Roosevelt: The Real Deal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s genius inspired hope during the Great Depression and played a crucial role in the Second World War.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board a US warship, c.1935.One of the United States’ greatest-ever chief executives, Franklin Delano Roosevelt invented the modern presidency through his strong leadership during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Over four terms, FDR built a coalition of labour, ethnic, urban, low-income and African-American voters that underwrote Democratic Party ascendancy until 1980.

Dallek offers a compelling political biography of the president he considers uniquely skilled in judging the public mood to build a national consensus on the basis of stable popular support.

When FDR succeeded the dour Herbert Hoover, a quarter of America’s workforce was jobless and the banking system was on the point of collapse. He used his memorable inaugural address as the first step in promoting confidence that America would overcome its greatest crisis since the Civil War. His New Deal improved matters, but the prosperity of full employment only returned in wartime. Unimpressed by Keynesian doctrine, Roosevelt held back from large-scale deficit spending until defence needs proved it indispensable as a growth stimulant. Nevertheless, the New Deal made federal government a vital presence in US society. It created a welfare state, stabilised the banking system, validated labour rights, improved rural life and transformed public infrastructure. Yet the Rooseveltian realism that Dallek admires placed limits on social activism. To appease conservative interests, FDR excluded many non-whites and women from social security coverage, did little for civil rights, privileged landowners over tenants and sharecroppers and favoured suburbs over inner cities in housing policy.

FDR’s powers in wartime far exceeded his peacetime authority. In misrepresenting the extent to which he was aiding Britain in 1941, in asserting questionable legitimacy to expedite war mobilisation and, by violating the civil liberties of 120,000 Japanese-Americans through their relocation in internment camps, Roosevelt laid the foundations for presidential flouting of constitutional constraints during the Cold War. More positively, he rallied the nation amid early military setbacks in the Pacific. With most Americans wanting revenge on Japan following Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt rightly insisted on prioritising the defeat of Nazi Germany. He also understood the necessity of maintaining the United Nations’ alliance until the Axis powers were defeated. Thus, he did not press Churchill into granting India dominion status to stiffen resistance against threatened Japanese invasion and understood his limited leverage for getting Stalin to respect the sovereignty of Eastern European nations under Red Army occupation.

Dallek deftly analyses how the personal and political interacted in FDR’s life. After discovering her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, Eleanor Roosevelt forged an independent existence but later played a major role in his presidency as its liberal conscience and acute observer of the state of the nation.

Wheelchair-bound after contracting polio at 39, Roosevelt channelled his energy into politics and displayed newfound empathy towards victims of calamity. With media collusion, he hid his paralysis from the public, most of whom only thought him lame. However, a sedentary lifestyle and heavy smoking, combined with the pressures of his work, resulted in hypertension and heart disease, probably as early as 1942. Aware he was ill but not how gravely, he sought a fourth term in 1944, determined to see the war through and shape the peace. He suffered a fatal cerebral haemorrhage just weeks before Germany’s surrender.

Specialists will find few surprises in this volume, but it is a masterly, elegant biography of the president whose legacy of domestic activism and realistic internationalism shaped modern America. Notwithstanding Roosevelt’s flaws, Dallek convincingly portrays him as the embodiment of great presidential leadership.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
Robert Dallek
Allen Lane 692pp £30

Iwan Morgan is Professor of US Studies at the Institute of the Americas, University College London.