The Free Market money crowd has tried to set itself up as the ultimate historical judge of FDR's policies impact on the country suggesting that: "it didn't work you know, was all incompetent." The silence, perhaps, comes from the continuing legacy the McCarthy witch-hunt. But, who really were the "reds"? All too often they were people who had been supporters of FDR during the 1930s and the war. Which beds were they under? Democratic ones, of course.
Witch-hunts are a traditional method of cutting off the transmission of ideas and interfering with the succession of generations. It was not so different than what the radical right did to the Democrats with the continuous, more than 8 years' worth, sliming of Bill Clinton and what it has continued to do since 9/11, with their fear mongering, slanders, innuendoes and half-truths. They are truly the vicious children and grand-children of the union of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohen.
A summary assessment begins by distinguishing between the institutional political legacy of FDR and his personal legacy.
To reassess the first, one could highlight FDR's leadership, which won the war against Hitler's fascism. Compare FDR's leadership between Dec 7th1941 and May 8th1945 with Bush's between September 11thth 2001 and September 11thth 2006. Who mobilized 18 million into the Armed forces, became a beacon for democracy, produced a world wide alliance, and kept the home economy going and growing, by drawing on unused capacity, like the women who went to work, while their men went to fight?
Who took the country from circumstances (not unlike those that the challengers of Joe Louis found themselves in, flat out and almost flat-lined) to become the power which fought and won a world war in the brief 12 years from 1933-1945? The von Mises Society -- bitter opponents of FDR and his New Deal policies? The Heritage Foundation? If either of these organizations' financial and economic orthodoxies had been pursued, that 12-year transformation from the bottom to world leadership would not have occurred.
Or, one could highlight the continued effect of FDR's programs such as Social Security, which has survived all attempts at its destruction, including last year's campaign by this President, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
Or, perhaps, one could look into "institutional areas" which are more contentious and probably less discussed, and perhaps one of the reasons for McCarthy's post war red-baiting of FDR Democrats. It was FDR who encouraged Black voters on Democratic rolls in the South. It was FDR who enabled Black farmers to vote on his proposed agricultural policies along with white farmers. It was FDR who opened the armed services to Blacks in the war. It was FDR who brought Blacks into his government, where they organized their presence through the so-called "Black Cabinet." 1
Although FDR did not support his wife's campaign against lynching and did not back the legislation in Congress to outlaw it, his wife did and so did her friends. And she supported Marian Anderson when the Daughters of the American Revolution would not let her sing at Constitution Hall. And it was Eleanor Roosevelt who proudly presented the singer with the NAACP's leading achievement award later that year.2
Diversity? It was FDR who brought Frances Perkins into his administration as the first female cabinet member and Secretary of Labor. It was FDR's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), with the Title 1 encouragement of collective bargaining which encouraged John Lewis to go to his members in the United Mine Workers (UMW) and say "Mr. Roosevelt wants you to organize." And it was Senator Wagner from New York, whose activities in Washington on labor questions during the Hoover administration had complemented what FDR was trying to achieve as Governor, who really opened the door for trade union organizing for the first time. Not surprisingly, the Wagner Act was one of the earliest casualties of the attacks on FDR's legacy.
None of these by themselves were really big steps. But of such first small steps come big ones and then movements -- such as the movement for civil rights among the vets who came back from World War II, who had successfully fought against Hitler's fascism. Why then did Americans fight for freedom in Germany, if they are not going to have it here?
Just as FDR made these many institutional changes to the country and world, which have endured, he also made changes to the culture. His work broadened access and opened the way for the exercise of rights by those who did not have them.
FDR left an agenda, which is as yet unfinished, which includes providing security for those years when a person cannot work, namely, those years of childhood, sickness and old age. Finally, he left a vision for a comfortable living standard for all who work.
None of these goals have yet been achieved. Maybe it is because people have attempted to do them piece by piece, as technical measures, without fully realizing that all this unfinished agenda is part of a coherent design of broadened political rights secured against those who still insist on seeing the 'citizen' as only the moral equivalent of property. Those who have only their labor, whether physical, mental or spiritual, to offer their country and their fellows, are still not on a level playing field with the investment class and the money powers. FDR, however, similar to Lincoln, fought for the idea that the rights associated with the citizen are primary. The exercise of citizenship cannot be supplanted through contractual and other relations associated with working for a living. Perhaps we are all only waiting for someone to stand up with the imagination to say, "there is a missing element in these technical prescriptions: The human element." Perhaps we need someone to step forward and take up the struggle to secure those political rights (which our forefathers have tried to do three times so far).
More profound than these legacies is what FDR did to help the world conquer polio. Hugh Gregory Gallagher's book, FDR's Splendid Deception, is about FDR and polio. FDR fought, from the time soon after he came down with the disease in 1921 when he first went to Warm Springs, Georgia, to build up a therapeutic center for fellow sufferers of the disease. He sank his own money into doing it, despite the opposition of his mother and wife, who were concerned that he not go off what they thought was the deep end. He built Warm Springs, actively encouraging therapeutic work done there.
Warm Springs depended on large contributions. But during the Depression these contributions began to dry up. FDR's staff thought of organizing local birthday parties for FDR to raise smaller sums, kept in the localities to help fund further treatment centers and research. It was in this effort, in the mid to late 1930s that Jonas Salk, who later discovered the polio vaccine, got involved. The birthday party idea had its limits too, but then came Eddie Cantor with the name for the March of Dimes.
One of the prime movers was Basil O'Connor, 4 FDR's law partner, who was part of the "Brain Trust." O'Connor over the course of the 1930s and the war, transformed this fundraising activity into a highly-focused and well-funded research program. Those who had been ashamed of the ravages of the disease on their families found the strength to "come out." Doctors were more encouraged to include polio and its effects in their diagnostic profiles because people were no longer ashamed as they had been.. This change augmented the funding of research and therapeutic centers - all made possible by FDR's example.
After FDR died, O'Connor kept up the work of this campaign to find a cure and defeat the disease. By this point it had become a multimillion dollar operation. Salk's research was funded to a successful conclusion. And in about a generation after FDR himself had contracted the disease, it was largely eradicated. Would this have happened without FDR? Probably not. Would it have happened if FDR had not so inspired those who were his closest political collaborators? Probably not. Does this story tell us something about the kind of people that FDR and his collaborators were? Absolutely it does. And, absolutely, the kind of concentration, compassion, and love, which organized the fight against that disease, is the same which went into the political fight against property rights.
FDR's is legacy to be proud of as Americans: it is certainly not one to be hidden away, as if it itself is still suffering from some strange disease we don't talk about. FDR wasn't some charming old con man, but someone with the all too human ability to affect his world through the people around him, and to continue doing so, in beneficial ways, after his own death. A real image for a person's ability to rise above adversity, and keep rising, and bringing others along too.
1Mary McLeod Bethune, appointed director of Black Affairs for the National Youth Administration became the acknowledged leader of the unofficial "Black Cabinet" which met at her home every Friday. She led support for the "Scottsboro Boys," for the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, the New Negro Alliance (boycotts of stores where Blacks could not work), supporter of the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign, and known as the "First Lady of the Struggle." Blanche Wiesen Cooke "Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol II, the Defining Years, 1933-1938" page 160. NY 1999.
2 When the DAR banned Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall in 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the organization, and with Harold Ickes, and others, organized a concert for Ms. Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, which was attended by 75,000. Conrad Black "Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom" NY 2003, page 392.
3 "To begin meeting this demand, the Foundation (National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis set up September 23rd 1937) established various fellowship programs for doctors and scientists. An early beneficiary of such a program was Jonas Salk, later to be a developer of the polio virus vaccine." Hugh Gregory Gallagher "FDR's Splendid Deception" NY 1985, page 149. The section on the campaign for a cure is a summary of Gallagher's Chapter XIV "The March of Dimes"
4 O'Connor's role in the campaign from the late 1920's is detailed in Gallagher's chapter. "In the early 1950's, the Foundation raised over $50 million dollars a year. Even these immense sums were not enough, and O'Connor authorized the Foundation to go into debt to finance the final push necessary to prove and produce the serum." Gallagher, p.cit. p151.
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