The years when FDR blundered at home, became a leader in foreign affairs

March 21, 1993|By Bruce Clayton

FDR: INTO THE STORM, 1937-1940.

Kenneth S. Davis.

Random House.

664 pages. $35.

"I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his eloquent second inaugural address in January 1937.

He spoke not in "despair," but in "hope." He was determined to finish what the New Deal had begun four years earlier: "to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern. . . . The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

If ever a president had a mandate, it was FDR. He had vanquished Alf Landon at the polls, winning every state but two. Never before had any president scored such a resounding victory. Everyone, even his bitterest critics, agreed that FDR's was a personal triumph. Add to that: The Democrats had a hammerlock on both houses of Congress. And Eleanor Roosevelt, the visionary first lady, was much more liberal than her husband, and as articulate. Nothing could stop FDR now.

Wrong. The normally sure-footed patrician, the squire of Hyde Park who could, it seemed, say "my old friend" in every known language, blundered badly in 1937 and 1938, squandering his political capital like a novice. The result was that little genuine reform came about in Roosevelt's second term. He had to settle for a Fair Standards Labor Act and renewed spurts of emergency relief. Increasingly, he turned his and the nation's eyes to Nazi Germany, the war in Europe, England's distress and what it all meant for America.

Such is the theme of Kenneth Davis' masterful "FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940," the hefty fourth volume of his acclaimed series on Franklin Roosevelt. "FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928," set the tone, scope and style of the enterprise in 1972. In that 800-page tome and succeeding volumes, Mr. Davis is sympathetic but balanced and, writing from a frankly liberal perspective, pointedly critical of Roosevelt on occasion.

The literature on Roosevelt is vast, having reached Talmudic proportions some years ago, someone quipped. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Frank Freidel, Ted Morgan, Geoffrey Ward, James MacGregor Burns and many other historians, great and small, have written expertly about FDR. Their works echo in Mr. Davis' pages. But none has synthesized that considerable literature as well as Mr. Davis, whose literary skills and ability to tell a story breathe freshness into a familiar narrative.

The first half of "Into the Storm" shows clearly that FDR's landslide victory went to his head. Already angry at the Supreme Court for invalidating key measures of the New Deal, and pouting because he had not had an opportunity to appoint a justice, FDR attempted to ram through legislation to "reform" the Court ("pack" it, said his critics) by increasing the number of justices to 15. Congress fumed and said no. Roosevelt's court plan was a flat-out bust.

The following year, FDR greatly compounded his problems by attempting to "purge" conservatives seeking re-election. In Maryland's Democratic primary, he campaigned six times against incumbent Sen. Millard Tydings in one weekend. Voters in the Free State resoundingly rebuffed FDR, as did the electorate across the nation.

Mr. Davis speculates: "Deep down, he was aware of his mental limitations, that this awareness bred deeply hidden psychic insecurities, and that these insecurities in turn encouraged the mendacity and deviousness that again and again led him into great trouble." But always he was saved from real despair by his patrician "sense of himself as a chosen one."

Mr. Davis enlivens his pages with deft vignettes of FDR's lieutenants: chain-smoking Harry Hopkins, curmudgeonly Harold Ickes, old, fussy Cordell Hull. Eleanor makes cameo appearances, but has little success pushing civil rights and aid for the Loyalists battling Franco's fascism in Spain.

Mr. Davis expertly profiles Wendell Wilkie, FDR's opponent in 1940; the publicity hog, John L. Lewis, and the darling of the isolationists, Charles A. Lindbergh. "If I should die tomorrow," Roosevelt stormed about Lindbergh, the subject of an earlier biography by Mr. Davis, "I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi."

From 1939 on, FDR's attention turned almost exclusively to foreign affairs -- as does Mr. Davis' in the second half of "Into the Storm."

He painstakingly follows FDR's mounting concern about England and France, and his growing realization that the United States would have to enter the war against Hitler. In this area, FDR's patient and subtle leadership gets high marks from Mr. Davis, who lays out domestic decisions against the larger canvas of events abroad.

"Into the Storm" concludes with Roosevelt's decision to shatter precedent and run for a third term. Was there any truth in his oft-repeated statements in early 1940 that he yearned to retire? vTC Did he decide to run because he saw no worthy successor in either party? Yes, to both questions, says Mr. Davis -- that's why FDR waited as long as possible to make up his mind.

But Mr. Davis is too good a biographer to accept anything uncritically. That is evident in the way he details the ways the crafty FDR, who was both fox and lion, operated through his minions to manipulate the Democratic convention to ensure his renomination. Soon after FDR's much closer -- but still substantial victory over Wilkie -- Doctor New Deal became Doctor Win the War.

For that part of the Roosevelt saga, stay tuned for Mr. Davis' next installment. It will be worth the wait.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at

Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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