In Defense of FDR

Writing on Presidents’ Day, there comes back to me the notion I have held for more than 20 years that the holiday should be moved forward one week and extended to include the next two great presidents after Washington and Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt (born January 30, 1882) and Ronald Reagan (born February 6, 1911).

I was contemplating this when Mark Levin’s show on Fox News appeared on my television screen and the guest was Burton Folsom, a retired professor from Hillsdale College, an exceptionally fine university which had the generosity (and questionable judgment) to invite me on one of its lecture-cruises around the British Isles last summer. It was immensely enjoyable. Folsom was represented as an authority on FDR.

As memory serves, I had a very civilized correspondence with Folsom about 15 years ago elaborating our sharp disagreement over Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his appearance with Levin, who periodically reveals his conviction that the “Democrat Party,” as he and his fellow zealous partisans insist on calling it, has been a subversive organization since the retirement of President James Knox Polk in 1849. 

(It is the Democratic Party, inhabited by Democrats, and this fashion of description was originated by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, presumably to emphasize that because of its affinity for socialist authoritarianism, it was undemocratic but was conceded the right to describe itself as the Democrats. It has always reminded me of the British society method of signaling moderate anti-Semitism by using the word “Jew” as an adjective as well as a noun, as in “That is a Jew question,” meaning it is distasteful and beneath the notice of the speaker.)

Levin and Folsom unfolded the presidency of FDR as “a quid pro quo” operation, thus likening it to the recent allegation that President Trump had attempted to use the release of congressionally voted assistance from U.S. taxpayers’ funds to Ukraine in July in exchange for Ukraine exposing former Vice President Joe Biden and his son as influence peddlers in that country. The implications of this whole approach were that Roosevelt greatly expanded the role of the federal government in advancing money to the states and municipalities in an activity that was alleged by Levin and Folsom to be buying votes for the administration in those states. Hence, Roosevelt “flipped” Pennsylvania from Republican to Democratic after the 1932 election which brought Roosevelt into office. 

This train of thought spun itself out with the two on-screen personalities nodding and cheerfully supplementing each other’s points on the corruption, unconstitutional abuse of power, and economic ineffectuality of Roosevelt. A listener unfamiliar with the subject was led to believe that FDR sustained himself as president through four consecutive elections exclusively by this massive vote-buying operation, in which the local congressional Democrats and municipal bosses explained that for receipt of this money from Washington (legally voted by Congress), the voters they represented would have to sustain Roosevelt in the White House. 

Yet, Levin and Folsom solemnly advised us, this expansion of government and dependency on government was part of a great zero-sum game, and deprived others, so that even seven years after Roosevelt entered office, unemployment stood at 20 percent. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was singled out as indicative of this corruption, as farmers were paid not to produce, which caused agricultural prices to rise and enabled Roosevelt to “flip” a lot of farm states.

I discovered other things to do than watching television as they lumbered into the subject of Louisiana’s governor and senator, Huey P. Long, “a threat to Roosevelt,” as I had a ghastly, sinking feeling that there might be insinuations that Roosevelt had had a hand in Long’s assassination in September 1935. 

In any event, I knew from seeing Levin’s past reflections on Roosevelt that we were in mortal danger of wending our ineluctable way to the infamous theory that Roosevelt gave Eastern Europe to Stalin. This horrifying monster of historical fabrication is the only subject that could be agreed upon by such disparate groups as angry partisan Republicans, outraged that Roosevelt and Harry Truman defeated them in five consecutive elections; British Colonel Blimp imperialists who think Roosevelt cheated them out of their Empire; Gaullist poseurs representing that only the French could be trusted to defend Western Europe as the “Anglo-Saxons” gave it to the Kremlin; and the contemptible quasi-neutralist social-democratic Cold War “allies” such as West Germany’s Willy Brandt and Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, who claimed that Roosevelt and Churchill had given Stalin Eastern Europe so the satellite puppet states were all legitimate.    

Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, in fact, agreed in the liberation of all occupied countries at Yalta, with free elections (except for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which reverted to Russia which had occupied them for over 200 years prior to World War I). The elections were held in the countries liberated by the Western powers, but not in the East. Roosevelt’s plan was to deal with Stalin when he knew that atomic weapons would work and Russia wasn’t needed to defeat Japan. With that stick and the carrot of massive economic recovery assistance, Roosevelt proposed to encourage Stalin to honor his commitments. I couldn’t listen to any more of the Levin know-nothing view of modern American history.

The salient facts—the chief reasons why Roosevelt won four straight elections, and why I think he should be remembered on Presidents’ Day—are that when he entered office on March 4, 1933, the unemployment rate was over 30 percent, there was no direct federal relief for jobless Americans, and almost all banks and all stock and commodity exchanges had closed. 

The entire financial system had collapsed. The Dow-Jones Industrial Average, which today stands over 29,000, sat at 34. Farm prices were at levels that were unsustainable for most farmers, and huge surpluses were dumped in foreign markets and purchased with U.S. government loans, on which the borrowing countries then defaulted. Many millions of homes were in danger of being seized by mortgage holders. This was the shambles Roosevelt inherited, for which the Hoover Administration’s policy prescription had been the worst imaginable: higher taxes and tariffs and reduction of the money supply. Roosevelt replaced the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover Republican socio-economic and political miracle that gave America Prohibition, isolationism, the stock market bubble and crash, and the Great Depression.             

Roosevelt had cut unemployment to about 10 percent by 1940, and almost all of those were employed in his work-fare schemes on infrastructure, such as highways, parks, public buildings, waterways, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Lincoln Tunnel, Triborough Bridge, Chicago Midway, Grand Coulee Dam, and huge conservation plans, all at a bargain cost to the taxpayers. These people were much more usefully employed than the armed forces and munitions industries workers whose engagement contemporaneously reduced unemployment rolls in Europe and Japan. The farmers voted, by category, to agree a level of production that would feed the country at fair prices but give them an equitable income, and fallow land was maintained against erosion. Roosevelt’s income taxes on the wealthy became too high, but this was to keep off demagogues like Huey Long, and there were plenty of exonerations for them. Levin and Folsom tried to claim that this was the beginning of Bernie Sanders’ present exorbitant Marxist tax proposals.

The true Roosevelt said “It’s hard for a man with five children and ten servants to make both ends meet,” and wanted to “make America safe for people who live in 40-room houses on thousand-acre estates” as he did. He claimed to Justice Felix Frankfurter that he was “the greatest friend American capitalism ever had.” He was. He saved the system, and when the Republicans came in in 1953 under Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, they didn’t change anything substantial.  

Instead of demonizing Roosevelt, intelligent conservatives should wrench him away from the Left. Roosevelt refused what he called “the pauperism of the dole,” and required all those who could work to do so. He also saw the danger of Hitler when Churchill did, armed America to the teeth before the war, managed over intense Republican opposition to do the necessary to keep Britain and Canada in the war until Hitler invaded Russia and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. And then he was the chief architect of the grand strategy that regained France, Germany, Italy, and Japan for the West as prosperous democracies. Stalin only received temporary hostile occupation of relatively less valuable strategic territory in eastern Europe, despite having endured 95 percent of the casualties and physical damage in subduing Nazi Germany.

The Levin-Folsom line is the obnoxiously obtuse know-nothingism that, in the 19th century, justified John Stuart Mill in calling the Conservatives “the stupid party.” The Roosevelt-era Republicans were, and Levin and Folsom, in their historical ruminations, still are. 

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About Conrad Black

Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world as owner of the British telegraph newspapers, the Fairfax newspapers in Australia, the Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times and scores of smaller newspapers in the U.S., and most of the daily newspapers in Canada. He is the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, one-volume histories of the United States and Canada, and most recently of Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. He is a member of the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour.

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