President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is remembered as an icon, sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln and Washington. Over the decades, most polls place Roosevelt in the top ten and usually in the top five most effective Presidents. His accomplishments as President are unmatched.
He was the only person elected four times to the presidency and, by large margins, led the nation through dark times, the Great Depression and World War II. However, Franklin Roosevelt’s best work was connecting with the American public and inspiring the masses even when Americans were unsure and uncertain.
Generations of school children have learned about Roosevelt’s historic Social Security Administration, the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), and their promise of financial security for Americans. Other programs, such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the CWA (Civil Works Administration), were effectively trying to put people back to work and end the Great Depression. It did take, however, World War II to end the Great Depression, not Roosevelt’s programs.
He is the man who addressed the nation a day after the attack on our country at Pearl Harbor, referring to the attack as “a date that will live in infamy.” He inspired us and made us proud to be American.
At his funeral in 1945, the British politician Winston Churchill eulogized him, saying,
“that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.”
Despite the lionization of Roosevelt and similar expressions from others, he had enemies who felt very differently. Roosevelt’s massive push of social programs launched an explosive reaction among the now-growing number of Fundamental Christians, more recently referred to as Evangelicals, who thought that a larger government would reduce individual rights. To them, President Roosevelt and his programs were tantamount to Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich and Mussolini’s rebuilding of the Roman Empire. The Evangelical Fundamentalists were afraid of the coming of Roosevelt-styled Armageddon. Of course, the Evangelicals were not happy with Roosevelt, but all Presidents had their sum of haters, and Roosevelt had plenty.
Oddly, in the beginning, many of Roosevelt’s hater were supporters, even expressing their “we love Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Over time his enemies began to show themselves. Although he won the 1932 election in a landslide over the incumbent President Herbert Hoover, waves of dissenters started to form, including Hoover, who scoffed at the “New Deal.” It was Herbert Hoover’s own lack of a plan, and his reluctance to involve the federal government that had defined his failed Presidency. Despite Hoover’s enormous public rebuke at the ballot box, he was still convinced that Roosevelt’s plan would be a disaster. During the few months between the election and FDR’s inauguration, Hoover remained relentless in trying to persuade Roosevelt to give up his ideas of a “New Deal.” As Hoover later put it, the promise of a “New Deal” was both “socialistic and fascistic.” Hoover fell short of calling Roosevelt a communist or a socialist, but he did write that Roosevelt would lead the country on a ” march to Moscow.”
Shortly after Roosevelt unveiled his plans many of his early supporters began singing a different tune. William Randolph Hearst owned the largest newspaper chain in America and used his platform to consistently frame Roosevelt in a positive light. Hurst broke with Roosevelt when his administration increased taxes on the wealthy and closed long-standing tax loopholes that protected the wealth of individuals like Hurst. Democratic Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, easily the most corrupt politician in the nation, had supported Roosevelt in 1932, even campaigning for him, but now felt that he was too power-hungry and that his federal programs would ultimately destroy the rights of individuals. West Virginia Senator Rush Holt initially proclaimed that he was an “unequivocal” supporter of Roosevelt, but by 1936 he was consistently opposed to Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies.
And even Roosevelt’s own hand-picked Vice President, John Vance Garner, stopped supporting him. They disagreed on many issues, especially Garner’s concern about Roosevelt’s “court packing” scheme, which would increase the number of Supreme Court justices and influence the balance of opinion in Roosevelt’s favor. This measure failed, but Garner continued to distance himself from Roosevelt, even quitting the ticket as Vice President and unsuccessfully trying to run against him. Other members of Congress continued to denounce Roosevelt and his programs, including Robert A. Taft, an influential Republican Senator from Ohio. Taft was the leader of his Party’s conservative wing and he consistently referred to the New Deal as “socialism” and argued that it harmed America’s business interests and gave too much power to the central government.
Almost as famous as Franklin Roosevelt, the aviator Charles Lindbergh; a proclaimed isolationist, white supremacist, and most historians agree – a Nazi sympathizer, he actively campaigned to “protect the white race” and for America to stay out of the war. Because his beliefs were similar to those held by members of the Third Reich, he was honored by one of Hitler’s top men, Hermann Goering with the Service Cross of the German Eagle medal. Lindbergh and his wife Anne were so impressed with the growing power of Hitler’s regime, Anne Lindberg wrote, “…I have never in my life been so conscious of such a directed force. It is thrilling when seen manifested in the energy, pride, and morale of the people–especially the young people,” she wrote in “The Flower and the Nettle.” By 1938, the Lindbergh’s were making plans to move to Berlin.
While neutral, the Roosevelt administration chose a side in the early days of the war, even asking Congress to provide military equipment to Great Britain. Lindbergh testified before Congress in January 1941 against Roosevelt’s “Lend-Lease Program,” saying, “I see no possibility of success of a war involving the invasion of the European continent.” Despite Lindbergh’s influence, Congress passed the measure in March 1941. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Lindbergh had changed his mind and was eager to fight and wanted his commission back as an officer. Roosevelt denied his request saying, “You can’t have an officer leading men who think we’re licked before we start….” In private, President Roosevelt referred to Lindbergh as a “Nazi.” Lindbergh blamed Jews, Great Britain, and the Roosevelt’s administration for creating the German war machine.
The Communist Party (USA) also referred to Roosevelt as a dictator and said that his New Deal policies were inspired by fascism. In May 1933, the CPUSA ran a series of newspaper advertisements denouncing “the whole Roosevelt program of preparation for fascism and war.” The ads alleged fascist activities, including “forced labor for the unemployed”. In its propaganda attacking Roosevelt, the CPUSA intentionally omitted the part that employment was not “forced”, unlike Nazi Germany’s system. The reality, however, was that the CCC offered jobs to millions of young unemployed men, and that offer was embraced by many with great enthusiasm. Their projects strengthened the country’s infrastructure with improved roads, bridges, airports, and national parks. Nevertheless, former President Herbert Hoover supported the notion that the New Deal modeled fascism and was frankly “un-American.”
Among Franklin Roosevelt’s harsher critics, Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Chicago, held a unique position of influence. A radio priest, he broadcast weekly radio sermons that by 1930 drew as many as forty-five million listens. Like others, Father Coughlin was originally a vocal supporter of Roosevelt, seeing him as a social reformer like himself. Soon Coughlin felt that the President was too cozy with bankers, especially Jewish bankers, capitalists, and socialists. Father Coughlin cast himself as the champion for the rights of ordinary people and condemned those he felt represented the elite, including President Roosevelt. Coughlin frequently attacked capitalism, communism, socialism, and dictatorship while at the same time praising the fascist leaders Mussolini and Hitler. He was venomous in his attacks on Franklin Roosevelt, referring to him as the “great liar and betrayer.” His condemnation of Jews, however, was particularly appalling, Father Coughlin saying in a broadcast “”Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?” “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”
The Reverend Gerald LK Smith was another nationally recognized religious zealot who loathed Roosevelt and his programs. Wildly popular, Rev. Smith traveled the U.S. delivering fiery speeches all laced with conspiracies. According to Smith, the Great Depression, World War I and II, and even the Bolshevik Revolution should be blamed on Jews. In Reverend Smith’s conspiracy plot, Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew, and Adolph Hitler was a “good Christian.” In Smith’s delusional world, he demonized not just Roosevelt and Jews, but blacks, communists, and generally non-white groups.
During Roosevelt’s first term, the editors of The Moody Bible Institute’s magazine entitled “Moody Monthly” compared the President to Hitler and said that he was “preparing the people for what is coming later, and perhaps not much later—the big dictator, the superman, the lawless one at the head of the ten kingdoms of the prophetic earth.” Professor Wilbur Smith of the Moody Bible Institute explained his troubling belief in a letter to the Sunday School Times editor Charles Trumbull. Smith called “the sudden, amazing rise of dictatorships throughout Europe” and the surrender to “dictatorship” in the United States “preparation for the coming of a great world dictator.” The Sunday School Times and others, had no doubt that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would indeed become the “great world dictator.”
Evangelicals were convinced that Franklin Roosevelt was laying the foundation for a revolution. His controversial policies, expansion of his power as chief executive, and connections with bankers and politicians seemed to parallel biblical descriptions of the general unrest reflected in the last days. Historian, Matthew Sutton, makes the case that FDR’s programs resembled to Evangelicals an “American style communism.” Roosevelt’s flagship program, the Social Security Act, received surprising criticism from fundamentalist ministers. It was not what FDR had hoped for. They believed that as more Americans turned to the federal government for help, the fewer rights they would retain. Eventually, they would be powerless when the government ceded control to the antichrist. “In my humble judgment,” the Wheaton College president J. Oliver Buswell explained to Roosevelt, “you are seriously in error. In fact, your administration’s socialistic or communistic tendencies and the legislation to which your letter refers are entirely contrary to the spirit and the detailed teachings of the Word of God.”
During the summer of 1935, a political analyst working for Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled the country hoping to gauge levels of support for the administration. Instead, the Democrats were looking ahead to the 1936 campaign. Nevertheless, the analyst’s August report contained some important conclusions, which his secretary insisted the President read personally. “I have said for some time,” the analyst explained, “that, in my opinion, the strongest opposition to Mr. Roosevelt in 1936 would come, not from the economic reactionaries, but from the religious reactionaries (if you can separate the two). … The opposition of what one can call the evangelical churches is growing steadily more bitter and open.”
Sutton suggests that during the 1930s, Evangelicals were confident the apocalypse was within sight and that Roosevelt was leading the charge. It was Roosevelt’s big government, and its recognition of the communist Soviet Union was a sign of the end. The rise of Mussolini and Hitler and Jews fleeing back to Israel were seen as prophecy being fulfilled. These staunch Christians fought against Roosevelt unsuccessfully; however, they set the stage for future success. That future success would in decades later appear in the form of Evangelist Reverend Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and many others, all leading to the ideologies of the “Moral Majority” and the election of Ronald Reagan as President in the 1980s. Professor Sutton suggests that the roots of the Evangelical movement as a political force began in the 1930s.
Ultimately, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency will only be judged by the prevailing winds of time. He challenged the norms and traditions, but he presided during a period of our history that was not normal but full of crisis and peril. Perhaps Roosevelt served too long because it allowed a growing body of dissenters more time and opportunity to voice their objections loudly. Or maybe, Roosevelt felt that facing the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II required pulling out all the stops, even if it meant creating a more extensive and stronger central government. All of his many critics failed to grasp that comparing Franklin Roosevelt to the dictators of the day, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin was not logical. They were in power due to force, violence and the absolute silencing of dissenters. Roosevelt was in power because the American people elected him four times, not because of violence or some type radical overthrow of government. Franklin Roosevelt believed whole-heartedly in democracy and understood that the truest expression of democracy was to allow dissent; public dissent was good and the end result would be what the people wanted.
Despite the chorus of criticisms, Roosevelt was undaunted and carried on doing the “work of the people”, as he called it. A president from a prior century, Abraham Lincoln had faced the most critical challenge the nation had ever endured, its own survival as a republic. He was also engulfed and surrounded by harsh critics, some he invited, including his own hand-picked cabinet, which historian Doris Kearns Goodwin referred to in her book “Team of Rivals.” Like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt understood that the success of democracy depended entirely on encouraging political and social discourse and not discouraging it. In referring to his critics, he quietly referred to them as his haters; Roosevelt said, “They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred!!”