Roosevelt, Franklin Delano 1882-1945
The thirty-second president of the United States of America, Roosevelt is considered among the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century. Elected to the office of president for an unprecedented four consecutive terms, he served as U.S. chief executive from 1933 to his death in 1945. The economic reforms implemented by Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s—known collectively as the "New Deal"—are thought to have transformed the role of the federal government as a regulator of social and economic security. For his leadership of the United States during the Second World War, Roosevelt is acknowledged as a champion of liberal democracy. Furthermore, among his numerous impacts on world politics in the twentieth century, Roosevelt's actions late in his administration are viewed as instrumental in the creation of the United Nations.
Roosevelt was born on 30 January 1882, the only child of James and Sarah Delano Roosevelt, members of a wealthy and influential New York family. He was educated privately until the age of fourteen, when he entered Groton. He attended Harvard University beginning in 1900, and there was engaged to Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin. He studied law at Columbia University, passed the bar, and became a law clerk at a Wall Street firm. In 1910, Roosevelt entered politics, winning the New York state senate race as a Democrat. He was reelected in 1912, and that year offered his support to the successful presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson. In return for his aid, Wilson named Roosevelt assistant secretary of the navy, a position he retained throughout the First World War. Roosevelt entered the 1914 United States Senate race in New York, but was defeated by Tammany Hall. His 1920 vice-presidential hopes on the Democratic ticket with James Cox were likewise disappointed. In the summer of 1921 Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis, a disease that left him completely paralyzed for a time. A long period of convalescence followed, during which Roosevelt retreated to Warm Springs, Georgia, where his condition significantly improved, though he never regained the use of his legs. He returned to politics in 1928, waging a successful campaign for the governorship of New York. While governor, Roosevelt witnessed the disastrous 1929 stock market crash and the beginning of the most severe economic depression in U.S. history. He won reelection in 1930, and two years later ran his first presidential campaign, defeating the Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.
Roosevelt's first term as U.S. President was a period of frenzied activity in response to the extreme economic crisis that gripped the nation. Roosevelt's program of relief measures, the New Deal, was designed to provide assistance to suffering Americans and to spur the stagnant economy through a series of federal expenditures and initiatives. Among the programs instituted were the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration; the implementation of a social security program for the unemployed and elderly; and the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the National Recovery Administration. Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, despite the fact that certain portions of the New Deal, including the National Industrial Recovery Act, were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. As the Great Depression continued through the 1930s, Roosevelt's attentions were increasingly drawn toward Europe, where the aggression of Nazi Germany could no longer be ignored. Large-scale war had broken out with Adolf Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland. In 1940 Roosevelt was reelected for a third term. Meanwhile, military preparations had already begun in the United States, and Roosevelt initiated the "Lend-Lease" Bill, which granted Great Britain much-needed munitions and supplies for the war with Germany. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 prompted the U.S. to declare war, drawing the nation into battle in Europe and the Pacific.
Roosevelt's principal activities during wartime, aside from his position as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, included his diplomatic role in the alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt's meeting with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at Teheran in 1943 resulted in a U.S. promise to provide a second front in the European theater via an invasion of German-controlled France. A second historic summit between Roosevelt, Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill occurred in February, 1945 at Yalta. By this time, the war in Europe was nearing its end and Allied victory appeared imminent. Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill entered negotiations concerning the occupation of Eastern Europe and other wartorn areas following the end of hostilities. While many of the assurances made by both Roosevelt and Stalin were never realized, the U.S. leader did succeed in winning international support for the development of the United Nations. Two months after his return to the United States, on the morning of 12 April 1945, Roosevelt suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at Warm Springs.
During his life Roosevelt produced very little in the way of written works, save for his personal correspondence and the mass of documents that have been collected in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among the texts contained in this work are transcripts of Roosevelt's well-publicized "fireside chats"—radio addresses to the American people that he conducted throughout his presidency. Roosevelt's speeches of note include his acceptance speech for the 1932 U.S. presidential nomination, his first inaugural address of 1933, and his 1937 "Quarantine" speech calling for a check on the aggression of the Axis Powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan. While scholars acknowledge that these speeches were composed in large part by professional speechwriters, Roosevelt had the final say as to their content, and frequently made emendations to their texts. Critics of the speeches have since analyzed their rhetorical merit and technique, as well as their historical significance in order to achieve a broad understanding of Roosevelt as a politician and orator.
While Roosevelt's historical significance as a U.S. president and a world leader has never been doubted, the progress of critical reevaluation undertaken in the years since his death has produced a somewhat more balanced view of Roosevelt and his accomplishments. In terms of his domestic policies, commentators have observed that New Deal legislation largely failed to improve the stagnant U.S. economy, which did not strengthen until 1941 and the consequent shift to wartime production. As a defender of democracy, it has been noted that Roosevelt properly recognized the menace of Hitler's Fascist expansionism, but was unable to discern the similar threat of Soviet totalitarianism—a fact borne out by what contemporary critics see as Stalin's extensive diplomatic manipulation of Roosevelt at the Teheran and Yalta conferences. Further estimations of Roosevelt have portrayed him as elusive and dissembling, qualities that he may have used to his advantage in diplomatic negotiations, but which called into question previously held perceptions of his impeccable moral character. Others have remarked that Roosevelt often vacillated in or delayed his decisions, with untold consequences. Despite his faults, however, contemporary scholars generally concur in their assessment of Roosevelt as a formidable figure in world history whose profound commitment to justice and the traditions of American democracy are unsurpassed.