Franklin D Roosevelt: a political life, by Robert Dallek, (Penguin, UK, 2017)
In April 1945, when FDR’s body was conveyed by train from Warm Springs, Georgia, to the White House where it lay in state, thousands of people stood along the railway tracks and crowded stations to catch a glimpse of the funeral train. There were children parents and grandparents. As Robert Dallek wrote, FDR was the “people’s president and their silent tribute to his passing was the greatest accolade that could be given him.”
America’s three greatest presidents were Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But of the three, FDR had the longest career – an extraordinary 12 years as president. Prior to that, he served as Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration during WW1 and a term as Governor of New York. The challenge in producing a biography of FDR lies not only in the duration of his public life but in the fact that his 12 years as president burdened him with a range of crises no other president has ever faced.
Yet in 630 pages, Robert Dallek comprehensively accounts for FDR’s very full life of 63 years within the context of rapidly shifting historical situations. What is particularly significant and important about Dallek’s thorough research is that it destroys the mistaken view others have held that FDR’s New Deal showed him to be a socialist. It also demonstrates that FDR was not soft on communism despite its menace in Poland and Eastern Europe. He was a realist who appreciated that with Russia having borne the brunt of Nazi war aggression, there was nothing the US could do – short of a new war – to prevent Stalin from occupying Poland, the Balkans and half of Germany.
What sets FDR apart from most presidents, with the exception of Lincoln, was his attentiveness to public opinion and the ordinary American. During his public life, he travelled extensively by train around the US. He recognised the power of radio and endeared himself to millions with the warm empathy he exuded in his fireside chats. He was also widely admired for not allowing his disability as a result of polio (which immobilised him at the age of 39 in 1921) to restrict his ability to serve and to carry out the duties of office.
FDR was an innovator. His economic package known as the New Deal was a brave, pioneering venture in the face of stiff opposition based on tradition. He persevered and not only laid the foundations of welfare as an obligation of the state but humanised the American industrial system. Likewise, his recognition of the war clouds gathering over Europe in the 1930s, as opposed to isolationist sentiment in the US, showed that he was ahead of his time in appreciating the role the US needed to fulfil in world affairs.
Thanks to the correspondence between FDR and his cousin, Daisy Suckley, Dallek exhibits much of the private, human side of FDR. He confided in her and enjoyed her company. From such sources, Dallek reveals the difficult marriage of FDR and Eleanor as well as FDR’s daily struggles with his severely handicapped condition after 1921. Close attention to detail also reveals much about characters with whom FDR had dealings like Churchill, Stalin, De Gaulle and those in FDR’s inner political circle like Harry Hopkins. In an account that moves the reader at a brisk pace, the only aspect that detracts is Dallek’s emphasis on the difficulties Roosevelt had with De Gaulle. Those pages could have been cut since in terms of the issues at play, De Gaulle was irrelevant.
Franklin D Roosevelt: a political life is an outstanding study, not just one of America’s three greatest presidents, but of a human being who was afflicted with a terrible disability yet bore it cheerfully and inspired millions by his example and his extraordinary work ethic.
Reviewed by Duncan Dubois