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Essay: Franklin Delano Roosevelt – greatest achievement and failure

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  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt - greatest achievement and failure
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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, known to many as FDR, was not only a leader for his time, but a leader for all times. Not only did FDR successfully lead his nation through possibly the two most dramatic, and consequential world events of the 20th century, the Great Depression and WW2; he is also responsible for spearheading the creation of the United Nations, as well as the series of programs, projects, policies and laws that came to be known as the “New Deal”. Through his experimentation and willingness to listen and learn from others, FDR demonstrated that he was the man to lead America forward. FDR’s actions throughout his presidency shaped not only the way Americans lived their lives, but how the world perceived America for decades to come. Throughout his presidency, FDR was able to display his brilliance in leadership. However, what was the greatest achievement in each of his four terms? And perhaps most interesting of all, what was his greatest failure? For his brilliance in leadership, as well as a lack of competent competitors, the American people rewarded him with an unprecedented four terms in office. In his first term he successfully tiptoed around the edge of the precipice, leading the American people from the turmoil caused by the Great Depression. In his second term, perhaps his most undervalued achievement was the packing of the supreme court, for it was here where you can see the long lasting impact. His third term was dominated by World War Two and the successes enjoyed by the allies. In his fourth term, despite the brevity of it, he was able to establish the foundations of the modern United Nations. Truly a leader for all times.

From the moment FDR won the governorship of New York State, to the moment he became president of the United States of America, you see an unparalleled level of political victories. In his first presidential campaign, the elites of the democratic party thought that they could control him. In the end, their underestimation of FDRs coolness proved costly, with him ultimately using it to his advantage. History tells us that the world was overall, a better place because of his actions, but what exactly did he do to transform America in specific, and our world at large?

Before delving into the world of FDR as president, one must understand FDR the governor. During his time as governor of New York, FDR had developed a reputation for himself, one of a man who is willing and ready to back liberal reforms. This was mainly due to his abolishing of the death penalty, the support the provided to pensioners and farmers alike, as well as his readiness to allocate more money for schools. However, FDR also developed a not so friendly relationship with the elites of the democratic party, they viewed him as someone who lacked a backbone. This reputation allowed FDR to establish himself as a humble man, one who would openly seek advice from those perhaps better educated on a certain topic. For example, FDR was the first president to seek advice from university professors, an all too often underused resource in society. This allowed FDR to better connect with the average American, something he excelled at due to his relentless news bureau, radio interviews, and his press conferences. However, without a doubt, despite all of the successes enjoyed by FDR during his time as governor of New York, the greatest crisis he faced was the Great Depression. Despite not entirely understanding exactly how to make it better, FDR understood the realities of the situation, as well as the need to pragmatic. By 1931 there were over 800,000 unemployed people in New York. FDR most definitely preferred the practical, but he also believed in the concepts of progress and the important role the state held in thing care of its citizens. Therefore, in response to the effects of the Great Depression, FDR created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) with an initial appropriation of $20 million targeted for the emergency relief of the unemployed. Able-bodied workers without jobs would get relief from the state—first home (direct) relief and then the more desirable work relief. Roosevelt thus set a precedent by creating a new agency to meet a new problem, one he relied on during the New Deal years. Hopkins concentrated on creating a program in New York State that could set an example for other states. This was important, he believed, because the TERA represented “the first enactment under which a State, as such, had accepted any liability for the support of its population, viewed not as wards but merely as men and women unable temporarily to accommodate themselves to the social scene, with-out at the same time placing such men and women in the position of recipients of a bounty or a dole and in such a manner as to preserve the self-respect of every beneficiary. . .” Despite the efforts of the TERA, the growing number of unemployed placed an enormous pressure on state coffers. Recognizing that relief administered in New York State was woefully inadequate, Hopkins wrote to Frank J. Taylor, commissioner of public welfare for New York City, outlining the shortcomings but also emphasizing the efficiency and courtesy with which the TERA had operated. Inadequate relief on the state level was caused only by lack of sufficient funds. Consequently, states now began to turn to the federal government for relief and when Roosevelt successfully ran for president in 1932, the foundation was laid for this to happen.

Initially during his presidential campaign, FDR isn’t promising too much to the American people. All he’s saying is that his administration is going to be competent and pragmatic, embarking on much more than just a political campaign, but a crusade to restore America to its own people, not the 1%. FDR pledges himself to a “new deal” with the american people. However there were doubts on whether or not he would beat Hoover. These doubts were mainly due to the fact that FDR was not the greatest of campaigners due to his being cripple. However, by 1932 the name Herbert Hoover name became synonymous for failure. In the end, Hoovers 1932 campaign was disastrous, his monotone reading of speeches that used words unfamiliar to the average American failed to captivate to say the least; Hoover could really be clueless at times. An example of this is the burning of the makeshift shanty town created by army veterans protesting that their pensions were cut in July 1932. FDR was cautious throughout the campaign, not really saying anything of any magnitude, speaking in code words and not being too specific. However with everyone against Hoover, FDR was just biding his time before the elections. Eventually, the country did not vote for FDR, but against Hoover. FDR was able to convince americans that he cared about their plight, and on election day he took 57% of the popular vote, with 42 of 48 states going to FDR. Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States on March 4th, 1933. Roosevelt inherited a nation that was going through its worse economic crisis in history; a nation where a quarter of the population was unemployed, and where at least two million people were homeless.

During FDRs first term in office, it was seen a as pivotal for him to rally the American people. As a result of this, FDR went on radio many times, in what was called a “fireside chat”. FDR was effectively using the media to make his administration an elaborate beacon of hope in a dim period of American history.

There were many different solutions being thrown around to help the ailing economy, with all having some plausibility, but the sheer scope of the depression made historical experience null. In his inaugural speech FDR alludes to previous comparisons between a war and the economic crisis, calling congress into an emergency session in efforts to fight the economic crisis as if it was a war. Therefore, congress, with FDRs persistent persuasion, passed 15 major bills into law. The greatest of which was most definitely the Emergency Banking act. Despite the need to pass such legislature, congress was surprisingly divided. There were numerous meetings between republicans and democrats to figure out a common solution, unfortunately they couldn’t. Instead focus was shifted to the state governors offices, where the two governors of New York and Chicago, Americas financial and banking hubs, came up with the idea of a moratorium, a break to banking. On the eve of FDRs inauguration, with the country in economic meltdown, all banks were closed under the order of the president, giving the government those 3 days without panic to find a solution so that the banks could reopen safely. The Emergency Banking Act stipulated that all banks got a year to divorce themselves from their investment houses, developing separate corporate identities. Following the 3 day moratorium the senate voted on the bill, and at 8:36 pm. FDR officially passed it. The act gave the president the legal right to declare a bank holiday, as well as entrusting in the secretary of the treasury to decide which banks were worth saving and which were too far gone. More or less giving the secretary the power of life or death over banks. Unfortunately this did not sit well with everyone, with the leftist wanting the banks to be nationalized. There were some who might have supported that idea, but not FDR. FDR wished to save the existing system, not kill it. The solution came for the ailing economy came from two men, Carter Glass, and Henry Steagall. The two politicians had been interested in banking reform for a long time, they had been pushing for reform under Hoovers administration but their demands were not taken seriously. Therefore, in 1933, unsatisfied with the Emergency Banking Act, they sought further reform. Their theory was that if you separate a banks commercial banking activities from the investment banking activities, the bank would be forced to be more conservative with its overall activities. Then with the banks in check, attention was turned to the millions of Americans who had lost all of their life savings during the crash. What made the most sense was something called the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, the FDIC. The theory was that in efforts to avoid the runs on banks, the insurance system would tell depositors that the federal government, through the FDIC, would reimburse up to a certain amount of money lost money during the crisis. This fund would be built up by using small taxes. However this was not the first time a system of this nature had been attempted, something FDR was aware of and unhappy with. All efforts to create a state level FDIC had failed in the past due to poor management, underfunding, and rampant corruption. The Glass-Steagall Act, under the auspices of the FDIC, initially sought to cap the reimbursements at $1000. However, Arthur Vanderburg, a senator from Michigan, felt as if the $1000 was too low, with many people losing much more than that. Then began a serious of back and forths, with one side calling for $1000 to be the list and the other $2500. Ultimately, FDR felt that $2500 was too high, too much liability on this corporation. Although this did not happen over night, they eventually reached a deal that created two parts to the Act. The preliminary part, stipulated that there would be a temporary release of funds on January 1st 1934 with the cap set at $1000. The second part of the plan was set to kick off on July 1st 1934, with the $2500 set as the ceiling. This was necessary because the white house still had to figure out how all of this would work. The temporary plan was put in to assure the people, the very creation of the FDIC, and the backing by FDR of the Glass-Steagall Act is what shows Americans that the banking system will survive and hopefully thrive. Ultimately, this led to the end of the bank runs that crippled the economy, the panic seemed to stop overnight. The federal system, with FDR at the helm, superimposed on the top, takes the pressure off the state governments. The federal reserve had their power broadened, they now had the power to interfere in a banks inner workings if they felt they were acting in a corrupt or doltish manner. For the moment, following the passing of the Emergency Banking Act as well as the Glass-Steagall Act, FDR thinks the financial meltdown is over, he wanted to move onto other issues of magnitude. Glass-Steagall provided security, at the low end of the spectrum especially. Post 1935, FDR showed little interest in bank reform, for in his mind the emergency had passed. Feeling empowered following the success of Glass-Steagall and the financial reform policies, FDR decided to then create a social insurance program. Ultimately, it was to be the Social Security Act, as well as the rest of the “New Deal” programs that laid the foundation for the modern welfare state in the United States. The Social Security act provided economic security for the elderly, as well as the poor and sick. Despite the conservative nature of the Social Security Act of 1935, it remains the first time the federal government of the United States took responsibility for the financial security of the nations most vulnerable. While the first round of the “New Deal” reforms enjoyed wide support among the public, the second challenged certain sectors; with a plethora of influential politicians and business leaders likening FDR to leftist thinkers and leaders. However, FDR was able to used this challenge to his advantage, calling those who opposed the sweeping reforms to be mere backers of the wealthiest 1% of Americans. Roosevelt was able to isolate his opponents strengthening himself for the 1936 landslide. It is here where FDR develops his reputation for being more influenced by pragmatism than any ideology.

Despite the feeling of positivity surrounding FDRs landslide win in the 1936 presidential election, he was wary of the Supreme Court. FDR was concerned that he conservative Supreme Court might look to strike down his New Deal era policies. His motive was the shaping of the ideological balance of the court. The way he would go about this was he solution was to propose the expansion of the number of Supreme Court justices.The proposed bill would have added one justice for each justice over the age of 70. The plan was widely and vehemently criticized, the elites viewed the proposed bill as an undemocratic power grab. However, for reasons historians still don’t quite understand, shortly after FDR made the plan public, the Court upheld several government regulations it had formerly found unconstitutional. Many have attributed this and similar decisions to a politically motivated change of heart on the part of Justice Owen Roberts. Some legal scholars have rejected this narrative, however, asserting that Roberts’ 1937 decisions were not motivated by Roosevelt’s proposal and can instead be reconciled with his prior jurisprudence. This shifted the majority to favour federal welfare and regulatory enactments. Ultimately by 1942, all but two of the supreme court justices were Roosevelt appointees. Despite the legislative gridlock FDR found himself embroiled in, there was a lot of decisive legislation passed. The creation of the US housing authority provided homes for thousands of Americans. For FDR, more Americans owning more homes meant more consumption, more tax revenue. The Fair Labour Standards Act set employment standards for companies who’s business transcended state boundaries. This meant that corporations had to respect a 40 hour work week, as well as pay a living minimum wage. Perhaps most crucially the act called for the end of child labour. Unfortunately, this only applied to those employed in interstate corporations; domestic servants, agricultural workers, and service employees were not protected. It is only when things start to unfold in Europe that FDR can reconstitute himself as the leader of the people in a time of need.

On the cusp of World War Two FDR runs against and defeats Wendell Wilkie, the Republican nominee for president. This election is key not only due to the events taking place in Europe, but also because of the fact that FDR has now gone against the precedent set by George Washington. Despite heavy campaigning the republicans are unable to dethrone Roosevelt. Roosevelt insisted throughout his campaign that he was only in the race to keep America out of the war in Europe. However, due to the way things unfolded, he would soon be forced to intervene. FDRs third term was dominated by World War Two. Due to the influence of isolationists FDR was unwilling and unable to enter the war immediately. This meant that despite not getting involved in the fighting, the United States would commit to arming and aiding its allies in their fight against the axis powers. Therefore, as Churchill put it, FDR had committed to a policy of “all aid short of war.” In the first of many highly secretive meetings, Roosevelt and Churchill met in August 1941. The outcome of this meeting was the Atlantic Charter, a pivotal piece of conceptual legislature that outlined global wartime and post-war goals. Despite constant pressure from Churchill, FDR did not believe that congress would allow the United States to enter the war. For the time being, the role undertaken by the United States was that of aid and protection, not of direct intervention. However, this would not last very long. Despite the primary concern being the European theatre, Japan also presented a serious challenge. Following the Japanese conquest of South East Asia, FDR decides to stop selling them oil, depriving Japan of 95% of its oil supply. FDR also placed General Douglas MacArthur as the commander of the American forces in the Philippines. When diplomatic efforts failed to lift the embargo, the Japanese felt forced into action; believing that if they were able destroy the US pacific fleet, along with its naval forces stationed in South East Asia, they would be able to continue their conquests. Therefore, on the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbour. The attack on Pearl Harbour knocked out several key US battleships and killed 2,403 Americans. The following day, FDR, in his now infamous “Infamy Speech” to Congress, called for war to be declared on Japan, with congress declaring war on Japan that same day, and Germany and Italy 3 days later. The scale the tragedy that struck caused antiwar sentiment to disappear. The Japanese empire would extend its borders up until June 1942, when the American navy was able to permanently halt their progress at the Battle of Midway. The Battle of Midway proved to be the first round in a series of slow, difficult, and costly island hopping. This was all in efforts to gain bases from which the airforce could wreak havoc on the Japanese. Roosevelt opted to stay out of the tactical military decision making, something his counterpart in Germany relished. By late 1944, most specifically the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Americans had not only recaptured much of the territory lost, but also dealt the final blow to the Japanese navy.

The events that took place in Europe were much more straightforward. In January 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, it was decided that the Allies would defeat the Axis forces in North Africa before any incursions onto mainland Europe. By May 1943, the North African campaign was over, with over 250,000 axis soldiers taken as prisoners. The Allied invasion of Sicily was launched that June, and mainland Italy in September. FDRs attention was now turned to France, where he selected General Dwight D. Eisenhower to command the invasion. Eisenhower opted to invade Europe on June 6th, 1944. Operation Overlord as it was to be named consisted of the largest naval force ever assembled, allowing the Allies to break the Atlantic Wall and successfully land in Normandy. With the Germans fighting a war on two fronts, and the seemingly endless stream of US arms and supplies, the allies were able to slowly liberate more territory from occupation.

FDR faced very little the president faced little difficulty in securing his re-election in the 1944 election. Roosevelt and his running mate, Harry Truman, were able to win the 1944 election securing 432 out of the 531 available seats. FDRs fourth and final victory set the stage for the end of the war and the establishment of the United Nations, something he campaigned in favour of. Following his reelection and the outcome of the war in Europe and the Pacific looking more and more obvious, FDR met with Stalin and Churchill in Yalta to discuss the postwar reorganization. FDR conceded, allowing Stalin to take care of the Polish postwar government. The Yalta Conference would set the stage for Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Upon his return to the United States from Yalta, FDR was clearly not in the greatest health. On April 12th 1945, 7 weeks after Yalta, and a month before the end of the war in Europe, FDR suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. World War Two would come to an end that September with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Harry Truman would preside over the end of the war and the establishment of the United Nations, something envisioned during Roosevelt’s tenure.

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