Franklin Roosevelt became the first Democrat since Franklin Pierce in 1852 to win the White House with a popular majority. And on the day he was inaugurated in March 1933, the country was shattered after nearly four years of the Great Depression. It was ironic that it would be FDR who became the "savior" to millions over the remaining eight years of the economic calamity. Author William Leuchtenburg points out that, "Though FDR grew up on an estate and had never experienced anything save the advantages of privilege, he managed to convey the sense that he knew, bone and marrow, what those who were destitute had to endure."
Perhaps his most enduring FDR legacy was making the president central to the thoughts of Americans when they pondered their government. Leuchtenburg writes, "Until FDR, few Americans thought of writing the White House because the presidency was remote from their everyday lives. From [William] McKinley through [Herbert] Hoover, one staffer sufficed to handle all the incoming mail to the White House. But under Roosevelt, the Chief of Mails had to hire a staff of fifty to cope with the deluge."
It was this strengthening of the presidency - as much as the innumerable social programs introduced between 1933-1935 - that makes FDR colossal as an historical figure. Leuchtenburg writes, "In numerous ways, the president made clear that, though the Constitution vested the legislative power in Congress, he was calling the tune. He directed his appointees in the executive branch to draft bills that were handed to longtime members of Congress to introduce, and he tantalized legislators by intimations of patronage plums that might be coming their way, but not delivering them until they gave him the bills he demanded....He also broke every record in making use of the veto power. By the end of his second term, his vetoes already totaled more than 30% of all the measures disallowed by presidents since 1792. He was the first Chief Executive to read a veto message personally to Congress, and even asked aides to keep an eye out for measures he could veto, in order to remind Congress that the Constitution also accords presidents a vital role in lawmaking."
And yet, if FDR could bowl over Congress, the judiciary proved a different challenge. After his historic reelection in 1936, FDR turned his attention to the Supreme Court. Leuchtenburg writes that, while he was completely in charge of two of the branches of government, "The third branch of the national government [judiciary], however, not only threatened to obstruct new departures [FDR planned for his second term] but also placed in jeopardy what Roosevelt had already achieved." FDR was facing the "Four Horsemen" - four Justices on the Court opposed to the New Deal [Justices Pierce Butler, James Clark McReynolds, George Southerland, and Willis Van Devanter]. The name, the 'Four Horsemen', Leuchtenburg writes, was "a term that summoned up the menacing apocalyptic figures in the Book of Revelation who are harbingers of the Last Judgment." All four bitterly opposed the New Deal. Since his first day in office, FDR feared that - if only one more Justice joined the Horsemen - his entire agenda could be ruled unconstitutional.
Those fears had come true in 1935, when Justice Owen Roberts voted with the Four Horsemen in a decision that appeared to doom the constitutionality of the Social Security Act. The Court had also thrown out the Agricultural Adjustment Act [AAA] and the National Recovery Act [NRA]. Leuchtenberg writes, "The reasoning of the Court in its opinions eradicating the NRA and the AAA led legal experts to predict that it would shortly rule both the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act unconstitutional. Furthermore, despite FDR's enormous victory [in 1936], any new legislation the president might persuade Congress to enact would very likely be expunged, too." Six of the nine justices were over 70-years old, and no vacancy had developed during FDR's first term. And none was in sight. Yet no one was prepared when FDR announced his plan to deal with this dilemma.
FDR announced his so-called "Court Packing Plan" on February 5, 1937. In terms of executive powers, it was perhaps the greatest leap in the nation's history - before or since. The plan stated that, when a federal judge [any federal judge; not just on the Supreme Court] waited more than six months after his 70th birthday to resign or retire, the president would be empowered to add a new judge to the bench. Enactment of the plan would have permitted FDR to appoint as many as six additional justices to the Supreme Court. Shock is too minimal to describe the reaction to the plan. Leuchtenberg notes that the plan, "elicited an intensity of outrage unmatched by any other legislative controversy of the century."
Then, the Court blinked. Before any action was taken on the plan, the Court suddenly upheld a state minimum wage law and two weeks later upheld the Wagner Act. In another case, it rejected challenges to the Social Security Act. It was Justice Roberts who abandoned the Four Horsemen in what was called, "the switch in time that saved nine".
Leuchtenberg argues - with many others - that FDR should have quashed his plan then and there. But Roosevelt, "let hubris get the better of good sense. Despite the set of favorable rulings... the president insisted on going ahead with court packing. With an inflated sense of power after his landslide triumph [in the 1936 elections], he was confident that he could ram it through Congress, since the Democrats would not dare to deny him. That July, he got his comeuppance. In an emphatic rebuke, senators from both parties joined to shelve the audacious proposal. Less than nine months after his resounding victory in the 1936 election, he had been humbled."
But Roosevelt rebounded. Indeed, Leuchtenburg believes that is was FDR's 1939 creation of the Executive Office of the President that did much to create the presidency as we know it. In addition to the EOP, in 1939 FDR also took the Bureau of the Budget from the Treasury Department and moved it into the White House. Leuchtenburg notes, "With the revitalized Bureau as it's most important engine, the Executive Office of the President became the nerve center of the federal administrative system."
FDR enlarged the presidency in time to handle the responsibilities he would face as Commander-in-Chief during World War II. FDR - as early as 1937 - worked to prepare the country for entry into the war. This manifested itself in the need to keep Great Britain afloat. One plan - his Destroyers-for-Bases deal - is one example Leuchtenburg analyzes. According to Leuchtenburg, "Roosevelt decided that he had to comply with [Winston] Churchill's request [for destroyers], however questionable his authority, no matter the political cost. Drawing upon Justice Sutherland's statement in Curtiss v. Wright that the president is, 'the sole organ of the federal government in foreign affairs', he resolved to bypass Congress and resort to an Executive Order." On September 3, 1940, the White House announced that the United States had traded fifty antiquated destroyers for 99-year leases on British bases in the Western Hemisphere from Newfoundland to the Caribbean."
Roosevelt's next major extension of presidential power - again, in the war effort - came with Lend Lease in 1941. According to Leuchtenburg, "The Lend Lease Act constituted an extraordinary aggrandizement of the executive office. The statute authorized the president to sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of any weapons to the government of any country whose defense the president deemed vital to the defense of the United States. It gave him what amounted to a book of blank checks to disperse billions - eventually $48 billion - as he saw fit."
Leuchtenburg addresses the long-held rumors that FDR somehow intentionally created an environment that allowed Pearl Harbor to happen - not to mention those conspiracy theorists who believe he intentionally left a good part of the U.S. Navy vulnerable to attack and sacrificed over 2,000 lives in order to do so. For those historians who have argued that FDR's policy in the Far East made war inevitable, Leuchtenburg writes, "This charge falls short, for Japan had decided on aggression before Roosevelt acted when, at the Imperial Conference in early July, it had resolved to commence hostilities unless the United States and Great Britain acceded to it's demands by early October. Furthermore, it is improbable that any American concessions would have satisfied the army firebrands in Tokyo who grasped control of the government."
As for the Pearl Harbor charge, Leuchtenburg notes, "the indictment is baseless. Not one dispatch that Roosevelt read indicated that Hawaii was a target. Unable to imagine that Japan was capable of carrying off an attack at a site so far distant in Hawaii, American strategists anticipated a Japanese strike in southeast Asia."
FDR oversaw an unimaginable [before 1941] growth in the federal government with U.S. entry into World War II. Leuchtenburg points out, "As wartime commander-in-chief, Roosevelt could exert power over the American economy and society transcending any he had previously wielded, even in the first heady days of the New Deal." Roosevelt biographer Frank Freidel noted, "He was, indeed, as he posited in the first week of the war, the final arbiter in all departments and agencies of government." The numbers are staggering: during the war FDR issued nearly 300 executive orders creating more than 100 agencies; from 1940-1945 the number of federal employees went from 1 million to 4 million; during the war the U.S. Government spent more money than it had from 1789-1940 combined; and the number of FBI agents increased from 80 to 755.
The most devastating [both to the people interned and to Roosevelt's historical reputation] act of Roosevelt's tenure came on February 19, 1942, with Executive Order 9066, providing for the internment of Americans of Japanese descent. Historian Greg Robinson has written of EO 9066, "Under its provisions, the president imposed military rule on civilians without a declaration of martial law, and he sent a segment of the population to internal exile (and ultimately forced incarceration) under armed guard, notwithstanding that the writ of habeas corpus had not been suspended by Congress (to whom such power was reserved by the Constitution.)."
Leuchtenburg also tackles the historiography that claims that a sick, dying FDR failed the nation at Yalta and that his failings led to the Iron Curtain. Leuchtenburg denies such interpretation. "Contrary to the allegations of his critics, the president proved to be a hard bargainer [at Yalta]. He resisted Soviet demands for a sphere in Manchuria and secured from [Josef] Stalin approval of U.S. bases in Siberia. He also refused to let Stalin modify the Declaration of Liberated Europe, drafted by the U.S. State Department, expressing intent to form interim government authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the populations and a pledge to the earliest possible establishment through the free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people."
The reality is, there was nothing that could be done to stop the Soviets that wasn't actually attempted by FDR and his successor, Harry Truman. It was only through the actions of FDR and his successors that the Soviets were contained as much as they were. Leuchtenburg notes that, "Roosevelt and Churchill opposed Russian ambitions in Poland as far as they dared. The president realized that if he pushed Stalin too far on Poland, the Soviet leader might delay the [Soviet participation in the] invasion of Japan - at the cost of thousands of lives of American soldiers. They also feared that he might dynamite plans for a postwar United Nations by boycotting it." As to the charge that FDR was too sick to negotiate, Leuchtenburg says FDR's hands were mostly tied in the end regardless of his health, writing, "With Soviet forces in command of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Prussia, they could not have been dislodged from Eastern Europe save by a World War III that the American people would never have tolerated."