Fear Itself

10.17.13

Portrait of FDR as a Young Man: How He Became a Radical

A new biography looks at how FDR’s thwarted dream of serving in a Navy uniform primed him to eventually become president. But Harvey Kaye says the preparation came even earlier.

What made Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wealthy son of Hudson River valley aristocrats, the liberal, indeed, the radical he became? When and where did he develop the ideas, sensibilities, and commitments that would propel and enable him to mobilize Americans to pursue the great democratic labors of the New Deal and lead the nation in a war against European Fascism and Japanese Imperialism and for the Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear—which he proclaimed in January 1941?

Both FDR’s friends and biographers have speculated on the origins of his progressivism. His “chief of staff” Judge Samuel Rosenman said that Roosevelt’s democratic politics seemed built into his very being, into the very “heart and soul of the man, in his love of people, his own sense of social justice, his hatred of greed and of exploitation of the weak, his contempt for the bully—whether it was a Hitler or a Mussolini or an owner of a sweatshop, or an exploiter of child labor.” But most historians have ended up subscribing to the view of FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who knew Roosevelt from his days as a New York state senator (1911-13) and served him both in Albany when he was governor of New York (1929-1933) and in Washington all the way through the 12 years of his presidency (1933-45).

As Perkins saw it, Roosevelt in the 1910s was a young man who had “little, if any, concern about social reforms … and a deafness to the hopes, fears, and aspirations which are the common lot.” And while she acknowledged that he apparently matured somewhat during his years as assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, the real change, she insisted, came in his battle with polio in the 1920s. “The man emerged completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy,” she said. “Having been to the depths of trouble, he understood the problems of people … he showed that he had developed faith in the capacity of troubled people to respond to help and encouragement.” Moreover, his convalescence involved a continuing “liberal education.” His wife and political partner Eleanor became more active in the Democratic Party and urban reform efforts, and introduced him to people like her Women’s Trade Union League comrades from whom he learned all the more about the demands and struggles of working-class life.

But I think FDR’s political understandings and commitments began to develop even earlier than Perkins recognized. Whatever their precise origins, Roosevelt’s politics were motivated not simply by ambition, but also by a powerful faith and confidence in America, its prospects and possibilities, and the capacities of his fellow citizens to pursue them—all of it firmly grounded in a deeply felt sense of history. “Franklin Roosevelt knew American history,” his friend Frank Kingdon would say of him, and FDR always had a fascination for the past. Yet what struck Kingdon even more was that Roosevelt “recognized himself as an instrument through which the forces of the past were channeled into the present and towards the future … American history was alive in him and he did all he could to make sure he would live in American history.” Even as a young man, Roosevelt spoke appreciatively of the democratic currents that ran through American history. In a college paper, he attributed his forebears’ success to their “democratic spirit” and a belief that they had to “do their duty by the community.” And in a 1912 speech, he contended that although the struggle for “representative government … and liberty of the individual has been accomplished,” a new struggle for freedom was emerging, a “struggle for liberty of the community.”

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‘The Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life’ by Stanley Weintraub. 288 pp. Da Capo Press. $26. ()
FDR likely learned about how to be a War President by witnessing Wilson’s many mistakes.

In Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life, historian and biographer Stanley Weintraub does not attend to the question of what made Roosevelt a small “p” progressive. Rather, he focuses on what made him an effective War President—that is, he tells us of Roosevelt’s experiences and actions at the Department of the Navy during World War I and how they prepared him to later serve as Commander in Chief. Doing so, Weintraub tells us a lot. Readers will enjoy his narrative and the details he affords, for they address both FDR’s public and private lives.

Weintraub presents the young FDR, an already accomplished sailor, as a “Navy man” who wanted not only to rebuild the Navy as quickly as possible, but also to serve in it as a commissioned officer, an aspiration stymied by the administration’s need of his skills and talents in Washington, and then the actual conclusion of the war in 1918 before he had a chance to get into a uniform. Whatever Roosevelt’s frustrations were, his experiences in Washington, as Weintraub reveals, were invaluable.

At the Navy Department, FDR learned how to mobilize human and material resources for war, manage industry and labor in the process, and handle America’s allies, the British and French, who had their own concerns, ambitions, and priorities. In fact, as Weintraub recounts, in 1917 Roosevelt negotiated, without Wilson’s prior approval, the lending to Britain of 30 U.S. destroyers for escort duties in the Atlantic, a deal that he would re-enact on a grander scale in 1941. And FDR likely learned about how to be a War President by witnessing Wilson’s many mistakes, such as his failure to create a War Cabinet that included both Democrats and Republicans.

Woven into these chapters is the tale of FDR’s sorry affair with Lucy Mercer that nearly ended his marriage and political career. An historian could have ignored it in favor of the bigger questions of war and politics, but Weintraub the biographer could not. Fortunately for all of us, Eleanor was committed enough to Franklin, their family, and what they might accomplish together to stick by him—though not in bed. As Weintraub notes, she had already suspended their sexual relations in order to avoid another pregnancy (they had six children, one of whom died in infancy). She now vowed to never sleep with him again.

Weintraub apparently accepts Frances Perkins’ argument about the later development of FDR’s progressive ideals and vision, for he makes no direct reference to them. And unfortunately, it reduces the potential value of his work. Did FDR believe only in himself and his own future in these years—or did he believe in America’s promise and possibilities and want to play a leading role in advancing them? Weintraub does not tell us.

Weintraub does hint at a more progressive Roosevelt-in-the-making when he quotes a speech by the young Assistant Secretary in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1913 in which he said: “The administration believes that the national government should be conducted for the benefit of the 99 per cent, and not as has sometimes been the case in the past, for the benefit of the 1 per cent…”  However, he fails to explore the future president’s thinking at the time about American freedom, equality, and democracy, or the sins committed against them. Had he done so he might have told us more about not only the formation of Roosevelt’s political vision.

Failing to attend to the development of FDR’s ideas about America and its promise, Weintraub gives us little insight into what led FDR to become not just the president and commander-in-chief who led the United States to victory in the Second World War, but also the man who led a generation of young Americans to reject authoritarianism, beat the Great Depression, recognize their “rendezvous with destiny,” and fight for the Four Freedoms at home and abroad. When we choose our leaders, our representatives, and our presidents in particular, we should listen closely to how they speak of American history, how they comprehend the making of democratic history, how they might pursue America’s promise, and how they might engage us in that pursuit. FDR saw history as a struggle to enhance democracy, a struggle to be advanced not by statesmen alone, but by all of us. It’s not just about knowing more of the past. It’s about making more of the present and the future.