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Roosevelt in Retrospect

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

It is extraordinarily difficult to write of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many intense passions have swirled about that name, it has been a fixture for so long in our society, the man himself is so tost behind the torrential events of the crisis times which made him. The history and the personality are inextricably interwoven, and it will take many years to attain the perspectives by which either can be judged. But it is already a measure of Roosevelt’s greatness that he can be seen and assessed only against the colossal background out of which he arose.

As with Stalin or Hitler or Churchill, the ultimate verdict upon the man must turn in large measure upon the ultimate verdict as to the true nature and proportions of the world crisis in which we stand. There are, and long will be, many varying views of it which will lead to as many varying estimates of Franklin Roosevelt’s position in history. To the present writer it seems clear that the period of the early thirties represented a far-reaching breakdown of the leading ideas and institutions which had ruled among men for the preceding century. The effective principles by which the nations had been guided were ending in deep-seated contradictions in both the domestic and the international organization of society. The ideal of the free market was ending in rigidity, stagnation, and collapse. The ideal of democratic liberty and “self-determination” was ending in a passionate and oppressive nationalism and total war. Change was imperative, and inevitable. Something had to be done. The only question was what could be done and how it could be done in the least destructive way.

Almost from the beginning Mr. Roosevelt’s critics realized that here was the real heart of the argument, and consequently refused to accept this basic analysis of the position which he confronted. Mr. Hoover long argued, for example, that the United States had actually mastered its own domestic economic crisis by 1932; that it was only the accidental “shocks” incontinently transmitted from abroad which had prevented the restoration of a sound balance, and that the reckless and quasi-revolutionary expedients of Mr. Roosevelt from 1938 on in fact simply compounded the disaster and rendered impossible the “normal” recovery which would otherwise have taken place. Perhaps posterity will sustain Mr. Hoover; but it seems unlikely. Certainly the ensuing years have tended steadily to erase that comfortable distinction between the “domestic” and the “international” field; they have tended even more to erase the distinctions between economics, politics, and war and to give the global crisis a global unity, while they have emphasized and re-emphasized the fact that the social forces amid which Mr. Roosevelt took office were compelling similar, but usually much more violent, changes nearly everywhere else on earth. In the early thirties something had to be done; and in the United States the cheerful, debonair, vigorous, and complexly simple figure of Franklin Roosevelt arose to do it.

His equipment was an unbounded self-confidence, a large store of that rather rare type of courage which is uninipressed by precedent and unterrified by novelty, a good understanding of American history and character, and a strong sense of “tory democracy”—that impulse which not infrequently leads the conscientious aristocrat to identify himself with the great majority which is less privileged than he is. In retrospect it is difficult to feel that he had any very profound philosophical grasp of the real problems of the times. Something had to be done; and in the beginning he scarcely seems to have had any much clearer idea than that about the task before him. His basic policy was a policy of “action”—any action that looked promising, no matter what—and in that one respect did not differ greatly from the policies of the European dictators to whom his enemies so often compared him. The terrors from which his first appearance rescued the nation, the adulation which overwhelmed him in those early inspiring and dramatic days, when even stockbrokers ecstatically announced that “happy days are here again,” might have been enough to make a dictator. He arrived in a social context which did make Hitler and Stalin, which had already made or was about to make many others—Mussolini, Kemal, Pilsudski, Franco, Salazar, Mannerheim, and the rest—but two things made his assumption of such a role impossible. The first and most important was, of course, the immense strength of the American political tradition. But the second was the depth to which he was himself steeped in that tradition, the strength of his own democratic convictions.

Mr. Roosevelt was not only a democrat; he was also a politician of unusual adroitness. He not only knew the game; he delighted in it. He could secure effects by pulling the well-worn strings of American political and party maneuver so easily that he was under very little temptation to use more alien and more violent methods. It was by no means the least important of his qualifications for the historic role to which he was called. He had buoyancy, courage, and political skill. He had the glamor of a new figure; for a strangely lucky accident of fate had plucked him from the active scene through the tangles of the twenties, returning him at the critical moment, free of their controversies and failures, but with a certain iron in his character—a convic-tion of his own ability to master all obstacles—which might not otherwise have been there. And so he faced his great opportunity.

It was the opportunity to do something. The times were sick with inanition and convention. No one could see the whole distance into the future, but some things were obvious. There was a universal poverty and unemployment in the world. There were at the same time immense untapped resources on every side—resources of materials, plants, skills, enthusiasms—which could not be utilized because the “distributive system” had broken down. But there were also great new mechanisms of social invention, most of them centering around the power of government, lying unemployed under the taboos of orthodox politico-economic theory. These we’re the mechanisms of currency management, differential taxation, subsidy, government-encouraged organization of labor, agriculture, and industry, and the “planned economy.” Mr. Roosevelt was resolved to use them, without regard to the myths and taboos. But he was also convinced that they must be, and could be, used only within the framework of American democratic process. This conviction may have flowed, in part, from an inability to understand just what were the real limits of that process, or to perceive how profoundly it might be modified by initiatives which to their author appeared no more than the obvious promptings of common sense. However that may be, Mr. Roosevelt was not unduly worried over possible effect. He believed that the American socio-economic system could be made over on a much more modern, equitable, and stable pattern without doing any basic violence to the constitutional system. In pursuit of that aim he was willing to try anything—once—and he startled some of his own most enthusiastic supporters by the revolutionary breadth of the aims which seemed implicit in his attack,

He plunged with a debonair confidence into the economic crisis which confronted him in March, 1933, on the doorstep of the White House. He reopened the banks, began to balance the budget, devalued the dollar, “rationalized” agriculture, and then unbalanced the budget again in order to pump Federal credit into the industrial system with vast programs of public works. Men’s hearts were uplifted; the machinery was working again. And then almost immediately it began to appear that it was working at many cross-purposes. The original economy pledge had been flatly violated in the interests of “reflation.” The dollar devaluation was at once a center of embittered controversy, both over the metaphysical question of its “honesty” and the much more serious practical question of its efficiency as a social mechanism to attain the intended ends.

The gestures toward international economic appeasement and a restoration of the world free market—manifest in the trade-agreement program and the decision to go through with the World Economic Conference at London— suddenly fell afoul of the policy of dollar devaluation and the essentially nationalistic character of the entire domestic recovery program. The London Conference was abruptly “torpedoed.” This was not the tragedy that it has often since been represented; there has never been any good evidence that the other nations in 1933 were any more prepared to live up to a genuine international economic policy than was the United States. It was, however, a first strong hint that the true crisis went far beyond the limits of domestic economic problems, and would not even stop short in the economic field.

At all events, the policy of “action” went on, and the action tended to grow more confused in its own implications as it advanced. In endowing agriculture with the power to maintain its competitive position against industrial management, a “balance” may have been restored, but it was a balance which did little for the industrial worker. There followed the famous “madhouse” of N. R. A. and the Blue Eagle—insufficiently, considered in principle to begin with, applied with an almost total want of the administrative knowledge and equipment that would have been necessary for anything like success, and a virtually complete failure by the time the Supreme Court finally swept up the wreckage and threw it on the dust heap.

At the end of the first Roosevelt Administration there was really very little left of that sweeping vision of radical reform, leading to a prosperous, balanced, and secure economy, with all well-housed, well-fed, and happy, which had inspired the first roaring days of the “New Deal.” Some of it had been destroyed by recalcitrant opposition, some of it by the courts, but most of it by the hard fact that human affairs are infinitely more intricate, more resistant to planned control, more subtle in their operation, than Mr. Roosevelt appears to have realized. Yet the very fact that the original New Deal programs had not been pushed ruthlessly to their logical extremes is powerful attestation to the underlying common sense and democratic restraint of the man who presided over them; while the fact that the New Deal had actually left an imperishable mark upon American history is scarcely to be denied.

For all its confusions and its numerous failures the New Deal through the first two administrations was to modify and modernize the American politico-economic system in several fundamental ways which none has since offered to undo. Today its enduring contributions seem rather simple, almost obvious: the devaluation of the dollar and large-scale deficit financing in times of economic collapse; the regulation of the security exchanges and of the processes of credit formation; the support and subsidization of agriculture on a plane of competitive equality with industrial management; social insurance, and governmental authority and support for the processes of industrial organization, with governmental wage floors and hour ceilings to constrain still further the insecurities of the competitive process. One further, and somewhat subtler, contribution may be added. In the famous battle over the Supreme Court, Mr. Roosevelt’s opponents were victorious, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Constitution was preserved intact from the rather rash hand which the President sought to lay upon it, but the Supreme Court itself was not. In the upshot the principle was fairly well established that, while the Court retained its independent braking power, that power was severely limited, and a purely legal and Constitutional argument could never permanently interdict change which was demanded by the temper of the times and appeared to be in accord with the basic popular will.

In three elections, opposition has never seriously challenged any of these essential achievements of the New Deal. Most of them, as has been said, seem obvious today; yet, all together, they add up to a very real revolution in Americai;i life. They assert both a power on the part of central government over the economic affairs of the people, and a responsibility on the part of that government to see that the economic machine runs substantially toward securing the “greatest good for the greatest number” which are new in our history. They announce the end of the theoretically “automatic” and often oppressive power of the laissez faire tradition—the end of the power of bankers, speculators, lawyers, expert operators of many sorts, to bring the whole machinery to a standstill through the unco-ordinated consequences of individual greed and ambition and short-sightedness. The ultimate results may be lamentable, as many fear; they may lead, as many hope, to a richer and more fruitful life for all. History must cast the deciding vote on that. But it will hardly matter. The fact is that in this country, as in so many other areas of the planet, the old order had simply become intolerable to those who lived under it.

Change was inevitable. Franklin Roosevelt was in this country the chief agent through whom the change was effected, and under his agency it was effected with a minimum of revolutionary dislocation, a maximum of ease and rough sense and rough justice. Many of his experiments were failures. The great central experiment of “action” to meet the accumulated problems of the times was a profound and far-reaching success.

But unfortunately, the crisis was not merely domestic but global, it was not merely a problem in economics but a vast problem in all human relations. The Great Depression, which had sprung from the Great War, was to end in a second and vastly greater war. Roosevelt, at the beginning, saw this fact no more clearly than did others. His career ran curiously parallel, though on a much greater scale of complexity and difficulty, to that of Woodrow Wilson, and in this respect, also, the parallel was close. The man who moved so swiftly and boldly to deal with the domestic problem, as Wilson had done in 1913, was strikingly hesitant and uncertain as the danger of a great foreign war began to shape upon the horizon. It cost Wilson agonies of indecision to guide American policy through the first years of the first war period. Roosevelt was rarely indecisive, and he retained throughout a faith in his own dexterity and acuteness which tended to conceal, perhaps, the wavering uncertainties of the resultant policy. But that the policy was wavering and sinuous—even when it was far more understanding than that which many of his opponents sought to thrust upon him—is now difficult to deny.

Beginning with the London Economic Conference and wandering thereafter down through all the vagaries of the neutrality policy, the futilities of disarmament, the inconsistencies of the attitude toward the Ethiopian War and the Civil War in Spain, the uncertainties as to Japan, the “quarantine” speech which was discounted almost as soon as made, and the efforts, seeming almost puerile now in the light of after knowledge, to control the onrushing European crisis in 1939, one finds it hard to detect any clear and far-reaching grasp of the great problem. But if the President had little, he was chief magistrate of a democracy which had almost none. He was responsible to a country itself profoundly divided, uncertain, baffled by issues which it did not wish to face; at best he could have proceeded only slowly and by indirection, and if his indirections frequently seem to have been more involved than was necessary and less practically effective than he supposed, one must always remember the atmosphere which produced them.

President Roosevelt did more to foresee and prevent the great catastrophe than many of his countrymen, but he did less than many of his enthusiasts have since liked to maintain. When the catastrophe finally arrived in full force, however, in May, 1940, he grasped its implications accurately and again he moved to action with a boldness equal to that of 1933 and with an even sounder understanding, perhaps, of the essential elements of the problem. Three things he saw sharply and at once. One was the immediate threat of Hit-lerism to the American world and the fact that the British Isles represented the last, vital bastion of that world. A second was the immense latent power of the American industrial machine to produce the weapons which could turn the precarious balance; and he did not hesitate at the beginning to set goals which Americans themselves believed to be utterly impossible. The third was the fact that only through the organization and co-operation of the free peoples—through a genuine international system similar to that which had failed after 1918—could further such catastrophes be averted and the colossal sacrifices of war be made good.

These were the essentials of the Roosevelt foreign policy; and they are as unchallengeable in this dawn of victory as are the essentials of the domestic policy which preceded it. Both at home and abroad—and in the end the two proved to be the same thing—Franklin Roosevelt was the agent of a new time; he was an historic figure who, whatever his mistakes and limitations, did a work that had to be done somehow and by someone, and who did it with a skill, a reasonableness, a sense of American ways and American traditions that will leave his countrymen forever in debt to him. That, it must seem to many, is the best verdict which can be rendered today upon his unprecedented twelve years as President of the United States. It necessarily leaves many aspects of his career and character untouched. It says nothing as to his personal skills and strengths or as to his personal weaknesses and failures. It says nothing as to his political and strategic adroitness, of which, now that it is suddenly gone, we feel in so much need amid the crowding problems of the peace. It says nothing as to his famous charm, his winning radio voice, his elusiveness. It says nothing as to his comparative ineptness in administration, his habit of piling offices on offices and reorganizations on reorganizations. It says nothing as to the bitter passions he awoke— some because of his own manner, some because of the deep clashes of interest and prejudice of which he was the center. It says nothing as to the deep streak of humanity which ran through him, which gave reality to his condemnation of the “economic royalists” or his care for the “ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed,” and which at the end left countless thousands weeping openly at the news of his death. It says nothing about many of the things which men will long debate. It is only a first, rough estimate. But it does say that he was a very great man and a very great American.


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