Against FDR

Against FDR

In your Oct. 31 editorial “My fellow Americans,” you write, “Roosevelt made recommendations that are useful to this day.” If so, why weren’t Roosevelt’s recommendations useful in his day? Among those recommendations, FDR introduced the New Deal and an alphabet soup of federal aid programs like the NRA, FSA and FERA, none of which prevented the Great Depression from rolling right on through the first nine years of his presidency. What finally ended the Great Depression was not Roosevelt but World War II.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously described Roosevelt as having “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”

As Michael Barone and other writers have noted, FDR believed American economic expansion ended in 1929 and his policies were probably designed to share a decreasing economic pie while securing a safety net below the most vulnerable. How else can we explain how much richer and better off our country is without FDR and his recommendations?

You also refer to FDR’s simplistic comment, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Do we really think that the U.S. servicemen and women who had to fight World War II with their navy lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor had nothing to fear? Do we think the 405,399 U.S. servicemen and women who lost their lives and the million more wounded had nothing to fear? And do we think the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust even as they nurtured dreams of the leader of the free world doing something, anything to save them had nothing to fear?

In “The Conquerors” by Michael Beschloss, the jacket notes read, “FDR’s actions so shocked his closest friend in the cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., that Morgenthau risked their friendship by accusing the President of acquiescence in the murder of the Jews.”

Here is another insight from page 66: “Indignation of American failure to bomb Auschwitz has centered on John McCloy Assistant Secretary of War. McCloy recalled that when Jewish leaders “wanted me to order the bombing of Auschwitz,” he took the matter to Roosevelt who was “irate” at the suggestion. The president made it very clear to him that bombing Auschwitz “wouldn’t have done any good.”

I lost family in the Holocaust and you probably did too. Maybe Roosevelt was not an accomplice to their murder and maybe Morgenthau and McCloy took more secrets about their beloved leader with them to their graves. What confuses me is why you think the grand vision of a second-class intellect who at the least acquiesced in the murder of so many innocent lives should continue to guide our great nation.

The editor responds: This reader’s animus toward President Roosevelt is so strong that he seems not to have read the editorial with any degree of attentiveness. At the risk of being repetitive, I will remind readers of it here:

The recommendations it noted – made, we point out, in 1933 – were: “There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.” They surely have relevance today.

The reader also dismisses the “fear itself” quotation as “simplistic” – perhaps because he has not read the whole of it, which the editorial supplied: “[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” That sentence was spoken – we note, again, in 1933 – about the Great Depression and the sheer terror that was gripping many suffering loss of homes, livelihoods, and life savings. It was not about World War II and Pearl Harbor, which was almost nine years ahead.

The sentence worked, as rhetoric and as psychology. Fear is paralyzing, particularly when it is “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” The country needed to put it aside in order to take action.

The reader goes on and on in his rage against Roosevelt – and we agree that Roosevelt could have done much more to save Jews during the Shoah, from bombing the train tracks leading to Auschwitz to opening America’s gates to refugees. But the editorial focused not on Roosevelt’s entire presidency but on the speech inaugurating it. In 1933 – we note the date for the third time, to stress that the speech was written well before the war – it calmed the country at a desperate moment. It reminded Americans that “our common difficulties … concern, thank God, only material things.” And it urged us “to minister to … our fellow men” and stressed our interdependence.

Whatever history’s final verdict on Roosevelt, that was the right speech and vision for that time – and meaningful for our time as well.