With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Review of Robert Dallek’s "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life"

In the Preface to his almost 700 page book, presidential historian Robert Dallek tells us why he wrote it: “to remind people, especially a younger generation with limited knowledge of American history, of what great presidential leadership looks like.” In his Epilogue he sums up his conclusions. He considers FDR one of our three greatest presidents, along with Washington and Lincoln. (An aggregate of polls rating our best and worst presidents agrees with him.) Having written previous books on Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, L. Johnson, and Reagan, Dallek knows more than a little about presidential qualities.

He believes that “Roosevelt's New Deal reforms—Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, unemployment insurance, the National Labor Relations Board, the legitimization of labor unions, the Rural Electrification Administration, the many dams and other conservation projects, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provided for minimum wages and maximum hours, to cite just some of the most memorable domestic programs—were giant steps in humanizing the American industrial system.” Although Dallek mentions that FDR’s conservation legacy was “as great of that of his cousin Theodore,” readers desiring to know more about this subject should consult historian Douglas Brinkley’s two long books, one on each of the Roosevelt presidents’ conservation accomplishments.

In his judgment of FDR’s greatness, he reminds one of poet and Lincoln scholar Carl Sandburg. Author of a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which gained him a Pulitzer Prize for history (1940), Sandburg often compared FDR to Lincoln, and after being a socialist in his youth, he became a fervent FDR supporter, praising him for his concern for the common people and his war leadership.

The first half of Dallek’s book concentrates on Roosevelt’s privileged early years and domestic presidential leadership during the 1930s, partly because U.S. isolationism limited his opportunities to have more of an impact in the international arena. Chapter 3 is entitled “Polio,” and vividly describes FDR’s contracting the disease in 1921 and heroically dealing with it for the next half-dozen years. Subsequent chapters often mention FDR’s various efforts to cope with its paralyzing effects during the rest of his life. (Throughout the book Dallek’s prose is clear and vigorous, as good historical writing should be.)

He thinks that FDR “was an instinctively brilliant politician,” who “principally relied on his feel for public mood to guide him in leading the country.” He was the Democratic nominee for vice-president in 1920 and governor of New York from 1929 until 1932, when he was elected president. After polls came into fashion in the mid-1930s he often consulted them, and Dallek frequently mentions their results to indicate to what extent FDR’s presidential policies reflected the mood of the country.

His successes as a politician are demonstrated by the fact that he was elected president four times and generally had high approval ratings (Compare, for example, his 76 percent approval rating in the Spring of 1941 with President Trump’s 32 percent approval in a Los Angeles Times poll in mid-January 2018.) From time to time, Dallek explains some of FDR’s failures—e.g., to do more for blacks or European Jews or to overcome U.S. isolationism in the 1930s—by indicating that neither Congress nor public opinion was as liberal or progressive as the president, and FDR often chose not to be too confrontational, which would have lessened his popular appeal.

Only in his Epilogue does Dallek raise the question of whether FDR sometimes went too far in his cautiousness and suggest that he failed to demonstrate sufficient “political courage” in helping European Jews victimized by Hitler or in placing many Japanese Americans in WWII camps.

But the author leaves no doubt that, unlike some latter politicians, FDR embraced the terms progressive and liberal. He perceived himself as acting in the tradition of early twentieth century Progressivism. This movement included his cousin President Theodore Roosevelt and has been described as a diverse movement “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a countercalculus of the public weal [well-being].” It did not attempt to overthrow or replace capitalism, but to have government bodies and laws constrain and supplement it in order to insure that it served the public good.

Dallek cites a June 1938 poll that indicated that by a margin of 72 to 28 percent those polled wished the Democrats to become more conservative rather than more liberal. But later that month FDR indicated in his thirteenth radio Fireside Chat that he had “the responsibility of carrying out the definitively liberal declaration of principles set forth in the 1936 Democratic platform.” In October 1939, more than a month after WWII had begun in Germany, he told a radio audience that a “Conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward. . . . A Liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest—at the command—of his head.” By mid-1944, Dallek suggests that FDR believed the USA “ought to have two real parties, one liberal and the other conservative.” In July he asked Republican Wendell Willkie “whether he would consider joining him in establishing a liberal party that would expel Southerners from Democratic ranks and force them into a conservative party”—Willkie counseled waiting until after the 1944 presidential election.

Even if he sometimes failed to act boldly enough for blacks and European Jews, FDR sympathized with their having to deal with ethnic bias—his wife Eleanor, more idealistic and less politically cautious than Franklin, often urged him to do more. (Dallek often comments on the spouses’ relations with each other, which were hardly ideal despite Eleanor’s important contributions to his presidency.)

His liberal and progressive policies were often opposed by more conservative forces that considered him too leftist, too inclined to use the federal government and its bureaucracy to address national problems. In 1932, President Hoover thought that “Federal aid would be a disservice to the unemployed.” In 1944, running against Roosevelt for president, the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey charged that FDR’s New Deal was “Communist inspired”—Dallek thinks that Dewey was “conducting the meanest campaign in history.”

Along with conservative politicians, much of the press criticized FDR’s policies. At the end of 1935, he claimed that he faced “an 85 percent newspaper opposition.” Chief among the press opponents he identified was William Randolph Hearst, whose papers and magazines circulated among millions of Americans. After Roosevelt proposed a “wealth tax” in 1935, Hearst denounced it as a “soak-the-successful” measure that was “essentially Communism.”

To counter the effects of a negative press, FDR relied heavily on the radio and his well-received Fireside Chats. He spoke in this manner to the American people on 28 separate occasions between 1933 and 1944. Also countering a hostile press were many of the new radios stations licensed to Democrats by the Federal Communication Commission, created by FDR in 1934.

Despite a frequent hostile press, Roosevelt felt obliged to hold frequent press conferences. Dallek mentions, for example, “four lengthy” ones that he held despite ill health between August 18 and September 8, 1944. He also generally had a good rapport with reporters. One site listing the press conferences of various presidents indicates that no president since him has come close to holding as many per year as he did. In his first year (1933) alone, he held 81 of them (In their first year in office, George W. Bush held 4, Obama 7, and Trump 1).

Among the New Deal’s fiercest critics were many wealthy businessmen. But FDR realized that during the depths of the Depression not many Americans sympathized with them, and he was not shy about criticizing them. In his 1933 inaugural address, he blamed the Depression on business leaders, “a generation of self-seekers . . . the money changers.” In 1935 many business leaders opposed the introduction of Social Security, “which they predicted would bring financial collapse” and socialism. Dallek quotes the head of General Motors as saying, “with unemployment insurance no one would work; with old-age and survivors insurance no one would save; the result would be moral decay, financial bankruptcy and the collapse of the republic.”

Rather than being a socialist or any type of ideologue, FDR was a pragmatist. As Dallek writes, “Because no one had surefire remedies for the Depression, he signed on to a program of experimentation or trial and error.” Dalek also mentions the “experimental temperament of the New Deal” and refers to FDR as “ever the pragmatist.”

In the last half of Dallek’s book, the focus shifts to FDR’s foreign policy: the threat of Hitler and Japanese militarism; overcoming U.S. isolationism; wartime leadership and relations with Churchill, Stalin, de Gaulle, and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek; and FDR postwar aspirations. Dallek is on familiar ground here having previously written books on FDR’s foregin policy and the “lost peace” of 1945-53.

Most of these pages tell a story already familiar to foreign policy scholars. FDR was aware of the dangers of fascism, Hitler, and Japanese militarism, but U. S. isolationism before Pearl Harbor limited his options. Regarding WW II diplomacy, as John Snell emphasized more than a half century ago, Roosevelt’s options in dealing with Stalin were severely limited by political and geographical realities. Dallek details how well Roosevelt and Churchill worked together, despite some differences, and their cooperation and suspicions regarding Stalin, who in turn was even more distrustful of his western wartime allies. The failure of the two western leaders to launch a “second front” until three years after the Germans had attacked the USSR in June 1941especially stoked Stalin’s suspicions. To a lesser extent he also feared that his western allies might make a “separate peace” with Germany; and Roosevelt and Churchill also feared that Stalin might make such a deal. The agreement of all three allies that they would fight on until gaining an unconditional surrender from Germany was one way of allaying such mutual fears.

Dallek spends less time on Roosevelt’s wartime dealings with the French leader Charles de Gaulle and China’s Chiang Kai-shek, but emphasizes that both men were difficult to deal with. Reading of FDR’s relations with the Chinese leader, one is reminded how frequently in subsequent years U.S. leaders have relied on corrupt and/or inefficient leaders, whose main attraction was their anti-communist actions. Overall, Dallek conveys well how complex and difficult managing the U. S. war effort was for FDR, especially as he grew less healthy as the war progressed, culminating in his death in April 1945, months before it had ended.

In his Epilogue, Dallek recognizes that “the rise of the welfare state continues to be a central controversy in American politics.” But he adds that “even Ronald Reagan, the most popular of our post-Roosevelt conservative presidents, failed to eliminate such welfare programs as food stamps and agencies like the Department of Education.” And the historian is confident that “the Roosevelt legacy guarantees that federal authority will continue to play some significant part in offsetting the perils facing all of America's citizens.”

Dallek does not mention President Trump’s assault on portions of the New Deal legacy, but in a HNN interview he does note that he’s “thinking of writing a book about democracy’s demagogues,” including “Huey Long and Father Coughlin [both often mentioned in his FDR biography], Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, and probably a closing chapter on Donald Trump, because I think he fits the pattern of these past demagogues.” In a December 2017 Newsweek essay Dallek states that “it is clear Trump is unfit to serve,” and lawmakers should “invoke the 25th Amendment” to remove him from office.

An HNN essay on political wisdom in 2012 mentioned that seeking the common good should be the main goal of politics. It also listed various virtues and values that contributed to political wisdom. They included “the proper mix of realism and idealism [which includes optimism], compassion, empathy, humility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise, a sense of humor, creativity, temperance, self-discipline, passion, and courage.” Dallek’s biography clearly demonstrates that FDR sought the proper political goal and possessed most of qualities needed to act politically wise. He deserves the esteem with which Dallek regards him.