Franklin Delano Roosevelt is surely one of the most important political figures of the twentieth century, whether one agrees with his policies or not.
The situation Franklin Delano Roosevelt found himself in upon being inaugurated to the Presidency of the United States in March of 1933 was bleak. America had not yet reached the height of its greatest economic depression in history, and it was up to the new President to find a way out of this mess.
Though his actions in this capacity have a tendency to polarize people politically, and it is surprisingly difficult to say, even today, exactly what effect, either positive or negative, Roosevelt’s actions might have played in relieving the Great Depression, it is impossible to deny that Roosevelt jumped headfirst into the situation and took decisive and immediate action.
FDR’s New Deal
The series of major pieces of legislation which Roosevelt was instrumental in passing through congress during his first year in office, while very difficult to fully categorize or to truly evaluate in an objective manner, has become known as the “New Deal.” In fact, this large mass of legislation continued to grow throughout Roosevelt’s first three terms in office (his fourth term is very nearly non-existent), and come in a couple major “sections,” known often as the first new deal and the second new deal.
The basic political principle behind the new deal policies was dramatic government intervention in solving the nation’s economic woes. He established such cherished government organizations as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the CWA (Civilian Works Association) which helped create jobs and to biuld public works projects, many of which remain in use to this very day.
Also on the docket during the new deal were much more controversial (and some would say damaging) measures, such as the AAA (the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which attempted to force certain price controls) and the back-and-forth measures regarding the U.S. gold standard (first he got rid of the gold standard, then he brought it back).
A full analysis of every new deal program would require the length of a full book to truly capture the full scope of what was being attempted, and it is very difficult to say which parts of these various programs (which ranged throughout the entire political spectrum) helped the economy, and which hurt it.
What can be said, however, is that the economy continued to suffer under the majority of Roosevelt’s first and second term (although the fact that he was at least attempting to solve the problem earned him one of the greatest landslide reelections in American history in 1936), and did not truly begin to ease until just before 1940, on the eve of the war.
Roosevelt’s handling of the great depression would become one of the two main pillars upon which his legacy is built, although it is of questionable strength.
Entry into World War II
The other pillar, of course, is the war which struck America the very same year that Roosevelt entered into his record third term in office, just after America had begun to eke her way out of the financial crunch of the previous decade.
December 7th, 1941 saw the Japanese attack America at Pearl Harbor, instigating the U.S. entry into the greatest of all 20th century wars, almost all of which was contained within the final years of Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency (and, indeed, his life).
Roosevelt had attempted to remain isolated during the first years of the European war, but with the attack on American soil, he turned very immediately toward a policy of total victory in both the European and Pacific fronts.
Unlike his handling of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s handling of the war in most accounts has earned him almost unanimous praise. Despite a few controversial decisions (the internment of Japanese-Americans being one of the most prominently cited), Roosevelt is rightly credited with having brought about victory on both fronts (although he would not live long enough to see the culmination of either).
The Fourth and Final Term
Roosevelt’s unprecedented fourth term in office began in 1945 in the midst of the President’s failing health (which was, for the most part, not disclosed to the public). Replacing Vice President Henry Wallace (who had served during the third term) was the up-and-coming Senator from Missouri, Harry Truman – a man who had never even dreamed of becoming President.
Roosevelt was vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia, and having his portrait painted on March 30, 1945, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, uttering his last words – “I have a terrific headache” – before dying later that same day, leaving the Presidency – and the final months of the war – to Harry Truman.
Roosevelt had put in place, however, through military and diplomatic means (such as his famous Yalta conference with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill) the means for victory, including the construction of the atomic bomb, which was even then being completed in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Roosevelt is remembered by many as having been one of the greatest Presidents of the twentieth century, and even of all time. Whether or not one agrees with this assessment, however, it is impossible to deny his influence on the politics, culture, or consciousness of America as a nation. His influence reached to all corners of the nation, and his death was rightly mourned.
Truman certainly had some large shoes to fill.