FDR, by Jean Edward Smith

Nine stars

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) has been called one of the three most important US presidents of all time, by historians and political figures alike. Known best for his New Deal to help America and acting as one of the three Allies political leaders during the Second World War, Roosevelt’s legacy is thoroughly documented in the history books. But there is more to this man, as Jean Edward Smith argues in this lengthy biography. The leader behind these great acts helped shape America in ways known to fewer people, doing so with all the vigour he could muster. As Smith recounts throughout, FDR tried to better America in the only way he knew how, by forging ahead and changing some of its current practices. FDR sought to protect the common American, even if his upbringing did not mirror that of the large portion of the electorate. The man who feared little, pulled America out of its doldrums, and faced enemies on all fronts, FDR ought not be left remembered in the history books solely as the man of the Sunday night radio broadcast or he who was confined to a wheelchair. Smith takes up this challenge and delivers a stellar piece of biographical writing that is a must-read for the curious reader who thirsts for knowledge. 

Smith reserves the early portion of this biography to show the reader some of the foundational aspect of the man’s upbringing. That FDR was a silver-spoon socialite is by no means a shock to the reader who attentively sifts through these chapters. Born into a family of some wealth, FDR was the only child his parents had, permitting him to be doted upon like few others. Smith discusses in passing that FDR constantly lived under the shadow of his ever-popular relative Theodore, whose ascendancy in New York politics had yet to reach its climax in the late 19th century. After wading through life at Harvard and Columbia, FDR complained about not wanting to work for a living, which was supported by his mother and the significant monies amassed in the Roosevelt accounts. It was only when FDR began making a name for himself in the New York Democratic Party that he caught the eye of Woodrow Wilson, whose 1912 presidential victory paved the way for young FDR to make his first solid connection to the common American. His selection as Assistant Secretary of the Navy allowed him not only to oversee fleet production, but to liaise with the workers and those serving in the Navy, giving him a much needed dose of the plight the commoner faces on a regular basis. Smith recounts numerous anecdotes about this and how FDR did not isolate himself from others, as he tried to better understand the world around him. Smith accentuates the fallibility of FDR in a poignant event that led to the man’s diagnosis of infantile paralysis (polio), which would strike him down and force him to use braces, crutches, and a wheelchair for the rest of his life. This sobering experience could, as Smith hints at, have knocked the effervescent FDR down a rung or two, leaving him to suffer through a hardship he could not have predicted or auctioned away. These moments shaped the earlier years of FDR’s life, preparing him for some of the most exciting and harrowing years that lay ahead.

Smith utilises the central portion of the biography to focus on FDR’s political ambitions and how he successfully ensconced himself into the Democratic machine, having tasted some power while a senior bureaucrat. After the political bug bit him, FDR sought to transform running for elected office. Use of his wealth pushed the limit of how to reach the people and make a name for himself; driving in cars at a time when they were still luxurious or flying to Democratic Conventions to receive the nomination. Pretentious, perhaps, but Smith argues that this pushed FDR into the limelight and allowed the common American to see him and react. Success in a short-lived New York gubernatorial position (his ascendency echoes that of Woodrow Wilson), FDR tossed his hat into the ring for President of the United States and endured a battle to the end, which Smith illustrates brilliantly. After gaining the keys to the White House, FDR began dismantling the ‘woe is me’ mentality that the Depression had put upon America and dished out some much-needed legislative medicine. From a reorganisation of the banks to social programs supporting those who needed it most, FDR fought a Congress whose ideals were still firmly rooted in a laissez-faire mentality and proved that safety nets to protect the most vulnerable would better America, rather than make it a more socialistic beast. Surely, the Depression years were more about being ill-prepared than pushing a stronger class divide amongst its citizens, as Smith argues and FDR posited in his speeches around New Deal legislation. That FDR could inject hope into a crumbling economy in the first 100 days after assuming office is something that stands out and deserves much notice. Smith forges on in the narrative to look at other areas of the American system that FDR felt needed his intervention. The attempt to pack the US Supreme Court, which failed abysmally, proved that FDR was not always in the right and that his ideas could be driven by his own desires. Smith details the congressional struggles and clashes, which brings the events to life and allows the reader a better understanding of this controversial time in FDR’s presidency. 

FDR made a difference on the domestic front, but he came into his own internationally when unrest on the world scene in the form of build-up by the Nazis in Europe and Japanese imperialism pushed the the world back into military conflict. Smith uses the final chapters of the biography to illustrate FDR’s role on the international scene and illustrates some of his hardest decisions of all. Smith posits that FDR was too busy with domestic events to pay much attention to the Nazi chess playing in Europe before the 1939 Polish invasion, though he was not completely oblivious. Once European states began falling like dominoes, FDR faced increased pressure to enter the war and back American allies. Much like Wilson, FDR tried to stay out of the fray, though the latter president used antics to fund and arm the British rather than decry the need for outright diplomacy. Smith spins detailed narratives about the fall of Europe and the fight that FDR had with himself, Congress, and the GOP during the 1940 General Election, all of which pushed America closer to the precipice of war. When Japan did take major aggressive action, Smith argues persuasively that FDR knew of the military build-up in the region and that Japan had been playing the thorn in the side of many of those within the region. Repeated diplomatic attempts failed, to the point that America refused to continue passive actions. Sanctions and financial punishments only sought to goad Japan into pushing things to the brink of war. While Pearl Harbour was not known as the location of an attack, there was little doubt that Japan would take some form of retribution. The ‘infamy’ commentary that has covered history books for over six decades seems diluted after reading Smith’s narrative on the subject. With this attack, FDR pushed America into the war, using the Pacific Theatre to open their attack. Once the Axis Powers sought to formally declare war on America, FDR sent help to Europe and the bloodbath began. Smith uses much of the latter portion of the book to paint the horrors and muscle-flexing of America on two fronts in order to restore order. This is understandable, as FDR would not survive the end of the war. Still, the narrative and last-ditch efforts during the 1944 presidential campaign show that Roosevelt was invested in an Allied victory, so much so that he left America to run itself on the domestic front. As his health deteriorated, FDR soon slid backwards until his death early in 1945, with Allied victory imminent and Japan soon to play the role of nuclear whipping boy. Stunning description to the very last paragraph!

There is much more to this biography than is listed above, which is indicative that Smith did such a thorough job that any reader will have to sit down and enjoy the text to learn everything. Discussions surrounding the strained marriage between FDR and Eleanor highlight some of the early chapters, including the negotiation they made to act as a united front when needed and live in independent spheres otherwise. Smith is also masterful in his discussion of the dirty fights for nomination at Democratic National Conventions of ’32 and ’36, where the Democratic Party almost imploded as it sought to resolve the North and South with their divisive beliefs. Of greatest interest to me, was some of the back story leading up to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour, where Smith lays out the argument that the road to Japanese aggression was anything but shocking. That said, Smith is able to condense the life of a man who broke barriers of presidential longevity and yet still provide a captivating biography. Any reader who invests the needed time will surely appreciate that fact.

This is the first of at least a few presidential biographies that I will undertake with Jean Edward Smith at the helm. This has helped solidify my belief that I am in for a wonderful treat in the coming months. Rich in detail and poignant in choice of anecdotes to include, Smith is a masterful storyteller and presents his opinions with the greatest of foundational argument. 

Kudos, Mr. Smith, for you not only took us to Washington, but through the tumultuous life of a man who changed the world and America for the better, while not subjugating his detractors.