Are the Revisionists Right About FDR?


Mr. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University, is the author of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s (New York: Free Press, January, 2004).

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Late last year, a band of conservative Republican congressmen, seemingly motivated by an overwhelming urge to smash a liberal icon and replace it with one of their own, unexpectedly declared they would offer a resolution to remove Franklin Roosevelt's image from the dime and replace it with Ronald Reagan's. Their polar opposites among the Democrats rushed to the barricades.

Nearly sixty years after his death, Franklin Roosevelt elicits near-worshipful adulation from those who position themselves left of center in American politics.

Last year's sprawling new biography by Conrad Black, proclaiming Roosevelt the greatest person of the twentieth century, was the latest in a long line of affirmations that originated in widespread popular gratitude for FDR's leadership during the Great Depression, then eventually found numerous academic voices. The “founding fathers” of New Deal historiography–James MacGregor Burns, William E. Leuchtenburg, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.–set the tone. All had come to intellectual and political consciousness during the 1930s and had been powerfully attracted to Roosevelt . All excellent historians who set very high standards for those who followed them, they duly noted some faults and failures, but the balance of their overall evaluation was far in the other direction. They and those who followed in their wake might display some regret Roosevelt had not pulled America farther in the direction of social democracy, but they left no doubt of their faith in his transcendental greatness. David Kennedy's splendid history of the Roosevelt era displays a tad more detachment, but remains within the tradition established by the founding fathers.

In his lifetime, Roosevelt was a polarizing figure. Rabid attacks came at him from a powerful conservative press, exemplified by the Hearst newspapers and the Chicago Tribune . The conservatives' Roosevelt was a devious opportunist, attracted to Stalinist communism, harboring dictatorial aspirations, and unscrupulous in his abuse of presidential power. He had failed to master the Great Depression, then had conducted a lame wartime diplomacy which had handed Eastern Europe and China to the Communist bloc. For good reasons, most historians have rejected this exaggerated indictment, although works by Gary Dean Best, Gene Smiley, and Jim Powell deliver a powerful critique of his Depression policies.

The contemporary reservations of the political center–expressed perhaps most influentially by Walter Lippmann, but found also in the editorial commentary of such newspapers as the Kansas City Star (moderately conservative) or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (moderately progressive)–have been all but forgotten.

Surely, it is time, nearly sixty years after Roosevelt 's death, to move toward a more measured evaluation.

Black especially values FDR's World War II leadership, but Roosevelt became president in 1933 during the world crisis of the Great Depression, serving six and a half years before the beginning of World War II in Europe.

For that period especially, a sober balance sheet displays both impressive achievements and great failures.

At home, FDR quite simply failed to end the Depression. After numerous ups and downs, the American economy in the summer of 1939 was barely above its level of November, 1932. The New Deal's relief programs never provided for more than half the unemployed at any one time. Its first industrial recovery program, the National Recovery Administration, was a crashing failure. Roosevelt 's subsequent resort to a polarizing politics of class conflict probably did him political good but surely got in the way of economic revival. His delight in the exercise of power–and occasional grabs for more of it (most notoriously, the plan to pack the Supreme Court)–made plausible unfounded accusations that he wanted to be a dictator.

We all know that Hitler's Germany , utilizing loathsome totalitarian mechanisms, achieved full employment by the last half of 1935. It is less well understood that the conservative British National Government of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain brought its people out of the Depression at about the same time, that its much-debunked dole paid a minimal benefit to every unemployed Briton, and that it maintained a vigorous agenda of social programs.

At a time when the world's democracies sorely needed a common front, Roosevelt failed to provide leadership. His most fateful decision, after first raising hopes of constructive American engagement, was to scuttle the World Economic Conference of 1933. He thus sent every nation on its own in dealing with an international economic problem that cried out for an international solution. An embittered Neville Chamberlain four and a half years later wrote privately, “It is always best & safest to count on nothing from the Americans except words.” At no time before the war did FDR make a sustained, consistent effort to lead the democracies at a time when fascism and militarism were on the march.

Yet neither was Roosevelt an abject failure. Ordinary people conceived of the Depression as more like an epidemic than a problem of economic policy; they hoped primarily for treatment of its symptoms. FDR's New Deal provided this to millions, in the form of temporary jobs, relief checks, rural electrification, agricultural price supports, backing for labor unions, and more. His charisma and rhetorical talents made his leadership more than a transactional exchange of votes for benefits. The common people felt his concern and repaid it with their devotion. It is easy to contrast him unfavorably to theoretical alternatives, but in real life he outshone an opposition that often found itself reduced to spluttering, incoherent rage. (Can anyone really imagine President Landon?) Remarkably, there are persuasive indications that most ordinary people in other nations saw him as democracy's greatest symbol, despite his near-total abdication of international leadership.

He would be a greater war manager than depression fighter, but here also not without his missteps, especially his optimism about the possibilities of postwar cooperation with Josef Stalin. And his wartime achievement was made possible only by Winston Churchill's bulldog leadership of Britain during the eighteen months between the fall of France and Pearl Harbor .

In 1915, the Conservative party leader Andrew Bonar Law, remarked of Churchill: “He has the defects of his qualities, and as his qualities are large, the shadow which they throw is fairly large also.” Law's words apply equally to the great American with whom Churchill would collaborate a quarter-century later.

Churchill's own failures were many; his Greatest Hour consumed only a fleeting five years of a long career. Both he and Roosevelt force historians to confront the possibility that personality and presence are more important than lists of legislation and administrative actions that can be tallied up on the pages of a debit/credit ledger. Still, that ledger may also give us perspectives otherwise lost in the brilliance of a charismatic supernova.

Intellectuals and ideologues may still have strong feelings about Roosevelt, but most of our contemporaries have no personal memory of Roosevelt and no gut sense of the passions of the 1930s. In that regard, let us admit that the historian founding fathers possessed insights that we do not. Above all, let us beware of the conceit that our detachment makes us “more objective.” That said, there is little to be lost and much to be gained by a more restrained look at the man who remains the most important American president of the twentieth century.

What about the dime? Let's keep him on it. He deserves it–for himself, for those former polio patients for whom he started the March of Dimes in 1938, and for those who since the 1950s have not had to fear the disease.

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John Olerud - 2/3/2009

Reducing the New Deal to FDR misses the crucial long-term importance of the time period. FDR still lives in the hearts and minds of Americans who lived through the Depression, but when that generation fades from the body politic the real legacy of "FDR," or more properly the New Deal, rests on a true evaluation of the Keynesian claim that government policy can create sustainable, permanent demand. The massive evidence of economic history since the Depression completely refutes Keynes, and revisionist historians simply extend this reality to the New Deal programs based on Keynes error.

Tim Matthewson - 7/18/2006

Hamby essay reminds one of the dangers of 20 20 hindsight; all of his conclusons are prejudiced by prior knowledge of the future that Roosevelt and his allies could not see. Hamby's essay and the responses above fail to mention one of FDR's greatest achievements -- the triumph of hope. When Europe was turning to totalitarian solutions of all kinds, when Father Coughlin and some slimmy Louisiana politicians were advocating a home grown fascism, Roosevelt steered the country between the extremist dangers arising on the left and right, preserving America's constitution and political and economic freedom for future generations. Many advocated radical solutions at the time, and these radical solutions and agendas are part of what Hamby forgets.

Jim Wilks - 11/6/2005

Since I am a bit simple minded, this will be very simple.

As pointed out in the essay, Germany and Great Britain overcame the depression by 1935 - probably about the historical norm for the length of previous similar depressions.

On the other hand, the US remained in the grip of the depression until World War II brought it to an end a decade after its inception and over six years after the FDR’s inauguration.

Book length analysis of the results of individual New Deal programs may be interesting and even valuable to current and future decision makers; however no analysis can change this one basic fact.

james e. burns - 3/4/2004

What FDR did was institute a government structure which grew a middle class. There are only two economic philosophies in America, one which believes in growing a middle class, and one that believes in only a two class system. The middle class is not such an abstract concept that it cannot be measured and an economic plan´s success can be measured on whether it promote middle class growth or they don´t. A middle class allows for social mobility so that a meritocracy can function. A two class system hopes to solidify inhereted position so that talent is not rewarded only the station in life into which one is born. Look at the current cultural landscape. Professional athletes are the children of professional athletes, politicians are the children of politicians, actors are the children of actors. Diversity and talent shrink as our choices are narrowed due to a two class system. The inheritance kings are far more a threat to our civilization than welfare queens. Greed is far more dangerous than need. Look at who FDR was and what he tried to accomplish. They called him a traitor to his class, which says it all. Could anyone say that Reagan represented the common man when his economic policy was based on a magic asterick?

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/16/2004

One of the great difficulties in judging the New Deal is that it had both great successes and crashing failures.

As Hamby notes, the N.R.A. filed to reorganize business. The Court that FDR tried to pack did him a favor by ending it, though sections --most notably the labor provisions--were reinstated.

However, much worked well. The new regulations for banking and securities stabilized both. The REA sped up the extension of electricty into rural America. The CCC and the WPA, aside from provding jobs, expanded the modern infrastructure of roads, built parks and postoffices and many other community facilities, and improved national forests, and many other things.

What is striking about these examples is that the good they did was not limited to the 1930s. After World War II, the nation was better positioned for a boom because of these things,

So I end with a final contradiction: FDR's New Deal did not end the Depression, but aspects of it led to post-War prosperity.