations with the Japanese government with the hope of averting war. Through 1941 the Japanese planned their attack on the western powers, including the U.S., while spinning out the negotiations in Washington. The "hawks" in the administration, led by Stimson and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, were in favor of a tough policy towards Japan, but Roosevelt, emotionally committed to the war in Europe, refused to believe that Japan would attack the U.S. and continued negotiations. The U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew, sent warnings about the planned attack on the American Pacific Fleet's base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but these were ignored by the State Department.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, damaging most of it and killing three thousand American personnel. The American commanders at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short, were taken completely by surprise and were later made scapegoats for this disaster. The United States Department of War in Washington, which since August 1940 had been able to read the Japanese diplomatic codes and thus knew of the imminent attack, should really bear some blame. In later investigations, the War Department claimed that it had not passed warnings on to the commanders in Hawaii because its analysts refused to believe that the Japanese would really be bold enough to attack the United States.
Postwar revisionist history has held that Roosevelt knew about the planned attack on Pearl Harbor but did nothing to prevent it so that the U.S. could be brought into the war. There is no evidence to support this theory. Conspiracy theorists cite a document known as the McCollum memo, written by a Naval Intelligence officer in 1940 and declassified in 1994. It has never been proven that either Roosevelt or his Cabinet saw this document or were aware of its arguments.
It is clear that, when the cabinet met on December 5, its members were not aware of the impending attack. Navy Secretary Knox told the cabinet of decoded messages showing that the Japanese fleet was at sea, but stated his opinion that it was heading south to attack the British in Malaya and Singapore, and to seize the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies. Roosevelt and the rest of the cabinet seem to have accepted this view. There were intercepted Japanese messages suggesting an attack on Pearl Harbor, but delays in translating and passing on these messages through the inefficient War Department bureaucracy meant that they did not reach the cabinet before the attack took place. All credible accounts describe Roosevelt, Hull and Stimson as shocked and outraged when they heard news of the attack.
The Japanese took advantage of their pre-emptive destruction of most of the Pacific Fleet to rapidly occupy the Philippines and all the British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, taking Singapore in February 1942 and advancing through Burma to the borders of British India by May, thus cutting off the overland supply route to China.
Isolationism in the U.S. evaporated overnight and support galvanized behind Roosevelt as a wartime leader. Despite the wave of anger at Japanese that swept across the U.S. over Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt decided that the defeat of Nazi Germany had to take priority. Germany played directly into Roosevelt's hands when it declared war against the U.S. on December 11, which removed potential opposition to "beating Hitler first." Roosevelt met with Churchill in late December and planned a broad alliance between the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union, with the objectives of first halting the German advances in the Soviet Union and in North Africa. Second, they would launch an invasion of Western Europe with the aim of crushing Nazi Germany between two fronts. Finally, they would turn to the task of defeating Japan.
Roosevelt was the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, but he did not interfere in operational military matters the way Churchill did in Britain. He did not take direct command of the forces as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin did. He placed his trust in the Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, and later in his supreme commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Roosevelt left almost all strategic and tactical decisions to them, within the broad framework for the conduct of the war decided by the cabinet in agreement with the other Allied powers. He had less confidence in his commander in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, whom he rightly suspected of planning to run for president against him. But since the war in the Pacific was mainly a naval war, this did not greatly matter until later. Given his close personal interest in the Navy, Roosevelt involved himself more in naval matters, but strong Navy commanders like admirals Ernest King in the Atlantic theater and Chester Nimitz in the Pacific had his confidence.
The War Department demanded that all enemy nationals be removed from war zones on the West Coast. The question how to evacuate the estimated 120,000 people of Japanese citizenship living in California arose. On February 11, 1942, Roosevelt met with Stimson, who persuaded him to approve an immediate evacuation. Roosevelt looked at the evidence available to him: the Japanese in the Philippines had collaborated with the Japanese invasion troops; the Japanese in California had been strong supporters of Japan in the war against China. There was evidence of espionage compiled by code-breakers that decrypted messages to Japan from agents in North America and Hawaii before and after Pearl Harbor. These decoded cables were kept secret from all but those with the highest clearance, such as Roosevelt, lest the Japanese discover the decryption and change their code. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which ordered United States secretary of war and military commanders to designate military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded." Roosevelt permitted them to return in 1944. On February 1, 1943, when activating the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—a unit composed mostly of American citizens of Japanese descent living in Hawaii, he said, "No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." In 1944, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the legality of the executive order in the Korematsu v. United States case. The executive order remained in force until December of that year.
Roosevelt's attitudes toward race were also tested by the issue of African-American (or "Negro," to use the term of the time) service in the armed forces. The Democratic Party at this time has a large contingent of Southerners who were opposed to any concession to demands for racial equality. During the New Deal years, there had been a series of conflicts over whether African-Americans should be segregated in the various new government benefits and programs. Whenever a move was made to integrate the races, Southern governors or congressmen would complain to Roosevelt, who would intervene to uphold segregation for the sake of keeping his party together. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, segregated their work forces by race at Roosevelt's insistence after Southern governors protested that unemployed whites were being required to work alongside blacks. Roosevelt's personal racial attitudes were typical of his time and class. Some historians argue that he played a major role in advancing the rights of blacks, and others say it was due to prodding from Eleanor Roosevelt and liberals such as Ickes, Perkins, Hopkins, Mary Mcleod Bethune, Aubrey Williams and Claude Pepper.
Roosevelt explained his reluctance to support anti-lynching legislation in a conversation with Walter White of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People):
I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Had I been permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But I've got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America…If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can't take that risk.
It was a rationale similar to that the Founding Fathers made when the government was initially formed. Many Southerners in Congress, due to their seniority, were chairmen or occupied strategic places on Senate and House committees. However, he did move blacks into important advisory roles, brought black delegates to the Democratic National Convention for the first time, abolished the two-thirds rule that gave the South veto power over presidential nominations, added a civil rights plank for the first time ever to the 1940 Democratic party platform, and included blacks in the draft with the same rights and pay scales as whites (although they were segregated in the armed services).
In June 1941 Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). It was the most important federal move in support of the rights of African Americans between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The order stated that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. The FEPC enforced the order to ban discriminatory hiring within the federal government and in corporations that received federal contracts. Millions of blacks and women achieved better jobs and better pay as a result.
The war brought the race issue to the forefront. The Army and Navy had been segregated since the Civil War. But by 1940 the African-American vote had largely shifted from Republican to Democrat, and African-American leaders like Walter White of the NAACP and T. Arnold Hill of the National Urban League had become recognized as part of the Roosevelt coalition. In practice, the services—particularly the Navy and the Marines—found ways to evade this order. The Marine Corps remained all-white until 1943. In September 1942, at Eleanor's instigation, Roosevelt met with a delegation of African-American leaders, who demanded full integration into the forces, including the right to serve in combat roles and in the Navy, the Marine Corps and the United States Army Air Force. Roosevelt, with his usual desire to please everyone, agreed, but then did nothing to implement his promise. It was left to his successor, Harry S. Truman, to fully desegregate the armed forces. Once, in conversation with Winston Churchill about Britain's problems in India, where the home rule movement was gaining support (Roosevelt thought Britain should grant India home rule), Roosevelt referred to the U.S.'s “thirteen million black men” as “a problem.”
Roosevelt's complex attitudes to American Jews were also ambivalent. Roosevelt’s mother Sara shared the conventional anti-Semitic attitudes common among Americans at a time when Jewish immigrants were flooding into the U.S. and their children were advancing rapidly into the business and professional classes to the alarm of those already there. Roosevelt apparently inherited some of his mother's attitudes, and at times expressed them in private. However, some of his closest political associates, such as Felix Frankfurter, Bernard Baruch and Samuel I. Rosenman were Jewish, and he happily cultivated the important Jewish vote in New York City. He appointed Henry Morgenthau, Jr. as the first Jewish secretary of the treasury, and appointed Frankfurter to the Supreme Court.
During his first term, Roosevelt condemned Hitler's persecution of German Jews, but said "this is not a governmental affair" and refused to make any public comment. As the Jewish exodus from Germany increased after 1937, Roosevelt was asked by American Jewish organizations and Congressmen to allow these refugees to settle in the U.S. At first he suggested that the Jewish refugees should be "resettled" elsewhere, and suggested Venezuela, Ethiopia or West Africa—anywhere but the U.S. Morgenthau, Ickes and Eleanor pressed him to adopt a more generous policy, but he was afraid of provoking the isolationists—men such as Charles Lindbergh, who exploited anti-Semitism as a means of attacking Roosevelt's policies. In practice very few Jewish refugees came to the U.S.—only 22,000 German refugees were admitted in 1940, not all of them Jewish. The State Department official in charge of refugee issues, Breckinridge Long, was a visceral anti-Semite who did everything he could to obstruct Jewish immigration. Despite frequent complaints, Roosevelt failed to remove him. Long refused to admit fleeing German Jewish refugees into the U.S. and on one occasion turned back an entire ship of Jews who were trying to enter the U.S. to escape death.
After 1942, when Roosevelt was made aware of the Nazi extermination of the Jews by Rabbi Stephen Wise, the Polish envoy Jan Karski and others, he refused to allow any systematic attempt to rescue European Jewish refugees and bring them to the U.S. In May 1943 he wrote to Cordell Hull (whose wife was Jewish): "I do not think we can do other than strictly comply with the present immigration laws." In January 1944, however, Morgenthau succeeded in persuading Roosevelt to allow the creation of a War Refugee Board in the Treasury Department. This allowed an increasing number of Jews to enter the U.S. in 1944 and 1945. By this time, however, the European Jewish communities had already been largely destroyed in Hitler's Holocaust.
In any case, after 1945 the focus of Jewish aspirations shifted from migration to the U.S. to settlement in Palestine, where the Zionist movement hoped to create a Jewish state. Roosevelt was also opposed to this idea. When he met King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia in February 1945, he assured him he did not support a Jewish state in Palestine. He suggested that since the Nazis had killed three million Polish Jews, there should now be plenty of room in Poland to resettle all the Jewish refugees. Roosevelt's attitudes toward Japanese-Americans, blacks and Jews remain in striking contrast with the generosity of spirit he displayed, and the social liberalism he practiced in other realms. Meacham (2003) points out that on such issues as race, Roosevelt was a creature of his own time but that his “overriding concern” for the “preservation of those forces and institutions ... the American ... understanding of justice and fair play” ultimately led to “higher ground” in the granting of civil liberty.
The U.S. took the straightforward view that the quickest way to defeat Germany was to transport its army to Britain, invade France across the English Channel and attack Germany directly from the west. Churchill, wary of the huge casualties he feared this would entail, favored a more indirect approach, advancing northwards from the Mediterranean, where the Allies were fully in control by early 1943, into either Italy or Greece, and thus into central Europe. Churchill also saw this as a way of blocking the Soviet Union's advance into east and central Europe—a political issue which Roosevelt and his commanders refused to take into account.
Roosevelt's main problem was that as long as the British were providing most of the troops, aircraft and ships against the Germans, he had to accept Churchill's idea that a launch across the English Channel would have to wait—at least until the American power was at least equal of that of the British. Churchill succeeded in persuading Roosevelt to undertake the invasions of French Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch) in November 1942, of Sicily (Operation Husky) in July 1943, and of Italy (Operation Avalanche) in September 1943). This entailed postponing the cross-channel invasion from 1943 to 1944. Following the American defeat at Anzio, however, the invasion of Italy became bogged down, and failed to meet Churchill's expectations. This undermined his opposition to the cross-channel invasion (Operation Overlord), which finally took place in June 1944. Although most of France was quickly liberated, the Allies were blocked on the German border in the "Battle of the Bulge" in December 1944, and final victory over Germany was not achieved until May 1945, by which time the Soviet Union, as Churchill feared, had occupied all of eastern and central Europe as far west as the Elbe River in central Germany.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, the Japanese advance reached its maximum extent by June 1942, when Japan sustained a major naval defeat at the hands of the U.S. at the Battle of Midway. The Japanese advance to the south and south-east was halted at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and the Battle of Guadalcanal between August 1942 and February 1943. MacArthur and Nimitz then began a slow and costly progress through the Pacific islands, with the objective of gaining bases from which strategic air power could be brought to bear on Japan and from which Japan could ultimately be invaded. In the event, this did not prove necessary, because the almost simultaneous declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union and the use of the atomic bomb on Japanese cities brought about Japan's surrender in September 1945.
By late 1943 it was apparent that the Allies would ultimately defeat Nazi Germany, and it became increasingly important to make high-level political decisions about the course of the war and the postwar future of Europe. Roosevelt met with Churchill and the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, and then went to Tehran to confer with Churchill and Josef Stalin. At the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill told Stalin about the plan to invade France in 1944, and Roosevelt also discussed his plans for a postwar international organization. Stalin was pleased that the western Allies had abandoned any idea of moving into the Balkans or central Europe via Italy, and he went along with Roosevelt's plan for the United Nations, which involved no costs to him. Stalin also agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan when Germany was defeated. At this time Churchill and Roosevelt were acutely aware of the huge and disproportionate sacrifices the Soviets were making on the eastern front while their invasion of France was still six months away, so they did not raise awkward political issues which did not require immediate solutions, such as the future of Germany and Eastern Europe.
By the beginning of 1945, however, with the Allied armies advancing into Germany, consideration of these issues could not be put off any longer. In February, Roosevelt, despite his steadily deteriorating health, traveled to Yalta, in the Soviet Crimea, to meet again with Stalin and Churchill. This meeting, the Yalta Conference, is often portrayed as a decisive turning point in modern history—but in fact, most of the decisions made there were retrospective recognitions of realities which had already been established by force of arms. The decision of the western Allies to delay the invasion of France from 1943 to 1944 had allowed the Soviet Union to occupy all of eastern Europe, including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as eastern Germany. Since Stalin was in full control of these areas, there was little Roosevelt and Churchill could do to prevent him imposing his will on them, as he was rapidly doing by establishing communist-controlled governments in these countries; the oft-made charge that Roosevelt and Churchill gave East Europe away is largely unfair. Both men were unhappy with this result, but it can be seen as the price the West had to pay for the Soviet's bearing the brunt of the war between 1943 and 1944.
Churchill, aware that Britain had gone to war in 1939 in defense of Polish independence, and also of his promises to the Polish government in exile in London, did his best to insist that Stalin agree to the establishment of a non-communist government and the holding of free elections in liberated Poland, although he was unwilling to confront Stalin over the issue of Poland's postwar frontiers, on which he considered the Polish position to be indefensible. But Roosevelt was not interested in having a fight with Stalin over Poland, for two reasons. The first was that he believed that Soviet support was essential for the projected invasion of Japan, in which the Allies ran the risk of huge casualties. He feared that if Stalin was provoked over Poland he might renege on his Tehran commitment to enter the war against Japan. The second was that he saw the United Nations as the ultimate solution to all postwar problems, and he feared the United Nations project would fail without Soviet cooperation.
Although Roosevelt was only 62 in 1944, his health had been in decline since at least 1940. The strain of his paralysis and the physical exertion needed to compensate for it for over 20 years had taken their toll, as had many years of stress and a lifetime of chain-smoking. He had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and long-term heart disease, and was advised to modify his diet (though not to stop smoking). Had it not been for the war, he would certainly have retired at the presidential 1944 election, but under the circumstances, both he and his advisors felt there was no alternative to his running for a fourth term. Aware of the risk that Roosevelt would die during his fourth term, the party regulars insisted that Henry A. Wallace, who was seen as too pro-Soviet, be dropped as vice president. Roosevelt at first resisted but finally agreed to replace Wallace with the little-known Senator Harry S. Truman. In the November elections Roosevelt and Truman won 53 percent of the vote and carried 36 states, against New York governor Thomas Dewey. After the elections, Cordell Hull, the longest-serving secretary of state in American history, retired and was succeeded by Edward Stettinius, Jr.
After the Yalta Conference, relations between the western Allies and Stalin deteriorated rapidly, and so did Roosevelt's health. When he addressed Congress on his return from Yalta, many were shocked to see how old, thin and sick he looked. He spoke from his wheelchair, an unprecedented concession to his physical incapacity, but was still fully in command mentally. He said:
The Crimean Conference ought to spell the end of a system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries—and have always failed. We propose to substitute for all these, a universal organization in which all peace-loving nations will finally have a chance to join.
Many in his audience doubted that the proposed United Nations would achieve these objectives, but there was no doubting the depth of Roosevelt's commitment to these ideals, which he had inherited from Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt is often accused of being naively trusting of Stalin, but in the last months of the war he took an increasingly tough line. During March and early April he sent strongly worded messages to Stalin accusing him of breaking his Yalta commitments over Poland, Germany, prisoners of war and other issues. When Stalin accused the western Allies of plotting a separate peace with Hitler behind his back, Roosevelt replied: "I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates."
On March 30, Roosevelt went to Warm Springs to rest before his anticipated appearance at the April 25 San Francisco founding conference of the United Nations. Among the guests were Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd, his lover from 30 years previously, and the artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who was painting a portrait of him. On the morning of April 12 he was sitting in a leather chair signing letters, his legs propped up on a stool, while Shoumatoff worked at her easel. Just before lunch was to be served, he dropped his pen and complained of a sudden headache. Then he slumped forward in his chair and lost consciousness. A doctor was summoned and he was carried to bed; it was immediately obvious that he had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was pronounced dead at 3:31 P.M. The painting by Shoumatoff was not finished and is known as the “Unfinished Portrait.”
Roosevelt's death was greeted with shock and grief across the U.S. and around the world. At a time when the press did not pry into the health or private lives of presidents, his declining health had not been known to the general public. Roosevelt had been president for more than 12 years—much longer than any other person—and had led the country through some of its greatest crises to the brink of its greatest triumph, the complete defeat of Nazi Germany, and to within sight of the defeat of Japan as well. Although in the decades since his death there have been many critical reassessments of his career, few commentators at the time had anything but praise for a commander-in-chief who had been robbed by death of a victory which was only a few weeks away. On May 8, the new president, Harry S. Truman, who turned 61 that day, dedicated V-E Day (Victory in Europe) to Roosevelt's memory, paying tribute to his commitment towards ending the war in Europe.
Roosevelt's legacies to the U.S. were a greatly expanded role for government in the management of the economy, increased government regulation of companies to protect the environment and prevent corruption, a Social Security system which allowed senior citizens to be able to retire with income and benefits, a nation on the winning side of World War II (with a booming wartime economy), and a coalition of voters supporting the Democratic Party which would survive intact until the 1960s and in part until the 1980s when it was finally shattered by Ronald Reagan, a Roosevelt Democrat in his youth who became a conservative Republican. Internationally, Roosevelt's monument was the United Nations, an organization that offered his hope of an end to the international anarchy which led to two world wars in his lifetime.
Majority support for the essentials of the Roosevelt domestic program survived their author by 35 years. The Republican administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did nothing to overturn the Roosevelt-era social programs. It was not until the administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) that this was reversed, although Reagan made clear that though he wanted to greatly scale back many of Roosevelt's programs, he would keep them intact (especially Social Security). Bill Clinton, with his program of welfare reform, was the first Democratic president to repudiate elements of the Roosevelt program. Nevertheless, this has not undermined Roosevelt's posthumous reputation as a great president. A 1999 survey of academic historians by C-SPAN found that historians consider Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Roosevelt the three greatest presidents by a wide margin. A 2000 survey by The Washington Post found Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt to be the only "great" presidents. Roosevelt's face can be found on the obverse of the U.S. dime.
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