Roosevelt, Franklin Delano

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(b. January 30, 1882; d. April 12, 1945) Thirty-second president of the United States (1933–1945).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the nation through its worst depression and greatest world war. As president, he championed his New Deal and other social programs, some that endure into the twenty-first century.

early career

Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York, graduated from Harvard College in 1904, studied at Columbia University's School of Law, and gained admission to the bar in 1907. He served one term, 1911 to 1913, in the New York Senate, and was assistant secretary of the navy from 1913 until 1920, when he became the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Roosevelt lost the election, but enhanced his reputation by waging a vigorous campaign.

Roosevelt contracted polio the following year, which cost him the use of his legs but not his political future. He served two terms as governor of New York, winning the office in 1928 and reelection in 1930. His efforts to ease the suffering of New Yorkers caused by the Great Depression gained him the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932. He crushed President Herbert Hoover, who received only 59 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 472. Roosevelt failed to end the depression but saved the banking system, restored public confidence in democracy and capitalism, and persuaded Congress to enact a host of bills providing jobs and other benefits to millions of people. His New Deal laid the groundwork for the nation that is America today. Roosevelt easily won reelection in 1936 and ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940.

outbreak of world war ii

By then Roosevelt had focused his attention on the developing world crisis. In East Asia, Japan had seized Manchuria and large parts of China. In 1938, in his famous Quarantine speech, he proposed that peaceful nations stop aggressors like Japan by cutting off their trade. This proposal fell on deaf ears. Nazi Germany dominated Europe after defeating France and its allies in June 1940. Of the great powers, Britain alone remained at war with Hitler. At first, Roosevelt apparently hoped that the United States could remain neutral. But with the collapse of France, American aid to Britain become imperative, for if the island nation fell, or made peace with Germany, all the world would be at risk of Nazi domination.

Before his election, Roosevelt's hands were tied as polls showed most Americans still favored neutrality at all costs, a doctrine known as isolationism that Republicans exploited to the hilt. In order to win a third term, Roosevelt, out of necessity, misrepresented himself as opposed to any steps that might lead America into war. Even so, taking a chance, he persuaded Congress to enact the first peacetime military draft in American history.

Once safely reelected, Roosevelt asked Congress for a plan to aid Britain, which he disingenuously called Lend-Lease; the theory being that America would somehow be repaid after the war. Thus sugarcoated, the bill passed, despite much ranting by isolationists. At first America had little to lend or lease as rearmament lagged far behind need, which became all the greater in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. In the fall of 1941, Roosevelt tried to provoke a German declaration of war by ordering U.S. warships to escort convoys and fire upon U-boats. Despite considerable provocation, Hitler failed to comply.

war leader

America actually went to war because of Japan rather than Germany. While America fought an undeclared war in the Atlantic, Japan, frustrated by its inability to defeat China, was planning to conquer Southeast Asia to secure needed raw materials and cut off Nationalist China from American aid. Efforts at negotiating a compromise failed because Roosevelt insisted that Japan withdraw from China. Since the Japanese would not give up China, they decided on war instead. On December 7, 1941 Japanese carrier planes attacked Hawaii, destroying military installations and sinking the navy's battleship fleet in Pearl Harbor. Japan then went on to seize other American possessions, notably the Philippines, and all of Southeast Asia. Germany declared war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor, at last giving Roosevelt the war America had to fight.

With both the Soviets and the Americans allied against Germany, its fate was sealed, as was that of Japan. But victory seemed far from certain in the early months of the war. Having been attacked, Americans achieved a unity never seen before nor since. Congress appropriated more money than could be spent at first. The nation's idled or underused factories converted quickly to full production of military goods. In June 1942, the Pacific Fleet defeated a much stronger Japanese carrier force near Midway Island, ending Japan's relentless advance and throwing it onto the strategic defensive.

At about the same time, Roosevelt made one of his most important decisions. Instead of building up strength in England for an invasion of France in 1943 as the Joint Chiefs wanted, he ordered that French North Africa be taken in 1942. This delayed the invasion of France by a year, which could not be helped. Americans hated the Japanese so much because of Pearl Harbor that a real danger existed that the Pacific War would get top priority, even though Germany had to be beaten first since it posed the greater danger. Roosevelt wanted American forces engaged in battle with Germans to draw attention away from the Pacific. So it transpired that American troops began the liberation of Europe by invading North Africa in November 1942. Two months later the remnants of Germany's Sixth Army surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad. Germany was now forced onto the strategic defensive as well.

fdr and the soviets

Although many bloody battles remained to be fought because neither Germany nor Japan would concede defeat, Roosevelt spent the rest of the war planning how to establish a lasting peace (he won a fourth term on the fly in 1944). Germany and Japan would be occupied for as long as it took to make them democratic. The Soviets would receive a large sphere of interest, chiefly in Eastern Europe. Because the Soviets were going to seize this region in any case, accepting that fact might enable the Grand Alliance of America, Britain, and the Soviet Union to outlast the war. If the Soviets proved troublesome, Roosevelt retained certain options. He did not tell Stalin about the atomic bombs America had under development. He refused to allow the Soviets any part in the occupation of Japan. And he declined to promise the Soviets much-needed American aid in the postwar era. The velvet glove he extended to Stalin concealed an iron fist.


Roosevelt died before the Axis powers gave up, but Germany had been largely overrun and Japan's defeat was imminent. Roosevelt had his failings as a war leader. Secretive and devious, he put off decisions as long as he could and kept everyone around him guessing. But the power of his oratory lifted the spirits of Americans in their darkest hours, and his belief in the inevitable victory became the people's as well. Sometimes petty and wrong about smaller issues, he seldom erred on the big ones. Roosevelt linked America's values to its foreign policy in his January 1941 proclamation that the United States not only opposed tyranny but also sought to secure "the four essential freedoms" for all of mankind—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. His position as the greatest president of the twentieth century remains secure.


Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956.

Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Ward, Geoffrey C. Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882–1905. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Ward, Geoffrey C. A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

William L. O'Neill

See also:New Deal; Roosevelt, Eleanor.

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