Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born into a privileged New York state family in 1882. He would become one of the most important Presidents of the USA. He steered the country through desperate economic times and led them in the 2nd World War. He had two advantages at the start of his career, no need of finance due to family wealth and a famous political cousin and ex-President, Theodore Roosevelt.
His stable and loving family life encouraged an undimmed optimism that never seemed to waver whatever dangers his country faced. He was well educated, his harsh disciplined schooling taught him to face the challenges life threw at him. He trained as a lawyer, but always looked to politics as a career. He stood, as a Democrat, for the New York Senate in 1910 and got elected in a strongly Republican area. His methods included travelling around the district in a car. Despite the public display of wealth, his charm and personality won over his voters. He took aim at corruption at the heart of New York immediately. This made him an enemy with his colleagues, but popular among the voters.
By 1913 he had been made Assistant Navy secretary to the Wilson administration, his claim to have read 10,000 naval books clearly helped. He greatly increased the size of the Navy, in anticipation of entering the 1st World War. He continued to serve in the Navy, and stood for Vice President in 1920, but lost. His career was cut short when he contracted a disease that left him paralysed from the waist down, a disability that he kept hidden for his whole career. But in 1929 he returned to work as Governor of New York. The Wall Street Crash had caused serious economic problems. The countries leadership believed the problems would fade, but Roosevelt anticipated differently. New York was the only state to provide support for the poor at that time. He made radio broadcasts, which combined the comforting nature of a fireside chat, with a platform for his views, that were becoming more focussed nationally.
He stood for President in 1932 and received a resounding endorsement. He immediately started tackling the severe economic depression. He called it the New Deal, it was a call to arms of for America. One quarter of the workforce were unemployed, two million were homeless, industrial production had halved and agricultural prices had fallen by 60%. He started various agencies to feed and support the unemployed, give relief to farmers and regulate the banks. He instituted great public works to improve the infrastructure such as the Tennessee Valley authority. Creating employment by building dams, hydroelectric stations, regulating waterways and generally modernising agriculture. It was focussed on the poverty-stricken Tennessee valley, but covered a great area, particularly the vast agricultural mid-west. He started social security to provide for those who could not provide for themselves.
In 1935 his focus was more on big business. He tried to regulate employment and give more rights to workers and a fairer market place. He was opposed and criticised as a Marxist, but his methods were not based on ideology, but on pragmatism. He strongly believed that the country needed to try something to get out of the mess they were in, regardless of previous dogma.
He was re-elected in 1936, with 60% of the popular vote. He continued to try to reform the Supreme Court and regulate business but was thwarted. He had brought a coalition, of people from all backgrounds and demographic groups across the country who were prepared to fight for the good of all. It was called the fifth party system and modernised and popularised the Democratic party.
His methods would be to surround himself with talented individuals and encourage competition and divisiveness that would inspire creativity and application. He maintained control, making all the decisions, he did not use collective responsibility. His political craft and personal charm drove those who worked for him to achieve at the highest level.
The economy had been saved, but the next test was in War. The rise of fascism in Italy, Japan and Germany seriously threatened the World order. The USA was neutral and isolationist. FDR knew that they would have to get involved eventually and received Churchill’s first message when he was made 1st Lord of the Admiralty. There was much opposition to war in America, but as the broken deals, anti-Semitism and invasions overtook Europe, the tide of opinion began to turn. FDR had increased spending on Naval and Air production. But when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour happened, the country declared War firstly on Japan and then on Germany and Italy.
Churchill was delighted, he believed that US industry would turn the tide of War and he was right. The country mobilised and within a few months the northern industries were producing tanks, planes and ships at an unbeatable rate. FDR managed to focus on Europe, as the main threat. He had prepared the navy well and they island hopped across the pacific, pushing the Japanese back to their home islands. The Russians bore the brunt of the Nazi’s. The allies attacked in Africa and Italy, through strategic bombing and the D-day landings. Churchill and FDR met with Stalin to plan the War and the peace.
His expertise in naval matters had stood him in good stead. He was re-elected for a record fourth term before passing away a few days before victory in Europe. He left a changed world. His successor Harry S. Truman authorised the detonation of the first atom bomb over Japan. While shortening the War and potentially reducing American casualties, it brought forth a new era. The atomic cold war. America had changed from an isolated nation to a super-power on FDR’s watch. It became a world policeman and replaced the decaying colonial empires as a new force in the world.
But today, there is still a threat of economic collapse, extremist warmongering and nuclear war. FDR’s call to arms for a new deal, united his country and in solving their problems, helped the world.
We need to learn from his lesson and recognise, prepare and deal with the problems that he believed threatened his country and the world.
So, look to the future with colleagues and friends, and with a glint in your eye, mix a cocktail and know that there is always hope. That was FDR, but who will be next to carry on his legacy.