Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the longest-serving president in American history – 12 years and a month. He won four elections and forged a Democratic majority that lasted into the 1960s. When he took office in March 1933 the US banking system had collapsed and a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. When he died in April 1945 Americans were enjoying unprecedented prosperity and victory in the war had catapulted the country from the margins of international politics to the rank of global superpower. These were some of the most dramatic years in American history and FDR was always centre-stage. Cartoonists regularly depicted him striding into battle, walking a tightrope or slugging it out in the boxing ring. The image was one of perpetual motion, yet he could not move unaided: FDR was the wheelchair president.
It’s important to spell out what his disability entailed. Roosevelt was stricken by polio in 1921 and never recovered the use of his legs. Every day he had to be dressed and undressed, helped onto the toilet and heaved into bed. ‘Rubberlegs’ – the nickname he was given by General ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell – was characteristically nasty yet entirely apt. All the pictures of a smiling, jaunty Roosevelt at wartime conferences were carefully staged, with the president wheeled into position, lifted onto his chair and settled in place before the other leaders arrived and the cameras started to click. Roosevelt could not stand erect without heavy metal braces on each leg; he could move only with a cane and the arm of an aide or family member. He was a very private person, and each day must have been pricked by a dozen minor humiliations, yet his demeanour was almost always chatty and confident. That, perhaps, is why Winston Churchill could say on several occasions: ‘I really loved that man.’ Churchill reserved his deepest admiration for men of courage and FDR, for all his faults, was brave beyond measure.
In Roosevelt’s era there was a real stigma attached to disability, and if the full extent of his incapacity had become known, it would surely have shattered his political credibility. There was an unwritten agreement that the media wouldn’t highlight his physical state and few pictures appeared: only very rarely did he display his disability, and then for good reason. In July 1944, visiting a hospital in Hawaii that looked after veterans who had lost arms or legs, he asked to be wheeled through the wards, stopping for a cheery word at every bed. The message was clear. If a cripple could become president, there was hope for these young men. Most of his staff were in tears.
Yet Roosevelt infuriated almost as many people as he inspired. In 1932 the columnist Elmer Davis called him someone ‘who thinks that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a corkscrew’. General MacArthur described him after his death as ‘a man who would never tell the truth if a lie would serve him just as well’. Even his closest associates found him hard to read. ‘You keep your cards close up against your belly,’ his interior secretary, Harold Ickes, complained. ‘You never put them on the table.’ Roosevelt played off one adviser against another as a matter of course. ‘Never let your left hand know what your right is doing,’ he told Henry Morgenthau, his treasury secretary and a close friend. ‘Which hand am I, Mr President?’ Morgenthau asked. ‘My right hand,’ he replied, ‘but I keep my left hand under the table.’ Roosevelt’s presidency is superbly documented, yet the modern historian often needs the skills of a medievalist to infer his motives and intentions.
Three biographers have lately tried their hand, in strikingly different books. Roy Jenkins’s final work is really an extended essay, unfinished on his death in 2003 – the pages about 1944-45 have been written by Richard Neustadt. There is much to be gained from Jenkins’s insights but Patrick Renshaw’s study, though equally succinct, is much more substantial. Renshaw is a specialist in American economic and labour history, and, as might be expected, his book has most to say about domestic policy: the whole of Roosevelt’s foreign policy from 1933 to 1945 is covered in one long chapter at the end. The book is consistently perceptive on FDR’s use of power, and deftly interweaves the public and the private.
In contrast with these two short biographies, Conrad Black has produced a magnum opus. The detail is often revealing, yet the book would surely have gained from tighter editing and, in contrast to Renshaw’s volume, the wood sometimes gets lost in the trees. Like all students of Roosevelt, Black draws on the work of pioneering scholars such as William Leuchtenburg, Frank Freidel and Arthur Schlesinger, but he also incorporates a large amount of original material from the Roosevelt Library. And although Black credits a number of research assistants, the argument bears his personal stamp. For FDR, somewhat improbably, turns out to be his great hero, nothing less than ‘the most important person of the 20th century’, mainly because of his role in helping to save Western civilisation and in ‘anchoring’ the United States in the world. The judgments are sometimes eccentric, but this is a biography that must be taken seriously.
‘A second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.’ Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous line, which dates from 1933, was, as Black reminds us, quite possibly a reference to Theodore Roosevelt rather than Franklin. But FDR was certainly no systematic thinker. Asked to define his philosophy, he said: ‘I’m a Christian and a Democrat – that’s all.’ Turn-of-the-century Progressivism provided Roosevelt with much of his intellectual baggage, but he travelled light, picking up what he needed along the way. He was a pragmatist and an experimenter; his life was shaped by people and events.
At the start of his political career, he modelled himself on his Republican cousin, Theodore, president from 1901 to 1909 – even though his own side of the clan was obstinately Democrat. The ebullient style, the pince-nez, the lifelong passion for conservation all owed much to TR. FDR even followed a similar path to the presidency: New York State legislature to assistant secretary of the navy and then governor of New York. But he was also affected by service in Woodrow Wilson’s administration during the First World War. As he wrote in 1935, Wilson could appeal, as TR could not, to the ‘truly profound moral and social convictions’. On the big issues of what would make a better world, FDR remained, in private if not always in public, a Wilsonian. But he was also sobered, in a way none of these biographies fully brings out, by Wilson’s fate: Wilson refused to compromise on his dogmatic conception of the League of Nations when it was blocked by the Senate and took his case to the American people, only to be struck down by a crippling stroke. FDR commented with feeling in 1937 that it was ‘a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and to find no one there’. He was always wary of getting too far ahead of public opinion.
Three women had a decisive effect on his early life. An only child, educated at home until the age of 14, he was dominated by his possessive mother, Sara. His pampered but lonely childhood on the family estate up the Hudson River from New York encouraged him to be secretive. His marriage in 1905 to TR’s niece, Eleanor, does seem to have been a love match, but it surely reflected his preoccupation with Cousin Ted (the president gave away the bride). It was also a way of getting out from under his mother’s skirts, though Sara set up house next door to them in New York and bankrolled FDR’s business ventures, notably his purchase of the Warm Springs resort in Georgia as a polio clinic. Eleanor found the ménage à trois excruciating at times. Intense and gauche, she often went into a funk on social occasions – what she called her ‘Griselda’ moods – and could become insufferably priggish when carried away by one of her good causes. Not surprisingly, FDR’s fun-loving side sought more congenial company and found it in the form of Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor discovered their affair in 1918, she offered him a divorce and Sara threatened disinheritance. This would have been the end of his political career, so FDR promised to terminate the liaison and Lucy married an elderly widower. But relations with Eleanor were never the same again. Her sense of humiliation and betrayal surged back after his death in 1945 when she discovered that he had been secretly seeing Lucy, by then a widow, for the last four years, with the connivance of their own daughter.
Jenkins believes the young FDR was attracted to Eleanor because he needed a ‘helpmate’ to achieve his ambitions, not a ‘playfellow’ with whom to have fun. He argues that Franklin and Lucy’s relationship was not a passionate fling but a lifelong romance: she was one of the very few people to whom Roosevelt opened his heart. Black and Renshaw agree that FDR probably did not have sex with anyone after his polio attack; both question the claim that Eleanor became an active lesbian. Eleanor’s preoccupation with what Black likes to call her ‘mannish’ friends was part of her bid for a new and more independent identity after the Mercer affair.
The most interesting imponderable is the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. Although Black occasionally pays tribute to Eleanor, she is clearly not his type, as adjectives such as ‘hectoring’, ‘puritanical’ or, as he uses it, ‘admirable’ make clear. One benefit of his quizzical eye is a portrait of her at odds with that of the idol of postwar liberals or the icon of more recent feminists. He notes, for instance, her remark to a reporter when FDR won the governorship of New York in 1928: ‘I am not excited about my husband’s election. I don’t care.’ And her resigned comment in 1949: ‘I was one of those who served his purposes.’ Renshaw’s book, though it lacks the detail of Black’s, has, I think, a surer sense of ‘the unique political partnership’ that flourished despite ‘personal separation’, in what might now be called a Clintonesque manner. Undoubtedly, Eleanor helped make Franklin, not least by nursing his body back from the brink of paralysis just three years after she discovered his adultery, but also in acting as his eyes and ears. Equally, he helped turn her into a public figure, one of the leading social crusaders of her day. I suspect that both knew the debt was mutual.
If two presidents shaped FDR’s philosophy and three women his personal life, his political career depended on two tacticians. The first was Louis Howe, a scruffy New York journalist, who latched onto Roosevelt’s rising star in 1911 and never let go. He was soon using the salutation ‘Future President’. Howe forged a strong partnership with Eleanor once she had overcome her initial distaste for this ‘dirty little man’, and the two of them worked tirelessly to promote Roosevelt’s recovery from polio, resisting his mother’s demands that he accept the life of a gentleman invalid on the family estate. Renshaw is particularly good on the two symbolic moments of that recovery – the Democratic Conventions of 1924 and 1928. On both occasions, FDR gave a rousing speech nominating the New York governor Al Smith for the presidency. In 1924 he lumbered painfully to the podium on crutches, sweating profusely, but in 1928 he walked with the aid of a stick, leaning on his son’s arm. Under the trousers, of course, were the iron braces that held his legs erect but, to political observers in 1928, FDR no longer seemed crippled, merely ‘lame’. It was a brilliant piece of spin, but also evidence of genuine improvement – testimony to years of relentless physical exercise. He seems to have been persuaded to the end that full recovery was possible.
In 1928 Al Smith pressed FDR to run in his stead as governor. He believed that the crippled playboy, with his appeal to the upstate establishment, could carry New York for the Democrats and help deliver this key state for his presidential campaign. FDR was at Warm Springs but Smith pursued him by telephone and the crucial conversation occurred, almost farcically, on a payphone in a hotel lobby. Howe was convinced the bid was premature and wanted FDR to say no, but Roosevelt allowed his name to go forward – a revealing reminder of who was master. In the event, Smith lost the presidency by a landslide, while Roosevelt won New York by a whisker. Biographers concur that, in retrospect, 1928 was the election that really mattered, providing a springboard for the White House four years later. If FDR had lost, that would probably have been the end of his political career. Had he not run, he would have missed what suddenly became the supreme Democratic moment when the bottom fell out of the US economy, taking with it the presidency of Herbert Hoover. After FDR’s nomination in July 1932, his running-mate John Nance Garner offered some succinct advice on how to conduct the campaign: ‘All you have to do is stay alive till November.’
‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’: the phrase, used by Roosevelt in his inaugural address, may have been adapted from Thoreau but the sentiment was authentically his own. Roosevelt’s personal courage and confidence was undoubtedly a major ingredient in the political recovery that followed. His regular informal press conferences and ‘fireside chats’ over the radio were masterpieces of public relations, enabling him to communicate with the people over the heads of a largely Republican wall of newspaper owners and editors. He also benefited from the creative ingenuity of those around him, including his ‘Brains Trust’ of Columbia University academics and advisers such as Harry Hopkins, a former social worker who became the president’s confidant after the death of Louis Howe in April 1936. Inventive, loyal and industrious, Hopkins worked himself to death in Roosevelt’s service at home and abroad. But FDR could be brutal even to his closest allies: Hopkins was dropped in 1943 when he remarried and moved out of the White House and, despite a rapprochement in 1944, relations between them were never as warm again.
Some pieces of legislation passed in that first term proved a damp squib, but others illuminated the American political landscape for years to come. Federal insurance for bank deposits up to $2500 revived the faith of voters in the banking system; rural electrification transformed the daily lives of millions of Americans. The New Deal cannot be credited exclusively to the White House, however. In 1933 FDR enjoyed massive support in both Houses of Congress and Capitol Hill was begging him to act: this window of opportunity was almost unique in the 20th century. The political context mattered in 1935 too: with the Depression contained but not reversed, the pressure from the Northern, urban wing of the Democratic Party for more radical measures became hard to resist. Renshaw, by background a historian not a biographer, brings this out well – highlighting the powerful figure of Robert Wagner, who deserves much of the credit for the social security and labour legislation of 1935. A consummate politician, Roosevelt was moving leftward with the political tide.
Equally characteristically, he intended to surf the waves rather than be pulled along by the undercurrents. The years 1935-36 saw him at his most populist, almost demagogic, fired up by real anger against the rich (whom, as Black notes, he was ready to pursue vindictively and improperly through the Internal Revenue Service) and at the Supreme Court, which struck down central pieces of New Deal legislation. Some of his most memorable and radical rhetoric dates from the 1936 campaign, including the prophecy that ‘this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,’ and the great incantation in Madison Square Gardens: ‘I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces have met their master.’ The roar from the Democratic faithful was tribal, almost atavistic. Roosevelt entered his second term as a pumped-up radical, in a battle that had become personal. This emotional element, I think, helps to explain his otherwise puzzlingly inept attempt to pack the Supreme Court and effectively subvert the Constitution. When he had to concede defeat on his court bill, the sheen of invincibility was tarnished. After the 1938 mid-term elections, the resurgence of the Republican Party and the disenchantment of conservative Southern Democrats meant that Roosevelt could do little in Congress in the last two years of his second term.
Black plays down the lasting effect of the Supreme Court fiasco, noting that FDR lost the battle but won the war when the court switched its position on New Deal measures. But Jenkins is surely right that Roosevelt’s overwhelming victory in 1936 ‘carried with it the seeds of hubris’. I was reminded of a passage in Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler: ‘Hubris – that overweening arrogance which courts disaster – was inevitable. The point where nemesis takes over had been reached by 1936.’ The parallel is striking. The Führer’s spectacular success in reclaiming the Rhineland started him on the path leading to world war and Germany’s suicide. Similarly, the intoxicating landslide of 1936 prompted Roosevelt to overreach himself. Had his presidency ended in January 1941, after the normal two terms, he would have been remembered only for curbing, rather than ending, the Depression. Instead, the nemesis of the second term was followed by two more election victories, the war boom and global hegemony. For all that he had Hitler to thank.
The Führer, whose 12 years in power coincided almost exactly with FDR’s, was another world leader who played his part in shaping Roosevelt’s philosophy and career. As early as April 1933, the president described Hitler as ‘a madman’ to the French ambassador. The animosity was mutual: Hitler the eugenicist despised Roosevelt the cripple and his racist rhetoric was frequently aimed at ‘mongrel’ America. Roosevelt versus Hitler became a personal grudge match (much more so than Churchill v. Hitler), played out on a world stage after Munich, with the one often responding directly or indirectly to a speech from the other.
Black insists that by early 1939 Roosevelt had in his mind, though it was ‘indiscernible to others’, nothing less than a six-point plan. He would rearm America to complete economic recovery, win a third term and prepare overwhelming military might for a likely world war. He would engineer US entry into the conflict by ensuring that the dictators were the aggressors and use victory to create ‘a post-imperial Pax Americana’ in which Wilson’s goals were realised ‘in some sort of American-led international organisation’. While FDR no doubt mused along some of these lines from 1939 to 1941, Black’s claim that he was driven by this ‘immensely ambitious plan for making over the world’ is far too teleological. FDR’s fertile mind entertained a variety of ideas but, particularly on foreign policy, everything was attuned to practical politics. Take the idea of a third term, which Black has him plotting steadily from 1938. Whatever FDR’s secret desires, this was politically inconceivable in 1939 and his game-plan at the beginning of 1940 was to retire to his newly built presidential library at Hyde Park and prepare to write his memoirs. According to John Gunther, an early biographer, FDR even signed a contract with Collier’s magazine to write a fortnightly column after his retirement. What changed everything was the fall of France in June 1940, which left most of Europe under Nazi rule or influence. Not only did the crisis make a third-term bid plausible, it also pushed America to the centre of world affairs.
‘Third International, Third Reich, Third Term’: this Republican slogan captures some of the hostility that the 1940 election evoked, coming as it did after the attack on the Supreme Court. Given FDR’s reputation for caution, it is noteworthy that he went along with the pressure for an unprecedented peacetime draft. (Jenkins, incidentally, gets this story completely wrong, mixing up events a year apart.) Once elected, he was freer to aid Britain, but did so in a characteristic mixture of bold deeds (notably pushing the Lend-Lease bill through Congress) and covert action (the gradual intensification of US naval operations in the Atlantic). Although his use of presidential power was later seen as paving the way for the ‘imperial presidency’ of the Vietnam years, all these authors believe the end justified the means. And none has any time for conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor – 9/11, perhaps, has given new plausibility to the cock-up theory of intelligence operations.
The major question for 1942 was whether there was any possibility of a cross-Channel attack on Occupied France. Since British (and Canadian) troops would have carried the main weight of any such invasion, Churchill had an effective veto, and FDR went along with the British policy of cleaning up North Africa first, overruling his own Joint Chiefs of Staff in the process. (Churchill, notorious for endless bickering with his military advisers, never defied them so blatantly.) For Roosevelt, what mattered was getting US troops into action against the Germans, and stopping the drift of public opinion towards concentrating on Japan. In the short term, this ploy worked, but it came at a price. The unexpected strength of German resistance meant that the Allies did not reach Tunis until May 1943. Black believes it still would have been possible to attack France in August or September but I think he underestimates the logistical problems, especially given the shortage of essential merchant shipping throughout 1942. General Marshall, the US army chief of staff, was essentially right when he argued that in 1942-43 the Anglo-American alliance lacked the capacity to fight three wars simultaneously – in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and France.
After Stalingrad, Roosevelt’s attention gradually shifted to the Soviet Union, now clearly a coming force in the postwar world. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill saw any alternative to negotiation with the Soviets, in the hope of drawing them into a stable postwar order. Churchill was more erratic in his moods – sometimes bleakly fearful about the Soviet threat, on other occasions (especially after wartime summits) euphorically optimistic about doing business with Stalin – but he did not differ on the essential point. If one accepts the premise that an open rift with Moscow was impossible, Black is probably right that FDR’s consistency made more sense than Churchill’s volatility. But, to my mind, Black again makes Roosevelt into too systematic a thinker, with a policy for almost everything. He claims, for instance, that it is a ‘reasonable supposition’ that the president intended in the longer term to trade a German settlement for a better deal for Poland, using the atomic bomb as leverage. I suspect that FDR had little interest in Poland and saw it as merely a sad pawn in the big geopolitical game with Stalin. Black also plays down claims of Anglo-American friction during these last months of the war. While I think it’s true that Roosevelt didn’t abandon his close relationship with Churchill but simply took it for granted as he wooed Stalin, that was not how his emotional British partner saw the new triangle. And Washington’s open criticism of British intervention against the Communists in Greece in December 1944, though fomented mostly by the State Department, was telling evidence of the strained relationship. Black glosses over this row, though he notes later in the book that Churchill saved Greece from Communism long enough for the Americans to see the error of their ways in 1947.
Another of Black’s lacunae – the endgame of the war in the Far East – reminds us that Roosevelt was liable to be naive about Stalin. Again, the same charge can be directed at Churchill. Both men were convinced that Soviet entry into the war against Japan had to be bought by territorial concessions (many of them at China’s expense) and made such a deal at Yalta in February 1945. Yet the evidence now available suggests that Stalin was desperate to pick up the spoils and fearful that the Pacific War would end before he was able to divert his forces from Europe. It isn’t surprising that the Yalta agreements were kept secret for several years, or that they became a major weapon of Republican propaganda against the Democrats in the early 1950s.
In the last weeks of his life, Roosevelt argued with Churchill about Berlin and whether the Western Allies should race to take the city before the Russians, and then use it as a bargaining counter in later negotiations. Black believes it should have been taken, blaming the British for sticking to earlier Allied agreements about the occupation zones in Germany. As Black notes, FDR did indeed speak of the need to get to Berlin before the Russians – but that was in November 1943, en route to the Tehran Conference. Such concern is much less apparent in early 1945.
Why were FDR’s priorities different at the end of his life? Some historians have blamed his deteriorating health: from Tehran onwards, he was seriously ill with heart disease. Jenkins inclines to the view that Roosevelt should have retired in January 1945, rather than running for a fourth term. But, although FDR’s industry and concentration were now failing, his essential priority remained the same: to turn the wartime alliance into the foundations of a postwar order with America at its centre. Poland, China, Berlin were all secondary to getting the new United Nations off the ground. Russian involvement in the new order could never be taken for granted and was probably what mattered most to FDR at Yalta. Bringing the Soviets in from the cold, a mere quarter-century after the Bolsheviks were preaching world revolution, seemed a tremendous achievement.
Dying at the moment of victory spared FDR from having to cope with the deepening Cold War. (Similarly, electoral defeat let Churchill off the hook.) What he would have done is an intriguing question, yet what he did remains sufficient. In 1950 Time magazine proclaimed Churchill its ‘Man of the Half-Century’ for his struggles for freedom against Nazism and Communism. In 2000 it made Einstein its ‘Man of the Century’, followed by Roosevelt and then Gandhi. Stalin was twice made ‘Man of the Year’, Hitler once, but in 2001 political correctness prevented the magazine from giving the nomination to the man who had obviously had more impact than any other on that year, Osama bin Laden. Yet there was a validity about its ranking of the two war leaders. For all his achievements, Churchill was essentially a man of the past, whereas FDR had a shrewd vision of the future. He looked to a post-colonial, democratic world, girdled by international institutions and driven by American power.