H. W. Brands
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With his twenty-second book, Traitor to His Class, the acclaimed historian and University of Texas at Austin professor brings yet another political giant into focus: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Do you explode any myths in Traitor to His Class?
The rich of Roosevelt’s day blamed him for selling them out to the masses; their heirs blame the New Deal for the growth of government ever since. Both groups fail to consider the alternatives: not laissez-faire but American fascism. Roosevelt betrayed his class, but he rescued his country and proved the best friend the rich ever had.
That’s the message of the book.
Oh, yeah, I also torpedo the Pearl Harbor perennial—that Roosevelt let the American fleet be attacked at Pearl Harbor to get the United States into the war.
Is it a myth that most of the world did not know he was a paraplegic because of adult-onset polio?
The fact that Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921 was widely reported and well-known. What was not well-known in the years afterward was how little use of his legs he recovered. Leg braces allowed him to stand and to walk with the help of a cane and the arm of a son or assistant. He campaigned seated in the back of an open car. The press respected his desire not to be photographed in a wheelchair. As a result, the average voter probably knew he had some disability, but not the extent of disability he actually suffered.
Roosevelt’s third and fourth elections took place under extraordinary circumstances: to wit, the greatest war in history. The voters who elected him thought he was the right choice, and few historians would dispute that he was the best leader available to America at the time. The complaints that Stalin pulled a fast one on the failing Roosevelt at Yalta were (and are) unrealistic (and mostly Republican) sour grapes. No other American president could have done better, given the facts on the ground in Europe; many would have done worse.
In that light, would America be better served without a two-term limit on the presidency?
The best solution would be the rule that existed in FDR’s time: Custom, rather than Constitution, enforced a two-terms-and-out rule, which voters could override in emergencies.
How much credit should FDR get for victory in World War II? How much blame should he get for Japanese-American internment camps?
FDR should get credit for leading the country through its greatest wartime crisis. He didn’t win the war alone, of course. Nor can it be said that the United States would have lost the war with someone else in the White House. But the task might have been much longer and more costly without him, and the victory might well have been less decisive. Without FDR’s inspiration, the U.S. might have turned against international involvement after the war, the way it had after World War I. Regarding the internment of Japanese Americans: The impetus came from the grass roots—the post—Pearl Harbor panic among Americans at large (which was much like the post-9/11 panic of sixty years later). Roosevelt might have overridden the panic, but with a war to fight—a war that would require the enthusiastic support of the American people—he chose not to buck the tide of public opinion. The final call—the ultimate responsibility—was his.
In 2008 America seems polarized to a paralyzing degree. Compare this to the political climate when FDR was elected, in 1930, and at his death, in 1945.
“Polarized” is a tricky concept, since it implies a fairly equal balance. In 1932 there was no balance at all: a historic majority concluded Hoover had to go and that his policies had to be junked. This gave FDR the opportunity to stamp his own mark on American life. It is very unlikely [that] a President McCain or Obama will be able to do anything similar, because there is no such sense that the status quo has become untenable. “Change” is the watchword of both parties, but neither is talking about more than tinkering with things as they are.
When FDR died, the country was almost completely unified behind his principal vision for foreign policy: America’s responsibility for world order. So well had FDR educated the American people to this view that it has never been seriously challenged in the six decades since.
How have FDR’s domestic policies fared over the past sixty to seventy years?
The centerpiece of the New Deal—Social Security—is untouchable (as George W. Bush discovered in 2005), having become a part of the landscape of expectations for hundreds of millions of Americans.
Other measures have waxed and waned. Bank regulation was relaxed some while ago, leading to the debacle we’re experiencing now. The New Deal’s tilt toward labor unions was tilted back by the Republicans starting in 1947 and has never been restored. The works projects became superfluous with the return of prosperity. Payments to farmers were almost terminated in the nineties, but the farm lobby is powerful and keeps them alive. The large-scale planning of the NRA was terminated by the Supreme Court but revived during World War II and persisted in attenuated form during the Cold War.
But the basic principle of the New Deal—that the federal government has a major responsibility for the welfare of the American people—is still with us. Witness the complaints against the feds after Katrina.
FDR’s spiritual descendants are endorsing universal health care. Would that have been on FDR’s social reform agenda?
FDR wanted to include a program of medical insurance as part of Social Security but decided it was more than the political system could swallow at once. Had he outlived the war he might well have returned to the issue. He believed that a democratic society owes its less well-off at least a minimum of security against the vicissitudes of life. He saw medical insurance as akin to unemployment insurance—something not utilized every day but available when necessary.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a sociopolitical force in her own right. Did she and FDR cross swords?
Eleanor was typically to the left of FDR on social issues, such as race. She would tell liberals that he was on their side in his heart but the conservatives in Congress wouldn’t let him do more; he would tell those conservatives that she spoke for herself, and who can control the missus?
With the benefit of seventy-plus years of hindsight, what do you consider FDR’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness?
Greatest strength: his sensitivity to public opinion. His understanding that no policy can last without broad support from the American people.
Greatest weakness: his apparent belief that he would live forever, or at least until the end of World War II. His successor, Harry S. Truman, was utterly unprepared for the responsibilities that befell him in April 1945.
Did your views on FDR change in the course of writing?
I came to believe he was a political genius. He almost single-handedly transformed American’s expectations of their government at home and of their country abroad. We still live in the world he created.
Who are your top five presidents?
FDR and Abraham Lincoln (tie)
Truman and Ronald Reagan (tie)
Your next book?
It’s a narrative history of the United States during the Gilded Age. The title is Leviathan.