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The Record as Written

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937-40. The Macmillan Company. Four volumes. $30.00.

The first five volumes of “The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” which appeared four years ago at fifteen dollars for the set, sold so poorly that the publisher lost money, even though his expenses were partly underwritten by a share in the newspaper and magazine publication of the President’s special introductions to each volume and of portions of the theretofore unprinted transcripts of his press conferences. A second publisher has played safe by doubling the price for the second set of four volumes, but fortunately they are in the same format as the first, and Justice Samuel I. Rosenman, Mr. Roosevelt’s counsel as Governor of New York and a frequent collaborator in his speeches, has again made the selections and provided the explanatory matter.

These are basic documents of a critical period in the history of the United States and of the world. They are the outline (with many formal embellishments) of a political turnover comparable to the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian revolutions, accompanied, or followed, by a worldwide convulsion. Their author—or rather the man who takes full responsibility for their authorship—is assured of a place as one of the most important Presidents. For years he has talked more directly, more frequently, and more persuasively to more American citizens than have any of his predecessors. Around the globe millions of men and women recognize him as the leading spokesman of a free world.

Why, in the face of these circumstances, is there so little interest in his collected papers? I suspect two reasons and I know two others. The first is that he is too familiar to American citizens: they feel that they know all about him, although few have read or heard all that is in these volumes. The second is that most citizens who can spend thirty dollars or even fifteen dollars for a set of books have an aversion to him. Many of them now realize that they are living in a decisive hour in history but remain, consciously or subconsciously, unwilling to accept the fact that Roosevelt is the agent and, to some extent, the molder of the American purpose.

The third reason—which I know first-hand—is that these papers are only the dry skeleton of history. The personalities are missing: both those who influenced the President’s decisions and those who helped to frame, or in many cases wrote, the documents which appear under his name. For example, the name of Thomas G. Corcoran, a powerful person in 1937 and 1938, does not even appear in the index, and Harry Hopkins, the President’s closest friend, is mentioned only in connection with his formal assignments.

The fourth reason is that the explanatory matter, and especially the introductions (which bear the President’s signature but bear the stylistic marks of Rosenman) are not entirely frank. At points they are colored by afterthoughts; and they lack incisiveness (“somewhat,” a word which Roosevelt seldom uses, is conspicuously present). Probably calm objectivity is too much to expect of a man who has been on the fighting front for nine years and is still there, and is probably too much to expect of his loyal editor as well.

Yet, with their minor shortcomings, these volumes are invaluable, not only to journalists and others who need to refer to the records, but to the inquisitive citizen who wishes to improve his perspective on the last four years.

The year 1937—how distant it now seems I—was the year of the Supreme Court fight and of the onset of a severe economic recession. That Roosevelt was correct in attacking the judicial barrier to reform and in fixing the blame on the personnel of the Supreme Court rather than on the Constitution is now beyond reasonable argument. But he admits in his introduction to the first volume of this set that he made a “major mistake” in the way in which he presented his proposal. And he halfway admits that he did not realize that he had won his victory when the Court, under the duress of the 1936 election and his court-enlarging plan, reversed itself and gave sanction to the chief New Deal reforms. He was as slow to sense the cause and the means of correcting the depression of 1937-38.

In the same volume appears the “quarantine speech” delivered at Chicago on October 7, 1987, followed a few days later by a press conference in which he denied steadfastly that his speech implied any departure from “neutrality.” In this and ensuing volumes is written the record of a man who saw the significance of the rise of the “aggressor” nations, who saw that the security of the United States might be menaced, but who underestimated the danger and obscured his warnings by political double-talk. Yet by comparison with most of his contemporaries he was a prophet.

In these volumes the record is written for all to assess for themselves—the record, not of a Messiah, but of a mortal man who, with all his defects, has the experience, the vision, the courage, and the toughness to accept, and to shape, the historic role which events have thrust upon him.


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