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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: A Political Life in an Era of Crisis

Franklin Roosevelt was elected governor of the state of New York in 1928, while Al Smith lost the presidency to Herbert Hoover. He was sworn in as governor on January 1, 1929 in Albany, New York. In October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed and the nation entered the Great Depression. Between 1930 and 1932 the number of unemployed Americans rose from four million to 12 million. Foreign trade dropped to a third of its normal level, farm foreclosures accelerated, and many banks failed. President Hoover was confident that this was a temporary condition.

As governor, Roosevelt had to respond to the economic crisis in hard-hit New York. Speaking from Warm Springs, Georgia, in May 1932, Roosevelt said, "Clearly it is a duty of government in an emergency to prevent any man, woman, or child from starving."1 His progressive or liberal ideas became the framework for social and economic reforms for New York. He was the leader in supporting state unemployment insurance, improving workers' compensation laws, and promoting hydroelectric power so the state could electrify rural areas and supply affordable electricity to homes and factories.

The Democratic Party nominated Roosevelt as its presidential candidate for the 1932 election. In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, Roosevelt declared, "I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American People. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms."2 Roosevelt's New Deal was a framework for national relief, much of it based on the reforms he had implemented in New York, targeted to help the "forgotten man."

On November 8, 1932, Roosevelt cast his vote in the little Town Hall of Hyde Park, New York, and chatted with some of the townspeople, as was his custom, before continuing on to the Democratic Headquarters in New York City to learn the outcome of the election. He had won the election, but now faced the daunting crisis of a still-deepening Great Depression. The new administration's first objective was to alleviate the suffering of the unemployed. Within the first hundred days after the inauguration, dozens of agencies were set up to dispense emergency and short-term governmental aid. These agencies became known as the "alphabet agencies." Once the banking problems were given attention, the other relief efforts were set in motion.

One of the most well known and long-lived plans was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. This agency gave work to the thousands of young unemployed men between the ages of 17 and 28. Their assigned tasks involved conservation work such as planting trees in national forests and parks and providing fire protection for those areas. Many states have benefited from other CCC work by having beaches improved, as well as recreational parks, wildlife areas, and campgrounds created.

Once the unemployed youth received support, the administration turned its attention to unemployment at large. The agency most responsible for this relief effort was the WPA, the Works Progress Administration.

Employees of the WPA built civil projects in communities from coast to coast including post offices, hospitals, roads, airports, and schools. They worked for school lunch programs and health clinics. Many cultural programs sponsored by the WPA enabled the nation to preserve and retain oral folk traditions in written transcripts. WPA projects gave unemployed artists, writers, and musicians employment as well. WPA artists painted murals on the walls of public buildings such as post offices, schools, and federal offices. Writers produced many informational books for the government including a highly regarded series of guides to every state and territory. Actors, singers, and musicians brought plays and concerts to communities who had never seen a concert or play until then. These cultural programs are the forerunners of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Once the work relief programs were underway, attention was given to FDRs long awaited vision of electricity for every community in the nation. From that vision the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, was created as a way to reclaim the poverty-stricken Tennessee Valley basin, which extends through seven southern states. In time, the TVA built a series of dams and hydroelectric projects to provide flood control and supply electric power to the valleys farms, factories, and homes. There was a great deal of criticism of this plan, yet the people it served welcomed the TVA, which brought both electricity and an improved standard of living to one of the poorest regions of the country. The TVA became a model of national improvement for countries around the world.

President Roosevelt won a landslide victory in the 1936 presidential election. Although voters approved of the New Deal, adverse Supreme Court decisions, weakening congressional support, partisan conflict, labor unrest, and a sharp business recession in 1937 challenged Roosevelt and his vision for social and economic reform. The United States did not fully recover from the Depression until the labor demands of wartime industries and the armed services during World War II produced full employment.

By the end of Franklin Roosevelt's second term, international crisis began to dominate his attention. Chancellor Adolf Hitler, also elected to office in 1932, had rebuilt German military power and formed the Axis alliance to pursue a foreign policy of aggression and expansion. Roosevelt recognized America's need for national war readiness. With the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the fall of France the following summer, Great Britain stood alone against Hitler. Roosevelt realized the United States had to send military equipment to Britain if it were to survive. Yet, Roosevelt knew that the American people had become isolationist as a consequence of their experiences in World War I. Roosevelt's persuasiveness and American aid through Lend-Lease enabled Britain to withstand Germany and avoid defeat in the days before America actively entered the war.

Roosevelt privately pondered whether to run for a third term, defying the political tradition begun by George Washington, limiting a president to two terms. " 'I do not want to run,' he told Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., 'unless...things get very, very, much worse in Europe.' "5 Developments in Europe did, indeed, get much worse with the German invasion and occupation of France. By June 1940, Roosevelt decided to run again and was re-elected by a five million-vote margin over his opponent, Wendell L. Wilkie.

In 1944 in the middle of the global crisis of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unheard of fourth term, against the advice of his doctors, family, and friends. His health was failing, but his goal was to see the United States to the end of the war and shape the post-war peace. "If the people command me to continue in this office and in this war," he said, "I have as little right to withdraw as the soldier has to leave his post in the line."6 Roosevelt won his fourth presidential election by more than 3 ½ million votes over his opponent, Thomas E. Dewey.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Franklin Roosevelt was Governor of New York during the beginning of the Depression. Describe some of the state programs that his administration developed, which later became the foundation of the federal relief programs during his presidency. What evidence can you provide that shows a connection between his early life in Hyde Park and the later development of relief programs during the Depression?

2. After becoming president, Franklin Roosevelt stated that the primary task at hand was to put unemployed people to work. Name some of the Depression-era federal agencies, which were created to achieve that goal. How did these programs assist people?

3. By the end of President Roosevelt's second term, the crisis of the Depression was replaced by the crisis of Axis aggression in Europe and Asia. What country did Roosevelt believe most needed the help of the U. S. at that time, and why? Look up and explain the Lend-Lease Program. Find out what events were leading the world into war in the 1930s.

4. To how many terms as president was Franklin Roosevelt elected? What events helped to convince him to run again, breaking the two-term tradition? Do you agree or disagree with his choice, and why? When was the constitutional amendment passed which limited presidents to two terms?

Reading 3 was compiled from Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (New York: The Viking Press, 1946); Sadybeth and Anson Lowitz, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Man of Action (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1933); and Russell Freedman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Clarion Books, 1990).

1Sadybeth and Anson Lowitz, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Man of Action (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1933), 204.
2Ibid., 213.
3Ibid., 216.
4Russell Freedman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Clarion Books, 1990), 95, 100-101.
5Ibid., 137.
6Ibid., 161.

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