Thursday, March 01, 2018

FDR – The Paradox – Part 3

In the year 2000 the Pulitzer Prize for History was awarded to David M. Kennedy, a history Professor Emeritus at Stanford University for his almost 2000 page book, “Freedom From Fear; The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

The book is a fascinating fount of facts relevant to how Franklin Delano Roosevelt dominated those historic years. I would assume that the vast majority of the readers of this column were bornduring, or very close to this period, as was I.  The editor of Kennedy’s masterpiece provided an interesting introduction that follows:

“The brief period from 1929 to 1945 is unique in American history for its complexities of change and violence of contrasts.  People who lived through the years of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War –– only half the years normally assigned to one generation –– experienced more bewildering changes than had several generations of their predecessors. These changes included transition from economic and social paralysis to unprecedented outbursts of national levels of prosperity, and the repudiation of a century-and-a-half of isolation as America entered World War II.”

Unprecedented too was the fact that fundamentally, it was just one individual who precipitated the changes described by Mr. Kennedy––Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  In 2009 US News wrote about FDR’s initial actions taken immediately after his inauguration: “This began an unprecedented period of experimentation during which Roosevelt tried different methods to ease the Depression; if they failed, he tried something else. His success in winning congressional approval became the stuff of legend and established FDR as the most effective president in dealing with Congress during the first 100 days.”

US News continued: “FDR quickly won congressional passage for a series of social, economic, and job-creating bills that greatly increased the authority of the federal government—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which supplied states and localities with federal money to help the jobless; the Civil Works Administration to create jobs during the first winter of his administration; and the Works Progress Administration, which replaced FERA, pumped money into circulation, and concentrated on longer-term projects. The Public Works Administration focused on creating jobs through heavy construction in such areas as water systems, power plants, and hospitals. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protected bank accounts.

“The Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for unemployed young men. The Tennessee Valley Authority boosted regional development. Also approved were the Emergency Banking Act, the Farm Credit Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. In all, Roosevelt got 15 major bills through Congress in his first 100 days. ‘Congress doesn't pass legislation any more—they just wave at the bills as they go by,’ said humorist Will Rogers.”

It then declares, “This was only part of a vast array of government programs that Roosevelt called the New Deal, and collectively they represented a revolution as the nation shifted from a limited central government to an extremely powerful one. Through it all, FDR bonded with everyday Americans by means of his speeches and ‘fireside chats’—homespun radio talks that reached millions of listeners as the president explained his objectives and convinced his fellow citizens that he was their champion.”  Isn’t that exactly what our current president is doing? (If you didn’t recognize it folks, that was sarcasm.)

In 2009, Time magazine reminisced about this era:  “In the next 100 days — O.K., 105, but who's counting? — his Administration shepherded 15 major bills through Congress. It was the most intense period of lawmaking ever undertaken by Congress — a ‘presidential barrage of ideas and programs,’ historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed, ‘unlike anything known to American history.’” –– [certainly including the current administration].

Time continues, “In little more than three months, Roosevelt had done nothing less than create a new America — or, rather, two new Americas. The Hundred Days was the start of the American welfare state. For the first time, the Federal Government assumed responsibility for caring for its worst-off citizens. FERA paved the way for Social Security and unemployment insurance to become law in 1935 and, much later, for programs like Medicare and Medicaid.”

Particularly interesting is Roosevelt’s relationship with Jews, both inside and outside of his administration.  Only once over the past 100 years, has his popularity been equaled with the Jewish voter (82%, 85%, 90%, 90% in each of his four elections), and that by Lyndon Johnson, also at 90%. In an attempt to fill job openings expeditiously, Roosevelt called upon Felix Frankfurter of the Harvard Law School to start sending young attorneys down to Washington to staff the emerging New Deal (called the Jew Deal by anti-Semites).

Roosevelt made good use of these young, mostly Jewish lawyers, many of whom, such as Abe Fortas, Jerome Frank, David Lilienthal, Isador Lubin, Nathan Margold, Paul Herzog, and several others went on to higher levels and illustrious positions (Fortas a Supreme Court Justice).  Appropriately, this group became famous, nicknamed as Felix’s hotdogs. By the end of his presidency, FDR had appointed more Jews to office than all the previous 31 administrations, and all that followed until the Clinton administration.

From the beginning of his political career, Roosevelt associated with, and actually relied on his strong relationship with Jews, which for the time was not only unique, but also bordered on the extraordinary.  A number of these names are still renowned after some 18 decades: The above, Felix Frankfurter, Bernard Baruch, Anna Rosenberg, Herbert Lehman, Ben Cohen, James Warburg, Adolph Berle, Louis Brandeis, Samuel Rosenman [who coined the name “New Deal”], Rabbi Steven Wise, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky, Benjamin Cardoso. For the full list of 73 Jews associated with FDR, click here.

Regarding Jewish confidants of FDR, here is a historical oddity: In the period between June 27, 1945 and July 3, 1945, given the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and subsequent elevation of Harry Truman to the presidency) and resignation of Edward Stettinius Jr. [Roosevelt’s Secretary of State], Henry Morgenthau was the first (and so far the only) Jew to be first in line to the presidency.  Morgenthau (who reportedly never attended a Seder) was not only a key figure as Secretary of the Treasury, but also was considered to be FDR’s best friend. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was also quite close to Elinor Morgenthau, the Secretary of Treasury’s wife.

After Pearl Harbor and America's entrance into the war, Morgenthau administered the biggest and most rapid expansion of federal expenditures in the nation's history. By 1945 total federal outlays, which had been $7.1 billion during Morgenthau's first year at the Treasury, had reached $93.7 billion. 

Morgenthau was an early and vigorous champion of collective security arrangements to resist the growing aggressiveness of Nazi Germany. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe in the fall of 1939, Morgenthau battled within the Roosevelt administration against neutralists and “America First” military strategists to clear British and French purchases of American-made war matérial and to step up military production, especially of airplanes. Until the establishment of the Lend-Lease Program in 1941, Morgenthau managed the bulk of American aid to Great Britain.

In 1943, Morgenthau's Treasury Department approved the World Jewish Congress’ plan to rescue Jews through the use of blocked accounts in Switzerland, but the State Department and the British Foreign Office procrastinated further. Morgenthau and his staff persisted in bypassing State and ultimately confronting Roosevelt in January 1944 at which time he obtained the presidential creation of the US War Refugee Board.

The Board sponsored the Raoul Wallenberg mission to Budapest and allowed an increasing number of Jews to enter the U.S. in 1944 and 1945; as many as 200,000 Jews were saved in this way. His experience in getting the board established and in helping to oversee its operations constituted his signal wartime success to that date in nurturing humanitarian purpose in American foreign policy. One survey, in Quora, considers him to be the third best Secretary of the Treasury.

In retirement Morgenthau devoted much of his time to philanthropic projects. He was chairman of the United Jewish Appeal (1947-1950), and in the early 1950s he was chairman of the board of the American Financial and Development Corporation for Israel, which handled a $500 million Israeli bond issue. On Feb. 6, 1967, following a succession of heart attacks, Morgenthau died at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Obviously FDR had the good sense to appoint Morgenthau to his cabinet in 1944, and keep him in that position throughout the rest of his presidency, until his death in 1945. Morgenthau was a particularly important factor in FDR’s private life, and an essentially crucial advisor in FDR’s position as president.

However, unlike the seemingly universal praise for Roosevelt as indicated above, there are some meaningful gaps in attitude and actual treatment of Jews that should be addressed––and will be in next month’s article.


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