FDR: Traitor to His Class (2)

FDR Signs Declaration of War on Japan

FDR Signs Declaration of War on Japan

Near the conclusion of Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, author H.W. Brands epitomizes in four paragraphs the essential message of his biography:

“By the time she [Eleanor Roosevelt] died, the New Deal was almost thirty years old. In its maturity it exercised a hold on American life that would have gratified Roosevelt and appalled his opponents, including those angry, fearful types who had denounced him as a traitor to his class. Its power and durability owed much to a quirk of fate – a large quirk, but one unconnected to American domestic politics and policy. If not for the outbreak of war in Europe, Roosevelt would not have run for a third term. If he had not run, the Republicans, campaigning on his second-term troubles, and on his larger failure to restore prosperity, probably would have seized the White House. And they surely would have begun dismantling major parts of the New Deal. The protections to labor would have been vulnerable to a management-friendly executive. The constraints on banks and the stock market would have yielded to the same groups that had resisted them in the first place. Social Security, the centerpiece of Roosevelt’s reforms, might have been particularly vulnerable, in that at the end of Roosevelt’s second term it had scarcely begun to pay out anything to the great majority of its contributors. For most taxpayers, Social Security as of 1940 was simply a drain on their pocketbooks.

“But the war did come, Roosevelt did run, and the Republicans were barred from the White House for another dozen years. By then Social Security had developed a huge constituency, one so great that Dwight Eisenhower remarked that any president or party would have to be crazy to tamper with the system Roosevelt had created. And so it remained untouchable, except to expand its coverage and increase its benefits – and extend its spirit to such derivative programs as Medicare and Medicaid – into the twenty-first century.

“Partly through his own doing, partly through the dice roll of circumstances, Franklin Roosevelt radically altered the landscape of American expectations. The small-government world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was banished forever. Americans demanded more of their government: more services, more safeguards, more security. They got them – along with more taxes, more red tape, more intrusiveness. At times some Americans would wonder whether the cost was worth the benefit. But the skeptics were never convinced enough or numerous enough to turn back the clock and unravel Roosevelt’s handiwork. He gave Americans what most of them agreed the country required during the emergency of the depression, and they sufficiently liked what they got that they retained it after prosperity returned. In the generations that followed, as the American economy continued to thrive and as the benefits of America’s material fortune rained down on the wealthy even more than on persons of moderate means, the objective and honest of those who once denounced Roosevelt for class betrayal recognized that, in a decade rife with fascists, militarists, and communists abroad and irresponsible demagogues at home, he was the best thing that could have happened to them.

“The transformation Roosevelt wrought in America’s world role was no less radical than the change he effected in domestic affairs. America had turned its back on the world during the 1920s, and the depression reinforced Americans’ reluctance to think that what happened in Europe and Asia had relevance for them. Roosevelt did little to challenge this view during his first term. But beginning in 1937 he gradually awakened Americans to the dangers of ignoring that wider world and to the necessity of engaging it, for their own sake and others’. So well did he succeed that Americans never seriously reconsidered the conclusions he impressed upon them. In some cases they seemed to have learned Roosevelt’s lesson too well, making minor distant troubles imprudently their own. But a lifetime after his death, America remained committed to the principle that had guided his foreign policy: that close involvement with the world was America’s responsibility and in America’s best interest.”

Published in: on July 9, 2009 at 3:10 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] A final excerpt from H.W. Brands’ Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt [for a terse review and earlier excerpts, see FDR: Traitor to His Class and FDR: Traitor to His Class (2)]: […]

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