On this day in 1882, future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is born.
Roosevelt grew up the only child in an upper middle-class family in Hyde Park, New York. He graduated from Harvard in 1904 and later received a degree from Columbia Law School. In 1905, Roosevelt married his influential future first lady, Eleanor, a niece of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant cousin. Roosevelt’s early involvement in politics included a seat in the New York State Senate and the role of Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I. In 1920, Roosevelt ran for vice president on the unsuccessful Democratic ticket against Warren Harding. He served as governor of New York from 1929 to1932, during which time he tested out various programs to help the needy that would later form the backbone of his New Deal social and economic policies. Roosevelt’s personal appeal and a platform based on Wilsonian policies of a strong federal role in boosting industry and the public welfare led to his election as the 32nd president of the United States in 1933.
In 1921 at the age of 39, Roosevelt contracted a rare incidence of adult polio and lost the use of his legs. Although his disability was not a secret, the Roosevelt administration had a tacit agreement with photographers that they would avoid snapping images of the president being carried by assistants or using a wheelchair. During this era the American public still considered paraplegics crippled or weak, a stereotype Roosevelt fought throughout his presidency. Known for his sense of humor and optimism in the face of adversity, it was perhaps his own personal challenges that allowed him to appreciate the struggles of others. In 1938, Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes to raise funds for polio research and rehabilitation.
In 1933, Roosevelt embarked on an ambitious effort to jump-start the economy through federal work and welfare policies, which included the creation of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), the Federal Industrial Recovery Act and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The New Deal, as he dubbed his policies, was met in some quarters by opposition and controversy—Roosevelt was accused of practicing socialism in an era of rampant anti-communism, overreaching presidential power and being a big government spender. Some of Roosevelt’s programs were even ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, many of FDR’s New Deal reforms, including Social Security and the minimum wage, were maintained by successive conservative and liberal administrations.
At the same time as he faced unprecedented domestic problems, Roosevelt warily observed the rise of fascist dictatorships in Europe during the mid-1930s. While the German army stormed across Europe, Roosevelt tried to appease the American public’s entrenched isolationism by only gradually increasing U.S. aid to democratic European nations. As the war in Europe progressed, Roosevelt stepped up financial and humanitarian aid to Great Britain and France. When it looked as if Hitler might invade Britain after the saturation bombing of London, Roosevelt boldly launched the lend-lease program early in 1941, which promised massive weapons and war-material exports to Britain. During one of his signature fireside chat radio addresses, Roosevelt referred to the U.S. as an arsenal of democracy to help explain America’s increasing involvement in the European war and galvanize public support for the lend-lease program. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war and American industry then underwent a massive conversion to defense production. During the war, Roosevelt kept a tight rein on labor disputes between management and labor and implemented stringent rationing. He worked closely with Allied leaders to plan the liberation of Europe, which was led by American troops.
In delicate war-time negotiations with Stalin, Roosevelt recognized the strategic importance of relying on the Soviet Union to divert Hitler’s attention away from an Allied liberation of Europe. At the same time, Roosevelt earned harsh criticism at home and among the Allies for accommodating the communist leader. Many saw Roosevelt’s concessions to Stalin regarding post-war territorial issues as a violation of democratic principles. Critics blamed Roosevelt for giving Stalin most of Eastern Europe, thus ensuring the Soviet Union’s rise to world-power status during the Cold War. In addition, post-war conspiracy theorists suggested Roosevelt knew of Japan’s plan to bomb Pearl Harbor in advance and let it go forward to galvanize Americans’ support for the war. He was also accused of being insensitive to the plight of Jews during the Holocaust. Yet Roosevelt’s war-time diplomacy did have its successes–it contributed to the defeat of fascist Nazi Germany and Japan and ended in the formation of the United Nations.
In all, Roosevelt served four terms–his election to a third and fourth term were unprecedented–and his presidency spanned two of the nation’s greatest crises, the Great Depression and the Second World War, a testament to his popularity and the faith he was able to inspire in the American people. (It was only a decade later that Congress adopted the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits presidents to two consecutive terms.) Roosevelt’s health deteriorated rapidly toward the end of the war and he died on April 12, 1945, of a stroke at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, leaving Vice President Harry Truman to see the U.S. to victory. Whether reviled as a near-socialist or a beloved as a New Deal warrior for the people, Roosevelt’s influence on American politics was significant and longstanding–every subsequent president has invoked his name at one point or another in support of their own policies.