One of the reasons I began this series on the presidents is to show how upside down the mainstream views are. John Tyler and Warren Harding are placed at the bottom of most rankings, when they belong at the top. Then there is the Holy Trinity — George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — who are always in the top three. Only Washington belongs there. Not “Honest” Abe, and certainly not FDR.
We are told the great myth: that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, FDR lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president.
It’s not surprising that FDR loved John Adams. He had a quotation from Adams carved into the mantel of the White House State Dining Room, which said: “May none but honest and wise men rule under this roof.” Yet FDR was no more honest and wise than John Adams was. Both men were hypocrites, habitual liars, and trampled on peoples’ liberties. Both get the same score totals in my assessments. John Adams scores 5/9/2 = 16/60, while FDR, as we shall see, scores 10/4/2 = 16/60.
Part of FDR’s phony legacy has to do with his charisma. As Ivan Eland points out, human beings are suckers for charisma, and ever since FDR especially, American presidents have been evaluated more on their ability to impress people with speeches, than on their actual policies.
1. Peace (Foreign Policy)
Roosevelt served as president for twelve years, and for the first six of those years (1933-39) he was commendably non-interventionist. Public opinion at this time was still in line with the vision of the founding fathers that had prevailed throughout the ’20s (that is, military restraint overseas), and no one forgot the disaster of World War I. FDR stayed out of things as Italy invaded Ethiopia; he declared American neutrality during the Spanish Civil War; he accepted Mexico’s nationalization of its oil industry; he approved the Munich agreement when it was negotiated; he granted the Philippines independence; he abrogated the 1903 treaty with Cuba. During this time FDR was as non-interventionist as his three Republican predecessors — Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover — entirely to his credit.
His policy changed in ’39, when Hitler invaded Poland. FDR had by now concluded that the U.S. could not live with Adolf Hitler — though not for the same reasons we condemn Hitler — and wanted to enter the war allied with Britain and France. But the vast majority of Americans (70%) opposed the war.
Scheming America into war
Rather than make his case to the American people and Congress, Roosevelt schemed to make the Axis attack. He provoked Japan with an oil embargo, froze all their assets, knowing full well that would make the Japanese desperate for oil. (More than 80% of Japan’s oil came from the U.S.) The Japanese responded four months later at Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), and 2,400 Americans paid the price, some of them civilians. Congress was then forced to act, and the U.S. entered the war on that day.
But why did FDR want to enter the war, when most Americans opposed it?
Reason for entering the war
It was certainly no moral crusade against Adolf Hitler. Hitler didn’t start his mass execution of the Jews until well into 1942. In fact — as some historians point out in their more honest moments — up to the end of 1941, if you had been forced to side with either Germany or the Soviet Union on purely moral grounds, you should probably have sided with Germany. Stalin had murdered millions in the ’30s, and FDR knew of that when he decided to become Stalin’s bosom-buddy. Outrageously, he whitewashed Stalin’s image as “Uncle Joe”, and put the Soviets on the side of liberty, human rights, and justice. Given FDR’s perversion of liberty at home (as we will see), that praise could have been taken for exactly what it was worth.
FDR had no moral issues with Hitler. He simply feared Germany, worrying that if Hitler defeated the British and gained access to the British fleet, then Germany could isolate the U.S. If FDR had been honest with the American people, he would have said that Stalin was a cruel tyrant, but the U.S. had an interest in supporting him against Germany, because Hitler was dangerously expansionist. Instead he lied and schemed through the back door.
Some FDR apologists go so far as to claim that Roosevelt lied to the American public for their own good, which is absurd. In a republic, accurate and honest information is essential in deciding whether or not to approve warfare.
Running the war, and winning it
The best part of FDR’s presidency is that he won World War II, which (from our hindsight perspective) needed to be won. Having provoked an adversary into attacking first (and for less than admirable reasons), and having lied the American public into a war they didn’t want, he at least won the damn thing. Quite by accident, the U.S. ended up on the right side of the moral divide, fighting against and defeating Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.
FDR put excellent leaders in charge — Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, and Admiral Chester Nimitz — and allowed them to do their jobs without micromanaging them. This is worth noting, because chief executives didn’t have the best track record in this regard (especially Lincoln in the Civil War).
The Yalta Agreements
Casting Stalin as a lover of liberty and human rights (one of the most outrageous presidential whitewashes in American history) made it necessary for FDR to keep lying after the war, which he surely did, by secretly allowing Stalin to set up communist regimes in Eastern Europe. This led to the Cold War almost immediately following World War II.
The seeds of this were sown in the Yalta agreements, in February 1945 (two months before the war ended in Germany, and six months before it ended in Japan). The Yalta conference heavily favored the Soviets:
- Russia was given control of Eastern Europe, including Poland — the country that the Allies had gone to war over in the first place.
- Germany and Austria were cut into occupation zones, and the split removed Germany as a counter-balance to Soviet Power.
- Stalin agreed to join the war against Japan in exchange for territory lost in the Russo-Japanese War, the Kuril Islands and a pro-Soviet satellite state in Mongolia.
- Stalin agreed to join the United Nations, but only with a secret agreement that gave Russia veto power over all measures.
- FDR agreed to the Soviet expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia and the return of all Soviet POWs, even those who didn’t want to return.
Roosevelt thus bears a large measure of responsibility for the Cold War that resulted from these Yalta measures, and from his agreeable posture with Stalin after the war.
2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)
In my assessments of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, I corrected the myth of the Great Depression’s origins and end. In the myth, Coolidge caused the Great Depression, which Hoover didn’t take enough action to correct, while FDR did, heroically pulling America out of depression with his New Deal programs.
That’s a gross misreading of history. The reality is that Coolidge, while on whole fiscally prudent, helped cause an initial downturn by his expansion of the money supply. Hoover then took too much action to “correct” that recession (as he thought he was doing), instead of doing what presidents had always done up to this point, by simply allowing the market to right itself on its own. It was Hoover who created the Great Depression out of a garden-variety recession that would have self-corrected on its own. FDR then expanded on Hoover’s methods with his New Deal programs, prolonging the Depression year after year after year. Not until FDR’s successor Harry Truman would Americans enjoy prosperity again.
FDR’s New Deal programs created the welfare state (which Archie Bunker rails against hilariously in All in the Family). Those programs involved retirement and unemployment benefits; labor-management relations; wages, hours, and working conditions; securities and investments; and the regulation of specific economic sectors, like radio broadcasting, agriculture, trucking, airlines, and oil and coal marketing.
As one who leans moderately left, I don’t find all of these ideas bad in and of themselves. For example, I’m not hostile to the Social Security Act (1935), and I certainly approve The Federal Labor Standards Act (1938), which prohibited child labor of anyone under 16, and established minimum wage and overtime pay eligibility. But many of the New Deal programs tried to fix economic issues in a disastrously wrong way. Consider:
- The Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) controlled farm production, first by burning the crops and slaughtering livestock, then later by paying farmers to restrict the output of both. This was appalling. It raised food prices at a time when people were starving, and it hurt the poorest of farmers (tenant farmers and sharecroppers), who were kicked off the land so that the land owners could receive government subsidies.
- The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) suspended anti-trust laws and allowed businesses to draw up codes of “fair practice” that regulated competition and wages. The act hindered economic growth by promoting the creation of cartels and monopolies. Astonishingly, these cartels were modeled on fascist Italy’s “cooperatives”: industrial trade associations which planned production, quality, prices, distribution, and labor standards and were dictated by the Italian government.
- The Glass-Steagall Act (1933) prohibited commercial banks from engaging in investment banking. But investment bankers were a false culprit. The actual cause of the Blue Tuesday stock market crash and bank failures was due to the bad monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. FDR continued those bad (loose and expansive) monetary policies.
- The Bank Holiday FDR declared (1933) stopped all banking activity for four days. This allowed the federal government to inspect all banks to see which ones were fit to reopen and which were not. Allowing the government to inspect businesses like this violates the Fourth Amendment.
- The Revenue Acts of 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937 & 1940 combined to raise taxes on most revenue earners by dropping personal deductions and raising individual rates. They also increased corporate taxes. These tax increases slowed the economy by taking away available investment revenue through higher taxes, and by removing the incentive to invest by reducing the reward.
Finally, FDR tried to jump start the economy, first by going off the gold standard, second through the Thomas Amendment, which granted the president powers over monetary policy. Under FDR it would be a very loose policy indeed — putting more money into people’s hands in the short term, while causing inflation in the long term.
It’s true that FDR was able to reduce unemployment rates during his first eight years in office, but this had nothing to do with improving the economy. He simply created more work programs: The Civilian Conservation Corps, The Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. In spite of all this job creation, unemployment was still as high as 15% in 1940, even with the increased work demand due to World War II. That was the Great Depression, pure and simple — still ongoing, still unfixed, thanks precisely to FDR’s hyper-aggressive government intervention, his welfare state, and loose money policies.
FDR’s wife Eleanor was a champion for African Americans, but she seemed to wear the pants in the family. FDR himself has an appalling liberty record. He did issue Executive Order 8802 (1941), to his credit, which stated that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. And that’s about all he did for the cause of liberty on his twelve-year watch.
His usual policy was to duck and run for cover whenever African American issues came up. When the Pentagon revolted against desegregating the military, FDR rolled over; when an anti-lynching bill was being argued in Congress, FDR stayed silent and allowed it to be defeated. The reason was simple: promoting civil rights for blacks would have jeopardized the New Deal programs among his white southern constituency.
Gross violation of civil liberties
FDR’s behavior during World War II was only marginally better than Woodrow Wilson’s during World War I. While FDR did not suppress free speech with arrests and jail sentences, that was only because he had a conscientious Attorney General (Biddle) who urged him not to repeat Wilson’s sins. FDR often scorned Biddle at his cabinet meetings for his unwillingness to prosecute seditionists who spoke against the war, though he didn’t push the issue. He did, however, use British agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war. If he was better than Wilson, he was still obscene.
Turning away Jews, Incarcerating Japanese
Let alone civil rights, FDR failed at human rights too. He denied Jews entry into America when they fled the terror of the holocaust, even though he knew they were being executed. He threw tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens (let alone resident aliens) into prison camps just because of their ethnic heritage. People lost their personal possessions and livelihoods because of this detention.
Stacking the Supreme Court
FDR was hell-bent on adding Supreme Court justices who would favor his policies. (Much like his hero John Adams, who packed the courts with like-minded Federalists.) In 1937 he proposed the Judiciary Reorganization Bill, that would add six new justices to the court, bringing the number of justices from nine up to fifteen. He failed in this attempt, thankfully, but he got his basic wish just the same. His bullying methods caused Justice Owen Roberts to switch sides and vote in favor of his desired policies. Roosevelt eventually appointed eight justices to the court — men who would uphold his desires rather than the constitution. FDR’s assault on the Supreme Court alone costs him half his liberty score.
FDR’s report card isn’t good:
Peace. I split him straight down the middle for 10 points. He was a commendable non-interventionist for six years, and once America was involved in WWII, he prosecuted it efficiently and won, defeating enemies who deserved to be crushed. To get to this point, however, he lied and schemed and brought down the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed. He sought entry into the war for less than admirable reasons, and against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. Worst of all, he cultivated a rosy image of Stalin, and granted him too much at Yalta and after the war.
Prosperity. Aside from a few New Deal ideas which I take as positive (and award him 5 points), most of it was disastrous to the economy and prolonged the recession.
Liberty. The only good thing he did was issue Executive Order 8802 (for 2 points). Around that, he avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans as if they had the plague. During the war he used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested. He assaulted the Supreme Court, the highest law in the land, by filling it with friendlies. He was an absolute disgrace.
Peace — 10/20
Prosperity — 4/20
Liberty — 2/20
TOTAL SCORE = 16/60 = Very Bad