President Franklin D. Roosevelt — pictured here with Winston Churchill
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945), commonly known as FDR, was an American statesman and political leader who served as the 32nd President of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945.
Running as a Democrat, he won a record four presidential elections (no other President had served more than two terms), was the longest-running president in U.S. history, and dominated his party after 1932 as a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century. He directed the United States government during an era of worldwide economic depression and total war.
His program for relief, recovery, and reform, known as the New Deal, involved a great expansion of the federal government’s role in the economy. As a dominant leader of the Democratic Party, he built the New Deal Coalition that brought together and united labor unions, big city machines, white ethnics, African Americans, and rural white Southerners in support of the party. The Coalition significantly realigned American politics after 1932, creating the Fifth Party System and defining American liberalism throughout the middle third of the 20th century.
Roosevelt was born in 1882 to an old, prominent Dutch family from Dutchess County, New York. He attended the elite educational institutions of Groton School, Harvard College, and Columbia Law School. At age 23 in 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom he fathered six children. He entered politics in 1910, serving in the New York State Senate, and then as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1920, Roosevelt was presidential candidate James M. Cox’s running mate, but the Cox/Roosevelt ticket lost to the Republican ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Roosevelt was stricken with debilitating polio in 1921, which cost him the use of his legs and put his future political career in jeopardy, but he attempted to recover from the illness, and founded the treatment center for people with polio in Warm Springs, Georgia.
After returning to political life by placing Alfred E. Smith’s name into nomination at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt, at Smith’s behest, successfully ran for Governor of New York in 1928. He was in office from 1929 to 1933 and served as a reform governor, promoting the enactment of programs to combat the Great Depression besetting the United States at the time.
During the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, Roosevelt defeated incumbent Republican president Herbert Hoover in a landslide to win the presidency. Energized by his personal victory over polio, FDR relied on his persistent optimism and activism to renew the national spirit.
During his first 100 days in office (which began March 4, 1933), Roosevelt spearheaded unprecedented federal legislation and issued a profusion of executive orders that instituted the New Deal—a variety of programs designed to produce relief (government jobs for the unemployed), recovery (economic growth), and reform (through regulation of Wall Street, banks and transportation).
He created numerous programs to support the unemployed and farmers, and to encourage labor union growth while more closely regulating business and high finance. His support for the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 added to his popularity, helping him win re-election by a landslide in 1936. The economy improved rapidly from 1933-37, but then relapsed into a deep recession in 1937–38. The bipartisan Conservative Coalition that formed in 1937 prevented his packing the Supreme Court, and blocked almost all proposals for major liberal legislation (except the minimum wage, which did pass).
When the war began and unemployment ended, conservatives in Congress repealed the two major relief programs, the WPA and CCC. However, they kept most of the regulations on business. Along with several smaller programs, major surviving programs include the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Wagner Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Social Security.
With World War II looming after 1938 with the Japanese invasion of China and the aggression of Nazi Germany, Roosevelt gave strong diplomatic and financial support to China and the United Kingdom, while remaining officially neutral. His goal was to make America the “Arsenal of Democracy”, which would supply munitions to the Allies. In March 1941, Roosevelt, with Congressional approval, provided Lend-Lease aid to Britain and China.
Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which he famously called “a date which will live in infamy”, Roosevelt sought and obtained the quick approval on the following day for Congress to declare war on Japan and, a few days later, on Germany. (Hitler had already declared war on the U.S. in support of Japan).
Assisted by his top aide Harry Hopkins, and with very strong national support, he worked closely with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in leading the Allies against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan in World War II. He supervised the mobilization of the U.S. economy to support the war effort, and also ordered the internment of 100,000 Japanese American civilians. As an active military leader, Roosevelt implemented a war strategy on two fronts that ended in the defeat of the Axis Powers and the development of the world’s first atomic bomb. His work also influenced the later creation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods.
During the war, unemployment dropped to 2%, relief programs largely ended, and the industrial economy grew rapidly to new heights as millions of people moved to wartime factory jobs or entered military service.
Roosevelt’s physical health had seriously declined during the war years, and he died three months into his fourth term. He is often rated by scholars as one of the three greatest U.S. Presidents, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.