It was Roosevelt’s lasting accomplishment that he found a middle ground between the unbridled laissez-faire of the ’20s and the brutal dictatorships of the ’30s. His conviction that a democratic government had a responsibility to help Americans in distress — not as a matter of charity but as a matter of social duty — provided a moral compass to guide both his words and his actions. Believing there had never been a time other than the Civil War when democratic institutions had been in such jeopardy, Roosevelt fashioned a New Deal, which fundamentally altered the relationship of the government to its people, rearranged the balance of power between capital and labor and made the industrial system more humane.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” Roosevelt said when he accepted his party’s nomination for a second term. “To some generations much is given. Of other generations, much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”
Roosevelt’s critics were certain he would straitjacket the free-enterprise system once America began mobilizing for war. Through his first two terms, business had been driven by an almost primitive hostility to Roosevelt, viewing his support for the welfare state and organized labor as an act of betrayal of his class. Indeed, so angry were many Republican businessmen at Roosevelt that they refused even to say the President’s name, referring to him simply as “that man in the White House.” Yet, under Roosevelt’s wartime leadership, the government entered into the most productive partnership with private enterprise the country had ever seen, bringing top businessmen in to run the production agencies, exempting business from antitrust laws, allowing business to write off the full cost of investments and guaranteeing a substantial profit. The output was staggering. By 1943, American production had not only caught up with Germany’s 10-year lead but America was also out producing all the Axis and the Allied powers combined, contributing nearly 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks, 2 million trucks and 87,000 warships to the Allied cause. “The figures are all so astronomical,” historian Bruce Catton marveled. “It was the equivalent of building two Panama Canals every month, with a fat surplus to boot.”
It may well be true that crisis and war provide a unity of purpose and an opportunity for leadership that are rarely present in more tranquil times. But as the history of other countries illustrates, war and domestic upheaval are no guarantee of positive social change. That depends on the time, the nation and the exercise of leadership. In providing the indispensable leadership that preserved and strengthened democracy, Franklin Roosevelt emerges as the greatest political leader of the age.
FDR is, and will always be a moral touchstone for those of us who love freedom and Justice. Any comparison with the current “war president” is both preposterous and ludicrous, and in fact borders on the absurd.