The Franklin D. Roosevelt Administrations

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Date: 2002
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Franklin Delano Roosevelt is regarded by historians as one of the greatest U.S. presidents. He was in office longer than any other person and he successfully led the nation through two of the most serious crises in U.S. history--the Great Depression and World War II. Only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln faced greater challenges and were successful in overcoming them.

Roosevelt Becomes President

The Campaign of 1932

Roosevelt's quest for the presidency in 1932 came at a time when the Great Depression was at its worst. An estimated 13 million people were out of work, many great industries--like steel--were operating at a fraction of capacity, banks were failing, and the Hoover administration had proved unable to cope effectively with the catastrophic conditions. Roosevelt had many assets working in his favor. He had been reelected governor of New York in 1930, had an excellent record, and had extremely shrewd advisers including his secretary Louis Howe and James A. Farley, a career politician with innumerable contacts in the West and the South. Although Roosevelt could not walk as a result of polio, which he had contracted in 1921, he hid his infirmity exceptionally well and projected an image of vigor.

The only serious opponent to Roosevelt's ambitions was the Speaker of the House, John Nance Garner of Texas, who had the support of William G. McAdoo and William Randolph Hearst of California. McAdoo had been secretary of the Treasury in the Wilson administration and a presidential contender in 1920 and 1924. In 1932 he was the chairman of the California delegation to the national convention. Hearst was an influential newspaper publisher with control of papers in major cities across the country.

Another opponent of Roosevelt was his onetime New York ally, Alfred E. Smith. Smith knew he could not win the nomination, but hoped to keep it from Roosevelt. At the convention Roosevelt won a majority on the first ballot, but not the necessary two-thirds. However, McAdoo then announced the shift of the Garner delegates to Roosevelt thus assuring him victory. The following day Garner was nominated for vice president. Roosevelt startled the convention by flying from Albany to Chicago to give the acceptance speech in person. This had never been done, but it was a master stroke of politics. Roosevelt's apparent vigor, his fine voice, his warm personality, and his liberal creed endeared him to most of the party faithful.

Roosevelt endorsed the party platform that called for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition, which outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages), reduction of government spending, a balanced budget, sound currency, competitive tariffs, and reciprocal trade agreements. As for the Depression, the platform prescribed federal credits to the states for unemployment relief; an expanded public works program; a reduction of the length of the work week; and unemployment and old age insurance. For the farmer there were promises of mortgage refinancing; promotion of cooperatives; and efforts to bring prices above the cost of production. Finally, the Democrats declared their intention to enforce the antitrust laws; conserve natural resources; and regulate public utilities, holding companies, and the stock market.

Republican president Herbert Hoover was in many ways the antithesis of Roosevelt. Although highly intelligent, he was not a skilled politician. Moreover, he lacked a sense of humor and his personality, while not introverted, was quite reserved. Even before the Depression he was not popular with the press. Also, Progressive Republicans, like Senator George Norris of Nebraska, disliked Hoover's policies. The president had vetoed Norris's cherished plan for federal development of a hydroelectric power project at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Hoover had also failed, in Progressive eyes, to support agriculture sufficiently, and he vehemently opposed direct federal relief to the unemployed. His persistent declaration that "prosperity is just around the corner," intended to boost consumer confidence, had become the object of ridicule.

The Republican platform equivocated on Prohibition by calling for a referendum on an amendment allowing the states to decide the issue individually. The document went on to blame the Depression on the European bankers and in general to offer no new solutions, with one exception. The plank on agriculture called for plans to balance production against demand and specified that it would be necessary for farmers to decrease the amount of land under production in order to achieve the desired result. This seemed to foreshadow the policy adopted later by Roosevelt and the New Dealers.

In spite of his major problems and deficiencies, Hoover was renominated with little opposition. The incumbent president at first did not intend to campaign vigorously but the situation soon looked so gloomy that he took to the road. In a brave but colorless whistle-stop campaign he attempted to save his presidency by arguing that things would only be worse if the Democrats won. The only chance he had was for the Depression to show some sign of lifting, but that did not happen.

Roosevelt's campaign was very energetic and his ebullient personality seemed to lift people's spirits wherever he went. He promised the people a "New Deal" without offering many specifics, but at the same time his "brain trust" advisers were working diligently on the development of policy (See also, Roosevelt's Advisers). Raymond Moley sketched out the broad outlines of what the New Deal should be while Rexford Tugwell worked mostly on agriculture and Adolph Berle on business and finance. Meanwhile, Samuel I. Rosenman, Roosevelt's counsel who had earlier served on the New York State Supreme Court, wrote many of Roosevelt's speeches.

The outcome of the election was a monumental victory for the Democrats. Roosevelt polled close to 23 million popular votes to under 16 million for Hoover. Moreover, the Democrats gained firm control of both the House and the Senate. Also adding to the field for this election were six minor party candidates including the Socialists, the Communists, Prohibition, Liberty, Socialist-Labor, and Farmer-Labor. They performed very poorly. Even the Socialists, revitalized by the Depression and led by Norman Thomas, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a prominent social reformer, polled fewer than one million votes.

In March 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his first term, the nation lay in the depths of the Depression. Millions of Americans looked to the president for leadership. The mood was one of desperation tinged with hope. Roosevelt could attempt practically anything. It mattered only that he do something, and he did. "Debate might rage over the correctness of Roosevelt's actions, but his decisiveness had captured the imagination and the loyalty of the American people. . . . Bonds had been joined between them and the President that were to endure throughout the remainder of his life" (Miller, p. 325).

The Campaign of 1936

When the Democrats assembled in Philadelphia the renomination of President Roosevelt was a foregone conclusion. The platform defended all the existing New Deal programs (See also, Domestic Issues), but also promised a balanced budget as soon as possible. In foreign policy the platform promised to continue the Good Neighbor policy in Latin America (See also, Foreign Issues) and to avoid involvement in any war anywhere. There were no surprises at the convention and most of it was taken up with endless speech-making.

The Opposition

When the Republicans gathered in Cleveland in June 1936, they were experiencing mild optimism. The economy had yet to recover, and there was substantial sentiment that Roosevelt's New Deal was intrusive. However, the Republicans had no strong candidates. The party regulars finally agreed on Governor Alfred M. Landon of Kansas. He was a successful businessman with a mildly progressive reputation and he had carried the state of Kansas impressively in his two campaigns for governor. The Republican platform of 1936 called for the preservation of liberty and individual opportunity, and indicted the New Deal for its misdeeds, especially deficit spending and the alleged failure of the relief programs that included the proposed locally controlled unemployment relief programs and a reduction in federal regulations. The foreign policy section reflected extreme isolationism.

There was another politically dangerous group that represented a source of opposition to the New Deal from the Left. It had grown out of a loose coalition of the forces led by Father Charles E. Coughlin of Michigan, Dr. Francis E. Townsend of California, and Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Each of these men had substantial popular support for their own radical ideas, and for a time it appeared that they would be able to band together to challenge Roosevelt and his policies.

Long was the only true politician of the group. A senator from Louisiana, he was also the former governor, and his political machine in that state gave him near dictatorial political power. Long's so-called Share-Our-Wealth movement, which promised $5,000 a year to every family, was quite popular. Coughlin had developed a large following through his radio broadcasts from Royal Oak, Michigan, in which he demanded complete government control of currency and credit. Even more popular was the Townsend Plan. Townsend proposed a federal pension that would pay every person over 65 $200 per month provided they spent the money within 30 days.

In September of 1935, Huey Long was assassinated. Without Long, his so-called Union Party had no true presidential candidate. Congressman William Lemke, a Nonpartisan League Republican from North Dakota, would eventually run on the Union Party ticket, with the nominal support of the Longites, Coughlinites, and Townsendites. In reality the different groups could not settle on a general policy, and the Union Party failed to present a serious challenge to Roosevelt.

The Presidential Campaign

The Democrats were better organized than the Republicans and ran a more effective campaign even though they had less money. They successfully countered most Republican criticism by urging citizens to compare 1932 with 1936. Although the Depression was not over, most people believed they were better off. Roosevelt was a charismatic speaker and projected his magnetic personality in stark contrast to the unexciting Landon. While some conservative Democrats broke with Roosevelt, they had little effect on public opinion.

On November 8, 1936, Roosevelt swamped his opponent with over 27 million popular votes to 16.5 million for the Kansas governor. Lemke polled a mere 800,000. The president carried every state except Maine and Vermont. In Congress the Democratic majorities increased while at the state and local level thousands of Democratic candidates were swept into office on Roosevelt's coattails. Roosevelt had hoped for a mandate, but the result of the election was beyond his wildest dreams.

The Campaign of 1940

In 1940 Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third presidential term. There were no other serious Democratic candidates and Roosevelt was easily renominated. The real battle swirled around the selection of a new vice president. Political differences with Roosevelt precluded Garner from running again. Roosevelt wanted Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace as his new running mate, but old line regular Democrats resisted. Wallace was after all a former Republican and was thought by many to be a spiritualist. Moreover, there was great resentment on the part of those who claimed that the "New Deal Crowd" had taken over the party. The opposition, however, was weak and Wallace was nominated on the first ballot.

Wendell L. Willkie was an Indiana-born attorney who lived in New York City. While a successful businessperson who opposed Roosevelt, he had been a Democrat until 1938 and had never held public office. He was thus an unlikely candidate for the Republican nomination. As in 1936, however, the Republicans lacked any strong candidates with a more conventional political background and certainly not anyone that was considered a real possibility to defeat Roosevelt. Willkie reinforced this impression of his Republican opponents with a very extensive and active campaign, and at the Republican convention he was rewarded with the nomination on the sixth ballot.

Willkie conducted an energetic campaign during which he traveled over 30,000 miles and delivered 540 speeches. His major theme was the third-term issue. In the United States, he argued, power should not be concentrated in the hands of one man. This was Willkie's only major issue; he agreed with Roosevelt's foreign policies and would not criticize his popular New Deal domestic programs. Most of the Democratic campaigning for the national ticket was conducted by Wallace, but late in the game Roosevelt did give five very effective speeches in the East and Middle West.

The election proved to be another landslide for Roosevelt. He defeated Willkie by 5 million votes in the popular election and 449 to 82 in the electoral college. Most of Willkie's support came from the agricultural Middle West where many farmers were growing tired of new government regulations. Roosevelt, however, retained the bulk of his urban support showing that New Deal labor policies were still popular.

The Campaign of 1944

Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican who had contended for the nomination in 1940, had become governor of New York and was in a strong position to challenge for the Republican nomination. Initially, he appeared to have several serious challengers, including Wendell Willkie, General Douglas MacArthur, and Governors John W. Bricker of Ohio and Harold E. Stassen of Minnesota. In the end, only Bricker could generate any lasting support. He campaigned vigorously but could not overcome Dewey's supporters and was forced to accept second place on the ballot.

Roosevelt was easily nominated for the presidency by the Democrats, but there were serious divisions within the party. Conservative southern Democrats were now opposed to Roosevelt and his policies. They were particularly unhappy with Vice President Wallace, who had openly advocated equal opportunity for all regardless of race. Desiring the support of the southerners, Roosevelt stood by and allowed the convention to select a new running mate for him, Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri.

The campaign was brief. Concentrating for the most part on radio addresses, Dewey called for a more efficient administration, the relaxation of regulations, and the stimulation of private enterprise. Roosevelt also spoke mostly over the radio but, in fact, made very few speeches. Again, the result was a Roosevelt sweep. The president garnered over 25 million popular votes to 22 million for Dewey. Roosevelt lost some of the farm vote but retained the urban labor vote. Dewey realized most of his support in New England and the Middle West. Unbeknownst to the public, Roosevelt was seriously ill at the time of his January 20, 1945, inauguration. He would die of a cerebral hemorrhage only three months later.

Roosevelt's Advisers

There were several people not in Roosevelt's cabinet who influenced the president in significant ways. Among these were his personal secretary Louis Howe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Justice Felix Frankfurter, counsel Samuel I. Rosenman, Hugh Johnson, Thomas G. Corcoran, and Benjamin V. Cohen. The latter two were especially important because they drafted important legislation that included the Truth in Securities Act, the Securities and Exchange Act, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, the Rural Electrification Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In the spring of 1932 at the suggestion of Rosenman, Roosevelt surrounded himself with a group of advisers known as the brain trust. This group included Rexford Tugwell, Raymond Moley, and Adolph A. Berle, Jr., and played a vitally important role between the election and Roosevelt's first inauguration. The advice provided by these three men became the basis of Roosevelt's overall domestic policy that came to be known as the "New Deal," a term coined by Moley.

Moley argued that both major political parties had grown too conservative and that the Democrats should move to the left with a liberalization based on progressive principles. Specifically, Moley proposed a large-scale relief program, old age pensions and unemployment insurance, the regulation of banking and securities exchange, heavy taxation of corporate wealth, federal ownership and operation of public utilities, and higher wage rates.

Tugwell offered the outline of what would become the New Deal farm program. It was based on the idea that farm commodity prices could be raised by inducing farmers to cultivate less land. This idea is known as acreage allotment. Adopted in 1933 this policy--with various modifications--has continued to be the basis of U.S. federal farm policy until the present day.

Berle made many technical proposals dealing with securities exchange, mortgages, lending policies, and banking. A number of his ideas made their way into important legislation. After the brain trust was dissolved following the election of 1932, Berle continued on as unofficial adviser to the president and finally joined the State Department in 1938. He was serving as ambassador to Brazil at the time of Roosevelt's death.

Moley was appointed assistant secretary of state in 1933 and served until September of that year when he left government service to become editor of Today magazine. In the mid-1930s he broke with Roosevelt over the court-packing scheme (See also, Roosevelt and the Judiciary) and his belief that the New Deal had become far too anti-business. He spent the balance of his career in the publishing industry.

Tugwell joined the administration in 1933 as assistant secretary of agriculture. Until 1935 he helped administer the first Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which helped to increase farm income by reducing surpluses. In that year he was appointed head of the Resettlement Administration (RA), an agency designed to assist poor farmers to acquire better land. He was very liberal in his views and became a prime target of the conservative press. He left the Roosevelt administration in 1936.

Many of Roosevelt's cabinet members also had the president's ear at one time or another, but Vice President Garner was unusual among Roosevelt's close associates. Garner was a conservative Democrat from Uvalde in southern Texas who had been elected to the House in 1902. He became minority leader in 1928 and Speaker in 1931 after the Democrats gained the majority. As a southern Democrat he was very conservative and disapproved of much of the New Deal from the start. His distaste for Roosevelt's policies grew as time passed, but because of party loyalty he did not openly oppose the president until 1937. After that, the court-packing scheme, and Garner's perception that Roosevelt favored civil rights for African Americans, put the vice president in the opposition camp. By mutual consent he was replaced in 1940.

Roosevelt and Congress

Roosevelt presided over an administration that included the Seventy-third through the Seventy-ninth Congresses. During that entire period Congress was dominated by the Democratic Party; however, the party was not a monolithic organization. Southerners tended to be conservative and there was a limit to their willingness to support liberal legislation.

Until 1937 the majority party in Congress supported practically everything Roosevelt proposed. As time went on, however, conservatives in both parties became increasingly uneasy as New Deal programs became more and more intrusive, as even greater regulations were imposed upon business, and as ever higher taxes seemed to be in the offing. By 1938 a loose coalition had formed that was powerful enough to obstruct virtually all of the president's efforts, and it is generally agreed that at that time the creative phase of the New Deal came to an end. As a result of this change election issues were diverted from the Depression back to local matters and also more to foreign policy. This accounts for the gains made by the Republicans in Congress during the latter years of the Roosevelt administration. However, the Democrats never lost their numerical majority.

Congress remained isolationist (avoiding involvement in foreign affairs) from 1933 to 1939, but after World War II began in September 1939, the legislators tended to support Roosevelt's international approach. Increased defense spending was approved and the Neutrality Acts, which were aimed at keeping the United States out of war, in order to encourage trade with friendly nations, were revised. During World War II Congress supported Roosevelt's defense programs by authorizing the creation of numerous war agencies and allowing certain controls such as rationing when the U.S. government issued coupons to limit the number of items a person could buy thus reducing the demand of scarce goods.

After the election of 1942, the conservative coalition rallied against Roosevelt's efforts to increase taxes and terminated many New Deal agencies. The conservatives were thwarted somewhat by the election of 1944, which increased the Democratic majority in the House. In 1946, after Roosevelt's death and the end of World War II, the conservatives seized control of Congress.

Historians agree that Roosevelt altered the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government more than any other president. The essence of the change was to shift the initiative for legislation to the executive branch. Clearly, Roosevelt thought the presidency was the most important of the three branches, and his experience convinced him that both the Congress and the Supreme Court were largely obstructionist. However, Roosevelt never gained enough power to completely override the other branches and thus a long period of intergovernmental warfare was instituted. This trend continues to the present day.

During his long tenure Roosevelt vetoed 635 bills most of which dealt with individual pensions and other insignificant matters. Very few of Roosevelt's vetoes were aimed at substantive legislation during the pre-war period because there were no serious efforts to pass conservative bills. During the war the struggle between Roosevelt and the conservative coalition was mirrored in two episodes involving the veto. In 1943 Roosevelt vetoed an antilabor bill, the Smith-Connally Act. This veto was overridden. In 1944 Congress sliced $10 billion from an administrative tax bill. When Roosevelt vetoed the altered measure, he was overridden again by the legislative branch.

Roosevelt and the Judiciary

When Roosevelt was elected president the Supreme Court consisted of nine justices: Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, Owen J. Roberts, Louis D. Brandeis, Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Harlan F. Stone, and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. There was a clear philosophical divergence on the Court. Van Devanter, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Butler were conservatives, while Brandeis, Cardozo, and Stone were liberals. Roberts and Hughes were regarded as "swing men," meaning they alternated their votes from one position to the other. During Roosevelt's first term the justices generally regarded much of the New Deal legislation as an unwarranted assault on private property, contract rights, and the time-honored fundamentals of the American economic system.

The Court and the New Deal

Many of the early New Deal measures were hastily thrown together and were of dubious constitutionality. Many of them were inevitably challenged in court cases that gradually made their way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court struck down numerous New Deal measures in 1935 and 1936, often citing constitutional contradictions as their reason for invalidation (See also, Domestic Issues). In January 1935 in the case of Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan, the court struck down a portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act on grounds that it was an improper delegation of legislative power to the executive. In May, in Schecter v. U.S., the National Recovery Act (NRA) was invalidated in its entirety on grounds that it was an improper regulation of intrastate business. Then in early 1936 the justices destroyed the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in U.S. v. Butler. Here the grounds cited were that the processing tax for regulating agricultural production was not supported by the general welfare clause of the Constitution.


President Roosevelt was furious over the judicial attack on his programs, and he resolved to neutralize the power of the Court. He believed the justices were far behind the needs of the time and the country, and he accused them of making "horse and buggy" decisions.

After his overwhelming victory in the election of 1936, Roosevelt instructed Attorney General Homer S. Cummings to find a legal precedent he could use to thwart the Supreme Court. Cummings delved into the archives of the Justice Department and came up with a precedent for action based on a long forgotten proposal made by the attorney general in 1913. This proposal would empower the president to appoint a new judge for every federal magistrate who reached the age of 70 and had not retired. The plan had not been intended to apply to the Supreme Court, Roosevelt nevertheless believed it met his needs. Because there was no law or constitutional precedent governing the number of justices, he saw no reason not to apply this idea to the highest court. In 1937 six justices were over 70--including the four conservatives--and this meant that if the proposal became law Roosevelt could appoint enough new justices to gain control of the Court.

Presented to Congress in the form of the Judicial Reform Act of 1937, the bill caused an instant furor. Conservatives condemned it and even many pro-Roosevelt Democrats were incredulous. The opposition claimed that Roosevelt was trying to subvert the Constitution and there was little the president's friends could offer in response. Roosevelt attempted to rally support for his plan in Congress and took his case to the American people with a speaking tour. Nevertheless, he could not rally sufficient votes to secure passage.

Quite suddenly, in the midst of the controversy, the Court reversed itself and began to uphold New Deal legislation. In quick succession in March and April 1937, the Court sustained the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. The former was decided in the case of National Labor Relations Board v. Jones-Laughlin Steel Corp., whereby the Court used the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to uphold the right of workers to organize unions. The Social Security system was sustained in Stewart Machine Co. v. Davis. Here the Court held that federal tax for old-age pensions is a valid use of the power to tax for the general welfare.

The new direction taken by the Court was caused by the fact that Chief Justice Hughes began voting with the liberals. Historians have wondered what prompted this change and have generally concluded that Hughes voted against the New Deal legislation before the election of 1936 hoping to undermine Roosevelt's policies. When Hughes saw that Roosevelt had the overwhelming support of the people, he capitulated to the popular will.

In addition to Hughes's change of direction, the personnel of the Court also changed due to retirements and deaths, and Roosevelt was given the opportunity to appoint his own Court. In May Justice Van Devanter retired and was replaced by Hugo Black. Then in January 1938 Sutherland resigned and was replaced by Stanley F. Reed. In December of the same year Cardozo died and was replaced by Felix Frankfurter. In 1939 Brandeis resigned and Butler died. They were replaced by William O. Douglas and Frank Murphy, respectively. In 1941 McReynolds retired and Hughes resigned. Robert H. Jackson and Harlan F. Stone were their replacements. All the new justices were liberals and loyal New Dealers. Roosevelt eventually won the court battle, but at heavy cost to his prestige. Moreover, since New Deal legislation was effectively blocked by the conservative coalition after 1938, there were no liberal measures for the Court to approve.

Changes in the U.S. Government

No new cabinet positions were created under Roosevelt's leadership, but numerous government agencies came into being and many became permanent. Among these was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) created in 1935, which is regarded by many authorities as the most important banking reform of all time. It was designed to restore public confidence in banks by providing federally guaranteed insurance on deposits. At first the maximum deposit that could be insured was $2,500 per deposit; it has risen to $100,000.

Another important agency that endured was the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The United States had no strict standards governing the sale of stocks and bonds, but that changed in 1933 with this very significant reform. It made securities fraud illegal under federal law, provided for the strict regulation of securities dealers, made corporate officers responsible for their claims, and provided for the strict monitoring of all exchanges.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established in 1934 to oversee the communications industry, which had grown rapidly since the early 1920s with little supervision. Radio and television remain subject to federal licensure and supervision. The FCC's role continues to broaden as it takes up the issue of Internet regulation.

Also created were the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The FHA, established in 1934, continues to provide long-term low interest loans to home buyers. The NLRB, established in 1935, supervises the relationship between employers and organized labor. The original bill gave unions legal standing and required collective bargaining. During the first years of its existence (1935-41) this agency was extremely powerful, but its importance diminished during World War II and was permanently reduced by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Nevertheless, it still exists and represents the commitment of the U.S. government to the rights of workers to organize and bargain with their employers.

In order to administer these new agencies and programs the powers of the government were expanded dramatically under Roosevelt. As a result the size of the federal government expanded as a large bureaucracy was created to carry out federal mandates, leading to an effort by Roosevelt to reorganize the executive branch. A committee was appointed in 1936 to study and to make recommendations for a reorganization. The plan they presented in 1937 sparked a firestorm of opposition from conservatives. The original plan called for the president to have more assistants to lighten his work load, for the civil service system to be reorganized, for the Bureau of the Budget to be under the president's direct control, for two new cabinet posts to be created, and for the creation of a permanent National Planning Board. Conservatives feared that Roosevelt was planning to form a dictatorship similar to those in Italy and Germany.

The plan failed when it was met with strong opposition in Congress during 1937 and 1938, but Roosevelt succeeded in obtaining passage of a milder version of the bill in 1939. Under the second bill the president could appoint six new assistants and could propose organizational changes to Congress. The powers defined in this bill remain substantially the same today, and most historians agree that their use since Roosevelt's time has made the executive branch of government somewhat more efficient.

Domestic Issues

When Roosevelt entered the White House the nation was in the grip of the worst Depression of all time. The government under President Herbert Hoover had tried to stimulate the economy by appropriating large sums of money for public works--like big dams--and making large loans to businesses, but this strategy failed. The economy spiraled ever downward between 1930 and 1932, and the American people were overcome with frustration, rage, and fear. They blamed the government for their troubles and looked for new answers.

Roosevelt attempted to provide these answers. During the five-year period between 1933 and 1938, a whirlwind of legislative activity took place that is collectively known as the New Deal. This did not end the Depression--prosperity did not return until the United States entered World War II--but it did change the nature and direction of American society. The government accepted a much greater responsibility for the general welfare of its citizens and the regulation of the economy. The overall effect of all these changes can still be seen in government operations.

Roosevelt knew on his first day in office that he must do something dramatic to establish the credibility of the government and he chose to declare a bank holiday and close the banks. The public had lost confidence in the nation's banking system and many banks had ceased operations--some because they were insolvent (had insufficient funds) and some because they were shut down by state authorities. By closing all the banks and allowing them to reopen only after being certified by the Treasury to be solvent, Roosevelt restored a measure of confidence. Never before had the government taken such drastic nonmilitary actions to meet a domestic crisis. It worked but there was still much more to do.

Phase One--The Hundred Days or the First New Deal

The first one hundred days of Roosevelt's administration is sometimes called the First New Deal. Between March and June 1933 there came a flood of legislation falling into three categories: relief, recovery, and reform. Relief measures were designed to assist unemployed workers and also farmers who faced impossible financial conditions. Recovery measures were designed to bring the economy back toward normal activity. Reform measures were aimed at protecting consumers by regulating businesses--like banking and the public utilities--whose activities directly affected individuals on a daily basis, and protecting the elderly and unemployed by providing for social instruments such as old-age pensions and health insurance.


During the first phase of the New Deal the major relief legislation included the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), and the Civil Works Administration (CWA).

The CCC was established in 1933. Its purpose was to put young men (mostly between the ages of 18 and 24) to work in forests and parks. This program was the most popular of all the New Deal relief programs. It lasted until 1943 and eventually employed 2,750,000 men for temporary periods--usually about a year.

Also in 1933 the FERA was passed. Its purpose was to make loans and grants to the states so they could create programs to reduce unemployment. It was administered by Harry L. Hopkins, a native of Iowa who had spent many years as a social worker in New York and had assisted Roosevelt when he was governor of that state. Hopkins was highly competent and energetic and was determined to bring immediate assistance to the unemployed. He believed that a federally administered work program was also required, so he persuaded Roosevelt to create a new work relief agency. Thus the CWA was born on November 15, 1933.

Designed to be temporary, the idea of the CWA was to put as many people as possible to work during the winter of 1934. Before long over four million people had government jobs. Many of the jobs created were not necessary and were called "make work jobs," attracting severe criticism. Nevertheless, much was accomplished. The CWA workers built and repaired numerous schools, streets, and airports. Overall, the CWA showed that federally sponsored work relief programs could succeed. By late 1934 Roosevelt became worried about spending and attacks from conservatives, and thus he terminated the program.


The very first legislation introduced in Congress by Roosevelt's advisers was intended to assist farmers. It was called the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and was proposed on March 16, 1933. After two months of debate, it was passed on May 12. Its purpose was to increase farm income by reducing surpluses, thus offering both relief and recovery to the nation's farmers. It paid farmers to cultivate fewer acres, and it was financed by a tax on food processors such as the millers who ground wheat into flour.

The AAA was administered by Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Wallace came from an Iowa family very well known in agricultural circles. The young Wallace was an effective administrator and the AAA experienced some success. Farmers all over the country complied with the new acreage reduction regulations during the first growing season and farm prices showed a slight increase by the end of 1933. However, benefits were very uneven. Small farmers gained far less than large operators and tenants were not helped much at all. In fact, many were forced off the farm because land owners retired the acreage the tenants had been working. Nevertheless, the benefits outweighed the difficulties, and by 1935 farm income had increased by nearly 50 percent.

The food processors, who were taxed to finance the AAA, were unhappy and challenged the law in the courts. In 1935 the Supreme Court ruled that the tax was invalid and the AAA was struck down. However, it was soon replaced by another, similar program called the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (See also, Domestic Issues: The Second New Deal).

The second major recovery law was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) which created the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA supervised industry in creating rules--"codes of fair competition"--to govern production and marketing. Areas covered included minimum wages, maximum hours, price-fixing production controls, and collective bargaining. Title II of the NIRA created a separate agency--the Public Works Administration (WPA)--to support large construction projects, especially buildings and dams.

The NRA was headed by Hugh Johnson, one of Roosevelt's early advisers. He was a former army officer and lawyer who also had considerable experience in business, having served as chairman of the board of the Moline Implement Company during the late 1920s. Unfortunately, Johnson was very erratic and was not a good administrator, thus he contributed to the failure of the NRA.

At the outset Johnson had to conduct an extensive public relations campaign in order to convince all businesses to join the program. Many were reluctant and some flatly refused. Still, the plan went into operation. For success it had to reconcile the desires and the needs of all the workers and all the operators in every industry. This proved to be practically impossible. Businesspeople never trusted each other or the government, and workers often complained that management sought to avoid the labor provisions of the law. Cumbersome and eventually unworkable, the NRA collapsed even before it was struck down by the Supreme Court on May 27, 1935. The high court held in Schecter v. United States that the code system was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the executive branch and an unconstitutional effort to regulate intrastate commerce. This meant that none of the codes any longer had the force of the law and so could not be enforced. With no more power and nothing to do, the NRA was abolished on January 1, 1936.


Another significant and ambitious program of the early New Deal was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). It was conceived as a multipurpose agency that would develop the entire watershed of the Tennessee River and its tributaries. The area was a region of eroded soil and cutover forests that experienced flooding. Its rural areas had almost no electricity. Under the TVA a series of dams and locks were built to make the river navigable. Later the TVA would generate electricity using coal and nuclear power. The TVA produced nitrates for cheap fertilizer. Overall the TVA greatly improved the standard of living for the people living in the region.

Because it was a government agency, the TVA inevitably came into conflict with private business, especially those large utility companies that also produced electric power. This created a great debate over the question of whether or not there was any justification for the government to compete with private enterprise. The courts decided in favor of the government. In Ashwander v. TVA (1936), the Supreme Court held that the agency could sell electric power because it was property that had been legally acquired.

There were other reform measures passed during the early New Deal. These included the Truth in Securities Act, which required people selling stocks and bonds to provide buyers with complete and accurate information, and the Securities Exchange Act, which created the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate the stock market. Congress also passed the Home Owners Loan Act, which created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) with a revolving fund of $2 million to make low interest loans to homeowners so they could keep up their mortgage payments.

Finally, Roosevelt tinkered with the money and banking system of the nation during the early stages of the New Deal. In March 1933 he was authorized by Congress to stimulate inflation by reducing the gold content of the dollar and printing more money. Controlled inflation was a time-honored mechanism for dealing with recession or depression because reducing the value of the dollar automatically tended to increase prices. In April 1933 Roosevelt took the nation off the gold standard by prohibiting the export of gold. Thus he allowed the dollar to reach its own level with other world currencies. In May Congress repealed the gold clause in all public and private contracts. Thus debts could be paid with currency lacking any specific gold content. These actions also were designed to produce inflation. In May the Glass-Steagall Act was enacted, which required bankers to get out of the investment business. It also established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which provided federally guaranteed insurance on deposits.

The Second New Deal

Another flurry of legislation beginning in the mid-1930s is often called the Second New Deal. Similar to the First New Deal, most of the laws and new agencies can be classified under the headings of relief and recovery, or reform.

Relief and Recovery

Creating Jobs: Realizing that the existing relief programs were inadequate, Roosevelt supported the creation of a more elaborate and broad-based effort in 1935. This new effort grew out of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act--which provided initial funding of $4.8 billion--and created the Works Program Administration (WPA) headed by Harry Hopkins (who had administered the FERA and CWA).

Although subject to withering criticism by conservatives, the WPA was the largest and most successful relief program in U.S. history. By the time it was terminated in 1944, it had employed nearly eight million people. These people were not only rescued from disaster, they made significant contributions to American life. They built highways, schools, hospitals, and airports; staffed schools and clinics; and even promoted the arts.

One of the most unusual features of the WPA was the Federal Arts Project--a program designed to provide work for unemployed musicians, actors, artists, and writers. This program marked the first time that the U.S. government had given direct support to the arts. The workers in the program took classical music and the theater to small towns all over the country where they had opened art centers, and they produced elaborate guide books for all the states, some of which are still in print.

Another unusual and very popular feature of the WPA was the National Youth Administration (NYA), which provided opportunities for young people. Nearly one-third of the unemployed were under the age of 24, yet the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established during the First New Deal, could not possibly assist them all and offered nothing for young women. The NYA, led by Harry Hopkins's associate Aubrey Williams, helped to close this gap. It offered jobs to unemployed youth who were out of school and created part-time positions for those who were still in school so they could stay there. Between 1935 and 1942 about 1.5 million youths were employed by the NYA.

The WPA and its associated programs operated on the basis of the so-called doctrine of "pump-priming" designed to stimulate recovery as well as provide immediate relief. These programs did not do enough in this regard to end the Great Depression, but they did make important and lasting contributions.

Agriculture: Relief and recovery programs for farmers continued during this period. In 1936 Congress passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act. It did much the same thing as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), but it was financed by direct appropriations, a technique that could not be challenged in the courts. Two years later, in 1938, Congress passed a second Agricultural Adjustment Act. This legislation limited the volume of farm products that could be marketed and added a new twist called the Ever Normal Granary. Under this plan farm products could be stored rather than sold at once. Theoretically, this would ensure adequate food supplies in times of low production and guarantee farmers reasonable prices at the same time.

Two additional programs designed to help farmers were the Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The RA operated during 1935 and 1936 and was designed to help farmers improve land use techniques, or help them move to better, more productive land. The FSA was designed to help people living on small farms (under 100 acres) improve their techniques or acquire more land. It also made loans to tenants to enable them to buy their own land. Both programs received severe criticism by conservatives who opposed social planning and thus they accomplished little.

Finally, there was the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which many historians regard as one of the most important of all the New Deal programs. It provided funding for the establishment of cooperatives to build electric transmission lines to the rural areas of the country. The program commenced in 1936 and took several decades to complete, but it literally changed the nature of society by electrifying the American farm.

Reform Efforts

Labor: Most of the important reform legislation of the Roosevelt era was conceived between 1935 and 1938. One of the first and most significant of these measures was the National Labor Relations Act, a proposal that had been submitted somewhat earlier by Senator Robert P. Wagner of New York and is often called the Wagner Act. The bill incorporated the provisions of the defunct National Recovery Administration (NRA), especially those that guaranteed labor the right to organize and bargain collectively. It called for the creation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to ensure that workers were allowed to choose unions to represent them and were not discriminated against because they joined unions. This is considered one of the most important laws ever passed by Congress, and-- with some modifications--still defines labor-management relations in the United States.

The last major labor law passed during this period was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This law, frequently amended but still in effect, established the minimum wage, the maximum work week, and abolished child labor.

Social Security: Social Security was another major New Deal reform. Every industrialized nation except for the United States had some form of old-age pension and unemployment insurance system and Roosevelt set out to remedy this problem. At first the president envisioned an all-encompassing program that would provide various forms of insurance for all Americans from infancy to old age. In the end, however, he had to settle for a compromise. As finally adopted, the Social Security Act of 1935 provided a small pension for retired workers, limited unemployment insurance, and some support for survivors. The universal health insurance that Roosevelt had wanted was dropped. Moreover, not everyone was covered by Social Security. Largely to assuage the South, farm workers and domestics were not included in the original package. Later, Social Security was expanded dramatically by President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program of the 1960s.

Big Business: Major regulatory laws were also passed during this period that infuriated the business community. Chief among these measures were the tax and banking bills. In the tax bill of 1935, Roosevelt proposed an inheritance tax, a gift tax, and higher individual and corporate taxes. Again he had to settle for a compromise. The final version of the act scaled back general increases and dropped the inheritance tax altogether. Even so, conservatives were outraged at its passage.

The Banking Act of 1935 was more important. It increased the power of the Federal Reserve Board (created in 1913) to adjust the money supply by controlling rediscount rates and reserve requirements. This was a very significant development and the exercise of this power has affected the national economy dramatically on many occasions since.

Even more startling was the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. It reflected the beliefs of people like Justice Louis D. Brandeis that "big business" was evil. The law gave the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) considerable power to regulate such gigantic businesses as the electric utilities. In its original form it included the famous "death sentence" clause that would have enabled the SEC to dissolve a utility company if it could not justify its own existence. This power was substantially modified before the bill was passed. Even so, conservatives and the business community in general accused Roosevelt of trying to wreck the capitalist system.

Housing: The last area in which major reforms took place was that of public and private housing. The problems faced by homeowners resulting from the Depression were recognized very early by the Roosevelt administration and dealt with temporarily by means of such legislation as the Home Owners Loan Corporation Act (1933). During the Second New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934. The FHA provided home loans at low interest on long mortgages (30 years), and required very low down payments. This permitted people with moderate incomes to buy houses and thus changed the parameters of home ownership in the United States. The FHA still finances mortgages today.

For the very poor the New Deal began a program of subsidized housing aimed mostly at the cities. The U.S. Housing Act of 1937 provided for federal housing complexes to be built in connection with slum clearance projects. There has been subsequent legislation and modifications since Roosevelt's day, but essentially his federal housing program still exists.

The most unusual aspect of the New Deal's housing policy was the Greenbelt Towns Program administered by the Resettlement Administration (RA). It provided for the construction of three planned communities: one in Maryland (Greenbelt); one in Ohio (Greenbelt); and one in Wisconsin (Greenbelt). The idea behind this project was to build complete, attractive suburban communities with affordable homes. They were highly successful even though conservatives attacked the use of government funds to back the program as a form of socialism.

Fighting the Reactionaries

By 1938 a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress had become strong enough to prevent the passage of any more liberal legislation. Roosevelt was furious with the Democrats in this group whom he considered disloyal, and he attempted to rid himself of at least some of them by intervening in the primary elections of 1938. To the dismay of Democratic Party "regulars," Roosevelt toured the country in opposition to some of the more conservative Democratic members of Congress.

Roosevelt's attempts to oust conservative Democrats from office failed, as only one of the targeted politicians wasn't renominated. The events of 1937 and 1938 foreshadowed the end of the creative period of the New Deal. Republicans made substantial gains in the November general election of 1938. They gained 81 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. They also enjoyed some important victories in state and local elections. Still, the Democrats retained control of Congress and Roosevelt's popularity, although tarnished, was still immense.

Foreign Issues

When Roosevelt assumed power in 1933 changes were already underway that would lead to World War II. In 1931 the Japanese, desperate for the raw materials needed to support their rapidly industrializing economy, invaded and occupied Manchuria. Later, in 1937, they commenced their effort to gain control of the entire Chinese mainland. In 1935, Italy, under the leadership of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia. Mussolini, who had come to power in 1923, harbored delusions of grandeur and hoped to restore the might of the ancient Roman Empire. In Germany Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power in 1933. Hitler promised the German people that he would restore their country to its rightful position of leadership in Europe, which was lost when Germany was defeated in World War I (1914-18). He soon embarked on a policy of expansion. He reoccupied the Rhineland in 1935, occupied Austria in 1938, and took a portion and then all of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

Throughout these events the predominant mood in the United States was isolationist. Neither the people nor the political leaders wanted to become involved in overseas affairs that might lead to war. Moreover, since Britain and France, the leading European democracies, took no action against the aggressors, Roosevelt was in no position to act independently. Even the outbreak of World War II, triggered by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, did not jar the American people sufficiently enough for them to support any dramatic change in U.S. policy. It was not until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that everything changed. Within a few weeks after that cataclysmic event, Roosevelt found himself cast as the leader of the free world in a life-or-death struggle against aggression.

Early Developments in Foreign Policy

In his first inaugural address Roosevelt dedicated the United States to a "good neighbor" policy especially with reference to Latin America. He wanted to diminish the perception that the United States would intervene in the affairs of other nations whenever it suited its purposes. "In the field of world policy," said Roosevelt, "I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor--a nation who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others." At the Montevideo (Uruguay) Conference later that year Secretary of State Cordell Hull supported an international agreement renouncing intervention. The Good Neighbor Policy was initially well received and successful, but since World War II it has been violated on many occasions.

Not so neighborly was U.S. behavior at the London Economic Conference during the summer of 1933. Earlier, President Herbert Hoover had promised U.S. participation in the conference which was aimed at international currency stabilization. But Roosevelt had taken the United States off the gold standard and did not support such a policy. He instructed Secretary Hull to discuss only tariff matters. Thus the conference failed and some economic historians believe the failure contributed to the continuation of the international financial crisis.

On the other hand, Roosevelt made a significant break with traditional U.S. policy by granting diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. Since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which ushered in Communism to Russia, the United States had declined to recognize the Russian government, but Roosevelt believed this to be an erroneous policy. In November 1933, the two nations exchanged notes promising mutual noninterference in internal affairs and increased trade. Thus recognition was achieved although neither country kept its promises and the relationship remained chilly.

World War II

By the mid-1930s the attention of the United States began to shift toward the building crisis in Europe. Opinion in the United States was divided between those known as isolationists and those known as internationalists. The former remembered the disasters of World War I and wanted a policy of total noninvolvement in European affairs. The latter favored world peace but argued that ignoring Europe's problems could lead to even more serious difficulties.

Efforts to Remain Neutral

Between 1934 and 1939 the isolationist viewpoint dominated public opinion and was reflected in Congress. The result was the passage of several laws designed to avoid U.S. involvement in any war. The first of these was the Johnson Debt Default Act (1934), which prohibited loans to any country that had not fully repaid its debt to the United States from the last war. Because only Finland had paid up fully, U.S. credit was essentially unavailable to any European nation that needed it for the war effort.

The Neutrality Act was passed by Congress when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. This law prohibited arms shipments to belligerents (warring nations) and travel by U.S. citizens on belligerent vessels. Despite his opposition, Roosevelt signed the bill because of the overwhelming public support for the isolationist viewpoint.

In 1936 Congress extended the law and added a provision forbidding loans or credit to nations at war. After the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Congress passed a law aimed directly at this conflict. It forbade shipments of arms to either side. Since Italy and Germany were supplying the rebels led by General Francisco Franco, this law most directly hurt the Loyalists--those fighting to defend the existing government. Moreover, since the Catholic Church supported the rebels, Roosevelt could not oppose them openly for fear of political repercussions at home.

To test public opinion, Roosevelt made a speech in Chicago--the heart of isolationism--in October 1937, in which he declared that aggressor nations should be "quarantined" in order to ensure peace. By this he meant that such nations should be denied normal trade relationships. The speech was not well received, so Roosevelt backed off.

Meanwhile, world conditions deteriorated rapidly. The Japanese, who had attacked China in 1932, renewed its aggression in 1937. In Europe Hitler's Germany occupied the Rhineland (lost after World War I), annexed Austria (1938), and then seized a portion--followed by all--of Czechoslovakia. At a conference at Munich in September, 1938, Hitler promised British prime minister Neville Chamberlain that if the German portion of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) were ceded to Germany, this would satisfy him. Chamberlain believed Hitler, but when the Nazi dictator seized all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it was clear that he could not be trusted.

In August 1939, mortal enemies Germany and the Soviet Union (USSR) surprised the world by signing a nonaggression agreement. Shortly thereafter, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. This event marked the official beginning of World War II.

Phase One: Aiding the Allies

When the hostilities began Roosevelt proclaimed American neutrality but he also asked Congress to repeal the arms embargo. They did so in the Neutrality Act of 1939, which authorized the sale of arms to those nations who could pay cash and transport the goods on their own ships. Soon, Roosevelt also asked Congress for increased defense appropriations and called for increased production of military equipment. After the conquest of France by Germany in June 1940, Congress increased taxes and the national debt limit in order to finance greater defense spending.

Late in the summer of 1940 the Battle of Britain occurred. The German air force (the Luftwaffe) launched a massive bombing attack designed to soften up the British Isles for an invasion. The effort failed as the Royal Air Force (RAF) exacted a horrible toll upon the invaders, but Britain was desperate nevertheless. Practically all of Europe had by this time come under German control. Roosevelt knew that assisting Britain was vital to U.S. interests, but he still faced the obstructionist attitudes of the isolationists. In September 1940, he transferred ownership of 50 obsolete destroyers to the British in exchange for U.S. bases in British territory in the Western Hemisphere. This did not violate any law, but it excited harsh criticism from Roosevelt's opponents. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain pleaded with Roosevelt for even more aid. His country was approaching bankruptcy.

The Lend-Lease Program: Roosevelt responded to Churchill's pleas with the famous "Lend-Lease" proposal. If the United States could not legally sell arms to her friends on credit, the country could "lend" or "rent" them with the understanding they would be "returned" later. Roosevelt proposed this scheme to Congress in January 1941, and after considerable debate it passed in March. In the end support for the proposal was overwhelming. It was originally intended to provide aid to Great Britain but was soon expanded to include 38 nations. Even the Russians received substantial aid after they were invaded by Germany in June 1941. The total value of the Lend-Lease aid proffered by the United States during World War II has been estimated at $48 billion. Only a small fraction has ever been repaid, mostly by the British and the French. Nevertheless, most historians agree that it was a policy vital to the successful conclusion to the war.

The Atlantic Charter: In August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met secretly in Argentia Bay near Newfoundland, Canada, aboard the warships Augusta and Prince of Wales. This meeting produced a statement of aims acceptable to both nations. It was called the Atlantic Charter and it denounced aggression, supported the right of all people to choose their own government, called for cooperative efforts to improve the lives of all people, endorsed freedom from want and fear, and called for freedom of the seas and for efforts to disarm the aggressors.

During the fall of 1941, U.S. naval forces became involved in an undeclared war against the Germans in the Atlantic, and U.S. diplomats, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, attempted to negotiate a settlement with Japan. This effort did not go well because neither side was willing to compromise. The Japanese wanted the United States to recognize their dominant position in East Asia, while the United States wanted the Japanese to withdraw from their occupied territories in Southeast Asia and China and promise there would be no further aggression. The negotiations failed completely, and on December 7, 1941, Japan launched an attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The United States Enters World War II

The strategy for World War II was conducted essentially by Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Churchill remained in close contact and consulted with Stalin periodically. In late December 1941, Churchill traveled to Washington to develop plans for the war. He and Roosevelt agreed to concentrate their efforts first in Europe and then aim stronger blows against the Japanese after Hitler was defeated. During these meetings the two leaders also drafted the Declaration of the United Nations, calling for the creation of an international peacekeeping organization after the war.

1943 Conferences: There were several important international conferences in 1943 at which the Allied leaders discussed plans to end World War II. Roosevelt and Churchill decided early on that there would be no negotiated peace with the Axis coalition. The Axis powers, which included Germany, Italy, and Japan, would be required to submit an "unconditional surrender." Roosevelt and Churchill also discussed the "second front" issue, and agreed to a preliminary invasion of Sicily and Italy with a major assault in Western Europe to come later. The main invasion would be scheduled for the spring of 1944. The post-war status of Poland was another issue that commanded attention during these conferences (there was considerable disagreement concerning Poland's borders and government), as well as the leaders' commitment to the creation of the United Nations.

By the fall of 1943 Roosevelt decided to place overall command of the invasion of Western Europe in the hands of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Roosevelt and Churchill assured Stalin their plans for the invasion were underway, and Stalin promised to declare war on Japan after the defeat of the Germans.

IMF and World Bank Established: There were four major conferences in 1944. In July at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, representatives of 44 nations met to discuss post-war world trade and finance. They established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and set up the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). The purpose of the IMF was to permit member nations to make short-term loans in order to prevent long-term balance of payment trade deficits. This, it was hoped, would help to prevent currency devaluation and thus support international trade. But this system, known as the fixed-exchange rate, never worked and was suspended in 1971. Since then the IMF has served mainly to moderate currency and exchange decisions made by individual nations.

The IBRD, also known as the World Bank, was initially created to fund the reconstruction of the war-torn world. More recently it has functioned primarily to make loans for development in lesser-developed nations and has played a vital role in the growth of many of these countries. Although many nations contribute to the World Bank, the United States is the largest single supporter.

Later in the summer of 1944 the second conference took place at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Representatives of the United States, Britain, China, and the USSR discussed the creation of the United Nations. The draft resolution issued by the conference served as the basis for the Charter of the United Nations, which was formally organized in San Francisco in April 1945, shortly after Roosevelt's death.

Roosevelt and Churchill met in Quebec in September 1944, to discuss zones of occupation in post-war Europe. A month later Churchill was in Moscow to discuss similar matters with Stalin. The United States was not represented at this meeting and Roosevelt made it known that his country would not be bound by any agreements reached there.

The Yalta Conference of 1945: The last and most famous of all the war-time conferences took place in the city of Yalta in the region of the Soviet Union known as Crimea, in February 1945. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were there accompanied by many of their top aides. The specific agreements reached at Yalta caused much controversy later, when it was charged by Roosevelt's critics that he had given too much to the Russians. Roosevelt apologists countered that the agreement was the best that could be expected given that the Russians had made a massive contribution to the war effort; they had already occupied most of Eastern Europe; and the Western Allies desperately wanted the Russians to declare war on Japan.

The major agreements at Yalta gave the USSR control of certain islands occupied by Japan and a zone of occupation in Korea. The British and the Americans also recognized Russian influence in Outer Mongolia, formerly a part of China. In Europe, Russian control of eastern Poland was recognized and Poland was given territories in the west at the expense of Germany. A plan for elections in Poland was also adopted. Finally, the Big Three reaffirmed their policy of unconditional surrender and worked out an agreement concerning voting rights for Russian satellite nations in the United Nations.

When Roosevelt returned to Washington from this journey he was exhausted and fatally ill. He lived only two more months and did not witness the end of a war whose course he had charted.

The Homefront During World War II

The war changed American life in many ways. It ended the Great Depression and brought prosperity, it stimulated a further expansion of executive authority in the federal government, it caused very large numbers of people to relocate, it encouraged quick marriages and easier divorces, and it dramatically affected both race and gender relations.

Government spending for the war effort, of course, was the key factor in the return of prosperity. Unemployment dropped from 17 percent to one percent between 1939 and 1944, while personal income doubled during the same period. Hence, people had more to spend, even though the government halted the production of nonessential goods such as refrigerators and cars and rationed many other products. This contributed to massive savings.

Expansion of Executive Authority: The rapid increase in executive power was dramatic and was evident in several ways, such as the draft. In September 1940, Congress passed the Burke-Wadsworth Act creating the first peacetime military service program in U.S. history. Roosevelt and most politicians were at first reluctant to support such an act because it went against the American tradition of a volunteer army. However, as the world crisis worsened, the president came to believe that he had no choice.

In its original form the law provided that a maximum of 900,000 men could be called up to serve for one year. The program was to be administered by a new agency called the Selective Service System, but the actual work of drafting people would be handled by local boards. Individuals were to be chosen by means of a lottery. The program was extended for another year in 1941, and Roosevelt worried about the political repercussions of extending it indefinitely. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the nation into war, the peacetime draft was no longer an issue.

Managing Resources

Roosevelt created many other new agencies to conduct the war. In January 1942, he appointed Donald M. Nelson head of the War Production Board (WPB), with power to mobilize the nation's resources for all-out war. This agency functioned until October 1945. In June 1942, the WPB established a system of priorities for the allocation and use of all strategically important materials. A little later control of essential materials was transferred to the Board of Economic Warfare (BEW) headed by Vice President Wallace. In July 1943, the BEW was replaced by the Office of Economic Warfare (OEW). Other agencies created to administer critical materials included the Rubber Administration, the Petroleum Administration, the Solid Fuels Administration, and the Smaller War Plants Corporation.

The Office of Price Administration (OPA) was created in January 1942, to establish price ceilings and control rents. The first director was Leon Henderson, followed by Prentiss Brown and Chester Bowles. Rationing began in late 1941 starting with automobile tires followed by shoes, sugar, coffee, gasoline, meat, butter, and other foods. The main reason for rationing was to support price controls and thus check inflation. It also helped the public to develop a shared feeling of sacrifice in support of the war effort. It functioned through thousands of local rationing boards that issued the stamps needed to obtain limited quantities of the rationed products. The system worked very well until it was terminated in 1946.

Relocation: More than 25 million people relocated during the war, some because they were in the military and some in search of higher paying jobs. The farm population dwindled, although production increased, and many cities, especially those on the coast where shipbuilding boomed, exploded in size. This led to major housing and public service problems that were not always effectively handled. Associated with this significant migration, many families were dislocated or actually separated. This led to increasing instances of divorce and juvenile delinquency. Furthermore, many more women than ever before entered the workforce and some believed this was a permanent trend--although large numbers of women returned to the home at war's end.

Labor: It was imperative that the labor force be adequately managed for the duration of the war and that called for the quick and amicable settlement of disputes. Early in the war such disputes were handled by the National Defense Mediation Board (NDMB) , headed by William H. Davies, but this agency failed to adequately resolve a dispute between the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the steel companies. The NDMB was replaced by the National War Labor Board (NWLB). This agency successfully handled several major disputes during the rest of the war. Overall, it can be said that while labor-management relations were by no means smooth during the war, production was seldom affected. Before 1945 it reached almost unbelievable levels.

Race Relations: Race relations during World War II often turned ugly, especially in rapidly growing industrialized cities. Blacks wanted the benefits of wartime employment as much as whites but often experienced discrimination. When the blacks threatened a march on Washington in 1941, Roosevelt responded by creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission that banned discrimination in any industry with a government contract. This helped a little, but there were still major confrontations such as the horrendous race riot in Detroit in June 1943. This tragic conflict, in which scores were killed or injured, was only quelled after the president ordered in 6,000 troops.

The worst racial indignity generated by the war was the relocation of practically all the Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. Under this program, which began in early 1942, over 100,000 people were forced to leave their homes and businesses to be sent to camps in the interior of the country. This unspeakable act reflected the long-standing hatred of Asians by whites in the western United States. It was fueled by the media and public officials who declared that it was incumbent upon the Japanese Americans to "prove their loyalty" by submitting. The excuse was that many of these people might support Japan; however, the program was almost entirely racially motivated as demonstrated by the fact that nothing even remotely resembling these relocations was carried out against Italian Americans or German Americans. Most of the people who were affected by this utterly cruel and unnecessary program lost everything. They were not reimbursed by the government until nearly 40 years later.

Impact of U.S. Participation in World War II

The United States's participation notwithstanding, World War II was almost lost by the Allies. Only a serendipitous combination of luck, poor planning by the enemy, and extraordinary fortitude brought the war to a successful conclusion for the Western powers. In this complex and frightening process, Roosevelt played a major role. Early in the conflict his support of Britain was crucial to the survival of the island nation. Later, the sheer force of his personality and his determination helped to forge the direction of grand strategy and buoyed up morale at home.

Although Roosevelt has been criticized for his insistence on unconditional surrender and for assuming he had more influence over Stalin than was actually the case, he has been credited by most historians with exerting a predominately positive influence upon the outcome of the great conflict.

The Roosevelt Administration Legacy

On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia. Harry S. Truman was inaugurated as president that evening. The entire allied world mourned his passing. In the years after his death, the rumors of Roosevelt's ill-health that had started during his last presidential campaign were discovered to have been true; Roosevelt was already suffering from serious heart and artery problems when he was inaugurated to his last term in January of 1945. This has led many to question if Roosevelt truly served the best interests of the nation by continuing as president in his weakened state. Of particular controversy is whether his weakness may have led to inappropriate U.S. concessions to the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference, only two months before his death.

Popularity and Public Opinion

When Roosevelt assumed office in 1933 the nation awaited his actions with great anticipation. Within two years he had launched a sufficient enough attack upon the Depression to establish himself as one of the most popular presidents of all time. This resulted specifically from his New Deal relief programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the various loan programs for home owners and farmers that restored both hope and confidence for millions.

During the middle years of the 1930s, especially in 1937 and 1938, Roosevelt's stature declined somewhat due to controversy over his reform programs, especially those aimed at the regulation of banking and business, but his presidency was never seriously threatened. As the international crisis deepened, people rallied to his leadership and, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, his position as commander in chief was practically unquestioned. He remained popular and retained the confidence of the vast majority of people throughout the war, and when he died on April 12, 1945, mourning was practically universal.

Press and the Media

Generally Roosevelt was very popular with the press and he used the media effectively. His popularity was generated by the press conferences that began early in his administration and went on regularly until the end. He averaged about two press conferences per week for a total of nearly 1,000 by 1945. Unlike his immediate predecessors, presidents Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge, Roosevelt was friendly and forthcoming with reporters and addressed most of their important questions directly and honestly, thereby gaining the confidence of the press corps.

Roosevelt also used newsreels and radio effectively to communicate. On numerous occasions he talked directly to the American public by means of radio broadcasts that came to be known as his fireside chats. His radio talents were so good that many people had the impression that he was talking to them personally. The fireside chat technique was used when the president wanted to explain critical legislation or an important decision, such as his banking and financial policies early in the New Deal, or his Lend-Lease policy early in the war. The enormous success of the fireside chats derived from the fact that Roosevelt's voice was soothing and attractive. Moreover, he had the uncanny ability to explain complicated matters in terms that practically anyone could understand. Later presidents, notably Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, attempted to replicate the fireside chat technique, but with little success.

Although Roosevelt generally received support and praise from the media, there were those in the press who became his implacable foes. Among these were newspaper publishers like Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. McCormick hated strong federal governments, government spending, and anything he termed "socialistic." Therefore, he opposed practically everything the Roosevelt administration did. He was also an avowed isolationist and accused Roosevelt of dragging the United States into war. He did, however, support the government once the war began. Publishers with similar views included William Randolph Hearst of San Francisco and Henry Luce who published Time and Life magazines.

Historians' Viewpoints

Among historians there are generally two interpretative views regarding Roosevelt's domestic policies. One school holds that the New Deal marked a new departure in American life. These historians argue that the power and activities of the government inaugurated during the 1930s marked a significant break with the past. This view is represented by Richard Hofstadter in his book, Age of Reform (New York: Knopf, 1995). The other school holds that Roosevelt's policies reflected continuity; that far from signaling a new departure, they simply followed a course that had been clearly marked out by earlier reformers such as the Populists and the Progressives.

With respect to Roosevelt's foreign policy the greatest controversy has always swirled around U.S. entry into World War II. One quite vocal group of historians (a minority to be sure) known as the Revisionists, have always argued that Roosevelt goaded the Japanese into their attack on Pearl Harbor in a desperate effort to enter the conflict against the fascist dictatorships. According to their view Roosevelt believed that fighting the Nazis was absolutely imperative to save Western civilization, an opinion that many Revisionists do not share.

In opposition to the Revisionists is the majority of historians who believe that the worst that can be said is that Roosevelt and his aides bungled their negotiations with the Japanese. They argue that there is no evidence of a conspiracy.

Lasting Impact

In both foreign and domestic affairs, Roosevelt stands as one of the most influential presidents in U.S. history. In combating the Depression and the Axis powers, Roosevelt's actions continued to influence the United States long after his death.

In foreign affairs Roosevelt's legacy is supremely important. He recognized the threat of Nazi Germany to world civilization before most leaders and realized that Hitler had to be stopped. He was thwarted by the isolationist political climate of the United States, but when the war finally came he led the nation in support of the democracies and ultimately altered the course of world history. The United States emerged from the war with a powerful army and a new, more active outlook on its place in world affairs.

In terms of his domestic policy the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest contributions of any U.S. president. Roosevelt came into office in the middle of the worst economic crisis in history. While it is true that his New Deal policies failed to end the Depression, they had a lasting effect nationwide. The New Deal restored the confidence of the people in government, and many New Deal policies and agencies remain in operation today and continue to benefit millions.

Roosevelt was highly significant in a long-term economic sense, for even though his enemies called him a Socialist and a dictator, he was in fact a moderate, and his administration worked to save the capitalist system. When he came into office conditions were so bad that he could have done practically anything. He could have nationalized banking and industry, for example, but he did not. Instead he sought to establish policies that would restore the industrial and financial system to normal operations. While Roosevelt was president there also began a long and gradual process of strengthening the power of the executive branch of the government, which continued throughout the twentieth century.

While it is true that many people continue to benefit from programs initiated during the New Deal, these programs remain controversial. Many Americans still believe that the government has intruded too far into private enterprise and personal affairs. Roosevelt's policies remain a subject of fierce debate five decades after his death, further demonstrating his tremendous impact on the nation he governed for 12 years.


Administration Dates

  • March 4, 1933-January 20, 1937
  • January 20, 1937-January 20, 1941
  • January 20, 1941-January 20, 1945
  • January 20, 1945-April 12, 1945

Vice President

  • John Nance Garner (1933-41)
  • Henry A. Wallace (1941-45)
  • Harry S. Truman (1945)


Secretary of State

  • Cordell Hull (1933-44)
  • Edward R. Stettinius Jr. (1944-45)

Secretary of the Treasury

  • William H. Woodin (1933)
  • Henry Morgenthau Jr. (1934-45)

Secretary of War

  • George H. Dern (1933-36)
  • Harry H. Woodring (1936-40)
  • Henry L. Stimson (1940-45)

Attorney General

  • Homer S. Cummings (1933-39)
  • Francis W. Murphy (1939-40)
  • Robert H. Jackson (1940-41)
  • Francis B. Biddle (1941-45)

Secretary of the Navy

  • Claude A. Swanson (1933-39)
  • Charles Edison (1940)
  • William F. Knox (1940-44)
  • James V. Forrestal (1944-47)

Postmaster General

  • James A. Farley (1933-40)
  • Frank C. Walker (1940-45)

Secretary of the Interior

  • Harold L. Ickes (1933-46)

Secretary of Agriculture

  • Henry A. Wallace (1933-40)
  • Claude R. Wickard (1940-45)

Secretary of Commerce

  • Daniel C. Roper (1933-38)
  • Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1938-40)
  • Jesse H. Jones (1940-45)
  • Henry A. Wallace (1945-46)

Secretary of Labor

  • Frances Perkins (1933-45)


Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill

Prime Minister; Author (1874-1965) Sir Winston Churchill was a British statesman whose service during the years of World War II prompted people to refer to him as the "savior of his country." Churchill was a man born to fit the needs of an exact circumstance, place, and time. In a retrospective look at World War II, Churchill wrote, "I felt as if I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour." Elected prime minister in the war's infancy, Churchill's leadership role was less pragmatic and militaristic as it was inspirational and symbolic. Wrote author Anthony Storr,"In 1940 Churchill became the hero he had always dreamed of being. . . . In that dark time, what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost." In the especially anxious years prior to the United States entering the war, Churchill was the man for the job. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Prime Minister Churchill's relationship with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before the United States entered the war, that relationship was a factor in Roosevelt's decision to push, despite strong, domestic isolationist sentiment, to secure critical weapon and supply aid for the outmatched British. While Churchill's political performance prior to, and after the war was undistinguished, and while some of his tactical leadership decisions during the war have been criticized, his critical importance as a symbol of resistance and as an inspiration to victory, will never be disputed.

What They Said . . .

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt appeared before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan.

"Yesterday December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

"The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack. . . .

"Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation. . . .

"Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

"With confidence in our armed forces--with the unbonded determination of our people--we will gain the inevitable triumph--so help us God.

"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."

(Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt, as quoted in DISCovering U.S. History, 1996.)

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2304200033