Franklin Delano Roosevelt

During his unprecedented twelve years in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced national and international problems whose severity had not been seen since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It's a testament to Roosevelt's skill as a leader and a politician that he was able to successfully guide the nation — and the world — through these troubling times.

When Roosevelt was elected as the thirty-second president in 1932, the nation was well into the most devastating economic depression it had ever experienced. And nine years later he would be forced to ask Congress to thrust the United States into a war that would eventually envelop most of the world. No political weakling like many of his immediate predecessors, Franklin Roosevelt mustered all of his strength and courage to keep the world free from tyranny.

Franklin Roosevelt was born on his family's estate in Hyde Park, New York, on January 10, 1882. His father, James, was a successful businessman with a variety of interests, and his mother, Sara, was a prominent member of New York society. The family, conservative Democrats by belief, was deeply involved in politics and had already produced one president: Franklin's cousin, Theodore Roosevelt.

Political Career

Roosevelt entered politics in 1910 when he ran for the New York State Senate. He campaigned vigorously and won by a narrow margin. In Albany, he developed a reputation as an independent scrapper who followed his own ideals rather than the desires of the more established Democratic leadership. He quickly became known as a social and economic reformer and was re-elected in 1912 — despite his inability to actively campaign because of a case of typhoid fever. Much of Roosevelt's political success must be attributed to his association with Louis McHenry Howe, a journalist and savvy political strategist who knew how to promote Roosevelt's career with maximum effectiveness.

Roosevelt managed to make a name for himself in national politics even before his state senate re-election by assisting in Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign. When Wilson took the White House in 1912, Roosevelt was rewarded for his hard work with an appointment as assistant secretary of the navy. Roosevelt resigned his state senate seat and moved to Washington, D.C.

Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the navy until 1920. He came to understand how Washington worked and how to manipulate the system to get things done, so when the United States entered World War I in 1917, the navy was ready and able to leap into action. Roosevelt's position required him to make frequent public speeches, which helped establish his image as a politician with a tremendous future. Roosevelt resigned his Navy Department post in 1920 to campaign for the vice presidency under Democratic presidential candidate James Cox, but they were defeated by Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

In August 1921, Roosevelt was diagnosed with poliomyelitis (polio). In pain and no longer able to walk, Roosevelt might have thought that his political career was destined to end before it had really begun. His mother urged him to retire to Hyde Park and enjoy the peace and quiet there, but encouraged by both his wife, Eleanor, and Louis Howe, Roosevelt refused to let his illness keep him down. Though primarily confined to a wheelchair, he remained active, maintaining important political contacts and slowly rebuilding his career.

Franklin Roosevelt was very rarely photographed in a wheelchair or walking with the leg braces and canes he required, and the press almost never discussed his disability. As a result, many Americans remained unaware for years that Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down.

Throughout much of the 1920s, Roosevelt worked with Al Smith, helping him win his second term as governor of New York and later assisting with Smith's presidential campaigns. In 1928, at Smith's encouragement, Roosevelt ran for governor of New York, winning by a very slim margin. Smith, meanwhile, lost the presidency to Herbert Hoover. The following year, the United States slipped into a crippling economic depression when the stock market crashed, taking with it the fortunes of thousands of Americans and forcing the closing of many banks. In 1930, Roosevelt was re-elected governor of New York — a position that would quickly help him reach the White House.

Roosevelt Becomes President, Introduces the New Deal

As a result of his aggressive personality, his reputation as a social reformer, and his strong New York roots, Roosevelt was a natural for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. He worked vigorously to hold on to his status as party favorite and was nominated on the fourth ballot. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt promised the American people a “new deal” that would help alleviate many of the social and economic ills forced on them by the Depression. He campaigned strongly, making numerous speeches throughout the country, and ultimately took forty-two of the nation's forty-eight states.

Roosevelt's first concerns were with helping the millions of Americans who were suffering as a result of the Depression. He instituted a number of domestic reforms, bringing the government more directly into people's lives than ever before. During his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt and Congress worked together to pass more bills than any previous administration had done in a similar time span. The Emergency Banking Act, which was introduced, passed, and signed by the president in just one day, gave the federal government remarkable power to deal with the banking crisis that had economically crippled the nation.

Roosevelt also worked hard and fast on relief legislation designed to temporarily assist out-of-work Americans while getting them back into the work force as quickly as possible. Under Roosevelt's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), large amounts of money were given to the states to assist those most in need.

Nearly one-sixth of the nation was still on government relief by the end of 1934. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established by executive order and the FERA was abolished. The WPA (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) helped the nation by building or repairing roads, schools, libraries, and government buildings. Roosevelt also established the Civilian Conservation Corps to assist unemployed and unmarried young men and the National Youth Administration, which gave part-time jobs to needy high school and college students.

Roosevelt was a strong advocate of government-sponsored social and economic change. His administration enacted reform legislation that increased the federal government's regulatory activities as well as important banking legislation designed to bolster the flagging dollar.


Roosevelt did much to help the American people during his first term in office, and he was re-elected in 1936 with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. However, middle-class support for the Roosevelt administration began to erode in 1937 and 1938, primarily because of its support of increasingly militant labor unions. Roosevelt's armor also lost some of its sheen when he unsuccessfully tried to increase the size of the Supreme Court. The president argued that the change was needed to facilitate the high court's work, but in truth, Roosevelt hoped to pack the court with members who better supported his progressive program. Then, in 1937, the president cut spending to balance the budget, causing the Depression to worsen and further tarnishing Roosevelt's reputation.

Roosevelt scored better with his foreign policy. He instituted the Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America, which meant that the United States would no longer intervene in Latin America to protect private American interests. Later, he requested a huge government appropriation for naval expansion, then asked for yet more money to bolster American defense. After war broke out in September 1939, he called a special session of Congress to revise the Neutrality Act so that nations at war against Germany could buy arms on a cash-and-carry basis. Then, after his re-election in 1940, Roosevelt worked around national isolationist policies through congressional passage in March 1941 of the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the United States to militarily aid Great Britain and other nations without actually having to declare war on Germany and Italy. Roosevelt's goal was to provide yet more aid to Great Britain and France, though deep in his heart he knew the United States was headed toward war whether it wanted to or not.

Entering the War

America entered World War II on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt found himself in the dual position of commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces and soothing father figure to the American people. Historians have long debated Roosevelt's effectiveness during the war years, though most agree he was a strong national and international figure who understood that the only way to protect the United States was to drive Germany and Japan into unconditional surrender.

Roosevelt was, for the most part, admired and respected by the other Allied leaders with whom he was aligned. Though the United States was slow to enter the conflict in Europe, once it was involved, Roosevelt offered everything in the American arsenal and then some. He consulted often with other world leaders and helped ease the hurt feelings and international misunderstandings that were sure to accompany a war effort of such remarkable scope.

Figure 7-2 President Roosevelt receives a Red Cross pin from a young volunteer.

Photo courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (ARC 196055)

Roosevelt's stint as assistant secretary of the navy under Wilson served him well during this period. Most historians agree that he ably directed the course of the war and worked closely with his Joint Chiefs of Staff in making important decisions. Very often, Roosevelt's final decisions went against those of his military advisers as he attempted to balance both military and political concerns. Examples include the decision to invade North Africa, the plan for Douglas MacArthur to retake the Philippines, and the decision to continue sending Lend-Lease ships to the Soviet Union.

Extraordinary Challenges

Roosevelt's job as commander in chief was extraordinarily difficult. At the beginning of the war, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to dramatically increase military production without creating inflation, and he had to oversee the allocation of goods throughout several theaters of war and to the various Allied powers. In addition, Roosevelt oversaw the immediate buildup of the nation's army and navy, recruiting servicemen (and women) and increasing production of needed materiel. Lastly, he had to stay in constant contact with the American people, explaining his decisions and their importance in ways that the average American could understand and support. Thankfully, this was a skill at which Roosevelt was adept. His frequent radio addresses, known as “fireside chats,” helped calm a frightened populace during its most desperate and dire hours.

Franklin Roosevelt was the only president to be elected to four terms in office — and the only president who will ever hold such an honor. The Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution, adopted after his death, limits a president to two elected terms.

Though Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the United States into its second world war and worked tirelessly to support it, he died before an Allied victory could be achieved. The war took a terrible toll on his health, and he looked old and frail while campaigning for his fourth term. He defeated Thomas Dewey in 1944, and in the early spring of 1945, Roosevelt traveled to his vacation home at Warm Springs, Georgia, in an attempt to rebuild his strength. On April 12, Roosevelt complained of a severe headache; he died a short time later from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Vice President Harry Truman took the oath of office later that day to become the nation's thirty-third president.

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