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The Crash, the War, and FDR

It was the huddled masses all over again. Only this time it wasn't immigrants seeking work, it was American citizens seeking work. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s workforce was unemployed, some reduced to selling apples on street corners. In cities across America, including the nation’s capital, unemployed and unhoused workers gathered in shanty-town “Hoovervilles,” while countless more left their homes and communities to drift across the land by train and on foot, presumably in search of work, but, in reality, often without any defined or definable objective (one of them was folksinger Woody Guthrie, who would write “This Land Is Your Land” and inspire Bob Dylan to pursue a life in music).

In the White House, meanwhile, Herbert Hoover was cajoling business leaders to keep their factory doors open while initiating public work projects to create new jobs. Hoover was up to the task but fighting an image problem—he was perceived as cold, aloof, and out-of-touch. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, was the very image of confidence and warmth, the self-styled “Happy Warrior” who upon taking office had as his theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” When it came to substance, did FDR know something Hoover didn’t? Not really. To spur economic recovery, Roosevelt would try many of the same things Hoover had tried. The biggest difference was FDR’s willingness to ignore the budget and spend-spend-spend (Keynesian economics) as a means of jump-starting the nation’s stalled economy. The economy responded, only to slump again during FDR’s second term. By then, the winds of war were stirring and, with American industry fueling the war effort, the U.S. economy kicked into high gear. The following is a brief account of our 32nd president.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (1933 - 1945) The banks were closed and nobody was able to get cash, not even Eleanore Roosevelt, who wondered how she was going to pay the bill at the Mayflower Hotel, where she and the president-elect were staying prior to inauguration day. The Great Depression had gotten this dire, even for a family with the wealth of the Roosevelt’s. The following day, Saturday, March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States. The combination of Roosevelt’s reassuring grin, a national bank holiday, and emergency bank legislation, enabled confidence to flow back into the banking system. Given a certificate of health by the government, most banks were able to reopen and trade normally when the obligatory closure came to an end after the following weekend. The process was aided by the first of Roosevelt’s wide-ranging press conferences on March 8, and the first of his Fireside Chats on March 14. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Roosevelt said.

It was not easy ending the Great Depression, or leading the nation through the perils of World War II, or having to deal with polio, which left FDR crippled for life. Who could know the demons Roosevelt faced—as a man, as a president, and as commander-in-chief of the allied forces? He disguised his feelings behind the facade of an infectious confidence that inspired the nation at a time when it was needed most.

Roosevelt had charisma—loads of it. Journalist Louis Howe—possessed of an exceptionally shrewd political sense—spotted it early on, in 1911. He encouraged FDR to run for office, and thereafter remained his confidant, advisor. and cheer-leader through a number of elections, until his death in 1936.

Roosevelt was not a liberal as is often thought, but an activist. “He was much more of an improvisor than an ideologue,” writes his biographer Roy Jenkins. “He nudged his way forward. If something did not work, he was always willing to try something else.”

Polio, which had struck FDR in 1921, was a devastating setback to his life, never mind to his political career. Somehow, he found strength within himself to face the illnesses head on (he never lost faith that he would walk again). He never felt sorry for himself, and to prevent others from feeling sorry for him, he exuded vigor, stamina, and infectious good humor, and an unsinkable confidence that quite literarily moved mountains. Republican congressmen who opposed him bitterly, having been called to the White House for a meeting with the president, found themselves agreeing to support a bill that went against everything they believed in. How could anyone resist this exceedingly confident and thoroughly charming man? His smile could thaw the frostiest opponent.

“Clearly the illness strengthened his tendency to dissimulate, to charm people while revealing little about himself as a possible,” writes Jenkins. “It was not entirely a coincidence that he signaled his return to public life in 1924 by what became famous as his ‘Happy Warrior’ speech, and that eight years later his campaign song for his first presidential election was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’” The nation bought into it, and American voters believed this supremely confident man—he of the jaunty fedora, the upward turn of the jaw, and the cigarette holder clenched in his teeth—cared profoundly about each and every one of them.

There followed a flurry of programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed young men outdoors to build and refurbish camps, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of unemployed people to carry out public works projects, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which brought together representatives of government, business, and labor to promulgate codes of “fair practice” and set reasonable prices during the crises, and the Social Security Act, which established what is the primary means of support for retired Americans. Also, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), which governs the securities trading industry, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guarantees the safety of Americans’ bank deposits.

The economy recovered, only to slump again during FDR’s second term. Roosevelt was troubled by the Supreme Court, which had declared New Deal legislation unconstitutional in seven of the nine cases that had come before the Court. This resulted in Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan,” which was meant to remove, or at least greatly to modify, the court’s blocking power. It was bold but, according to Jenkins, would lead to FDR’s greatest defeat.

By the late 1930s, with the economy still slumping, war in Europe and Asia absorbed more and more of Roosevelt’s attention, and led him to run for an unprecedented third term as president.

Well before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was pushing for American aid to allies, which bore fruit with passage of the Lend-Lease Act that aligned the U.S. with Great Britain, and with the man who would become his close friend and ally, Winston Churchill. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt rallied the nation with a stirring call to action. Three-and-half years later, having been reelected to a fourth term as president, and on the brink of victory, Roosevelt died, age 63.

The nation wept.

“In war and in peace, faced with the threat of Hitler or the destructiveness of the Depression, FDR was the epitome of the man who rises to the occasion, rallying the nation with strength, intelligence, and the grit it takes to meet every challenge and persevere to victory” (quote taken from “American Presidents,” by Athlon Sports Communications).

On the short list of presidential greatness, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is ranked third, behind George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

- END -

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