My Lifelong Fascination With Franklin Roosevelt
I was born in 1936, the fourth year of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. The United States was well into clawing its way out of the depths of the Great Depression. The best word to describe the attitude of working class Americans like my parents toward FDR during my early childhood is “reverence.” Tales of the hardships and privations undergone during the preceding years came readily to everyone’s lips. While the “reforms” of the New Deal were not making the country instantly prosperous again, FDR’s confident handling of our problems brought hope and promise. He was as close to a Messiah as people could imagine.
The conditions in which most Americans lived in the late 1930s would be considered abject poverty today. Only in cities did one find running water, indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity. Cash was a scarce commodity. Food was often limited to bare staples. The New Deal tried to address all these problems, sometimes with a scalpel, often with a sledgehammer. To the majority of Americans, the important thing was that FDR was doing something.
In today’s technology-rich world, it is hard to imagine the importance we attached to huddling around a battery-powered radio in a wood fire heated house to listen to FDR’s “Fireside Chats.” FDR’s fatherly voice spoke to the American people in direct language that all could understand. He told us that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He gave us hope. Eventually, the country recovered, but not only as a result of the New Deal. FDR’s farsighted decisions on international affairs had a great deal to do with America regaining prosperity.
Franklin Roosevelt recognized early on that Adolf Hitler was evil incarnate. He concluded, long before the rest of Americans, that preventing a Nazi takeover of the western world would eventually require the intervention of U.S. armed forces. But there was no appetite among the populous for entering another European war. Isolationism was the order of the day. Organizations such as “America First” actively opposed all foreign wars. There was even an active and vocal American Nazi Party that supported Fascism. Most politicians would have bowed to the inevitable and done nothing to alienate so many voters. FDR was made of sterner stuff.
Beginning with his 1938 meeting with King George VI of England, FDR slowly forged a “Special Relationship” with the United Kingdom. When war broke out in 1939, FDR wrangled changes to neutrality laws to allow “cash and carry” sales to belligerents. Given the dominance of Britain’s Royal Navy, the only practical purchasers were the Western Allies. Of course, large purchases of American weapons and equipment helped revive the U.S. manufacturing sector. When France fell in 1940, many of his advisors argued that there was no way to stop Hitler, that we should come to terms with him. Instead, FDR stuck with support of Britain.
Winston Churchill took the reins in the UK and swore to never surrender. Roosevelt had begun developing a friendship with the new Prime Minister while he was First Lord of the Admiralty. The relationship blossomed into a full if unofficial partnership. When Britain ran out of money, FDR conceived the “Lend Lease” program to keep up the flow of weapons. When U-boats threatened to cut the Brits’ seaborne lifeline, FDR swapped 50 old destroyers for valuable bases in the British Empire. Rommel’s victories in North Africa brought the occupation of Iceland by U.S. Marines to free British troops for the fighting. Extending the American Defense Zone to Iceland allowed the U.S. Navy to escort convoys halfway across the Atlantic, relieving the strain on the Royal Navy. All the while, American industry expanded to become the “arsenal of democracy.”
In 1941, FDR held a shipboard meeting off Newfoundland and negotiated the Atlantic Charter, the foundation of what later became the United Nations.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese relieved FDR from having to move behind the scenes to battle the Axis powers. Unwisely, Hitler declared war on the U.S. a few days later. It remains arguable whether Congress would have declared war on Germany. The fury of the nation was focused on Japan. Before the beginning of the new year, America was embroiled in a world war for which we had no option but to win.
Roosevelt showed great wisdom in managing the war that future presidents would have done well to emulate. Confining himself (and Churchill) to setting broad policy and overall strategy, he left the details of running the war to his generals and admirals. The results speak for themselves. Entering the war with an already mobilized weapons industry, the U.S. out-produced the Axis into extinction. We flooded the battlefields and the skies with numbers far beyond what the enemy could field. Unfortunately, FDR did not live to see final victory.
The U.S. had not experienced such collective grief as it did over FDR’s passing since Lincoln was killed. I’ll admit that children my age at the time were not certain that it was possible to have someone else as president. Fortunately, Roosevelt’s choice of Harry Truman as his successor proved a good fit for the situation.
In the years after WW2, FDR’s crucial achievements were recognized and celebrated. Some later historians have focused on his faults. Some claimed for a time that FDR knew that Pearl Harbor was to be attacked, that we had been able to read Japanese naval codes and had followed the task force across the Pacific by ship-to-ship radio signals. Declassification of the 1941 Navy Intelligence files in this century proved that we could NOT read the codes before spring 1942. All Japanese accounts of the Pearl Harbor voyage state that absolute radio silence was maintained throughout. Ship-to-ship communications was limited to signal flags and lights.
Much has been made in recent years of FDR’s purported relationships with various women. There is no doubt that he had an affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife’s social secretary, in 1918. This was shortly after Eleanor had left his bed to prevent further pregnancies. Questions remain on whether and/or how many of his female acolytes he enjoyed affairs with. Polio had consigned him to a wheelchair since the 1920s, but it was his legs that were useless. He was not paralyzed.
My answer to all these critics is the old Toastmasters question, “So what?” Most great presidents have had active libidos, beginning with the Founding Fathers. FDR literally “saved the world for democracy.” He bore burdens of leadership that are unimaginable to most of us. The fact that he liked to relax with a cocktail or that he occasionally craved female companionship only proves that he was human. He will always be one of the giants of the 20th Century. We could use some giants today.
Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Amazon.com. Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.