My friend whom I’ll call “Carl Ortona” sent me, amidst much recent email traffic, a “mini-review” of Conrad Black’s recent biography Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. Since my occasional favorable comments about FDR on this blog have provoked so much (admittedly thoughtful, articulate) outrage, I decided to pass it on. (OK, I admit it is a little like trolling on my own blog, but what the Hell):

Black’s FDR is very good. Black can seem precious, and in places, his precocious, arrogant yet eager-to-impress schoolboy attitude comes through; e.g., he latches onto the word “pulchritudinous” and uses it throughout in place of fetching, pretty, elegant, etc. — ditto for saturnine, and latin legal phrases — when he describes FDRs sisters dress as p., I said, that’s it, make a mental note and mention it to everybody. Having said all of that, it is a good book and Black demonstrates his thesis amply, that FDR is one of the greatest, arguably the greatest American president, ever.

Black does a good job of demonstrating both FDRs innate sense of genuine compassion and “folksiness” (like the story Allan Bloom loved to tell about Roosevelt addressing the DAR as “we fellow immigrants”). FDRs cold, almost inhuman political utility and cunning, his “almost feminine” sensitivities to personalities, character flaws, strengths, weaknesses, etc. and his ability to seemingly blissfully, callously outwait a crisis until the moment presented itself for striking (for example, keeping Kennedy in the embassy in London despite his pro-Nazi/pro-appeasement attitudes because he needed him to get re-elected; not taking sides in the Spanish civil war because there was nothing to gain by doing so and a lot to gain by staying out even at the expense of appearing inhuman, uncompassionate, etc). Black gives an account in this respect of what a democratic, ‘res publica’ republican Machiavellian really is (yes, a positive usage of Machiavellian). Black’s account of FDR and Stalin and (his claim, not without merit) of FDRs mastery of high-stakes poker is interesting counterpoint to the more common images of FDR being “duped” at Tehran and Yalta. After reading Black’s book I was talking with my parents and my dad made the interesting point that even as a kid he remembered pretty vividly the horrific dread that with FDR dead, “how the hell do we get out of this?” that hit almost everybody. Vis-a-vis De Gaulle, Black also provides one of the best accounts of why the French are the French and so damned infuriating (pp. 957-62,There’s your mini-review. I made it my bed-time/Sunday afternoon reading and got throught it in two months.

I responded as follows:

One of my long-time pet peeves has been the utter failure of big-C Conservatives to see that it was the small-c conservative FDR who saved our bacon. The 1930s and ’40s were times of utter catastrophe, and FDR got us through it with our basic institutions intact, and with the greatest aggregation of military, economic and political power the world has ever seen. Good. It is foolhardy to think this happened by accident. On a related point, there is a lot of whining about the “betrayal” of Eastern Europe, as if FDR could have gone to Yalta and told Stalin what to do. The Red Army captured Eastern Europe. On this issue FDR played a weak, almost non-existent, hand very well. And, as you say, he had utter callousness about abandoning hopeless positions, or people who were no longer of use, with a wave of his cigarette holder. As a follow-up, you should read the relevant portions of AJP Taylor’s good but idiosyncratic book English History, 1914-45. Taylor’s portrait of FDR, as I recall it, is of a man who knew what he wanted, and did and said what he needed to do and say to get it. This is consistent with what you say about Black’s depiction. FDR went after his political and military goals with a focus and cunning which amounted on many occasions to brutality. Again, good. He was not a nice man. In the ’30s and ’40s nice men in positions of authority would have been consumed and destroyed along with everything they were responsible for protecting. Not FDR. Another book which praises FDR, but backs it up with evidence, is Commander In Chief: Franklin Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War by Eric Larrabee. Larrabee demonstrates, among other things, that FDR possessed one of the greatest gifts any executive can have – he knew how to select excellent men, work around their defects to get the most from them, and to delegate what needed to be delegated.

Mr. Ortona went last with this:

There’s always more to add in praise and criticism, but that’s why you read the book and not the critics. I was going to put a comment on your blog about Eastern Europe when the topic came up at a little while ago because it was such an improbable, impossible situation — even to refer to as the Augean Stables is to suggest that there was some Herculean solution that was overlooked or muffed. My only criticism is that Bohemia and Prague were within the 3rd Army’s grasp and that it made some strategic and grand strategic sense to hold it. And that is small fry; It was a 90 year war, and FDR was right (about how to ultimately defeat Stalin). Like Pericles or Lincoln, the only solution would have been for him to not die, serve a fifth or sixth term (highly unlikely) and/or live to be 90 (like Solzehnytsin has Stalin claim in the First Circle, “because the work is not finished…” so many people still need to be eradicated, and humanity have its face shoved into a bowl of milk like a blind, new-born puppy, “there, there’s your happiness, drink up”). It is also now almost entirely forgotten that the Republicans and conservatives were rabidly isolationist and “militantly” anti-militant — any effort to even re-arm was interpreted as a return to pie-eyed Wilsonian “engagement” and was treacherous turf pre-1938 — and that FDR had to rely on the South and put up with their antics (including not pushing too hard against even efforts to stonewall “anti-lynching laws”) while trying to solve real, as opposed to imaginary, racial problems.

I’ll add here that David Frum’s interview with Conrad Black was very good. If this topic interests you, do please read it. Black put one thing very well, describing FDR’s “economic and social programs” as “second or third class economics but first class catastrophe avoidance.” That is precisely correct. Catastrophe was very much in the air in those days.

Michael Barone’s assessment (from his masterpiece, Our Country) is worth citing at length. He notes that his study of American politics from 1928-1988, he focuses on the role of “pivotal politicians”, and that:

Towering above them all, in my view, is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just as Lincoln remade his country in the crucible of the Civil War, so Roosevelt remade his country in the crucibles of the Depression and World War II. … [E]ven in the direst moments he exuded an absolute confidence in the American future that was an essential ingredient of economic recovery and military victory. Roosevelt had his political setbacks, he had his share of silly ideas and perhaps more, his modus operandi was so on occasion so devious as to be dishonest, and in his love of his countrymen he tolerated some failings that later generations would find intolerable. To some he appeared disorganized, slapdash, cheerful to the point of flippancy.

Yet under that carefree exterior was … an iron self-discipline, and beneath his seeming penchant for disorganization was a determination to see that the important goals were achieved. It was not inevitable … that the dizzying downward spiral of the economy be stopped in March 1933, nor was it inevitable in December 1941 that we would win the war – it was inevitable that we not lose but to win we had to go forward and do some very difficult things. But Franklin Roosevelt led his country out of the downward spiral and to total victory, and part of the secret of his success was that through the air of confidence he always maintained, in private and in public, he made recovery and victory seem inevitable even though they were not.

A.J.P. Taylor summed up FDR’s achievement from the British perspective: “Of the three great men at the top, Roosevelt was the only one who knew what he was doing. He made the United States the greatest power in the world at virtually no cost.” Taylor, in a famous footnote, lists Churchill resume, and concludes “saviour of his country”. FDR would be entitled to that, plus others even grander.

34 thoughts on “FDR”

  1. “Greatest power in the world at virtually no cost”??

    My 2 crippled grandfathers would disagree with that.

    More political critique of FDR later.

  2. Since when is 450,000 dead and a couple trillion dollars considered “no cost”?

    I am continually puzzled by so-called Conservatives who deify FDR and Lincoln for that matter.

    If FDR had died sometime before 1941 I would list him as America’s 2nd worst president, right after Lincoln. World War II certainly redeemed him somewhat, although I have read a lot of criticisms of his handling of the war and especially the way he engineered our entry into it that prevent me from giving a full thumbs up. Also his foolish trust of Stalin set the stage for the next 50 years of Cold War. Maybe that was inevitable but he didn’t see it coming, he thought the Soviets were our friends.

    For simplicity, I seperate FDR into 2 distinct Presidents: 1) the neo-fascist who made the depression much worse by raising taxes, forcefully catelizing the markets for food, labor and industrial goods making them all more expensive at a time when people were starvuing and needed cheaper goods to survive, and 2) the President that lead the nation in the second World War to defeat the European fascists (whom he was ironically trying to emulate a few years earlier).

    In short FDR and Lincoln both took advantage of circumstances where they had overwhelming majorities and unconstitutionally grabbed large chunks of new government power. As opposed to the literature of many of his most fawning apologists (many of whom apparently have no knowledge of economics), FDR’s handling of the Great Depression made it worse, not better. His explanation that the Great Depression was caused by greedy capitalists and Wall Street stock manipulators (essentially Hoover’s claim as well) is almost laughable with today’s knowledge of eonomics, but there were plenty of people who understood the real causes at the time, he just chose to ignore them because he saw his chance to use the crisis to push his own personal vision of a much empowered federal government to control the economy. He provided economists with the unique task of coming up with a name for a depression inside of a depression (’37-’38). Thank goodness a lot of his more Fascist programs like the NRA, the NIRA and numerous other government enforced price fixing, cartelization plans were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court(leading to FDR’s failed attempt to “pack the court” with more judges friendly to his policies).

    FDR’s legacy is still with us not only with the economic superstitions that still run deep through the Democratic party, but with his enormous and ever-growing regulatory aparatus that stifles competition, raises prices and enforces cartelization. Social Security may be his most enduring legacy, one that may well bankrupt our nation.

    It never ceases to amaze me that true Conservatives (as opposed to Neo-conservatives)would claim FDR as somebody who embodies everything they believe in. Had the Supreme court not reigned him in we very well could have become a Fascist government patterned after Mussolini’s Italy. Don’t think that so far-fetched.

    Read “FDR’s Folly” by Jim Powell of CATO. He makes a much better case than I ever could.

  3. I also like Jim Powell’s book. In high school history i always was bothered by how FDR’s handling of the depression was lauded, and it seemed it took us longer to get out of it than anyone else. Powell’s book summarizes a lot of what went wrong.

    I wish the book had more stats and graphs however. It’s difficult to use it to support an argument, because you have to go to the references in the footnotes. Sometimes you get to dig out the secondary source Powell used to find the primary source that has the actual hard data…

    Matya no baka

  4. I was once part of the “We should have turned the German armies around and let Patton run” school of thought. This was partially from Patton’s autobiography and the George C. Scott movie, and partially from having 3 grandparents born in Lithuania.

    I then became interested in pushing lead models of tanks around on the gaming table, which led to reading a bit harder information on the sizes of armies, weapons capabilities, generalship etc. Like Lexington, i don’t think we could have taken on Stalin militarily.

    However, it seems that we should have been able to do better diplomatically than we did. It’s interesting to contrast Averil Harriman’s _Envoy to Churchill and Stalin_ with Brian Crozier’s _The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire_. _Envoy_ paints a picture of folk trying to get along with an admitedly problematic leader, often as not succumbing to Stalin’s charisma. _Rise_ shows a well thought out diplomatic offensive with plenty of disinformation and later reinterpretation, particularly on the meaning of “self determination”. And then there is the note that Harry Hopkins, who did some amount of our post war negotiation, was an NKVD agent of influence…

    Matya no baka

  5. “His explanation that the Great Depression was caused by greedy capitalists and Wall Street stock manipulators (essentially Hoover’s claim as well) is almost laughable with today’s knowledge of eonomics, but there were plenty of people who understood the real causes at the time, he just chose to ignore them because he saw his chance to use the crisis to push his own personal vision of a much empowered federal government to control the economy.”

    So what was the real cause of the Great Depression?

  6. “So what was the real cause of the Great Depression?”

    As with all economic events, there is no short answer. To create a calamity of that magnitude, one that has never been equaled before or since in recorded US history, there has to be significant confluence of events.

    To start, simplistic falacy number 1: the Stock Market Crash of 1929 certainly did not cause the Great Depression. The US had been through numerous events of similar magnitude before, but never lead to a decade and a half of depression.

    The US had also been through numerous sharp contractions, one as recent as 1920-21, that didn’t drag the economy down for over a decade.

    Milton Friedman’s “Monetary History of the United States (1867-1960)” is a serious, in depth look at what happened from an economics perspective, specifically focusing on the statistics involving the money supply. It is a dense, difficult read but it is well woth the time and effort.

    Falacy number 2: the number of bank failures occurred because the banking system wasn’t regulated tightly enough. Actually what happened was that the “unit banking laws” which forbid large money-center banks from opening branches throughout the country lead to thousands of small banks around the country, most precariously living near the edge leanding money to the same people who deposited their money with them. When the local economy was bad not only did people pull their deposits but they also defaulted on their loans. About 90% of the bank failures were of this type, but over the entire depression this only added up to a small fraction of the amount of money lost on one day on Wall Street: October 29, 1929.

    To illustrate this point, Canada experienced all of the same economic conditions but with zero bank failures (vs. thousands in the US). But Canada only had 10 large banks, each with hundreds or even thousands of branches across the country. These bank’s sheer size and ability to move money around enabled them whether the calamity without runs on them or have to suspend payments. Of course Roosevelt thought that these kind of large national banks were the problem, not the solution, and he worked to pass even more laws to hamper this important industry.

    Simplistic falacy number 3: Laissez Fair policies of Coolidge and Hoover the 1920’s lead to the Great Depression. First, by the 1920’s the US economy was hardly in a state of unregulated bliss. The Federal Reserve was in it’s first full decade of regulating banking and controlling the money supply, and the progressivist policies implemented before WWI lead to a lot more regulation than some realize. But the real falacy is that Hoover was a do-nothing, Laissez Fair president who let the country slip in to Depression while he twidled his thumbs.

    Nothing could be faurther from the truth. Almost from the stock market crash Hoover’s administration set out to replicate the government control of the economy that he and Roosevelt had experience with as members of the government during WWI. Most of their policies were identical, and in very broad terms they both agreed that “Wild Speculators” and “Greedy Capitalists” were ultimately to blame. Hoover also believed, as did FDR, that the contraction was caused by low wages (actually the reverse is true) and that the government should do everything it could to increase wages and prices.

    One of his most infamous government actions was signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, which delivered a swift kick to the groin of a world economy that was already contracting. Possibly his most damning action.

    Hoover also raised taxes significantly in a vein attempt to balance the budget. Big mistake. Again, Roosevelt would repeat this mistake more than once, tripling taxes by the time he was finished.

    IF Hoover had “done nothing” as history paints him, the economy might well have recovered around 1931, and the event would simply be called “the recession of 1929-31”, no different from any number of sharp contractions in US history.

    That’s all I have for now, but we still haven’t even touched on the biggest falacy of all: The belief by FDR that monetary policy was irrelevant.

    In short, the great depression was casused by frightfully bad government (especialy at the Fedderal Reserve which I will get to), not Laissez Fair capitalism and unregulated markets.

    If you get the disease wrong, the cure will probaly be wrong as well.

    Part II later.

  7. A quick addition to DSpears point on the stock market crash. The business peak was in mid 1929, the crash was in October. The bull market of course had to end when business turned down. To the extent that events cause other events in economics it might be claimed that the downturn caused the stock market crash. And of course the crash had terrible repercussions on business investment, reinforcing the downturn.

    Matya no baka

  8. Part II: Monetary Policy

    As Milton Friedman has been saying most of the last 40 years, the fate of the economy, expansion or contraction, inflation or deflation can be traced to the behavior (increase or decrease and especially the rate of increase or decrease) of the money supply. “Inflation (or deflation) is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”.

    But my favorite quote from Friedman is “Monetary policy is too important to trust to central bankers”. Friedman’s primary thesis is that the Great Depression would simply have been a sharp but not abnormally prolonged recession had monetary policy been accomodative during the critical juncture after the stock market crash (as was the case in 1987 and 2000) the downward spiral that ocurred from ’29-’33 would have been avoided.

    To trace things backwards, monetary policy had been resonably steady during most of the 20’s with a mild recession in ’23-’24 and economic growth coulpled with price stability or maybe even slight deflation (in a lot of technological industries like autos prices were coming down dramatically due to productivity). A time very similar to the 1990’s. Starting in ’28 the British were having a inflationary crisis (due to trying to re-instate the gold standard at the pre-WWI price which required a big increase in their money supply) and Gold was flowing out of the country. In order to help them out the Fed cut US interest rates and sold gold, effectively adding money to the money supply. With an economy near full production most of the increased money supplied fueled a Stock Market boom. Concerned that the Stock Market was “irrationally exuberant” to borrow a term, the Fed started dramatically hiking interest rates. This slowed the economy, reduced the liquidity and lead to the crash of ’29.

    Now, up to this point this looks remarkably like the Asian currency crisis of ’98 and the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000. The same sequence of events is almost scary in a way. But in late 2000 and 2001 when it was obvious that the economy was in recession the Fed started increasing the money supply instead of contracting it, which is what the Fed did from ’29-’33.

    During the period ’29-’33 the money supply fell by over a third with the now predictable result of deflating prices and contracting the economy, both by proportional amounts. In fact in 1931 the Fed dramatically hiked rates again, contracting teh money supply further, just as the economy was starting to recover.

    The reasons this happened are many (internal politics at the Fed, faulty understanding of what the real conditions of the market were at the time and the limited scope with which the Fed governors viewed their jobs) but they lead to enormous economic problems and the closure of thousands of mostly small banks with few assets.

    In light of this very condensed and simplified version of the economics of the time, the (very popular) idea that the depression was caused by greedy capitalists, wall street speculators, laissez fair capitalism and a Hoover administration that sat idly by and did nothing is almost child-like in it’s over-simplification.

    The contraction of ’29-’33 was caused and worsened by bad government vigorously misapplying bad policy: Smoot-Hawley, the biggest tax increase in US history to that point, numerous regulations and interferences aimed at raising wages and prices (at the expense of profits) at a time when wages and prices needed to be reduced so that business could recover and people with less money to spend could afford goods, especially food.

    The Fed did (didn’t do) it’s part by letting the money supply contract so dramatically. The Fed was orinially charted in order to supply money to the markets in times of crisis as a lender of last resort. It failed in that aspect miserably, along with creating the stock market bubble in the first place and then popping it suddenly.

    Bad Government caused the Great Contraction. Bad Government then turned it into the Great Depression, not returning the US standard of living to it’s pre-1929 level until after WWII.

    The cyclical trough was reached in March 1933, at nearly the exact time that FDR took office.

    That’s where FDR comes in….a chapter that could be entitled “kicking a man while he’s down”.

    Part III later.

  9. DSpears, thanks for the extraordinary effort in rebuttal. I, or possibly Carl Ortona himself, or both of us, will address these points — though I cannot promise the same degree of detail.

    I will say that I am in about 98% agreement with this: “the idea that the depression was caused by greedy capitalists, wall street speculators, laissez fair capitalism and a Hoover administration that sat idly by and did nothing is almost child-like in it’s over-simplification.” Your comments about the US and Canadian banking systems are also correct. And, in fact, I find myself agreeing with much of what you are writing. So to some extent we may find ourselves arguing at cross purposes. We shall see.

    I am familiar with Powell’s argument, from reviews. I have ordered the book. I could give you the short version of my response to it, but I will not tip my hand in a comment. And I’ll at least respect Powell enough to look through his book before I try to respond to it.

    David Mercer, I don’t think AJP Taylor meant to disparage the suffering of the killed and wounded Americans, including your grandfathers, and I know I didn’t. But your comment points to the larger issue of costs, and assessing costs of political or military action or inaction, and I hope to take those issues up in a sequel as well.

  10. Let me second the economic analysis and preface my two cents worth of contribution(s) with the coy admission that economics of any sort are not my strong suit — but so many interesting points have been raised, why not address them. First, I think as good as your analysis is, it begs the question, was such a thorough understanding of market forces, money supply, wage/price ratios available to economists and bureaucrats at the time when it mattered? It seems much of this insight is wrought from the bitter land of the 30s after the fact and not a priori(and reminds me of a joke an economist friend of mine who used to work at the Fed likes to tell about his profession: a physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island with a crate of canned food and no can opener; after the physicist’s and chemist’s theories for opening the cans prove to be disasterous, the economist pipes up, “I’ve got a working model that will solve our problem …. My theoretical model does require the validity of certain assumptions. First, let’s assume we have a can opener …”). Second, neither Hoover nor any potential Republican rivals had a working set of solutions that stand up to the scrutiny legitimately applied to FDR’s various stages of econ. recovery — Hoover thought that selling apples in the street must be the up and coming industry because so many people were doing it. Something needed to be done, alot of things needed to be done, and FDR did them. Some worked, some failed and were quietly shut down.
    What is far more important is the political side of political economy. I agree wholeheartedly that there never was (and never will be) a golden age of perfect laissez faire. And this is what intrigued me, by the way, to start the exchange with Lex. If a staunch pro-business “capitalist” like Conrad Black can spend his evenings writing an 1100+ paean to FDR, it is worth looking into the issue once again. And it was the genuine politics of FDR’s position that is interesting. Confidence was incredibly low — I don’t subscribe to the determinist thesis that “desperate men do desperate things” (hence Weimar’s disintegration into Nazism is purely a function of the economic wretchedness brought on by the Versailles Treaty and then the Depression) — but very few countries resisted the embrace of radical, totatilitarian answers. Black, of all people, lauds (with some reservations) FDR’s rhetoric of going after phantom “greedy capitalists” and “stock manipulators” without naming names, so to speak. More important were the political risks involved — FDR knew what the real risks were (fascism and soviet communisim) and had the political courage and foresight to begin readying the US for a long battle. He made advances to the Eden and Chamberlain governments before the Munich accords, he “gently” began the lengthy process of preparing US public opinion for greater “international involvement” at a time when any committment to internationalism was largely viewed as a betrayal of the “Ameican people” to witless, mendacious “un-American” foreign powers and as a Navy man, he foresaw the crucial role of air power before any one else of political significance did — he even “arranged” for unassembled air craft to be “assembled” over the border in Mackenzie King’s Canada for shipment to Britain at a time the Brits desperately needed them and before lend-lease. He was charismatic, folksy, shrewd, hard-headed and hard-hearted when need be, but he was far from a “neo-fascist” as one post opined — indeed, I will go so far as to say FDR nipped a possible American infatuation with such leadership in the bud by keeping MacArthur in the Pacific, even though Mac’s initial handling of the attack on the Phillipines warranted an inquiry, not a reward of theater commander.

    This is a massive, far-flung and exciting topic; let me just recon Black’s seven main claims regarding FDR
    1) He was, with Churchill, the co-saviour of Western Civilization. Are the Nazis running Europe? No. Did Stalin cross the Rhine? No. Was Japan defeated, and along with Germany, turned into a Western-oriented liberal democratic, free market state? Yes.

    2) Would America have emerged from its profound isolation, as late as 1937, and moved as readily to re-arm as it did, before Pearl Harbor, without FDR? No. FDR forced American engagement in the world on the American people by persuasion, subtlely, bluster, and force of argument. He brought this change in opinion about, in short through leadership, not fascist megalomania.

    3) The weakest or at least most contentious point: He radically redefined the American state. Social security, “work fare,” the WPA, industrial recovery, … a mixed bag. Could the apparatus and scope of the US government successfully have prosecuted WWII, defined and protected American interests and contained the USSR as it stood pre-FDR? No.

    4) FDR was the only great political leader of the 30s and 40s, except Churchill, who was not an embarassment and was in fact uniformly successful militarily: Let me quote Black at length as this is somewhat surprising, but illustrates why political judgment trumps military acumen: “his strategic insights were almost always accurate, even though he made no pretense to being a military strategist, and he harassed his commanders far less than Churchill, let alone Hitler or Stalin. His command appointments were excellent. Marshall, Nimitz, MacArthur and King were personal choices of FDR’s, and Eisenhower was agreed to on Marshall’s recommendation. All performed well; most performed brilliantly. He never wavered on the Germany-first strategy, even on the day of Pearl Harbor. He was an early champion of air power, and aircraft carrier construction …. At times of supreme crisis — Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Ardennes — he was imperturbable, and he was admired by all of his subordinates, even MacArthur and conspicuously by Patton. At the border of military and political strategy, his acute intuition was a sure guide. It enabled him to judge how long Stalin could be left to take 90% of the casualties… before he might be tempted compose his differences with Hitler as he had done in 1939; how long the British and Americans could operate on the periphery of the main theater before moving to assure that most of the geopolitically useful Europe was in their hands and not Russia’s. The managment of relations with Stalin and Churchill in these matters, … required almost preternatural insight and finesse.” (Black, p. 1125-26). (vis-a-vis an earlier post about Taylor, you are right and wrong — America paid a steep, steep price, but 1) they had to in order to confront Nazism, 2) as horrific the costs, they were “cheap” compared to Churchill’s England (lose a 400 year old Empire) and Stalin’s Russia (lose 10s of millions of men for gaining an even greater political, economic and military sinkhole/drain in the form of Eastern Europe).

    5) FDR alone created the circumstances for the West’s post-war success (This is a topic onto itself, but I’ll throw it out there)

    6) FDR’s complete mastery of American politics — again, a contentious issue, but I will go with results. Did he preserve American institutions? yes. Is the US still a democracy? yes. Churchill almost got dumped by his riding’s conservatives because they thought his speech attacking Chamberlain after Munich was declasse and dirty politics. FDR always finessed these situations. His reputation justifiably suffers still because of the court packing scheme, some nasty personal vendettas, and other issues, but his mastery of politics — democratic politics — is unrivalled. Don’t call the guy a “fascist” because he was successful. This is all the more amazing because FDR knew what Americans wanted but made no pretense about being “just an average guy” — he was an aristocrat of the “bourgeois, British” variety.

    7) FDR accomplished all of this while stricken with polio which required immense physical courage and resilience — Black put it nicely: “this was an era when a physical handicap was perceived as an electoral liability. No one can know what solitudes, renunciations and inhibitions he was subjected, and what feats of will and courage were necessary to surmount them” (Black, 1131).

    Quite a bit, but barely scratches the surface. Hope to stoke the fires of punditry.

  11. Well he was at the very least a demagogue. I’d still like the old deal back, thank you very much.

    Would abortion, gun control, gay marriage, education and drugs be such contentious issues if they weren’t Federalized, winner take all battles?

    I think not, and that was the inherent wisdom of our divided Republic. FDR’s packed court put the hobnails in that one real good: they changed the freakin’ normative view on such matters, and within a generation the Great Society it laid the goundwork for really got busy trashing our society.

    That’s the true hidden cost of FDR’s legacy. Was what we were when it was all over worth saving?

    THAT is what must be weighed in the balance against Western Europe, Japan and Germany. Our Republic was the price.

    Lincoln, FDR and Johnson: the 3 greatest criminals against the Republic

    Let’s see if Ashcroft and Bush can make the list!

  12. Oh, and note that I was using very specific terminology above when I said “criminals against the Republic”: Lincoln certainly saved the United States Govt. as a going concern, and who knows what would have happened without FDR, so both very well could fairly legitimately have been said to have “saved the nation”.

    But they did it’s Republican form of govt. no good. It’s not particularly turning out like I was lied in school and told that it was (bloody hell, it already wasn’t at the time!)

    If Padilla is declared an unlawful combatant by the Supremes this June, that’s it, game over. Treason was defined in the Constitution so that charges of it couldn’t be used to treat political opponents in the fashion that ‘unlawful combatants’ receive, in the current vernacular. He’s a native born Citizen, so try him and hang his ass in a proper court. Hamdi was on an open field of battle on foreign soil, and those guys in Gitmo are POW’s. But the Padilla case is the acid test of the final shreds of the Republic.

    Ashcroft and Bush are actively seeking the culmination of where conservatives at the time warned FDR was taking the country with rampant Federalization.

    Welcome to the bottom of the slippery slope!

  13. Again, I conveniently seperate the 2 FDR’s (the new deal FDR and the WWII FDR). I’m not an expert on WWII, so I will leave any praise for FDR from that period without comment. America’s entry into WWII was the single most important event of the 20th century and he made that happen, whatever the means. I’ll leave it at that.

    But I do fault him (and many of his closest aides) for the “new deal” and the repercussion we still feel today from it.

    “First, I think as good as your analysis is, it begs the question, was such a thorough understanding of market forces, money supply, wage/price ratios available to economists and bureaucrats at the time when it mattered? ”

    Yes, there were people at the time who did understand a lot of these things, even if they didn’t have the statistical or theoretical tools to deal with them. It’s called classical economics. The events of ’29-’33 were incorrectly attributed to the failure classical economics, that somehow the new idustrial world of the 1930’s no longer followed the old rules. Actually, the government of the time had slowly moved to more interventionism in the years following the first World War. The basicas of economics didn’t change, government did.

    “Second, neither Hoover nor any potential Republican rivals had a working set of solutions that stand up to the scrutiny legitimately applied to FDR’s various stages of econ. recovery — Hoover thought that selling apples in the street must be the up and coming industry because so many people were doing it. Something needed to be done, alot of things needed to be done, and FDR did them. Some worked, some failed and were quietly shut down.”

    I’m making no excuses for Hoover or the Republicans in congress who passed Smoot-Hawley. But despite the popular account of the period, Hoover did do something, he did a lot of things, many of the same character as FDR (more government intervention) but he did resist the more fascist programs (like GE chairman Swope’s plan for instance) that the “first” new deal tried to implement.

    Ultimately what American needed in this time period was “do-nothing” president and congress. It certainly did not get it.

    “FDR’s rhetoric of going after phantom “greedy capitalists” and “stock manipulators” without naming names, so to speak.”

    This sort of rhetoric did enorous damage by paralyzing the very business commuunity that was in desperate need of a reason to expand their businesses. Instead they got hostility and threats of take over and prosecution. The witch-hunt mentality of the day was fed by FDR because he knew it would make him popular. He was not an ideologue, he was a political opportunist, and the popular sentiment against business, banks, and wall street were things a more responsible statesman would have played down, instead of fanning their flames.

    ” More important were the political risks involved — FDR knew what the real risks were (fascism and soviet communisim) and had the political courage and foresight to begin readying the US for a long battle.”

    I don’t think FDR looked at fascism and communism as bad things at all. He admired them. He admired Stalin’s system that had supposedly kept the Soviet industries employed when America fell into deep unemployment (of course later we would learned a lot more about what really went on in Stalin’s slave labor system) and his first new deal was patterned after the Italian Fascism of Mussolini. Only after the the fasicsts started invading other countries did FDR find anything wrong with fascism. These were popular sentiments at the time for sure and he was not the only person to be hypnotized by the allure of government provided prosperity. But to portray him as some sort of crusader against socialism doesn’t paint an accurate picture.

    “Did he preserve American institutions? yes.”

    Which American institutions did he “preserve”? Certainly not the Constitution which he thought to be an antiquated document not relevant to modern times.

    “Is the US still a democracy? yes”.

    I will freely admit that, just like every other president this country has had America was still a democracy after his tenure.

    …”but his mastery of politics — democratic politics — is unrivalled.”

    I just don’t see anything there to admire. Being a great politician is not something to aspire to, in my eyes anyway.

    “Don’t call the guy a “fascist” because he was successful.”

    I label him a fascist because he tried to implement a fascist system of government control of the economy. It was far reaching, controlled almost everything, and used the police power of the government to prosecute people for all number of offenses like charging a few cents too little for milk and dry cleaners giving discounts. The dreaded “Blue Eagle” campaign was copied straight from the the Italian and German fascists, and the forced cartelization of several large industries was textbook fascism. Thank goodness that the Supreme Court declared the NRA and NIRA unconstitutional (by a slim margin) or there’s no telling where it could have lead. Would FDR have rescinded democratic rule and installed himself as dictator? Doubtful. The democratic spirit runs pretty deep in Americans and I doubt that it could happen even if he had tried (I don’t think he would have). But I’m glad we didn’t have to find out. I think FDR believed in Democracy, he just didn’t put as much faith in it as, say Thomas Jefferson.

    Good discussion, I hope this one doesn’t die a premature death like so many otehr blog discussions.

  14. “The weakest or at least most contentious point: He radically redefined the American state. Social security, “work fare,” the WPA, industrial recovery, … a mixed bag. Could the apparatus and scope of the US government successfully have prosecuted WWII, defined and protected American interests and contained the USSR as it stood pre-FDR? No.”

    But the American government as it stood pre-FDR, but with a large military buildup and an improved intelligence apparatus, would have done just fine. Containing the USSR or defeating the Nazis didn’t depend on New Deal “reforms”.

  15. Roosevelt’s depression policies had the unintended consequence of cementing the transformation of Americans from citizens who were masters of their government into victims whose only salvation was through government economic programs. Certainly there were precursors to this in the Progressive movement, but Roosevelt presided during the change in the perceptions of the people. This legacy has not yet been removed from the citizenry. The good news is that immigrants constantly come here looking for the America of opportunity and ironicly. help us keep true to our principles.

    Roosevelt’s stock will be interesting to watch over the next 100 years. I suspect it’s a long term short, but DSpears will not see acceptance of the argument he(?) makes into general discussion for at least 15 years when the “Greatest Generation” has passed from the discussion.

  16. -The Federal Reserve’s blunders turned a major recession into a drawn-out economic catastrophe. National economic statistics in the 1930s were much less timely, detailed and accurate than they are now, and the memory of post-Great War hyperinflations was still fresh, so the Fed’s actions are understandable if not excusable. I think it was a mistake to establish the Fed, but we did that long before Roosevelt became president. I don’t think it’s reasonable to blame Roosevelt for the Fed’s mistakes.

    -I don’t think it’s productive to take sides. We are not voting for Roosevelt, so we have the luxury of evaluating each of his policies and actions on its individual merits. Categorizations of him as savior of the free world, or on the other hand as an incipient totalitarian, IMO get in the way of clear analysis.

    -That he handled the war reasonably well does not mean that he made no blunders in doing so. It is also not incompatible with his having a largely disastrous domestic policy record.

  17. “But the American government as it stood pre-FDR, but with a large military buildup and an improved intelligence apparatus, would have done just fine. Containing the USSR or defeating the Nazis didn’t depend on New Deal “reforms”.”

    I’m of this mind as well. The war economy of World War I was not markedly different than WWII. Much of the wartime organization of the economy was simply taken from WWI experiences, which is where the (mistaken)idea that the government could efficiently run a peacetime economy better than the free market could came from. It was also what Hoover was trying to accomplish, since both Hoover and FDR had similar experiences in the government during WWI.

  18. what about the sneak attack at pearl harbor compared to the sneak attack of 9/11? FDR comes out looking much worse than Bush does when the two are compared. Did FDR ever get a lot of heat for that, and no i’m not including conspiracy theorists.

  19. “…the US unambiguously was much worse off in the Great Depression than it would have been otherwise…”

    John, no counterfactual is unambiguous. The alternative was Hoover in 1932. Is it really unambiguous that a second Hoover term would have been better than FDR’s first term? Think about it.

    I’ll get to Powell, as I said above. I want to look at his book first. Call me crazy, but I try to do that kind of thing.

    Some day I will treat you all to a post entitled “FDR II”.

  20. Not unambiguous at all.

    The cyclical trough of the contraction of ’29-’33 was reached in March ’33, about the time FDR took office. My personal opinion is that most of the business community (the “economic royalists”) simply heald their breath and waited from Nov. to March, or the trough might have come earlier.

    The only argument I’ll make for Hoover is that he probably would not have spent two years organizing a giant takeover of the productive economy that would later be ruled unconstitutional and dismantled before it really had much effect. A Hoover administration would probably have done a lot of things similar (make work programs,etc. which he had already started)but not to the radical extent of FDR. He would have signed the FDIC legislation which FDR initially opposed, which was the only lasting, meaningful government action that came out of the whirlwind of the “first hundred days”.

    I am projecting here but, Hoover’s goal would have been to help end the economic depression. FDR’s fundamental goal was a reform of the government, of which the Great Depression only gave him the opportunity. Much of his program when viewed even by the popular economic wisdom of the day could not really call it an economic growth program. Powell’s book has lot’s of quotes from the people inside and close to the administration that show that their real goal was a reorganization of the government, not simply economic relief.

    Again, I’m no advocate for Hoover, he suffered from many of the economic superstitions of the day (the “real bills doctrine”, the “high wages” threory, protectionism) but at a time when the economy really needed a government that would get out of the way, Hoover may well have gotten in the way less. He certainly wouldn’t have publicly demonized Wall Street and business in general, and he probably wouldn’t have pushed for mass unionization of the labor force.

    Again, I’m not making an argument for Hoover.

    Powell’s 30,000 foot view is that the “first” New Deal was never implemented to the point where it had much effect on the economy before it was declared unconstitutional (1935). During that time the economy had rebounded phenomenally, although unemployment remained high and capital formation was seriously lagging, mainly because government borrowing and spending was crowding out private investment. By the time the “second” new deal with radical unionization, minimum wages, strict regulaton of business, etc. was passed implemented and given time to work, these actions all helped push an economy that was growing at over 10 percent a year into a deep recession in ’37-’38, during which the already high unemployment almost doubled again! Powell’s thesis is that this sequence of events is key, and I am quite persuaded by it.

  21. “I’m not making an argument for Hoover.”

    But, in reality, he was the only other option. It was binary. Hoover, or FDR. Then it was Landon or FDR. Or, if he’d lived, Huey Long would probably have challenged FDR for the Democratic nomination, or as a third party candidate. These are the options the political process was capable of generating during the Depression. The possibility of a complete breakdown of the democratic process and a dictatorship emerging was closer than at any time before or since in our history.

    That’s why I say: “Hoover or FDR” if you want to assess FDR’s performance. Powell wasn’t born yet, and no one like him was running for president. I’m not being flip. The point is that there was barely anyone around who thought like Powell does. Hayek was a young, virtually unknown voice in the wilderness in the ’30s, though his essays on economic planning were spot on. Milton Friedman was in graduate school. Reagan was an enthusiastic supporter of FDR. The older classical liberals were considered outdated and repudiated. That is why Keynes caught on — people were desperate for some alternative model, since the classical model had appeared to break down. It doesn’t matter what we think now, or have figured out with 70+ years of hindsight and further experience, outside the panicked atmosphere of the time. The fact is, those views were discredited politically and intellectually, and it would be a long time before they made a comeback.

    My biggest problem with most of the criticisms of FDR are that they hold him up against a standard which makes no sense. He played the cards available. Like you, me, or anybody, he can only be fairly judged on that basis.

    Let me repeat, these very meaty responses from you are appreciated, and at some point in the future I’ll revisit this whole thing and respond in some greater degree of detail. Probably in the form of some comments on Powell’s book, once I get it. I won’t wait until I’ve read the whole Black book. It will be way into ’05 at least before I’ll be able to choke down all 1,100 pages of it.

  22. But, in reality, [Hoover] was the only other option. It was binary.

    It’s not binary now, it’s history. What happened, happened. Criticisms of Roosevelt’s actions are not necessarily weakened by the possibility that Hoover would have done worse. Hoover might have done better. Arguments about hypotheticals are often entertaining but seldom informative and never dispositive.

    And anyway, why take sides? I don’t like Clinton but I think he did some things right (e.g., signing NAFTA). Should I ignore his accomplishments because he did a lot of other things badly? Roosevelt’s war leadership was mainly good, though I blame him for not bombing the rail lines to the concentration camps. His domestic policies were a mixed bag: he may have held the country together at a time of great turmoil and division, but it’s not obvious that this is true, and some of his actions made the problems worse; and some of the things he did have had enormous long-term costs which we continue to pay.

    My criticism of FDR’s mistakes and bad qualities does not make me a defender of Hoover or accountable for Hoover’s actions. It is possible to evaluate Roosevelt’s individual decisions on their merits, and I would rather do so than take a for/against position on a complex topic. And speaking of binary arguments, I do not have to accept Conrad Black’s framing of this issue. Unlike Black, I am not selling books and have nothing to gain by becoming emotionally invested in generalizations.

  23. “It doesn’t matter what we think now, or have figured out with 70+ years of hindsight and further experience, outside the panicked atmosphere of the time.”

    There were numerous, too numerous to mention here, mainstream public figures in media, academia, business and government, both in the US and abroad that made very sound and economically sensible critiques of individual policies and his policies as a whole. Everyting he did was controversial and for good reason. Reading these critiques again shows just how much sound economic knowledge was simply ignored or worse: demonized, during this period.

    I hate to keep harping on it but, one of the strengths of Powell’s book is his thorough use of quotes from people of the period making very rational, sound economic predictions about what would result from FDR’s policies. FDR’s policies were a radical departure, and many prominant, public people who knew better saw them for what they were. Most of them were just ignored or demonized.

  24. “[W]hy take sides?”

    You don’t have to. But isn’t it interesting that everybody always does? People can talk about many of our past presidents without getting worked up. Even Nixon raises few hackles these days. But not FDR. Assessing his presidency is still an indicator of ideological identification. The symbol, for both sides of the political spectrum, has engulfed the man. Black, it appears, is trying to move beyond that. I’ll let you know when I’ve read his book.

    “It’s not binary now, it’s history.”

    Look, the assertion being made here is that FDR should have done something differently, that what he did was or was not the right thing at the time. So, the next question to ask is, what else could have been done? The main different possible thing would be that he never gets elected at all. After that, you assess what was known and understood and actually being proposed to try to understand what alternatives were possible. Counterfactuals are a way of examining what happened in the past. If you just say, “it’s history, it’s over”, then you are just saying, “I don’t want to have this conversation”. Which is fine.

    “…It is possible to evaluate Roosevelt’s individual decisions on their merits…”

    I don’t agree. It is only possible to assess the merits of his decisions or anybody’s decisions in terms of the possible alternatives, in context. That is the relevance of Hoover. We do this all the time. Lawyers try to convince judges and juries that a particular decision was or was not negligent, one way to show this is by showing that there was a possible alternative course of action which should have been taken. As usual, it is yet another example of a trade-off.

    “I do not have to accept Conrad Black’s framing of this issue.”

    I haven’t read Black’s book yet, so I at least am not adopting his framing of any issue. Mr. Ortona might be, not me.

  25. Maybe I’m not enough of sports fan.

    You can evaluate Roosevelt’s decisions in historical context, considering alternatives, without generalizing about FDR good/bad.

    I’m not even sure to what extent FDR is an ideological marker anymore, except to libertarians (like me). Perhaps this apparent decontroversializing of his status is part of the reason why he is being reexamined with approval by some non-leftist intellectuals.

  26. Wow. What a great discussion. A nice relief from the mindless flaming (Bush = Hitler; Liberals = mindless commies; blah blah blah) that poisons so many comment sections. Imagine that: intelligent people can exchange differing opinions without resulting to name calling! Who knew?

    Anyway, now that I’ve sufficiently stroked everyone’s ego…

    It seems to me that the thrust of the (economic) argument of the ‘anti’ FDR faction is that FDR’s policies exacerbated a cyclical recession that would have disappeared anyway. Yet it seems to me a bit unrealistic to say that the US would have recovered to the extent it did (and boy, did it recover) without FDR. The US came out of WWII a titanic industrial nation with an unparalleled share of world GDP. And even though the US’ relative share of world output was, to an extent, a function of the relative weakness of competitors coming out of WWI, it seems pretty obvious that the US economy also saw an increase in scale in absolute terms as well.

    I don’t see how you can’t give FDR some of the credit for that – it couldn’t have been merely cyclical. To give FDR the very least amount credit possible, you would still have to say that he had the good timing to engender a tremendous increase in industrial production as the business cycle was going bullish again.

    As far as the New Deal goes..

    I was surprised when I read Jonathan’s post where he said:

    I wonder if a large part of this is also because of Clinton, who was able to dismantle/diminish some of the white elephants of the New Deal (for instance, the welfare system) to the point where many on the right could no longer use it as ammo against FDR.

    By the same token, however, the notion that FDR ‘ruined’ American society and/or government, preventing the emergence of some kind of libertarian utopia (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) strikes me as fanciful. The idea that FDR embedded some invidious, virus-like strain of statism in our government/society so deeply that successive administrations, Republican and Democrat, could not ‘free’ us seems unlikely.

    It goes back to the argument, which can reach absurd heights, that the alternative to FDR would have created such a state, or at the very least, involved the US in WWII, engendered a huge increase in industrial output, but not launched the New Deal. And I don’t know how anyone could say to any degree what would happen in this alternate universe.

  27. EDIT: I was supposed to include Jonathan’s quote in the post above. For some reason it wasn’t included in my comment. It should say:

    –I’m not even sure to what extent FDR is an ideological marker anymore, except to libertarians (like me). Perhaps this apparent decontroversializing of his status is part of the reason why he is being reexamined with approval by some non-leftist intellectuals.

  28. Here’s the root of the problem I have with FDR:

    While most of his ideas have been discredited by “70+ years of hindsight” that doesn’t mean they are dead. Far from it. The “high wages theory” was the fundamental basis for the new deal and it is still a bedrock belief of the left both in America and abroad. Most liberal economists and anybody who works for a union believes in it (even though they may call it something else). The belief that government spending creates economic growth is the fundamental cause of a government that has continued to grow non-stop since the 1930’s.

    When I hear Howard Dean or Ralph Nader complaining about the Democratic party no longer being true to it’s roots, they aren’t talking about Jefferson and Jackson, they’re talking about FDR. But the worst part of it is that a lot of Republicans believe this stuff as well. The 1992 election was vintage Hoover vs. FDR rhetoric, but of course the stakes were much lower.

    The reason for this is becasue like the rest of you, I was taught in school that FDR was the hero who saved America from the depression. By inference, whatever he did during that period must be valid and should be repeated now.

    But the biggest problem I have with the image of “FDR: Hero who ended the Depresssion and saved the world from the evils of Laissez Fair capitalism” is that it just isn’t true.

    Maybe I’m focusing on that idea a little too much.

  29. Patch, thanks for pitching in. I think you and I are thinking similarly. Thanks for the compliment. This blog is a conversation. Civil disagreement is the essence of that conversation.

    DSpears, I agree completely with you that the hegemonic liberal lies about what FDR did, what the New Deal was, etc. which are taught in public schools are wrong, and perniciously wrong. The counter-reaction also goes too far, however, as I see it.

    The value to Black’s book, which I haven’t read, but I’ll just say it, is he is moving FDR out of the realm of Shining Liberal God or Conservative and Libertarian Boogie Man into the realm of fact, evidence, understanding and even sympathy. It is time to analyze and really understand a very major historical figure, who was a dazzling figure in his day, who was the supreme practitioner of American politics in our history, who had his own strengths and weaknessed, who had only the knowledge and options which actually existed at the time, and who dealt with truly horrendous situations where catastrophe worse than what we suffered was possible. This type of assessment is long overdue. It is one I have been making for myself for many years now. There will be further posts on the topic.

  30. Sorry for butting in, but “the greatest American President”? HA!! In my book FDR is not worthy to tie Reagan’s shoelaces. Sorry.

  31. After posting the above I thought that I should give at least one reason for my statement. And I thought of one: Reagan defeated an enemy of the US at least as mighty as the Drittes Reich: the USSR WITH ZERO AMERICAN CASUALTIES. Beat that one :)

  32. I bow to no one in my love for Reagan. But the Cold War lasted through eight presidencies. Reagan finished the work others started. Moreover, the Soviet Union was a more cautious and rational opponent than Hitler’s Reich. It was successfully deterred from a direct attack on us because we had nuclear weapons, and we had those because of FDR. There weren’t zero American casualties over the course of the whole Cold War. Reagan gets credit for the end-game, not all the credit.

Comments are closed.