Roosevelt, Franklin D. (1882-1945)

Photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Navy Review

Naval Historical Center #NH-968. Cropped by author.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into a very prominent New York family. His maternal grandfather had made a fortune in the tea and opium trades in China, and Roosevelt acknowledged that his family history increased his sympathy for China. He was a distant cousin of President Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt, a progressive Republican, who became something of a hero to the younger Roosevelt and who shared many of the same policy positions.

Roosevelt attended Harvard and Columbia Law School, where he received undistinguished marks, albeit in a day when grade inflation was unheard of. He had some skill with languages, speaking German fluently enough to impress Albert Einstein and also speaking passable French. In an interesting parallel to the case of Douglas MacArthur, Roosevelt's widowed mother moved to New York to be near her son while he completed school. While practicing law with one of the "white shoe" firms of New York City, Franklin became involved in Democratic Party politics, which led to an appointment during the First World War as assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920, in the wake of a doomed bid for the vice presidency, he contracted polio, which left his legs almost completely paralyzed. This personal tragedy deeply affected his attitudes and personality, leaving him a much soberer and more determined individual. It also may have contributed to his tendency to hide his views behind a screen of "optimistic geniality" (Jenkins 2003).

Roosevelt's speech nominating Al Smith as the Democratic presidential candidate at the 1924 Chicago convention marked his return to politics. Though he did not succeed in securing the Democratic nomination for Smith, he made a tremendous impression, with Smith declaring that Roosevelt was "the most impressive figure in the Convention" (Jenkins 2003). By 1928 Roosevelt was governor of New York, and in 1932 he was elected President of the United States, an office to which he would be reelected for an unprecedented four terms.

Roosevelt's domestic policy revolved around the New Deal, a centralization and expansion of government economic powers aimed at countering the Great Depression. It was, and still is, a controversial program, both on constitutional and economic grounds, and a number of economists believe that the New Deal actually prolonged the Depression by distorting market signals and increasing uncertainty among businesses. Other economists take a more positive view of the New Deal, arguing that it prevented the United States from succumbing to totalitarianism by giving hope to those hit hardest by the Depression. They also argue that programs such as Social Security and deposit insurance are a lasting positive legacy of the New Deal, in spite of its other flaws.

The New Deal was funded through greatly increased taxes on businesses and wealthy individuals, through an unprecedented level of peacetime deficit spending, and through reductions in other government expenditures.
These included defense expenditures. Early in his first term, Roosevelt cut the defense budget, reducing the annual expenditure from $752 million to $531 million. This led to a famous confrontation with Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur that marked MacArthur's permanent alienation from Democratic administrations.

Roosevelt badly misstepped politically with the National Industrial Recovery Act, a hodgepodge of measures that included the establishment of the National Recovery Administration. The NRA promulgated a code of price supports and minimum wages, and businesses that agreed to abide by the code could display the "Blue Eagle" symbol on their products and places of business. Though participation was voluntary, considerable pressure was brought against nonconforming businesses. The Supreme Court struck down the NRA in 1935 as unconstitutional, ruling that it exceeded the limits of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause. Following his landslide reelection in 1936, Roosevelt misjudged the strength of his mandate, and made a transparent bid to pack the court with more sympathetic justices. This was poorly received by Congress and many voters and went nowhere. However, a number of retirements from the Court achieved nearly the same effect as Roosevelt sought, allowing him to nominate more liberal justices who took a much more expansive view of the Commerce Clause.

Following his reelection in 1936, Roosevelt attempted to balance the budget, but by the summer of 1937 the loss of the stimulus provided by deficit spending plunged the United States into a second recession. The unemployment rate soared, and the public became increasingly dissatisfied with the New Deal, which appeared to have failed at priming the pump. Roosevelt blamed the recession on "a concerted effort by big business and concentrated wealth to drive the market down just to create a situation unfavorable to me" (Fleming 2001). However, the gathering storm clouds abroad convinced Roosevelt that the country had to look to its defenses. The lapse of the naval disarmament treaties had already led Congress to approve significant expansions to the Navy, and by 1939 the massive rearmament program was proving very important in the economic recovery. Perhaps equally important was Roosevelt's decision to back away from his earlier strongly populist stance: He knew he had to have the support of big business if the country was to rearm for war.

It is unclear when Roosevelt decided to break tradition and seek a third term, but the fall of France in the spring of 1940 seems to have cemented the decision. Roosevelt campaigned on the platform of staying with an experienced administration in a time of crisis. His Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, seems to have shared most of Roosevelt's policy preferences, including his internationalism; but, in a close race, the two candidates found themselves competing for the isolationist vote, and both ran peace campaigns that neither really believed in. Though Roosevelt won by a clear margin, it was narrower than in the previous elections.

As the situation in Europe continued to deteriorate, Roosevelt's foreign policy became as internationalist in character as the strongly isolationist sentiment of the American public permitted. Roosevelt was careful never to get too far ahead of the American public, and some of his advisors felt there were times he led from the rear. However, the renewal of Selective Service on 13 August 1941 by only a single vote in the House of Representatives suggests that Roosevelt was right to tread carefully. He hoped to avoid war by giving economic aid to the Allies and letting them do the fighting, but it became increasingly clear that neither Britain nor Russia was capable of defeating Germany with the help of economic aid alone. Roosevelt drew increasingly close to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and issued rules of engagement to the Atlantic Fleet that belied American's declared neutrality. It seems likely that Roosevelt hoped to provoke an incident in the Atlantic that would justify taking the country to war. This was a forlorn hope, as shown by the fact that even the sinking of the Reuben James by a German U-boat, with over a hundred lives lost, failed to shake off American isolationism.

Roosevelt's greatest contribution to the Allied cause during the period of U.S. neutrality was Lend-Lease, which provided large quantities of raw materials, weapons, and munitions to Britain, Russia, and the other powers fighting the Axis without any binding reciprocal obligation. It at once defused the issue of war debts while ensuring that assistance to the Allies would not be limited by their dollar reserves, which were already severely depleted in the case of Britain.

In August 1941, at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland (now part of Canada), Churchill and Roosevelt met in person for the first time since 1918. The resulting Atlantic Charter was a statement of general war aims that was remarkable coming jointly from a putatively neutral power and a belligerent. It had considerable propaganda value and, after the U.S. entered the war, it became part of the diplomatic foundation for the broader United Nations coalition.

Photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt giving his "Day of Infamy" speech

National Archives

The approach to war in the Pacific. American entry into the Second World War followed an unexpected disaster — the devastating surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. This destroyed American isolationism overnight, and the German and Italian declarations of war three days after Pearl Harbor put the United States firmly in the Allied camp.

Roosevelt was primarily concerned with the threat of Germany, and his policy towards Japan from 1937 to 1941 was rather muddled. Neither Roosevelt nor his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, believed war with Japan was in the interests of the United States so long as Germany remained undefeated in Europe. On the other hand, any Japanese expansion into southeast Asia would threaten resources needed by the powers fighting Germany. Hull was an experienced public servant whose policy was to avoid confrontation with Japan without acquiescing to Japanese expansion in the Far East. This increasingly became an exercise in walking the razor's edge. Several other members of the Roosevelt administration wanted a more active policy against Japan and, at times, undercut Hull's efforts. Roosevelt failed to impose a coherent policy from the top, perhaps because he was sympathetic to the "hawks" but disinclined to overrule Hull in his own department.

This lack of coherence reached a peak with the oil embargo of July 1941. This was imposed in response to the Japanese move into southern French Indochina. Hull originally meant it to be a relatively loose restriction on oil exports to Japan, limiting these to Japan's estimated peacetime requirements. While Roosevelt was attending the Atlantic Conference, Dean Acheson, assistant Secretary of State and a "hawk," managed to transform this into a complete embargo, and Roosevelt declined to reverse it on his return in November, probably out of fear that the Japanese would interpret this as weakness. Roosevelt was likely also influenced by polls that showed that 67 percent of the American public believed that it was better to risk war than allow Japan to become more powerful. The oil embargo put Japan and the U.S. on a collision course.

There have been a number of conspiracy theories put forward to explain the Pearl Harbor disaster, most claiming that Roosevelt had advance intelligence that he withheld from the local commanders in order to ensure U.S. entry into the war. These conspiracy theories are baseless. In the first place, no revisionist explanation of the disaster is required; the Japanese had a capable carrier strike force and planned the attack well, and American unreadiness was evident at all levels of the U.S. military and government. In the second place, the local commanders were warned that war was imminent and ordered to take appropriate defensive measures, but failed to act appropriately. But the biggest problem with the Roosevelt conspiracy theory is that it fails the basic test of plausibility: An unprovoked Japanese attack on a fully alerted base would have been just as valid a casus belli as the disaster that actually took place, and it might have had the priceless benefit of opening the war with a major U.S. victory.

A somewhat more plausible theory is that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese to go to war, but was as surprised as anyone else by the attack on Pearl Harbor and by the subsequent Japanese successes. Japan's military capability was almost universally underestimated in the West, and Roosevelt put great faith in the United States Navy. According to this theory, the failures of Roosevelt to reverse the oil embargo in late 1941, to accept a summit invitation from Japanese Prime Minister Konoye, or to attempt to negotiate a modus vivendi, were deliberate and were meant to slam the door on a peaceful settlement without putting the onus on the United States. The strange mission of the Lanikai, a tiny gunboat quickly fitted out in early December 1941 and ordered to reconnoiter Cam Ranh Bay (where it would have been squarely in the path of the main Japanese invasion convoys to Malaya) seems to support the idea that Roosevelt meant to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot.

The principal objection to this theory is that the attack by the Japanese by no means guaranteed German intervention. Roosevelt might well have been faced with an exceedingly thorny political problem of how to convince the American public to go to war with Germany as well as Japan, had not Hitler rashly solved the problem for him. As it was, public sentiment was strongly opposed to the "Germany first" policy. However, Fleming (2001) has suggested that Roosevelt arranged a leak of American contingency plans for war with the Axis (Rainbow Five) to the press four days before the Pearl Harbor attack, as a way to provoke Hitler and ensure that Germany would declaring war on the United States if hostilities broke out between the United States and Japan. However, neither the Lanikai mission nor the Rainbow Five leak are convincing evidence that Roosevelt deliberately sought war with Japan. At most, they prove that, by late 1941, Roosevelt had given up hope of avoiding war in the Pacific, and was attempting to make the best of a bad situation by ensuring Japan attacked first and Germany intervened.

Roosevelt as wartime commander-in-chief. Roosevelt was a strong advocate of the Navy, so much so that General Marshall felt obligated to request that he stop referring to the Navy as “us” and the Army as “them.” His familiarity with the Navy served it well in its greatest conflict. Roosevelt involved himself in strategic decisions as well as technical matters, strongly advocating the building of smaller carriers. He liked to make his own appointments to the most senior military positions, and these usually worked out well.

Roosevelt's greatest contributions to the Allied cause were to maintain the "Germany first" policy, as previously mentioned, and to ensure that the Normandy invasion took place when it did. The British were wary of a direct assault on Europe, while the American military leadership wished to conduct such an assault at the earliest possible moment. Both were wrong. The Western Allies were never going to do their part to defeat Hitler with the kinds of peripheral operations Churchill favored; but neither could the United States and Britain have been ready for a full-scale invasion in 1942 or even in 1943. The campaigns in North Africa and Italy were an essential "blooding" for the U.S. Army and, thanks to Hitler's blunders, they did more damage to the Axis than they had any right to. Whether Roosevelt understood this on some level, or simply acted out of his instinct to split the difference between Churchill and his own military leaders, the invasion likely came at the optimum moment. However, recent research by Lacey (2011) suggests that Roosevelt's economic planners had established as early as 1942 that the United States could not be fully mobilized before the spring of 1944. Roosevelt's own remarks suggest that he committed U.S. forces to the Mediterranean in 1942 simply because he wanted U.S. troops fighting the Germans on the ground at the earliest possible moment.

Roosevelt’s worst mistake in his conduct of the war was probably crediting the Russians with more good faith than was warranted. As Churchill later pointed out, the Russians acted as if they were doing the West a very great favor by defending themselves against a German invasion of their own heartland. On the other hand, Weinberg (2005) points out that a compromise peace between Russia and the Axis was a more significant possibility than is sometimes recognized. The Russian intervention in the Pacific War came very late, was highly opportunistic, and laid the foundation for much postwar tension. Stalin, who was a ferocious autodidact and brutal realist, seems to have regarded Roosevelt as an ignorant dilettante.

Roosevelt's second greatest mistake was probably grossly overestimating the contribution China could make to Allied victory in the Pacific. This led to some of the most serious disagreements on grand strategy between the United States and Britain during the war.

Roosevelt had tremendous personal charm but could also be superficial, as when he told Treasury Secretary Morgenthau to fix the price of gold at a certain value because it was a lucky number. He could also be petty, as when he described the Daughters of the American Revolution in a campaign speech as "ancestor worshipers." Kimmel complained that Roosevelt had a gift for changing the subject when confronted with the lack of preparedness at Pearl Harbor. This reflected "a great capacity, which he was to exhibit frequently in his years of power, for blandly ignoring situations of conflict and difficulty on which he did not want to pronounce" (Jenkins 2003). It was Roosevelt's style to postpone decisions on disagreements within his administration for as long as possible, on the theory that most such issues would be resolved by underlings. This sometimes had the effect of letting disagreements fester to the point where compromise was all but impossible. On the other hand, Roosevelt's buoyant optimism was an effective counterweight to the grim determination of Churchill, his great partner in the Grand Alliance.

The friendship between the two leaders was a major theme of Churchill's postwar memoirs, but Churchill wrote with magnanimity. Prior to the Atlantic Conference, the famous correspondence between the two was cautious, and Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's right-hand man, was an essential intermediary. Even after the Conference, the trust between the two men, while considerable, was never complete. Roosevelt disliked the British Empire and did not consider it a benign force in history, while Churchill was an unabashed imperialist. Roosevelt's attempt to charm Stalin at Churchill's expense at the Teheran Conference significantly cooled their friendship. "In personal relations and in diplomacy it is unwise and dangerous to pretend to denounce a proven friend in order to ingratiate oneself with a third party" (Smith 1985).

Roosevelt suffered from rapidly progressing arteriosclerosis at the time of his final reelection, in 1944, but those close to him concealed his deteriorating health from the public. The election campaign was very close at one point, in spite of the obvious disadvantages of bringing in a new and inexperienced administration at a critical phase of the war. Most Americans were shocked at Roosevelt's death in April of 1945, not knowing that he had been terminally ill for some time. His poor health may have contributed to his making unwarranted concessions to the Russians near the end of the war.

Oddly, among the eulogies for Roosevelt was one by Radio Tokyo, which praised Roosevelt as "one of the greatest statesmen ... responsible for American's advantageous position today" (Browne 1967.) It is impossible to know whether this was an attempt to soften the attitude of the American public, a suggestion that the Americans would not be so well led from then on, or the display of magnanimity it appeared to be.

Roosevelt's Postwar Vision

Roosevelt felt strongly that Germany must be prevented from starting another world war, and he blamed the resurgence of Germany just twenty years after her defeat in the First World War on the rejection of the Versailles Treaty by the U.S. Senate. He favored dismembering Germany into several weak states, and gave serious consideration to the Morgenthau Plan, which called for Germany to be stripped of its industrial capacity and converted to a "fat but impotent" agricultural nation with a reasonably high standard of living, like Denmark. The Morgenthau Plan was seized on by Nazi propagandists, who portrayed it as a plan to reduce Germany to a nation of starving peasants. The Morgenthau Plan foundered when the Russians insisted on shifting the Polish borders westward, which stripped Germany of some of its best agricultural land, but Germany was divided into separate East and West states for 45 years.

By contrast, Roosevelt had no intention of stripping Japan of any territory from its home islands, although Japan lost all its colonies; nor did Roosevelt express any intention of breaking Japan into separate weak states. He contrasted a German public that seemed to have voluntarily turned to National Socialism with the way the Japanese Army had "shot its way to power" with a series of coups and assassinations (Weinberg 2005). His more positive view of Japan than Germany was in stark contrast with American public opinion.

Roosevelt believed that the day of colonial empires was passed, an attitude that led to some of his worst policy clashes with the British and French. He adamantly refused to formally annex any new territory to the United States, in spite of pressure from other American leaders, who felt that the bloody campaigns of the Central Pacific entitled the United States to claim the capture territories. He called for colonies to be converted to trusteeships, modeled on the earlier League of Nations mandates, which would end in independence for the former colonies within a few decades. While his trusteeship model was not adopted, the colonial empires disintegrated of their own accord even sooner than he had envisioned.

Roosevelt's final geopolitical legacy was the United Nations, which he hoped would accomplish what the League of Nations had not. However, he was reluctant to give France a permanent seat on the council, and he did not foresee either the collapse of Nationalist China or the uses to which Russia would put its veto on the Security Council. The United Nations remains an uncertain legacy today.


Browne (1967)

Fleming (2001)

Jenkins (2003)

Lacey (2011)

Powell (2003)
Prange (1981)

Smith (1985)

Smith (2007)

Utley (1985)

Weinberg (2005)

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