Prologue Magazine

Winter 2006, Vol. 38, No. 4

A "New" FDR Emerges:
Historians, Teachers, Authors Take a Fresh, Sometimes Critical, Look at Roosevelt

By Cynthia M. Koch

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt return to the White House after FDR was inaugurated for a third term on January 20, 1941. (Roosevelt Library)

The year 1982 marked Franklin Delano Roosevelt's centenary. It was not widely celebrated, except by supporters in New York, who with the election of Ronald Reagan, saw the world of FDR receding into the past.

In the quarter-century since, however, there has been a discernible shift in FDR's relationship with the American people. His name is invoked almost daily by citizens, journalists, and elected officials of both parties who find in Roosevelt a touchstone for today's national and international affairs. It is a measure of his greatness that scholars and the public continue to ask new and different questions of the Roosevelt era.

As we consider FDR's legacy at 125 years, legacy at 125 years, this lasting interest might not be surprising to the man himself. For his continuing relevancy is indicative of Roosevelt's success in an area that few recognize today—his insistence on the importance in a free society of the study of history. For it was FDR himself who left perhaps his most enduring gift, the Roosevelt Library.

In early 1982, Roosevelt's family, biographers, admirers, neighbors, and many others gathered at the Roosevelt home and the presidential library he built in Hyde Park, New York, to mark the centennial of his birth. They offered tributes to his New Deal programs, his leadership in World War II, and to the idea that the purpose of government is to safeguard its citizens against widespread dangers beyond their individual control.

The celebration in Hyde Park was held against the backdrop of the charred and boarded-up facade of the famed "Big House," whose third floor had been destroyed by a fire the week before. Adding to the poignancy of the day's events, on another level, was the rising tide of conservatism in Washington that was challenging Roosevelt's idea of government and the resulting system of federal programs and agencies that had their roots in the New Deal.

Archivist Robert M.Warner speaks from the portico of the Roosevelt home on the centennial of FDRs birth on January 30, 1982. (Roosevelt Library)

However, since FDR's centenary—as unlikely as it seemed at the time—his historical significance has become more widely appreciated by the public. Since that gathering in Hyde Park in 1982, his home has, of course, been restored. The FDR Memorial in Washington has been erected. Roosevelt and his family have been portrayed many times in film and on stage to critical acclaim. New biographies and scholarly monographs, some quite critical, have been written, and other books have examined, in some cases for the first time, specific aspects of his presidency as well as his private life.

And the rekindled interest in those millions of people he led out of the Great Depression and through World War II has sparked renewed interest in his 12 years in the White House and in the impact those years had on the lives we lead today.

One of the first historians to chronicle the Roosevelt years, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., put it this way at the in a 1998 essay for Time magazine:

Take a look at our present world. . . . It is manifestly not Joseph Stalin's world. That ghastly world self-destructed before our eyes. Nor is it Winston Churchill's world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into history. The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt's world.
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As the nation celebrated the World War II generation's stamina, old animosities between the generations slipped away; at the same time, FDR too began to become more iconic than politically contested. Yet, the evolution of FDR's reputation did not come easily, nor is it necessarily complete.

A few years ago, a movement to replace Roosevelt's image on the dime with that of Ronald Reagan seemed to be gathering popular support. It took a public statement from Nancy Reagan to set that controversy to rest: "When our country chooses to honor a great President as Franklin Roosevelt by placing his likeness on our currency, it would be wrong to remove him and replace him with another."

Closer to home we have seen a waning of political divisiveness. Lynn Bassanese, deputy director of the Roosevelt Library, recalls that it was not uncommon 25 years ago for family groups to arrive in Hyde Park together and then literally divide into two opposing political camps at the door to the library. Roosevelt admirers, she said, were drawn to the library so symbolic of all that they held dear about the man and the era, while other family members sat outside and refused to enter the building dedicated to the presidency of the man whose politics they still found deeply abhorrent.

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The last few decades have also produced an undercurrent of public disaffection that has less to do with partisan politics than with new issues that have recently come to the forefront of public consciousness.

Fed by a lively scholarship that some would call "revisionist," segments of the public now ask new questions of the Roosevelt presidency—questions seldom raised by those who lived through the Roosevelt years, including the first generation of Roosevelt scholars.

Did FDR mislead the American public about his disability throughout the presidency? Did he "sell out" to the Russians at Yalta because of incapacity due to illness? Could he have acted earlier and more decisively to admit more Jewish refugees? Was he indifferent to the plight of those trapped in the Nazi death camps? Could he have done more to advance civil rights for African Americans? Did he and Churchill conspire to make possible the attack on Pearl Harbor in order to engage an isolationist America in the war? Did he make the wrong decision to intern Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor?

Regarding the last of these questions, our national judgment is in: wartime hysteria is no excuse for a denial of civil rights. There is a substantial literature on all of these subjects and a lively continuing debate among scholars, many of whom refute the most extreme charges. To those who revisit the Roosevelt years with the benefit of hindsight, most of the controversial issues that we debate today reflect as much our aspirations for Roosevelt and wartime America as they do the political and military realities of the time.

* * *

A statue of Roosevelt greets visitors to the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Terry J. Adams, National Park Service)

The greatest symbol of FDR's new stature is the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, dedicated in 1997. It now joins memorials in the nation's capital honoring Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. Established by President Eisenhower in 1955, the FDR Memorial Commission was stalled for many years. With a site and design finally settled upon in the late 1970s, funding for the memorial's construction was approved by President Reagan in 1982, the year of the centennial celebration. Fifteen years later, amid controversy over not depicting Roosevelt in a wheelchair, the FDR Memorial was dedicated by President Clinton, who served as honorary chairman of the commission. Former Presidents Bush, Carter, Ford, and Reagan served as honorary co-chairs, and the working Memorial Commission was adamantly bipartisan.

Continuing public and scholarly interest in the Roosevelt presidency is, of course, a measure of the critical importance of those years and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's lives and personalities. But, it is also a result of the richness of the resources available for research at the Roosevelt Library. That research has in turn yielded a cornucopia of films, documentaries, popular biographies, and even fiction—in addition to the more traditional products of scholarly research.

Today, thanks to decades of research into the minutest details of the Roosevelts' complex lives, we have an understanding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their work, family life, and contributions to national and international affairs that matures with each new generation.

The first of the more sophisticated popular treatments of the Roosevelts appeared as made-for-television movies in the 1970s and 1980s: the masterful portrayals by Edward Herrmann and Jane Alexander in Eleanor and Franklin: The Early Years (1976) and the sequel The White House Years (1977). Five years later Jean Stapleton's tour de force, Eleanor: First Lady of the World, told the story of ER's work as a delegate (appointed by Harry Truman) to the first United Nations where, as an untiring opponent of communism, she spearheaded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the last quarter-century, more than a dozen new films, documentaries, and plays have been produced—many broadcast to national audiences. In just the last year, television viewers enjoyed a new original film on HBO, Warm Springs; a History Channel production, FDR—A Presidency Revealed; and an A&E Biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Restless Spirit.

There has also been no shortage of new books about Roosevelt and the depression and war years. Some of them, such as those by Geoffrey C. Ward, Conrad Black, and Ted Morgan, count as full-fledged biographies. Others take a closer look at specific aspects of FDR's life and relationships, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time or Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston. They also focus on such subjects as FDR's keen interest in espionage, the true status of his health, and how he handled such matters as Jewish refugees from Germany and the relocation of Japanese Americans in World War II.

While this certainly speaks to the proliferation of media and the growing national audience for popular history, it is also eloquent testimony to the continuing resonance between the life and work of the Roosevelts and the world today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks at the dedication of his library in Hyde Park, NY, on June 30, 1941. (Roosevelt Library)

Most of the research for these works was based on the holdings in the Roosevelt Library. The library's research room opened on May 1, 1946, a little over a year after Roosevelt's death. Roosevelt himself favored opening the papers as soon as possible, and his papers were made available much earlier than those of previous Presidents. Most of his papers were processed by 1951, and about 85 percent of the presidential papers were opened to research—an action without precedent, then or since. Most of the restricted material related to foreign policy and military operations of World War II and did not become available until the early 1970s. Now virtually all of the library's holdings are open to the public.

In the first 30 years after the bulk of the papers were opened (1952–1982), researchers made 33,709 visits to the research room and produced at least 306 books, not to mention countless articles and other research projects. In the quarter-century since, work has continued unabated, with 34,262 research visits to our research room, complemented by millions more who visited electronically via e-mail and our digital archives, producing 376 new titles.

In fact, research interest seems to be growing exponentially; in just the last year, 68 new books have been published based on research conducted in the Roosevelt Library archives. And from the books flow the films, dissertations, student research papers, politicians' speeches, newspaper articles, and all of the other content of our public consciousness of Franklin Roosevelt and his world—that is, our world.

And to those who wonder if all that is to be known about the Roosevelts and their era has been fully revealed, they should note that the museum continues to attract large numbers. From 1945 to 1982, visitation to the Roosevelt Library's museum averaged 200,000 annually, while in the years since, the library's records show, it has hosted almost 150,000 per year on average.

Will public interest wane as the generation who knew the Roosevelt presidency firsthand passes from the scene? Will fewer visitors make the trek to the museum on family vacations or to the research room to delve into the archives?

Consider the public's enduring interest in visiting Mount Vernon, which records nearly a million visitors a year more than two centuries after Washington's death. Or consider the enormous interest in the new Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a nearly $150-million project underwritten by the state of Illinois that is attracting unprecedented crowds to Springfield.

It seems unlikely that the American public will stop coming to Hyde Park to see the library, home, and grounds, since FDR is now consistently ranked second or third (with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) in polls of presidential greatness, a measure of which is that he continues to confound and stir debate.

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In connection with the 125th anniversary of FDR's birth, we asked some of the most distinguished and widely read historians, biographers, and teachers of the Roosevelt era to tell us how public perceptions of him have changed in the quarter-century since his centenary in 1982.

Their responses follow:


Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
The Age of Roosevelt (three volumes, 1957, 1958, 1960)

This portrait by Henry Salem Hubbell is based on sketches he made of FDR in 1935 and is part of the Roosevelt Library's holdings. (Roosevelt Library)

American democracy has finally clasped FDR to its bosom. Polls show that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are regarded beyond dispute as our three greatest Presidents. Newt Gingrich, no stouter-hearted Republican than Newt, rates FDR the greatest 20th-century President. FDR's New Deal is no longer to be condemned as a mortal threat to the American way of life. Instead, as President George W. Bush discovered when he tried to fool around with Social Security, New Deal reforms are generally blessed. And their architect is admired and adored.

It was not always thus. FDR was the most beloved of 20th-century American Presidents. He was also the most hated. Recall Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936:

"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match." Over the cascade of cheers, he went on: "I should like to have it said—," but the mounting roar of anticipation threatened to drown out his words; he paused and cried, "Wait a moment!"; then "I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."

The intensity of politics in a democracy emerges when the business community is challenged by other forms of countervailing power. Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, like FDR, were stigmatized by short-sighted business leaders; but their historic eminence shows their indispensable role in the dynamics of democratic capitalism. Their historic function is to rescue capitalism from the capitalists, functions belatedly recognized by intelligent capitalists themselves.

James MacGregor Burns
Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956)
Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom 1940–1945 (1970)

I think our memory of FDR has continued to be very positive as a whole. There is still questioning of his alleged lack of response to the plight of the Jews in Europe, and somewhat greater recognition of his main error, in my view authorizing the so-called relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II. On the positive side, I believe there is more recognition—or perhaps just a yearning for—his superb leadership of a broad coalition, which of course reelected him three times.

In a time of diminished presidency, including the narrowed base in which recent presidencies have been grounded, we remember the grand coalition that Roosevelt built behind the New Deal—a coalition which he transformed during World War II into solid support for the enormous war effort. Above all, he reminds us of the unfinished economic program of the New Deal which later Presidents have recognized without bringing about the major results that FDR achieved.

William E. Leuchtenburg
Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963)
In the Shadow of FDR (1983; 3rd ed., 2001)

My most vivid recollection of the FDR centennial is a celebratory luncheon at the White House. Into the room swept the jaunty President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, his face wreathed in a radiant smile. He spoke with unbridled enthusiasm of what an inspiration Roosevelt had been to him, then asked us to raise our glasses in a toast—to "Happy Days!"

The biggest change over the past 25 years is that the United States will never again have a President in any meaningful way acquainted with FDR. For Reagan, Roosevelt was a palpable presence. He voted for him all four times; listened raptly to his fireside chats; and cited him approvingly in his inaugural address. In contrast, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were each born a year after Roosevelt died. The next inauguration in 2009 will be as far from 1933 as 1933 was from Buchanan's in 1857. FDR has become a figure not of contemporary history, but of legend.

Critiques of Roosevelt have also altered. Whereas he was once condemned by the New Left for not revolutionizing America, he is now criticized for excessive intervention in the economy. Whereas he was once denounced for manipulating America into war against the Axis, he is now castigated for not standing up to Hitler soon enough or stoutly enough.

Yet, despite the dimming of memory and the historiographical argumentation, Roosevelt's stature remains undiminished. Today, a quarter-century after the centennial, historians still regard him as, save for Lincoln, America's greatest President, eclipsing even George Washington. That estimate is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Geoffrey C. Ward
Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt (1985)
A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (1989)

Sometime in the early 1980s, after I began work on the first of my own books about FDR, I had lunch at Hyde Park with Bill Emerson, then the head of the Roosevelt Library. I told him how struck I'd been, while interviewing men and women who had known the President, by how determinedly discreet they remained about him nearly 40 years after his death. Bill laughed. "I know what you mean," he said. "It's as if the Old Man's hand was still on their shoulder, making sure they kept all his secrets to themselves."

Roosevelt's death is 60 years behind us now, and things have changed. Ours is a pitiless time. For post-Watergate historians and biographers, everything is up for grabs, and one by one, many of the secrets Roosevelt held so closely have been exposed.

In recent years, biographers have laid bare the importance of the paralysis the President tried so hard to conceal and traced the hidden history of the illness that finally took him. They have poked and prodded—and sometimes misrepresented—the complex relationships he worked out with his wife and with the other women who were important to him. Old and baseless charges—that he knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, was naïve about the Soviets or a captive of the British—have been trotted out as if brand-new.

In my opinion, recent scholars have been correct to convict Roosevelt of playing the crudest kind of politics with the rights of Japanese Americans and wrong to indict him for having ignored the plight of Europe's Jews. But no historical judgment is ever final. "The great strength of the practice of history in a free society, " as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who remains Roosevelt's finest biographer, has written, "is its capacity for self-correction."

It's probably a good thing that FDR's restraining hand has finally vanished from our shoulders. But his unmistakable grin persists in our collective memory, and no amount of revisionism has been able to eradicate the spirit of gallantry and optimism and inclusion it symbolized in his era and continues to stand for in our own.

Doris Kearns Goodwin
No Ordinary Time—Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994)

In the last 25 years FDR's reputation seems to have risen higher than ever before. While historians have long considered Roosevelt one of our greatest Presidents, he has now been embraced by the country as a whole—by Republicans as well as Democrats. This is partly due, I would imagine, to the celebrations which accompanied the 50th anniversary of World War II—reminding everyone of FDR's unparalleled leadership of the Allied cause in fighting a war that had to be won to save Western civilization. The opening of the FDR Memorial—with gracious words from politicians on both sides of the aisle—has served to further solidify Roosevelt's memory in the popular mind. In 2000, when Time magazine selected the most important men of the century, FDR shared honors with Albert Einstein. Taken together, these events suggest that Roosevelt's legacy is even more firmly rooted in the American psyche than it was a quarter-century ago. The march of time has only strengthened our realization of Roosevelt's unparalleled leadership in carrying the nation through both the Great Depression and the Second World War. His story will be told for years to come.

David M. Kennedy
Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (1999)

Nineteen eighty-two marked both the centenary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth and the first full year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. In the eyes of many observers it also marked the end of the New Deal era. Reagan campaigned and governed on the theme that the New Deal was synonymous with big, intrusive government. As he said in his first inaugural address: "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

In the last quarter-century, that sentiment has become high orthodoxy. Yet it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the New Deal did and how it did it. The fact is that Roosevelt himself shared much of the wariness of governmental power that has long been encoded in America's political DNA. He repudiated all suggestions in 1933 that he nationalize the nation's stricken banks. With the exception of the Tennessee Valley Authority, he showed no interest whatsoever in the kind of state-run enterprises that in Europe led to government ownership of core industries like energy, automobile manufacturing, telecommunications, and railroads. He insisted that the New Deal's centerpiece reform, Social Security, be financed not out of general Treasury revenues, but by a contributory tax. "No dole," Roosevelt said repeatedly, "mustn't have a dole."

His Securities Exchange Commission brought a measure of stability to the stock markets not by closing the fist of federal power over them, but by the decidedly market-enhancing mechanism of supplying the exchanges with more and better information about the stocks being traded. Likewise, the New Deal eschewed European-style public housing programs and instead built institutions like the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Authority and Fannie Mae, unleashing the private capital that fueled the postwar private housing boom.

Roosevelt was surely innovative in his expansion of government's role in American life, but what stands out in historical perspective is how artfully the New Deal contrived to make its reforms compatible with the prerogatives of the free market and America's inherited traditions of laissez-faire and individual choice. It's a lesson that both the foes and the friends of the New Deal would do well to remember.

Alan Brinkley
The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)

There is something of a paradox in Franklin Roosevelt's historical reputation. Roosevelt the man continues to be widely revered, and only a few people have challenged his place in the pantheon of our greatest Presidents. At the same time, the New Deal itself is increasingly under attack. New Deal programs themselves (Social Security, for example) have been under assault for more than a decade. The idea of the New Deal—that an engaged and affirmative government is essential to a healthy democracy—is even more discredited than the specific ideas of the New Deal itself. A small but not insignificant group of historians have raised questions about the efficacy of the New Deal and the efficacy of Roosevelt's foreign policy and wartime leadership. In a way, the continued assaults on the New Deal are evidence of its strength.

Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Casablanca, January 22, 1943. (Roosevelt Library)

Warren F. Kimball
Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence (1994)
Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Second World War (1997)
The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (1994)
After spending 45 years trying to figure out Franklin Roosevelt, he remains for me endlessly fascinating and puzzling as both a public and a private figure. His domestic approach still stimulates curiously angry tomes attacking the New Deal, along with more careful analyses about the short- and long-term significance of the reforms he advocated. The basic outlines of debate over his foreign policy goals and actions began to take shape even while FDR was in the White House and had congealed by a decade after war's end. But Roosevelt continues to tantalize our imaginations. His reluctance to discuss motives and even tactics, whether calculated or instinctive, only adds to the mystery.

However much interpretations of the Roosevelt years demonstrate that "everyman" is his own historian, the abiding scholarly and general interest in FDR is testimony to the lasting importance of his presidency. What is most clear is his continuing relevance. Perhaps the example that would have brought a deep chuckle from FDR himself has been the later internecine warfare among today's conservatives, wherein the litmus test seemed to be how much of the New Deal one roundly repudiated (though it was the voters who really decided). FDR's legacy, his "shadow," established the bulk of today's U.S. domestic institutions and largely defined the structure of postwar international relations we have lived with since his death, over 65 years ago. Right or wrong, good or bad, successful or unsuccessful—we are still in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's world.

Joseph E. Persico
Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage (2002)

A great change in the perception of FDR since observance of his 100th anniversary until the 125th anniversary this year is that he will soon pass from a figure with personal connotations for millions of Americans to a figure known solely through the filter of books, films, and classrooms.

Those who lived through the Great Depression, the 16 million soldiers and sailors who fought under this commander-in-chief—his political worshippers and enemies during the thirties and forties, will soon be gone. FDR will no longer be the flesh-and-blood presence our parents and grandparents recall but solely a historical personage. His stature as the consummate statesman of the 20th century, in the opinion of this writer, will remain secure, but any personal remembrance of the man must inevitably dim.

When polled about presidential greatness, people usually limit their responses to Presidents serving within their own life time. If popular opinion influences the decision, I suspect Ronald Reagan would beat Franklin Roosevelt onto Mount Rushmore. To draw a parallel, those who loved or reviled Lincoln in his lifetime, the veterans of the Civil War, the people who watched his funeral cortege pass by were largely gone by the 125th anniversary of his birth. John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, is still a vivid memory to millions. FDR is passing from the Kennedy state to the Lincoln state, shifting from a man we knew to a man we study.

Related to the above, I expect erosion will continue in an appreciation of what FDR's New Deal meant to people who were present at the creation. If one has personally experienced the terror of mass, nationwide unemployment, the ravages of old age before Social Security, Roosevelt retains his heroic stature. But the rush of time makes it inescapable; Franklin D. Roosevelt will live on in history, rather than in the hearts of those who remember him still.

John Garry Clifford
The First Peacetime Draft, with Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. (1986)

Perhaps we focus too much on FDR as the prime mover and decision maker, the embodiment of all that was right (or wrong) with his era. Part of the reason is that he was so charismatic; he dominated the scene with his personality and wonderful public relations skills. And there is the magnificent human drama of overcoming polio and other obstacles. Even the failures in his marriage and family relationships get illuminated in larger-than-life terms.

Nonetheless, if we probe behind the familiar bio-drama, the picture becomes more complicated. FDR was only one man, surrounded by able and ambitious advisers (many with different agendas). He usually hedged his bets because he did not have a master plan, only assumptions and guiding principles. The man whom Frances Perkins called the worst administrator she ever knew had to rely on others to carry out his hopeful schemes. Although determined to make final decisions himself, he often waited for outside events, as in the case of Pearl Harbor, to assert his leadership.

FDR's optimistic designs for a peaceful postwar world, including friendly relations with Stalin's Russia, were left to future events and an inexperienced Harry Truman. Given recent revelations about FDR's personal life and failing health, one could conclude that a dying, lonely, and distracted President was trying to "juggle balls of dynamite" whose nature he scarcely understood (as Anthony Eden once put it). The latest scholarship on FDR's foreign policy suggests such a possibility.

The biggest war in history entailed awesome responsibilities for any president. But did FDR fully grasp such complex realities as the Holocaust, the different factions vying for control in China, the world-shattering impact of the atomic bombs, the degree to which a healthy German economy would be necessary for postwar recovery, even public opinion (which, he feared, might return to storm-cellar isolationism after the war)? And if he did comprehend these basic issues, his standard operating assumption was to win the war first and then think about tomorrow. Because FDR died almost at the worst possible moment, we will always debate what might have happened had he lived a year or two longer.

Mark Leff
The Limits of Symbolic Reform: The New Deal and Taxation 1933–1939 (1984)

More than in past decades, FDR is not a presence in my students' lives. The welfare state itself is becoming part of their historical past, and even their recognition that FDR was an inspiring speaker rarely moves beyond an abstraction or at best "fear itself." And his wheelchair, now a more prominent part of his image than when it was effaced in past years as something he had overcome, becomes an enigma, inconceivable in today's media age—ironic, perhaps, given FDR's media mastery.

What is remembered is the image FDR cultivated of jaunty optimism, complete with smile and cigarette holder. His effervescent leadership style may have special appeal when counterposed to contemporary events that can deprive Americans of a cherished self-image as a virtuous nation. We can remember FDR as representing the best in ourselves, when we rose to our ideals of "liberty and justice for all" in a crisis.

This confidence in our principles and aspirations, and in FDR's contribution to an American capacity to overcome crises, surely has an element of nostalgia, but it helps explain why politicians of all stripes have continued to invoke FDR.

Roosevelt plays another role that has become all the more important, even as it is less frequently invoked—as an alternative of social responsibility, as something to proclaim to keep American government honest amidst concerns about the selfishness and inequalities of the ownership society.

Even if Franklin Roosevelt is no longer a figure whose photo appears above fireplaces, and even if for most Americans he says less about who we are as a society than about what we should be prideful of having achieved, he is an icon of national compassion.

Frank Costigliola
The Impact of Emotions and Cultural Differences on Anglo-American–Soviet Relations in World War II and the Early Cold War (in progress
)
FDR's cigarette holder did not always tilt upwards. At times he seemed overwhelmed by a mix of physical, psychological, and political problems. Missy LeHand remembered days on the houseboat in the 1920s, "when it was noon before [FDR] could pull himself out of depression and greet his guests wearing his light-hearted facade." As President, he needed to relax in order to keep going. In November 1937, he faced an economy in apparent free fall, Japanese aggression, and congressional resistance. An abscessed tooth raised FDR's temperature to 103 degrees. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes observed that the President "looked badly and seemed listless. He appeared like a man who had more or less given up." FDR medicated himself with a 10-day fishing and poker cruise. Robert Jackson, who later became attorney general, noted that the cruise wrought a "striking" improvement in Roosevelt's mood and appearance. In spring 1941, FDR grew withdrawn when confronted with Axis advances, conflicting pressures from isolationists and interventionists, and the medical crisis of Missy LeHand. As FDR sailed toward the Atlantic Conference to meet Winston Churchill, a seaman recorded that the President's "face seemed severely drawn, his shoulders looked shrunken, and his whole body seemed to sag toward the middle." Invigorated by the conference, Roosevelt appeared to the sailor as the "champ" of the newsreels. "It was hard to realize that this was the same man I stood next to just four days ago."

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins noted that FDR often looked worse in photographs than he did in real life. The often-reproduced images of the slack-jawed, haggard President at Yalta have become iconic. Yet other photographs of Yalta show Roosevelt fit and alert. Perkins and adviser Chester Bowles each recalled how healthy and active FDR appeared after returning from Yalta. The ups and downs in FDR's appearance, health, and mood make his accomplishments even more impressive. He did not come easily by that celebrated Rooseveltian grin.

Jonathan Alter
The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006)

I remember attending a few of the centennial commemorations of Franklin Roosevelt's birth in 1982 when I was a recent college graduate. The prevailing view of FDR was quite different than it is today. With Ronald Reagan President and the conservative movement ascendant, FDR felt out of fashion.

Today we live in another conservative era, but Roosevelt's legacy is in a new place. While it would be an exaggeration to call FDR fashionable, liberals are looking to the past as a source of renewal for today's political battles. And conservatives are finding that much of what Roosevelt wrought is permanent. When government does not respond to Americans who need help, as Bush found after Katrina, the President pays a steep price. In that sense, FDR is now part of the DNA of America.

At the same time, the conservers and trustees of the Roosevelt legacy have changed. Almost every veteran of the Roosevelt administration is dead. The labor movement is so shrunken in importance as to be nearly irrelevant. American Jews, battered by a series of books about FDR and the Holocaust, are confused and asking many questions about that part of the story.

With the 125th anniversary of FDR's birth, a new generation has stepped forward. This generation experiences Roosevelt's life as history, not memory. It rejects evaluations that would airbrush unflattering facts, but also those that view the Holocaust ahistorically and out of context. It appreciates the shortcomings of Franklin and Eleanor, both personal and political, and also their greatness, not just in World War II but when the future of capitalism and democracy were on the line in 1933.

When I traveled across the country discussing FDR and The Defining Moment, I found many people who talked about what FDR meant to their parents and grandparents. But I was also struck by how many Americans want to convey the importance and pleasure of studying the Roosevelts to their children. In this, there is hope that the legacy will live to the 200th anniversary and beyond.


Celebrating FDR at 125: Events at the Roosevelt Library in 2007

FDR at 125

FDR, Archivist


Cynthia M. Koch is director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. She worked previously for the University of Pennsylvania's Penn National Commission, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, and the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. She holds doctoral and master's degrees in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY ON CRITICAL ISSUES

FDR's Health

Evans, Hugh. The Hidden Campaign: FDR's Health and the 1944 Election. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.

Ferrell, Robert H. The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944–1945. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Gallagher, Hugh Gregory. FDR's Splendid Deception. New York: Dodd and Mead, 1985.

Goldberg, Richard Thayer. The Making of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Triumph over Disability. Cambridge, MA: Abt Books, 1981.

Lippman, Theo. The Squire of Warm Springs: FDR in Georgia, 1924–1945. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

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

Wills, Matthew B. A Diminished President: FDR in 1944. Raleigh, NC: Ivy House, 2003.

FDR and the Holocaust

Beir, Robert. Roosevelt and the Holocaust: A Rooseveltian Examines the Policies and Remembers the Times. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2006.

Breitman, Richard. Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982.

Feingold, Henry L. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938–1945. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

———. Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Gilbert, Martin. Auschwitz and the Allies. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Neufeld, Michael J., and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Newton, Verne W., ed. FDR and the Holocaust.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Morse, Arthur D. While Six Million Died. London: Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Rosen, Robert N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006.

Rubinstein, William D. The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis. London: Routledge, 1997.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Wyman, David S., and Rafael Medoff. A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust. New York: New Press, 2002.

FDR and the Evacuation and Relocation of Japanese Americans, 1942–1945

Conrat, Maisie, and Richard Conrat. Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press for the California Historical Society, 1972.

Daniels, Roger. The Decision to Relocate the Japanese Americans. Malabar, FL: R. E. Krieger, 1986.

Irons, Peter H. Justice at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

TenBroek, Jacobus, Edward N. Barnhart, and Floyd W, Matson. Prejudice, War, and the Constitution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

U.S. Army. Western Defense Command and Fourth Army. Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943.

U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1983.

FDR and the Pearl Harbor Attack

Beard, Charles A. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948.

Kimmel, Husband Edward. Admiral Kimmel's Story. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1955.

Love, Robert, ed. Pearl Harbor Revisited. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Melosi, Martin V. The Shadow of Pearl Harbor: Political Controversy over the Surprise Attack, 1941–1946. College Station, TX: Texas A & M Univ. Press, 1977.

Neu, Charles E. "Pearl Harbor," in Franklin D. Roosevelt: His Life and Times, pp. 316–319. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co, 1985.

Persico, Joseph E. Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage. New York: Random House, 2001.

Prange, Gordon W. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

———. December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

———. Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History. New York: McGraw Hill, 1986.

Rosenbery, Emily. A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Stinnett, Robert B. Day of Deceit: The Truth about Pearl Harbor. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Toland, John. Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.

U.S. Congress. Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack. 39 vols. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1946.

Wohlstetter, Roberta. Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.

FDR and Civil Rights for African Americans

Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Kirby, John B. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

McMahon, Kevin J. Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Wolters, Raymond. Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of Economic Recovery. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1970.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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