by Robin McMeeking
The 20s in America
The presidents during this period were Warren G. Harding, 1921-1923, Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929, Herbert C. Hoover, 1929-1933.
Harding and Coolidge are not easy to write about in summary. They are treated very differently by different historians. They were the first presidents in a long time to operate with anything like the kind of restraint that the Constitution seems to call for, whereas their Progressive predecessors had been very activist.
Following the atmosphere of WW I, Americans were ready for a change. Warren Harding was about as different from Wilson as could be imagined. His was often criticized as a “do nothing” administration. Many on-line references identify him as “one of the worst presidents.” A sharp recession hit the U.S. following the war. Harding confronted the recession with free market policies. He made use of the newly formed Bureau of the Budget to reduce government spending by about 40% compared to Wilson’s pre-war spending. He also reduced taxes, primarily on the rich. Within a year the economy was booming, ushering in the Roaring Twenties. He also had Eugene Debs (the socialist) released from prison, commuted the death sentences on the “Wobblies” and had most other political prisoners released.
Unfortunately for Harding some of his cabinet appointees turned out to be corrupt. He reportedly said “I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my God damn friends…”. Scandal revelations near his mid-term and two cabinet suicides were devastating to him. He died in 1923 of a cerebral haemorrhage, heart attack, or poisoning by his wife, depending on which source you prefer. His wife died in 1924. It was believed for many years that she had destroyed his personal papers, which lent credence to the suspicion that he was also corrupt. The papers in question did surface later and were thoroughly researched in 1964. They show that he had no involvement in “teapot dome” or other corrupt activities. For some reason, few modern sources bother to acknowledge that.
Calvin Coolidge finished Harding’s first term and was handily reelected. He continued, perhaps even more deliberately, the economic policies initiated by Harding. Two famous quotes: “the business of America is business” and “Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It doesn’t appear to belong to anybody”.
The Coolidge policy was a simple one, made easier by the continuous prosperity and the weakness of the liberal opposition. He believed in government economy, reduced taxation, and gave aid to private business without accompanying restrictive regulation. In 1927 he vetoed the soldiers’ bonus bill. Coolidge opposed any government control in interstate electrical power and was against the proposal for government operation of the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River; in 1933 it became part of the New Deal’s TVA.
Throughout the farming regions of the traditionally Republican Middle West loud complaints were heard about the farm crisis. It was characterized by low prices for crops and the overhang of the land bubble that burst in 1920, leaving many farmers deeply in debt for new lands they purchased at high price during the war. The farmers wanted the federal government to intervene in the market, by buying crops at high prices and dumping them abroad cheaply. Congress passed the legislation, known as … the McNary-Haugen Bill, a farm relief bill, but Coolidge vetoed it. He supported the alternative program of Hoover and Jardine to modernize farming, by bringing in more electricity, more efficient equipment, better seeds and breeds, and better business practices.
Auto production in the U.S. rose from 569,054 in 1914 (pre-war) to 5,621,715 in 1929. Americans spent $10,648,000 on radios in 1920, $411,637,000 in 1929. Talkies replaced the silent movies in 1927. The “Jazz Age” introduced Louis Armstrong and other black musicians. The Charleston, Black Bottom, and other dances were the rage. American authors were gaining acclaim; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, etc. Broadway theaters were featuring works by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers and others. Women were beginning to enter the work force in significant numbers. Thanks to Prohibition, speakeasys, rum runners and organized crime were another feature of the time.
Time magazine summarized his term on Feb. 25, 1929 as follows:
Work Done. The Coolidge era has seen three great reductions in taxes, about five and a quarter billion dollars lopped off the public debt, the war debts refunded, adoption of the multilateral treaty renouncing war, the appropriation of 325 million dollars for Mississippi flood control, the 275-million dollar Federal buildings’ program, the civil air program, the implanting of a tradition of economy in government.
Work Not Done. The World Court has not been joined; the farmer has not been “relieved”; railroads are still unconsolidated; the coal industry is still bogged; there has been no extension of naval disarmament agreements; prohibition remains a mess. All these were Coolidge projects. (full article)
The stock market may be the most significant feature of the 20s. It was rising dramatically. $25,000 worth of GM stock bought in 1920 was worth more than a million in ’29; that is before the market crash of October 1929. Coolidge was out of office by then and Herbert Hoover was at the helm. There does not seem to be a consensus of opinion as to the causes of the crash, nor the Great Depression which followed. However, several factors clearly point to a market that was out of balance. Much of this will sound remarkably similar to the housing market situation in 2008. Margin trading rules in place at the time allowed investors to acquire stock with only 10% down and no collateral. Most investors at the time paid in full for their stock, but about a third of them were speculating with the 10%. Any time the stock value dropped below the level of their investment they would get a “margin call” and have to pay the difference. As stock prices rose faster than the dividends they were paying, the most lucrative income was from higher stock price. With stock selling so well, corporations began issuing new certificates and using the money to build new facilities to increase production even though many of them were already producing beyond the demand for their goods. The Fed (Federal Reserve Bank) which operated independently of government control was following policies designed to stimulate the economy even though many economists were recommending belt tightening. There were also questionable practices the Fed was using in relation to international lending. The dollar had joined the British Pound Sterling as a standard for international money exchanges.
Whatever the trigger was, the market fall was severe, coming in a series of double digit drops followed by small increases, then more declines. It finally bottomed out in July of 1932 after losing 89% of its value. The crisis quickly spread world wide.
Most sources say that the depression started in October of 1929 which coincides with the market crash, but they also say that the crash is not considered to have caused the depression. The events leading up to the depression have been examined by many economists. Not surprisingly, there is not complete agreement on the causes. For an in depth analysis of causes and policies adopted in response I have a link at the end of the next section. A primary factor was the handling of international economies following World War I. The war forced most of the combatants to forgo sound economic policies during the conflict. In the aftermath the attempts to restore fiscal soundness were not coordinated and in some cases nations were inadvertently working at cross purposes with each other. Currency valuation changes and tariffs designed to protect home markets were among the tools used. The U.S. stayed on the gold standard throughout the war and the dollar became the international standard. Inappropriate responses by the Federal Reserve to foreign currency demands are considered to be a contributing factor.
Another contributing factor in exacerbating the depression was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.
…The original intention behind the legislation was to increase the protection afforded domestic farmers against foreign agricultural imports. Massive expansion in the agricultural production sector outside of Europe during World War I led, with the post-war recovery of European producers, to massive agricultural overproduction during the 1920s. This in turn led to declining farm prices during the second half of the decade. During the 1928 election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover pledged to help the beleaguered farmer by, among other things, raising tariff levels on agricultural products. But once the tariff schedule revision process got started, it proved impossible to stop. Calls for increased protection flooded in from industrial sector special interest groups, and soon a bill meant to provide relief for farmers became a means to raise tariffs in all sectors of the economy. When the dust had settled, Congress had agreed to tariff levels that exceeded the already high rates established by the 1922 Fordney-McCumber Act and represented among the most protectionist tariffs in U.S. history.
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was more a consequence of the onset of the Great Depression than an initial cause. But while the tariff might not have caused the Depression, it certainly did not make it any better. It provoked a storm of foreign retaliatory measures and came to stand as a symbol of the “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies (policies designed to improve one’s own lot at the expense of that of others) of the 1930s. Such policies contributed to a drastic decline in international trade. For example, U.S. imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while U.S. exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. Overall, world trade declined by some 66% between 1929 and 1934. More generally, Smoot-Hawley did nothing to foster trust and cooperation among nations in either the political or economic realm during a perilous era in international relations.
Hoover had been in Wilson’s administration running the U.S. Food Administration during WW I. He was part of the entourage that went to Paris with Wilson for peace negotiations. Another member of Wilson’s administration was Franklin Roosevelt. He wrote to a friend about Hoover: “He is certainly a wonder and I wish we could make him president of the United States. There could not be a better one.” Hoover was an economic activist and wrote about his approach to the depression, “No president before has ever believed there was a government responsibility in such cases… there we had to pioneer a new field.” He implemented practices to keep wages up, increased government spending from 16.4% of GDP to 21.5%, and implemented a high protectionist tariff at the request of industry and labor. He weakened bankruptcy laws and encouraged states to halt foreclosures. Things kept getting worse and in 1932 the people turned to F.D.R for help.
F.D.R. and the Great Depression
Franklin Delano Roosevelt has long been held in high esteem for the policies of the “New Deal” that he offered to voters in 1932 and his handling of World War II. There is absolutely no question that his was an exceptionally significant administration in terms of its long term effect on all things in American government. He established a template for the Democratic Party that has persisted to this day. Even the use of three initials instead of a name lasted into the 1960s and was used for J. F. K. and L. B. J. (Kennedy and Johnson). Therefore we will take a thorough look at his time in office.
F. D. R. entered office during the worst economic period in U.S. history. He introduced numerous government programs intended to stimulate the economy, provide relief to the unemployed (in 1933, 25 percent of all workers and 37 percent of all non-farm workers were completely out of work), and provide real jobs to some through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). While many people benefited from these programs, the overall effect is seen by many economists today as ineffective. Some policies that seemed to be having a beneficial effect were followed up by policies that made things worse.
Raymond Moley was an early Roosevelt adviser and influential member of the administration. After a while he lost confidence in Roosevelt and became a critic of the New Deal. The following is from Raymond Moley’s book, After Seven Years, published in 1939.
But beyond that, what had been done? For one thing, the confusion of the administration’s utility, shipping, railroad, and housing policies had discouraged the small individual investor. For another, the administration’s taxes on corporate surpluses and capital gains, suggesting, as they did, the belief that a recovery based upon capital investment is unsound, discouraged the expansion of producers’ capital equipment.
For another, the administration’s occasional suggestions that perhaps there was no hope for the reemployment of people except by a share-the-work program struck at a basic assumption in the enterpriser’s philosophy. For another, the administration’s failure to see the narrow margin of profit on which business success rests – a failure expressed in an emphasis upon prices while the effects of increases in operating costs were overlooked – laid a heavy hand upon business prospects. For another, the calling of names in political speeches and the vague, veiled threats of punitive action all tore the fragile texture of credit and confidence upon which the very existence of business depends.
The following is from a time line of Roosevelt’s activities as found at historycommons.org.
1933-1937: Roosevelt Creates New Agencies Within Executive Branch, Defies Supreme Court. Franklin D. Roosevelt ushers in a massive expansion and reorganization of the federal government under his “New Deal,” in an attempt to counter the lasting effects of the Great Depression that began in 1929. Passed by Congress, the New Deal legislation greatly expands the federal bureaucracy (see September 8, 1939), and gives sweeping new powers over domestic issues to agencies contained within the executive branch and not always subject to Congressional oversight. The Supreme Court rules that many of these actions are unconstitutional, but when Roosevelt threatens to “pack” the Court by expanding its size and then appointing sympathizers to vote his way, the Court capitulates and upholds the New Deal legislation. In 2009, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write that the Court’s decision “enabl[ed] the rise of the modern administrative state inside the executive branch.”
These are the agencies created by the New Deal, sometimes called the Alphabet Agencies:
AAA – Agricultural Adjustment Act, 1933
CAA – Civil Aeronautics Authority (now Federal Aviation Administration), 1933
CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933
CCC – Commodity Credit Corporation, 1933
CWA – Civil Works Administration, 1933
EBA – Emergency Banking Act, 1933
FAP – Federal Art Project, part of WPA, 1935
FCA – Farm Credit Administration, 1933
FCC – Federal Communications Commission, 1934
FDIC – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 1933
FERA – Federal Emergency Relief Administration, 1933
FHA – Federal Housing Administration, 1934
FLA – Federal Loan Agency, 1939
FMP – Federal Music Project, part of WPA 1935
FSA – Farm Security Administration, 1935
FSRC – Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, 1933
FTP – Federal Theatre Project, part of WPA 1935
FWA – Federal Works Agency, 1939
FWP – Federal Writers’ Project, part of WPA 1935
FLSA – Fair labor standards act , 1938
HOLC – Home Owners Loan Corporation, 1933
NIRA – National Industrial Recovery Act, 1933
NLRB – National Labor Relations Board, 1934
NRA – National Recovery Administration, 1933
PRRA – Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, 1933
PWA – Public Works Administration, 1933
RA – Resettlement Administration, 1935
REA – Rural Electrification Administration (now Rural Utilities Service), 1935
RFC – Reconstruction Finance Corporation (originally a Hoover agency), 1932
SEC – Securities and Exchange Commission, 1934
SSB – Social Security Board (now Social Security Administration), 1935
TVA – Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933
U.S.HA – United States Housing Authority, 1937
U.S.MC – United States Maritime Commission, 1936
WPA – Works Progress Administration, 1935
Many of these agencies had the power to make “rules” that had the force of law, but without being debated in Congress or signed by the President. They also had the power to enforce the rules. This seemed to violate the separation of powers required by the Constitution. In 1946 the Administrative Procedures Act set limits and procedural requirements for most agencies. However, constitutionality arguments continue.
In 1928 & 29 (pre-depression) federal receipts averaged 3.8% of GDP and expenditures averaged 4.04% of GDP, in 1939 (before the war) federal receipts were 5.5% of GDP with expenditures at 9.77%. Unemployment stayed well above 15% for all but a brief period while government employment almost doubled in those ten years.
Friedrich Hayek, an economics professor and philosopher remarked: “Many a university teacher during the 1930’s has seen English and American students return from the Continent uncertain whether they were communists or Nazis and certain only that they hated Western liberal civilization.”
World War II
World War II began on September 1st of 1939 with a surprise invasion of Poland by Germany. By September 3rd France and Britain had entered the war against Germany. Within a week, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa (much of the remaining British Empire) had also joined the war. Ultimately the conflict pitted the “Axis” powers of Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Japan against the “Allied” powers of the British Empire, France, the Soviet Union and others. The U.S. joined the Allies in late 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Fighting lasted into 1945 with battles fought in numerous places all over the globe. Our interest in it here is in the lasting effects it has had on political views in America.
One of the more interesting effects stems from the Communist Party U.S.A (CPU.S.A) responding to events in Europe and trying to reinforce the positions of the Soviet Union. The following is from Wikipedia:
The CPU.S.A was adamantly opposed to fascism during the Popular Front period [1934-39]. Although membership in the CPU.S.A rose to about 75,000 by 1938, many members left the party after the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany on August 24, 1939. While General Secretary Browder at first attacked Germany for its September 1, 1939 invasion of western Poland, on September 11, the CPU.S.A received a blunt directive from Moscow denouncing the Polish government. Between September 14–16, CPU.S.A leaders bickered about the direction to take. On September 17 the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland and occupied the Polish territory assigned to it by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by co-ordination with German forces in Poland. The British, French, and German Communist parties, all originally war supporters, abandoned their antifascist crusades, demanded peace, and denounced Allied governments. The CPU.S.A turned the focus of its public activities from anti-fascism to advocating peace, not only opposing military preparations but also condemning those opposed to Hitler. The CPU.S.A attacked British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French leader Edouard Daladier, but did not at first attack President Roosevelt, reasoning that this could devastate American Communism, blaming instead Roosevelt’s advisers.
In October and November, after the Soviets invaded Finland and forced mutual assistance pacts from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the CPU.S.A considered Russian security sufficient justification to support the actions. Secret short wave radio broadcasts in October from Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov ordered Stalinist Browder to change the CPU.S.A’s support for Roosevelt. On October 23, the CPU.S.A began attacking Roosevelt. The CPU.S.A dropped its boycott of Nazi goods, spread the slogans “The Yanks Are Not Coming” and “Hands Off”, set up a “perpetual peace vigil” across the street from the White House and announced that Roosevelt was the head of the “war party of the American bourgeoisie.” By April 1940, the CPU.S.A Daily Worker’s line seemed not so much antiwar as simply pro-German. A pamphlet stated the Jews had just as much to fear from Britain and France as they did Germany. In August 1940, after NKVD agent Ramón Mercader killed Leon Trotsky with an ice axe, Browder perpetuated Moscow’s fiction that the killer, who had been dating one of Trotsky’s secretaries, was a disillusioned follower.
And then in June of 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Time to change the message again!
The leadership of the CPU.S.A was among the most vocal pro-war voices in the United States, advocating unity against fascism, supporting the prosecution of leaders of the Socialist Workers Party under the newly enacted Smith Act, and opposing A. Philip Randolph’s efforts to organize a march on Washington to dramatize black workers’ demands for equal treatment on the job. Prominent CPU.S.A members and supporters, such as Dalton Trumbo and Pete Seeger, recalled anti-war material they had previously released.
Now that the Soviet Union was one of the Allies, communists in the U.S. became more visible and vocal. The following articles from Time in 1943 indicate the type of in-the-open organizing and propaganda efforts that CPU.S.A was engaging in. First, union activity:
Until recently C.I.O. has tried to hush-hush the split between its Communist minority and its vast rank & file. By the time hard-hitting, straight-talking Jim Carey [secretary-treasurer of C.I.O.] was through, the hush was ended, and his own position as a top-rank C.I.O. officer was abundantly plain. Said he: “We believe that the shaping of a new world is the fundamental responsibility of labor in all countries, and we of the C.I.O. are dedicated to that goal. . . . Having made this clear, let me make equally plain that we do not view this program for common action as a one-way partnership. We recognize that the execution of Alter and Ehrlich has been a grave blow to our vision of world labor unity.”
When Carey announced his intention to speak at the Temple meeting, cherry-red [communist] Joe Curran, head of the Maritime Union, promptly threatened to throw a picket line around the meeting. Carey dared him to try. Other Party Line followers in C.I.O. (the C.P. is strong in the Fur Workers Union, the Transport Workers, some locals of the U.A.W., the Aluminum Workers and the Newspaper Guild) fumed in silence. But for the vast majority of C.I.O. Jim Carey had cleared the air, had shown that friendship for Russia is one thing, Communism something else again. Said he last week in Washington: “I don’t think the Communists are progressive. … I think they go reactionary. But my fight is for democracy.”
And from Hollywood:
Manhattan audiences saw the première of a movie that was primarily a political event: the screen version of former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies’ best-selling Mission to Moscow. Considerable hubbub had preceded the picture’s release; Trotskyites had screamed even before they saw it. Last week critics decided that Mission to Moscow is as explosive as a blockbuster. For Hollywood, circumscribed for years by political timidity, the film was audacious in the extreme. It is also pro-Russian and pro-New Deal in the extreme: it takes the flat view that Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt are just about 100% all right.
The movie is a blunt, high-spot review of world power politics between 1936 and Pearl Harbor. For the most part a faithful translation of Joe Davies’ book, the picture departs from its text only to leave out Ambassador Davies’ occasional reservations about the Soviet Union. Without doubts or reservations of any kind, the film devotes itself unabashedly to endearing the Russians to U.S. audiences.
Paul Revere Rides Again. When Warner Bros, decided last year to make a movie of Davies’ book, Jack Warner cried ecstatically: “By gosh, we’ll put Russia on the map.” Mission to Moscow, a $2,000,000 picture, is gilded with Hollywood touches. Its Russians look like fur-coated Americans, and the Soviet Union is pictured as a land of magnificent food and drink, as it probably was in the circles in which the Davieses moved. As Mrs. Davies, the picture has sweet-faced Ann Harding, and as Hero Joe Davies, tall, forceful Actor Walter Huston.
Despite its Hollywood flourishes, Mission to Moscow has power. Even its most one-sided re-enactments of history, such as the Moscow “purge” trials (which uncompromisingly convict Trotsky of collaboration with Germany and Japan to destroy the U.S.S.R.), carry authority.
But Franklin Roosevelt and Joe Davies are the ones mainly glorified. Of President Roosevelt, even the Russians speak in hushed, reverent tones. And it is sometimes difficult to decide whether Mission to Moscow’s mission is to praise the Russians or elect Joe Davies U.S. President. [in 1945 Davies was awarded the “Order of Lenin”, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union]
Roosevelt sought to establish a personal relationship with Stalin and wrote the following to Winston Churchill, [From the CIA Library] “I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.” He bypassed his own State Department which was urging caution with the soviets.
He met twice with Stalin and Churchill; first in Tehran in November/December of 1943 then in Yalta in February of 1945. In Tehran Roosevelt arranged for a private meeting with Stalin. The following is from the Department of State minutes of that meeting.
THE PRESIDENT said he had asked Marshal Stalin to come to see him as he wished to discuss a matter briefly and frankly. He said it referred to internal American politics.
He said that we had an election in 1944 and that while personally he did not wish to run again, if the war was still in progress, he might have to.
He added that there were in the United States from six to seven million Americans of Polish extraction, and as a practical man, he did not wish to lose their vote. He said personally he agreed with the views of Marshal Stalin as to the necessity of the restoration of a Polish state but would like to see the Eastern border moved further to the west and the Western border moved even to the River Oder. He hoped, however, that the Marshal would understand that for political reasons outlined above, he could not participate in any decision here in Tehran or even next winter on this subject and that he could not publicly take part in any such arrangement at the present time.
MARSHAL STALIN replied that now the President explained, he had understood.
THE PRESIDENT went on to say that there were a number of persons of Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian origin, in that order, in the United States. He said that he fully realized the three Baltic Republics had in history and again more recently been a part of Russia and added jokingly that when the Soviet armies re-occupied these areas, he did not intend to go to war with the Soviet Union on this point.
He went on to say that the big issue in the United States, insofar as public opinion went, would be the question of referendum and the right of self-determination. He said he thought that world opinion would want some expression of the will of the people, perhaps not immediately after their re-occupation by Soviet forces, but some day, and that he personally was confident that the people would vote to join the Soviet Union.
Prior to the meeting his Ambassador to the Soviet Union [William Christian Bullitt, Jr.] expressed fears of duplicity and a lust for expansion by the U.S.SR. Roosevelt replied, “Bill , I don’t dispute your facts; they are accurate. I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry [Hopkins] says he’s not and that he doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” Roosevelt’s primary objectives with Stalin at their last meeting in Yalta (Feb 1945) was to get a promise to attack Japan after Germany had surrendered, and commitment of support for a “United Nations”.
During the war the Soviet Union was a contentious ally, continually berating the West for not pursuing the war vigorously, delays in opening a second front, not sending enough war material, etc. Winston Churchill feared communism more than fascism long before the war. His opinion didn’t change. As the Allies gained momentum Russia’s quest to acquire territory became evident. By the time hostilities ended it was clear to most people that we had a new and terrible enemy. Russia had “liberated” Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and East Germany. Communist puppet governments were established in these new “Peoples Republics”.
On March 23, 1945, nineteen days before he died, President Roosevelt confided to Anna Rosenberg, “Averell [Harriman, Ambassador to Russia] is right. We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.”
Roosevelt died in April of 1945 and was succeeded by Harry Truman. Allied victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945 (V-E Day). Victory in Japan occurred on August 14, 1945 (V-J Day).
So, if Roosevelt’s economic policies were not particularly effective, and his handling of the Soviet Union during the war appears very naive, why is he so highly regarded? This is a difficult question to research because of the diversity of opinions presented by various historians. He got good press during and for quite a while after his administration. For liberal historians the fact that he created the government infrastructure for welfare and for income redistribution is very significant. His wartime communications were classified for many years after the war, so they were not considered in early evaluations of his war leadership.
The depression was a severely painful time for many people. Those who managed to have income and get by fairly well could still not escape awareness of the hardships being faced by others. Many had family or friends who were directly affected. Rightly or wrongly the depression was seen as being caused by uncontrolled business practices overseen by Republican administrations. Although the number of communists and socialist was fairly small, as we have seen some of them were in positions to influence public opinion. Books and magazine articles promoting centralized control of business and a government planned economy proliferated, so there was a fairly broad acceptance of that approach. The nostrum that “Republicans are for business and Democrats are for the little guy” became widely accepted.
Roosevelt was an effective communicator and conveyed optimism that was infectious both with regard to the depression and later to the war. The fact that his policies were having mixed economic effect was not widely written about. Economic events such as the depression are not easily understood and it takes months or years of analysis to look at everything that was going on. Even then the “experts” will not agree fully on what were the dominant factors and how much each factor contributed and how significant the timing of particular events was, etc. This kind of analysis generally comes too late to have much influence on public perspective. In Roosevelt’s case WW II further delayed and obscured this analysis.
And then there are the war years. Had there not been a war and Roosevelt had not run for a third term (most likely), perhaps our assessment of him would be different. But there was a war. The Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor rallied the nation . There was an immediate and lasting surge of patriotism which, quite naturally, was focused on the President. Aside from his naivety toward the Soviet Union and Stalin, he was an effective war leader. The people he selected to conduct the war effort performed admirably. Under the War Production Board, directed by Donald M. Nelson, the industrial production of war material exceeded all expectations. Eisenhower in Europe and MacArthur in the Pacific conducted brilliant campaigns.
Apologists for his naivety suggest that his acquiescence to Stalin didn’t really matter because Stalin would not have behaved differently anyway. Unfortunately there is no way to know for sure. We do know that Churchill tried to stand firm against Stalin, and Roosevelt pointedly distanced himself from Churchill. Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. expressed perhaps the strongest (or strangest) defense of Roosevelt. The eminent Pulitzer prize-winning historian’s op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal was titled, “FDR Vindicated.” Professor Schlesinger’s theme was that despite longtime disparagement of President Roosevelt’s wartime diplomacy, especially the 1945 Yalta agreement, the successful counter-revolutions in Central Europe [with the fall of the Soviet Union, not until 1991] were really “the fulfillment of Roosevelt’s purposes at the Yalta conference.” The preceding is excerpted from a dissenting opinion essay by Arnold Beichman. For another favorable but more objective analysis of the Roosevelt/Stalin relationship click here.
Appeasement before and during World War II is the source of the current political positions regarding dealing with adversarial governments. From the pre-war meeting of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Hitler concluding an agreement that Chamberlain said would give “peace for our time”, through to the concluding treaties and establishment of the United Nations, the pattern showed that attempts to “get along” were regarded by the opposition as weakness and a green light to proceed with their ambitions. For about the next 30 years appeasement was eschewed by all administrations, but since about the Carter administration there has been a renewed emphasis on understanding “why they hate us”, not wanting to “impose our morality”, etc, etc, primarily by Democrats.
One other stain on Roosevelt’s record should be mentioned and that is the internment of over 100,000 Japanese in America, many of them U.S. citizens. Virtually all residents of Japanese extraction, even U.S. born, west of the Cascade mountains were relocated into 10 guarded camps in largely uninhabited areas in the west. These people lost their homes, jobs, and most possessions. “The Japanese-descent evacuees left behind an estimated $200,000,000 worth of real, commercial, and personal property.” The camps were closed in March of 1946. It is possible to enumerate a list of reasons for the internment; possible collusion with the enemy, protecting the Japanese against hate crimes, etc. None of the reasons really seem adequate as a justification.