Ralph Zuljan

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born January 30, 1882, at Hyde Park in New York State. The son of a wealthy family, he traveled widely with his parents, spending a significant part of his childhood in Germany. He was largely educated at home although he did attend a German school. At 14 years of age he entered Groton School, a private school for the sons of the wealthy. It was here that he became familiar with the concept of Christian stewardship through public service, an ideal that never left him. In 1900 Roosevelt entered Harvard, and completed his education by attaining a law degree from Columbia University. Roosevelt was not a distinguished scholar. He was better known on the party circuit than in academic circles and was heavily involved in extracurricular activities.

In 1905 he married Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of then-President Teddy Roosevelt. They had five children, the last of which was born in 1916.

Roosevelt was not really interested in the practice of law. He was, however, interested in politics and ran a vigorous campaign in the 1910 Senatorial elections, he won on the Democratic ticket and was Senator Roosevelt before his 29th birthday.. He was a hardworking and popular Senator who was reelected in 1912. It says much for his popularity that he managed reelection despite making no personal appearances during the campaign. He was ill with typhoid fever.

This electoral success was largely due to the influence of the press, particularly Louis Howe. Howe and Roosevelt enjoyed an excellent relationship from which Roosevelt benefited greatly throughout his life. Howe was one of the first pressmen to realize, and make use of, the power of the press in politics.

Senator Roosevelt was an active and ardent supporter of then President Woodrow Wilson. His support was rewarded with an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, a post he would hold for seven years. After the outbreak of World War I Roosevelt became a strong supporter of preparedness for war, a direct contrast to his country's isolationist policies.

In 1920 Roosevelt was nominated for Vice-president, as running mate to James Cox. One the key campaign issues was American entry into the League of Nations, a move Roosevelt favored. Cox lost his presidential bid, and Roosevelt entered into the private sector while remaining active in Democratic politics. Then, in 1921, tragedy struck. Roosevelt contracted polio.

Roosevelt was gravely ill, and completely paralyzed. With typical FDR determination full use of the upper body was regained along with minimal use of his legs. For the rest of his life he used a combination of wheelchair, canes, locking braces, and his son's strong arm to get around, managing his disability so adroitly that large numbers of the American electorate never realized he was not perfectly fit. As his health and mobility improved Franklin began to pick up the threads of his business and political life. He remained behind the scenes, using Eleanor as his eyes and ears. It was at this stage the Eleanor began to mature into a powerful political figure in her own right.

In 1928 Roosevelt reentered public life. He became Governor of New York State with a program of tax relief for farmers and cheaper utilities that was so successful that the 1930 campaign saw him returned to office with a landslide victory. In 1932 Governor Roosevelt ran for President.

The Great Depression had a firm grip on the United States and the campaign focused almost exclusively on that issue. The "New Deal" won Roosevelt the Presidency as well as a large majority in both Senate and Congress. Roosevelt's inaugural speech of March 1933 aired one of his most famous phrases, "...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Roosevelt's first presidential term was highly innovative. He introduced managed currency, unemployment insurance, old-age insurance and the Works Progress Administration which was designed to utilize the skills of otherwise unemployed workers along with tax reforms, government economy and utilities programs. Economic recovery was attributed to Roosevelt's policies and he had no trouble with reelection in 1936. In fact, he received nearly twice the votes of his nearest rival.

Even so, Roosevelt's terms of office were trouble free. He had detractors and enemies, some of whom went all the way to the Supreme Court in an effort to block certain of Roosevelt's policies and reforms. They were unsuccessful, but the fights were long and bitter.

The Neutrality Act was passed in 1935, but by 1937 Roosevelt had become opposed to its implied isolationism, due to Japanese aggression in Manchuria and the rise of Hitler in Germany. His change of attitude caused great unease in America and suspicion that Roosevelt wanted war. American-Japanese relations deteriorated steadily. In Europe a general war broke out in 1939 and FDR ensured that the Neutrality Act was revised to permit arms sales to belligerents -- specifically Britain and France. By 1940 overt defense preparations and "all aid short of war" to the European Allies were underway.

That year also saw FDR elected to an unprecedented third term of office. His margin was much smaller than previous elections, probably due to the general feeling that the US had no business being involved in the European war. The Lend-Lease Act of 1941 was the subject of a bitter Congressional debate, but Roosevelt had his way. And when the Third Reich invaded the Soviet Union, that country too was given American material assistance for its fight against Fascism. At the same time the US was supplying war materiel to Britain and her allies it was denying strategic materials (oil in particular) to Japan. Roosevelt did not want a war with Japan, and he believed it would not happen. It was one of the few great errors of his career. Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941 and America soon joined the war in both the Pacific and Europe.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on December 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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