Historian skips FDR's flaws but shows the appeal

May 20, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun


By Jean Edward Smith

Random House / 859 pages / $35

At the conclusion of the conference at Casblanca, Morocco, in January 1943, Winston Churchill accompanied Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the airport. The prime minister watched as the president was helped up the runway. He then returned to his limousine and told the driver to depart before the plane took off. "It makes me far too nervous," he sighed. "If anything ever happened to that man, I couldn't stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known."

In almost all accounts - and there have been thousands of them - historians agree that FDR was a preeminent figure in world history. They acknowledge, of course, that he made mistakes and had character flaws. Roosevelt could be callous, devious and vindictive. As president, he was indifferent to racial injustice; tried to pack the Supreme Court and purge his opponents in the Democratic Party; precipitated a recession in 1937; ignored storm clouds in the Pacific; and did not anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, Roosevelt guided the United States through the two great crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II. A masterful speaker, he restored confidence to millions of Americans. He helped modify - and preserve - capitalism; ushered in the welfare state; pushed an isolationist nation toward intervention; led the coalition that crushed Germany and Japan; and laid the plans for the United Nations.

In FDR, an engaging one-volume biography, Jean Edward Smith, a professor of political science at Marshall University, does not challenge the conventional wisdom. Saved by politics and polio from a "vapid and fatuous upper-class life," Smith's Roosevelt "knew instinctively how to handle the controls of government" and became "the most calculating and hard-nosed politician of his generation." He "rescued the nation from economic collapse" and "led it to victory in the greatest war of all time."

Smith discusses Roosevelt's flaws, but FDR is a valentine, almost, though never quite, Churchillian in tone. After his inaugural address in 1933, Smith claims, "the dreary years of Hoover's excuses passed into oblivion." Roosevelt put millions to work, "initiated a housing boom that continues to this day," and was responsible for an economic surge that "by almost any measure ... had been remarkable."

Absent from FDR is an awareness of the limitations of Roosevelt's New Deal. The president, in fact, lurched from attempts to balance the budget to Keynesian efforts to "prime the pump" with federal spending. Consequently, unemployment never fell much below 8 million until 1941. The Agricultural Adjustment Act tended to benefit owners of large farms - and limits on production threw many tenant farmers out of work. The National Recovery Act was, by some estimates, an unmitigated disaster. Moreover, Smith tends to give Roosevelt too much credit for several pieces of legislation, including the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill.

In international affairs, Smith often provides excuses for Roosevelt's actions - or blames mistakes on others. Insisting that persistent unemployment "presented an insurmountable obstacle to raising immigrant quotas," he makes the dubious claim that the president "did what he could" to get Jews into the country. Smith suggests, incorrectly, that the Sino-Japanese conflict was "a purely regional affair" until 1940. And that while Roosevelt was absorbed with the war in Europe, the hawks in his Cabinet shelved his conciliatory approach, and took a disastrously hard line that convinced the Japanese government to authorize the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942, according to Smith, FDR was so "preoccupied with military matters" that he expressed no opinion on the forced evacuation of Japanese from the West Coast of the United States - and delegated the decision to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

With greater justification, Smith paints a more nuanced portrait of Roosevelt the man. Without denying his acts of cruelty, especially to Eleanor Roosevelt, he depicts FDR as charming, buoyant and loyal, after his own fashion. FDR enjoyed the sea, stamp-collecting, ornithology, poker with Cabinet cronies, and martinis, every evening, at "the children's hour." Lucy Mercer, with whom he had a long affair, was the love of his life. Unlike Eleanor, Smith shrewdly observes, Mercer was uncritical in her affection. And when Marguerite "Missy" LeHand, his secretary, confidante and constant companion from 1920 to 1941, suffered a debilitating stroke, Roosevelt made sure she would receive first-rate medical care by designating her the beneficiary of half of his estate.

FDR was a complicated man, who rarely revealed his innermost thoughts and emotions. The original "great communicator," he was a brilliant political strategist. If he didn't quite ensure that "Happy Days Are Here Again," he did help free millions from want and tyranny. That's why, Jean Edward Smith concludes, when American soldiers learned he had died the tears flowed freely, and the men stood silently, with heads bowed, as "Taps" was played. And then marched on.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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