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FDR, the President whom nobody knew
December 2017 / January 2018

It is bizarre that pro-Roosevelt historians like Dallek, James MacGregor Burns, Arthur Schlesinger, William Leuchtenberg and Doris Goodwin, allow Roosevelt’s critics and hostile historians to get away with this unjust denigration of the New Deal, that its conservation and public works and specialised programmes (including for writers and artists) had only reduced unemployment from 30 to 15 per cent.

This canard of unquenchable unemployment has been authoritatively debunked by Roosevelt biographers of the last 15 years. The workfare programmes kept between five and eight million people usefully employed for Roosevelt’s first two terms building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages, until defence requirements and the reviving private sector completed the extermination of unemployment. The workfare participants were just as much, and more usefully, employed as the millions of conscripts and defence workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared. Those unable to work received Social Security unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on; one need not look much farther to see the principal source of Roosevelt’s political success, apart from his overpowering public and private personality, infallible intuition about American public opinion, skill at political tactics and skullduggery, and formidable oratorical talents. Some of these factors get a fair airing in this book, but some do not.

There is nothing about the great New Deal parades and spectacles involving show business people (who almost all were militant Roosevelt supporters); as economics, it was a pass, but as a morale booster and as catastrophe-abatement and avoidance, it was brilliant. There is no real focus on FDR’s guaranty of bank deposits, trusteeship of insolvent banks merged and refloated with preferred share issues (the entire financial system had collapsed by March  1933 and almost all the banks and stock and commodity exchanges were closed). There is little about promotion of both collective bargaining and cartelism to raise wages and prices, and, with the partial demonetisation of gold, to induce modest inflation, the refinancing of millions of mortgages and rebuilding farm prices by having farmers vote democratically, by category of agriculture, on production levels, to assure sustainable price levels and an adequate national food supply, while maintaining unharvested capacity in what was called a soil bank. His public works schemes massively advanced rural electrification and flood and drought control. It was all very innovative and 1936 was the only election in history when a Democratic president carried every farm state (with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, because his opponent, Barry Goldwater, was deemed an extremist).

Dallek’s coverage of Roosevelt as a war leader is more informative. But someone relying entirely on this book for an assessment of Roosevelt would not realise how imaginative his senior military promotions were. George Marshall was promoted over many others to be army chief of staff, Chester W. Nimitz was a personal selection as Pacific Fleet commander after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, the almost unknown Dwight Eisenhower was the president’s choice to command in Africa and Western Europe, and he reactivated Douglas MacArthur in the south-west Pacific after six years of retirement, despite the political animosity between the two. All performed brilliantly in their roles.

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