life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt […] his life, his presidency, and his accomplishments while he was president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the nation’s most memorable presidents for a number of reasons. He was the first and only president to be elected to an unprecedented four terms in office, he died in office, handing over the presidency to Harry Truman, he reacted to the national emergency of Pearl Harbor, which entered the country into World War II, he resurrected the country from the Great Depression, and he was the nation’s only disabled president. His presidency accomplished much, and many of the programs he implemented while in office are still in place today.
Franklin Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882, his parents were James Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt, and he was an only child (of his father’s second marriage. He did have a much older brother who died in 1927). He did not attend traditional elementary schools or other schools, he had tutors, and his parents taught him until he entered preparatory school. His parents were extremely wealthy; some considered them the “aristocracy” of American society. On biographer writes about his very privileged youth. He notes, “His first trip to Europe, at the age of two, years, was followed by annum voyages between his eighth and fourteenth birthdays. At fourteen he was enrolled in the fashionable Groton School, and four years later he entered Harvard College” (Roosevelt xviii). He attended Groton from 1896 to 1900, and received a BA in history from Harvard in only three years, from 1900 to 1903. He studied law at Columbia University in New York, never got a degree, but passed the bar in 1907. He practiced law in New York City for three years, and first entered politics in 1910, when he ran for the New York State Senate and was elected. From then on, most of his life was spent in politics and public service (“Biography”).
In 1905, he married his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (the niece of former president Teddy Roosevelt), and they had six children. Unfortunately, one died in infancy. The survivors included Anna, born in 1906, James in 1907, Elliott in 1910, Franklin, Jr. In 1914, and John in 1916. His wife, known as Eleanor, would become one of the most famous first ladies in her own right, and is given much of the credit for Roosevelt re-entering politics after he contracted polio in 1921.
Roosevelt was re-elected to the New York Senate in 1912, and began to receive national attention from the Democratic Party during this time. He supported Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1912. As a reward, Wilson named Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, a position he held until 1920. This experience, which occurred during World War I, helped prepare him for dealing with World War II when he was president. In 1920, the Democratic Party offered him the position of Vice-President on the Democratic ticket, but Wilson’s foreign policies were unpopular, and Warren G. Harding was elected to office. For the first time since his Senate election, Roosevelt went back into private life (“Biography”).
This was perhaps the most influential and demanding time in Roosevelt’s life. Up until 1921, he had been a vigorous and healthy young man, enjoying sports as well as intellectual pursuits. However, during a vacation at Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Roosevelt fell ill. He had contracted polio, and the disease paralyzed his legs. While he could sometimes struggle to his feet with the aid of canes or crutches, he spent the majority of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He was only thirty-nine when he was stricken with the disease, but with encouragement from his wife and friends, he convalesced and then re-entered the political arena. In 1924, he nominated New York Governor Alfred E. Smith for the presidency. Smith lost the nomination, but ran again in 1928; when he suggested Roosevelt replace him as governor. Roosevelt won the election for New York Governor in 1928, and was re-elected in 1930. In 1932, he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, which he won, defeating Herbert Hoover (“Biography”). One of the reasons Roosevelt was elected was his no-nonsense approach to the Great Depression that was gripping the country after the stock market crash in 1929. His solutions were unique, but they are lasting legacies to the man, his vision, and his approach to problems.
THE FIRST HUNDRED DAYS
Roosevelt knew the American people wanted a solution from the terrible days of the Great Depression. His first act as president was to create a special session of Congress that he called “The First Hundred Days.” During these first one hundred days in office, he was determined to make sweeping changes that would help end the depression and get Americans back to work. These first hundred days in office accomplished a wide variety of goals and objectives, and created many new government agencies set to deal with the economy, employment, and agriculture. Some of the agencies he created in these first hundred days include:
AAA – the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to support farm prices and get people back to farming and agriculture.
CCC – the Civilian Conservation Corps that employed young men across the country in forests and other natural areas.
FDIC – the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to ensure funds in banks were ensured and the banks would not fail again.
NRA – the National Recovery Act that encouraged industry to voluntarily raise wages, regulate hours, and create employment.
Roosevelt approached the Great Depression head on, creating a variety of measures set to get people back to work while shoring up the economy. One of the greatest problems of the Great Depression was severe unemployment, so Roosevelt created government agencies to put people back to work. However, another problem had been widespread bank failure because people rushed to the banks to take out their money all at once, and the banks could not cover all the deposits. When Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, the first thing he did was close all the banks in America on March 6. They remained closed for one month to help them regain their equilibrium and funding. In an address to the nation in July 1933, he said, “One month later ninety per cent of the deposits in the national banks had been made available to the depositors. Today only about five per cent of the deposits in national banks are still tied up” (Roosevelt 24). He also implemented the FDIC (still in existence today) to ensure the deposits in all banks are ensured in case of a disaster or panic.
He knew this was a major priority of the first hundred days. In his inaugural address to the nation he said, “[I]n our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order: there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments, so that there will be an end to speculation with other people’s money; and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency” (Roosevelt 15). Banking was at the forefront of his policies in the first hundred days, but there were many other priorities, as well.
In addition to closing the banks and implementing many new federal agencies during the first hundred days, he and Congress drafted legislation regarding mortgages and loans. They created the Home Loan Act, the Farm Loan Act, and the Bankruptcy Act, which all helped safeguard property owners and workers who were out of work. There were also stricter regulations for the stock market, which had essentially created the Great Depression when it crashed in October 1929. He also created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which Congress allocated millions of dollars to help those in the most need around the country. However, Roosevelt did not sit back after the first one hundred days in office. The Great Depression essentially continued throughout the 30s until the advent of World War II, and because of this, Roosevelt continued to create programs and agencies that would help the country get back on its feet throughout his administrations.
THE NEW DEAL
Roosevelt knew one hundred days would not be enough to cure the ills of the country, and so, he created new policies throughout his first administration. Many of these policies are referred to as the New Deal, which continued through 1936 and the next presidential election. Some of the most meaningful legislation that occurred during the New Deal was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which was a far-reaching program to put Americans back to work. The WPA implemented a huge building program including dams and other public works projects that employed Americans all over the country. It was a time of massive exploration and building, from highways to public buildings and monuments. The project was meant to put blue-collar workers back to work, but it also designated programs for artists, photographers, writers, and other creative white-collar workers who were also desperate for work.
The New Deal also created various social programs aimed at helping people get back to work, but also to ensure all those in society were taken care of. Roosevelt created the Social Security Act in 1935 that would provide monthly payments to everyone over the age of 65, and would provide benefits to surviving spouses and disabled people, as well. The Social Security Act is still in existence today and still provides income and assistance for millions of Americans. One writer calls Social Security one of Roosevelt’s most enduring legacies. He writes, “Roosevelt’s other profound legacy, the transformation of the federal government into an instrument of income redistribution through Social Security, which established the responsibility of the state for the welfare of its elderly citizens” (Walker). It was relatively unheard of at the time, and it is only one of Roosevelt’s enduring legacies.
Many of these programs were initiated by Roosevelt and his advisors and then sent to Congress, while Congress passed and modified several acts on their own. Much of this depended on Roosevelt closely working with Congress and selling his policies to the American people, which he did with weekly radio broadcasts that he called “Fireside Chats.” Many of these “chats” have been preserved on tape and in print, and they show a man who was determined to end the depression and put Americans back to work, no matter the cost or difficulties involved. Many critics of Roosevelt and his policies felt his policies were too liberal or socialistic, and that he put the country in deficit spending – now a common occurrence. As the country began to slowly emerge from the Great Depression, production and jobs did begin to increase, but it was the war in Europe that really brought the country out of the depression. Because of events in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt also had to deal with foreign policies and increasing world tensions on the eve of World War II.
During the New Deal, Roosevelt again ran for the presidency and was overwhelming re-elected in 1936. He continued his work domestically, but began to broaden his foreign outlook as well. He was again re-elected in 1940, after Germany invaded Poland, which marked the beginning of World War II in Europe. In 1940, Roosevelt ran as a peace candidate who promised to keep the country out of the war (Abbott 162). That would all change of course, at the end of 1941.
THE GOOD NEIGHBOR POLICY
Roosevelt’s foreign policies were complex and vastly important to the nation. In 1933, as a reaction to trade difficulties with Central and South America, Roosevelt created the Good Neighbor Policy, which “emphasized cooperation and trade rather than military force to maintain stability in the hemisphere” (“Good Neighbor Policy”). Throughout the early 1930s, Roosevelt continued to work for foreign peace and against intervention by one country into another.
Roosevelt first spoke of his good neighbor policy during his inaugural address, so it was not a new idea that erupted as the situation in Europe deteriorated. He says, “In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor — the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others” (Roosevelt 16). In a 1935 speech, he continued this theme. He states, “The primary purpose of the United States of America is to avoid being drawn into war. We seek also in every practicable way to promote peace and to discourage war” (Roosevelt 55). Many critics of Roosevelt felt the policy was isolationist and kept the United States from interacting with European nations during a time of crisis, but at the time, most people supported the policy and hoped to keep out of the war in Europe.
While American remained a neutral ally in the first years of World War II, Roosevelt recognized the thereat Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party represented to Europe and democracy. In May, 1941 he says of Hitler, “Adolf Hitler never considered the domination of Europe as an end in itself. European conquest was but a step toward ultimate goals in all the other continents. It is unmistakably apparent to all of us that, unless the advance of Hitlerism is forcibly checked now, the Western Hemisphere will be in range of the Nazi weapons of destruction” (Roosevelt 272). He recognized Hitler was a great threat, but still felt Europe could combat him on their own, without American intervention. In his attempt to keep Hitler from world domination, he gave aid to Great Britain with sea escorts to help ensure supplies arrived safely, and providing them with weapons and ammunition (Roosevelt 280). In another address in October 1941, he notes, “For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it” (Roosevelt 295). Roosevelt recognized Hitler’s menace, but it was the Japanese who would force him to actually put the United States in jeopardy in Europe and Asia.
PEARL HARBOR and the AFTERMATH
On December 7, 1941, at approximately 8am (Hawaii Time), the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States was sucked into World War II. Roosevelt’s speech to Congress called the attack “a day which will live in infamy” (Roosevelt 301), and it is still recognized as one of the darkest days in American history, outdone only by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The attacks occurred in the early afternoon Washington time. Immediately, Roosevelt drafted a speech he would deliver to Congress the next day – December 8. In it, he asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and because Japan was an ally of Germany, Germany as well. This brought the U.S. directly into World War II. In the speech, he noted Japan had launched several simultaneous attacks against other Pacific nations such as Hong Kong and Midway Island. He says, “Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation” (Roosevelt 303). However, Roosevelt did not simply ask Congress to declare war and then did nothing to support it.
As expected, Roosevelt quickly had a broad plan that would help ensure American superiority in machinery and manpower. In a December 9 address to the nation, he noted he was asking any industry involved in warfare machinery or production to work seven days a week at increased production. He also urged companies to build more new plants quickly, so they could add to the production of wartime necessities, such as planes, ships, ammunition, and transportation. At first, rationing did not take place, but later during the war, Roosevelt would implant food and some material rationing, such as gas and rubber, to ensure there were enough raw materials to service the armed forces, first (Roosevelt 308-309). By early 1942, however, rationing was in place, and the American people were getting used to doing without everything from sugar to butter and nylon stockings.
Roosevelt went into action immediately after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and showed the nation a strong and determined man who was resolute in righting the wrong against the American people. He brought the country into the war as a safety measure, and then ensured American production industry was up to the challenge. He also met with allied leaders many times in an attempt to forge peace, but he would not live to see it. Perhaps his most controversial reaction to the Pearl Harbor attacks was the incarceration of all Japanese and Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast. Shortly after the war began, Japanese and American citizens were rounded up and herded to internment camps located throughout the inland Western United States. It is one of the darkest memories of the war, and even today, many Japanese-Americans are bitter about this chapter in U.S. history.
Of course, the U.S. went on to dominate the war, winning the European war in on “V-E Day,” May 8, 1945, when Germany finally signed a surrender in Berlin. Victory in the Pacific came on August 15, 1945, (“V-J Day”) when Japanese Emperor Hirohito signed the articles of surrender on board a U.S. ship anchored off the coast of Japan. Unfortunately, the end of the Pacific war was precipitated by the dropping of two nuclear bombs, one on Hiroshima on August 6, and another on Nagasaki on August 9. Roosevelt did not live to see peace; he died in April 1945.
In conclusion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of the most loved and admired American presidents. He accomplished so much during his twelve years in office it is difficult not to see why. Roosevelt helped bring the country out of the Great Depression, led the country into war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and created some of the most far reaching and memorable legislation and government agencies in the history of the presidency. There is another legacy that can never be taken away from Roosevelt. After he died, Congress passed legislation that no president could serve more than two terms in office. Roosevelt was the only man elected to four terms, and unless Congress modifies the legislation, he will remain the only man to ever do so. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, when he was only 63 years old. Still in office when he died, the presidency passed to Vice-President Harry Truman. Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, went on to become a legendary stateswoman herself, and helped initiate and create the United Nations. Known as the “First Lady of the World,” she traveled widely and worked tirelessly for world peace and humanitarianism until her death in 1962 at the age of 78.
Abbott, Philip. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.
Editors. “Good Neighbor Policy: 1933.” U.S. Department of State. 2007. 24 July 2007. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/id/17341.htm
Editors. “Franklin D. Roosevelt Biography.” FDR Library. 2007. 24 July 2007. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/fdrbio.html
Roosevelt, Franklin D. Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932-1945. Ed B.D. Zevin. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Walker, Martin. “FDR’s Legacy.” The National Interest Winter 2003: 142+.
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