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Diplomacy and Conflict • Negotiating Peace: Diplomacy During WWII
Overview

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt served as the 32nd president of the United States. He was elected in 1932 during the Great Depression and was reelected three more times before he died while in office near the end of World War II. He is the only U.S. president ever to serve more than two terms. During the 12 years of his presidency, Roosevelt introduced his New Deal to help relieve the strain of the Great Depression and saw the United States through most of World War II.

Early Life and Career

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882. He spent his early years at the family estate in Hyde Park, New York, and attended the exclusive Groton School before going on to Harvard University and Columbia University Law School. In 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt, his distant cousin and the niece of Theodore Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the New York Senate in 1910. He quickly made a name for himself by challenging the Tammany Hall political machine's control over the Democratic Party. In 1913, he was chosen to be assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920, Roosevelt ran as the vice presidential candidate with James M. Cox. Although the Democratic Party lost the election, Roosevelt used the opportunity to establish a national reputation. His political future seemed assured until, in 1921, he was stricken with polio (infantile paralysis) and was almost completely paralyzed.

For two years, Roosevelt struggled to teach himself how to cope with the disease and the loss of the use of his legs. Many people thought his paralysis would be an obstacle that would end his political career, but Roosevelt did not give up. Instead, with Eleanor's help he developed a bold, active personal style that more than made up for his inability to stand without assistance.

In 1928, Roosevelt won the race for governor of New York. After the Great Depression began, he became known for his willingness to use the state government to relieve widespread misery. He also established a reputation as a compassionate, reform-oriented governor. He was reelected in 1930.

Presidential Candidate

In 1932, Roosevelt became the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Immediately after his nomination, he flew to Chicago to directly address the Democratic National Convention. He was the first candidate to do so. He said, "Let it . . . be symbolic that in [speaking to the convention] I broke traditions. Let it be from now on the task of our Party to break foolish traditions. . . . I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people."

During the campaign, Roosevelt promised to balance the federal budget and to provide direct aid to the needy. Although he did not offer many details on exactly how he would accomplish this, he demonstrated a great deal of confidence that he could do what was necessary to end the Depression. On Election Day, Roosevelt won all but six states and defeated Herbert Hoover by more than 7 million votes.

Roosevelt had been confident that he would win the election and had begun preparing for the presidency months before his campaign. Besides a core group of loyal political assistants, he had enlisted the aid of a number of college professors to assist him so that once in office he could move quickly to deal with the national crisis. This group of professors—Rexford Tugwell, Adolph Berle Jr., and Raymond Moley—were nicknamed the brain trust.

The New Deal

In his inaugural address, Roosevelt announced that he would call Congress into an immediate special session to pass the New Deal legislation necessary to deal with the banking crisis and the collapse of the economy. The special session of Congress lasted from March 9, 1933, to June 16. During that period of 100 days, more important legislation was passed than at any other comparable period in U.S. history. The three aims of the New Deal were recovery, relief, and reform. The first New Deal legislation concentrated on recovery and relief. To accomplish these goals, Roosevelt had to overcome deep-seated American prejudices against a strong federal government.

Two days after assuming office, Roosevelt issued a proclamation closing all of the banks in the United States. The special session of Congress passed an emergency banking bill just three days later that gave the president broad powers over the nation's banks, currency, and foreign exchange. Roosevelt went on the radio to talk informally to the public about what he had authorized the Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department to do. He also sought to reassure people that it was safer to keep their money in a bank than in their home. The combination of decisive action and personal persuasion worked. Public confidence in reopened banks was restored.

Roosevelt also took the United States off the gold standard and devalued the U.S. currency by 40%. These actions were meant to make U.S. goods more competitive abroad, raise prices of goods at home, and reduce individual debt. Those in debt applauded the move, but creditors (such as those holding bonds and long-term mortgages) were enraged.

The most popular New Deal measures were those that tried to relieve the suffering of the approximately 25% of the labor force who were unemployed. Roosevelt knew local and state agencies had run out of funds, so he created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to give money to local relief agencies. The Civil Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and later the Works Progress Administration were also created to provide temporary relief jobs. Among the other innovative programs were:


Although these efforts failed to end the Great Depression, they provided a sense of the government's commitment to relieving people's suffering and led to Roosevelt's landslide reelection in 1936. They also marked the first extensive use of the government's fiscal powers to stimulate mass purchasing and thereby promote economic recovery.

Then, in 1937, Roosevelt made a costly political blunder. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had angered Roosevelt by declaring the NRA and AAA unconstitutional. In response, in 1937 Roosevelt launched a plan to increase the size of the Court by six more judges, to 15. This would enable him to appoint enough new justices to overcome the existing five-member conservative majority. The plan became known as the court packing plan. In order to carry out the plan, Roosevelt would need the support of Congress. However, he was not able to orchestrate the election defeat of congressional opponents in 1938. Republicans and conservative Democrats won enough seats in the 1938 congressional elections to block the court packing plan and further substantial New Deal legislation. Nonetheless, Roosevelt did pass through the Executive Reorganization Act (1939), which enlarged and strengthened the executive branch of the government.

The innovative New Deal legislation provided substantial relief for the American people. However, it was World War II that returned the United States to prosperity.

The U.S. Goes to War

By the time Roosevelt won reelection in 1936, he had realized that the dictatorial regimes in Japan, Germany, and Italy were going to solve their economic problems through military expansion. Roosevelt hoped to keep the United States out of war. However, as World War II began in 1939, he did work to get the Neutrality Act (1935) repealed so that he could provide aid to Great Britain. In 1940, Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term. Roosevelt promised to keep Americans out of any foreign wars and easily defeated his Republican rival, Wendell Willkie.

After his reelection, Roosevelt obtained Congress's approval to provide lend-lease aid first to Great Britain and then to the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease Act was passed mainly to allow the British more credit to buy war supplies. It provided for the sale, transfer, exchange, or lease of arms or equipment to any country whose defense was vital to the United States. Total lend-lease aid would amount to nearly $50 billion by the end of the war.

U.S. ships and planes also began protecting supply ships far out into the North Atlantic and reporting German submarine locations to the British Navy. In the Far East, the United States attempted in 1941 to halt Japan's military expansion by announcing a potentially crippling embargo of vital war materials and oil to Japan. Instead of backing down, Japan launched a surprise attack on December 7, 1941, designed to wipe out the U.S. Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan the next day. Germany and Italy then declared war on the United States, and the United States found itself fighting in both Asia and Europe. On the home front, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the "relocation" of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in the United States. The order was upheld by the Supreme Court at the time, but the Japanese American internment has since been recognized as a gross violation of civil liberties.

Roosevelt was severely criticized for some of the ways he directed the war effort, but he behaved in his characteristically pragmatic fashion. His goal was to win the war with as few American casualties as possible. To do this, he needed to keep the wartime alliance of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States together until after Germany and Japan were defeated, and he did. Meanwhile, war created prosperity, and Americans widely believed that they were fighting "the Good War." These factors sustained national unity and enough popularity for Roosevelt for him to win reelection to a fourth term in 1944.

In 1945, the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) met in Yalta to discuss the composition of post-war Europe. At the conference, Roosevelt obtained a Soviet promise to join the war against Japan and to participate in the United Nations. However, he was unable to secure a Poland free of Soviet domination. Critics attack his refusal to challenge Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but supporters point out that he accepted political reality—Soviet troops occupied the region.

Death and Legacy

After Roosevelt returned from Yalta, his doctors ordered him to rest. He traveled to his favorite retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died on April 12, 1945. He did not live to see the end of World War II. Roosevelt's vice president, Harry Truman, succeeded him as president.

No other president in the 20th century was as adored by the masses as Roosevelt was. He was the first president to use mass communication (the radio) to its full advantage. Through his speeches and famous "fireside chats," Roosevelt spoke to millions of Americans who had never heard a president speak before. Hundreds of thousands sent him letters detailing their hardships, asking for his assistance, and thanking him for his help.

Perspectives on Roosevelt over the years have varied widely. In the 1930s, Roosevelt's Republican opponents saw him as a virtual socialist. Liberal historians of the 1940s and 1950s lionized him for leading a popular crusade to restore prosperity and justice in America. The radical historians of the 1960s viewed him as a servant of capital. They believed he mainly tried to boost capitalism and was not truly interested in helping the downtrodden. Still others have stressed the pragmatic, non-ideological nature of his approach—his willingness to try policies that promised to work and that seemed feasible.

Roosevelt inspired both intense loyalty and opposition. His critics and supporters agree, however, that he did more to establish the U.S. welfare state and government responsibility for individual social welfare than any other president has. Roosevelt's impact upon the United States through his social and economic legislation was huge and lasting.
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Further Reading

Burns, James M., Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. New York: Harcourt, Brace. Jovanovich, 1956; Burns, James M., Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971; Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, University Press,1989; Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor and Franklin. Norwalk CT: Easton Press, 1991; Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., The Age of Roosevelt. 3 vols., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957-1960.

MLA Citation

"Franklin D. Roosevelt." American History, ABC-CLIO, 2020, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/247759. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Entry ID: 2171547

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