FDR: A President's Record

Posted by Pete on Nov 5th 2018

Today in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a record third term as President of the United States with 55% of the vote.

Now, any properly progressive discussion of US Presidents has to acknowledge that we're not really talking about the most radical demographic in history.

Click to see the new FDR tea towel

For most of the twentieth century the United States was the most powerful country in the world, and for most of the century before that it rested on a brutal slave economy. You can't really expect the political elite of such a society to throw up too many paragons of virtue - managing world domination abroad and racial domination at home doesn't really appeal to the radical mindset.

As such, you've always been far more likely to find the great names of America's progressive tradition - Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, Muhammad Ali, the Anarchists of Chicago, Frederick Douglass and more - protesting outside the White House gates rather than living inside its walls.

But of the White House's many occupants, Franklin Roosevelt comes across pretty well - especially next to some of the more recent ones...

By the time of his third election in 1940, FDR had already broken with US capital and conservatism to implement the most daring program of government intervention in the economic history of the country.

With 1930s America being blown away by a whirlwind of poverty and unemployment stemming from the 1929 Wall Street Crash, FDR abandoned decades of liberal orthodoxy and launched his 'New Deal'.

For the first time, the US government would systematically intervene in the economy to tackle the mass joblessness and hardship which had come out of decades of unchecked monopoly capitalism. As Roosevelt said in 1936, "we know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mobs."

Roosevelt created bodies like the 'Public Works Agency' to start large-scale, job-creating infrastructure projects, and in 1935 he passed the Social Security Act, which introduced old-age and unemployment benefits to the US.

A genuine concern for the social ramifications of capitalism (which you'll never find on 'The Apprentice') was at the center of the New Deal.

Above: Luke in the 'dole queue' at the incredible FDR Memorial in Washington, DC

But, even next to this, FDR's great legacies are from his foreign affairs.

His 'Good Neighbor Policy' towards Latin America demonstrated a rare virtue among modern presidents. The Roosevelt White House effectively renounced interventionism in South America, in contrast to former and subsequent Presidents who stepped in whenever policies in the region were perceived to be in conflict with US interests.

So, whereas Nixon had the elected Marxist President of Chile assassinated in 1973, and today Trump openly speaks of military intervention in Venezuela, Roosevelt refused to support calls from US oil barons for 'strong action' against Mexico when that country nationalized its oil reserves in 1938.

With the momentary exception of Jimmy Carter, FDR was probably the last President to live up to Simón Bolívar's ideal of fraternal, rather than imperial, relations between the North and South of the Americas.

But Franklin Roosevelt's crowning achievements came after 1940, in the final five years of his Presidency.

Unlike some Presidents who have been passive to the Far Right, FDR was highly vigilant to the international threat posed by fascism in the 1930s-40s.

He went to great lengths to educate the American people in this regard, who were still understandably isolationist after their experience of the First World War. And, despite congressional opposition keeping him from sending arms to support the Spanish Republic against Franco, China against the Japanese, and Ethiopia against Mussolini, FDR did manage to get some measures through to support the enemies of fascism.

In 1940, for example, he secured a deal which sent a number of warships to beleaguered Britain, and in March 1941 he got the Lend-Lease Act through Congress, which allowed significant aid to be sent to the Allied powers.

When the war did come to America in December 1941, the country was prepared to fight thanks to Roosevelt. And it would be him who, despite ever-worsening health, led the United States to absolute victory over the fascist powers alongside her Soviet and British allies.

Now, I'm the first person to get a bit irritated when people claim Donald Trump has 'brought the Presidency into disrepute' as if it was a spotless institution until now. Remember, its past holders include participants in the Native American genocide like Andrew Jackson and serial invaders of Latin America like Ronald Reagan.

But the abject grimness of Trump does bring into focus the better aspects of some previous White House occupants, both in what they've done for America and what they've done for the world.

With that in mind - and while I'd still much rather a socialist radical like Huey P. Long or an anti-racist agitator like Sojourner Truth as leader of the United States - I'd definitely put FDR at the top of the list when it comes to the people who've had the job.

Broadly right on the fundamental problems of his day and unafraid to break with traditions of the free market and isolationism in order to tackle them, there is much to praise about Franklin Roosevelt in addition to the criticisms - which is something you're not often able to say about the leaders of powerful states.

Click to see the new FDR tea towel design