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Book Review: The Roosevelt Myth

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The Roosevelt Myth: 50th Anniversary Edition
by John T. Flynn (San Francisco: Fox and Wilkes, 1998); 437pages; $24.95.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, there followed a vast outpouring of despair and sadness from one end of the United States to the other. For more than 12 years, FDR had occupied the White House, having won an unprecedented four elections to the U.S. presidency. There was a young generation of Americans who had grown up knowing no other man in the highest political office of the land, since his first inauguration in March 1933.

Tens of millions of Americans had huddled next to their radios during his first term of office, listening to his famous “fireside chats” as he explained and justified the radical domestic policies that constituted his New Deal for the United States. As war clouds began to form over Europe in the late 1930s, he told the American people that he would keep America out of the conflicts of the Old World. Especially after war had broken out in both Europe and Asia and he was running for a third term in 1940, Roosevelt assured the voters again and again that American boys would not be sent to foreign shores to fight other people’s wars.

And so, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the American people rallied around their president, confident that he had done everything possible to keep the United States out of harm’s way. As the commander in chief of a great nation in a world war, Roosevelt was trusted to lead America to victory and to establish a global peace that would keep the country safe from future foreign aggressions.

At the time of his death on that day in April 1945, he was considered by those tens of millions of mourners as the great savior. And even now, more than half a century later, most politicians, the vast majority of historians, and countless Americans still extol him as the brilliant slayer of the Great Depression and the greatest of the world leaders during the Second World War.

In the 54 years since FDR’s death, there has appeared only one major critical biography of the man and his term in office. This work is The Roosevelt Myth by John T. Flynn. Originally published in 1948, it was reissued in a revised edition in 1956. That revised text has recently been republished in a commemorative “50th-anniversary edition,” with an excellent introduction by Ralph Raico, professor of history at State University College at Buffalo, New York.

During his lifetime, John T. Flynn (1882-1964) was one of the most insightful and uncompromising critics of America’s drift towards socialist policies at home and military interventionism abroad. For four decades he published articles in many of the leading magazines of the time, defending the traditional American constitutional order and the free-enterprise system. Some of the most insightful of these articles were collected and published a few years ago under the title Forgotten Lessons. (See the review in Freedom Daily, March 1996.)

In The Roosevelt Myth, Flynn masterfully unravels the truth about FDR as a grand political manipulator. He had only one guiding political philosophy: win votes, stay in office, and enhance presidential power. He was a master at all of these. After first running for president in 1932 on a Democratic party platform that promised less government, lower taxes, and a balanced federal budget, FDR enacted policies with exactly the opposite effect once he was in office. He constrained the American economy in a straightjacket of regulations and controls under the promise of a “New Deal.” In its essence, the economic philosophy behind the New Deal was modeled on Mussolini’s corporativist state, under which industry was forced into government-mandated cartels that fixed prices and production. Agricultural prices and production were placed under the same strict controls. Vast public works projects were undertaken, with the federal government now directly employing millions of people. Private ownership of gold was declared illegal and the people’s money was confiscated, with paper money given in return.

After the Supreme Court declared many of the New Deal programs unconstitutional in 1935, FDR attempted to pack the high court with judges who would go along with his concentration of power in the executive branch. This breach of federal division of powers among the three branches of government was too much even for a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress, and Roosevelt was stopped in his undermining of the American political system.

After winning an impressive second term in 1936, the victory soon turned sour as the American economy, still far from recovering from the Great Depression of the early 1930s, now sank into a new depression in 1937 and 1938. People began to refer to it as the “Roosevelt recession.” But under the advice of Keynesian-oriented economists, he tried to revive the economy again, this time through even more and larger government deficit spending. But on what could the federal government spend such vast quantities of money? With war clouds forming in Europe, Roosevelt found the answer in defense spending.

Flynn details the intrigue and subterfuge FDR undertook to have himself drafted for an unprecedented third term in 1940, against the wishes and resistance of many of the leaders of the Democratic Party. Then to weaken Republican opposition in the general election, he enticed several prominent Republican leaders to join his administration under the rationale of a national emergency, as war raged in Europe and Asia.

Flynn also explains the deceptive methods Roosevelt resorted to, to maneuver America into participation into the Second World War. And once in the war, FDR happily took on the mantle of global New Dealer who would save the world. Instead, Flynn shows the way Stalin succeeded in winning huge territorial, military, and political victories for the Soviet Union at the wartime conferences by being an even better political manipulator than FDR.

More than any president before him, FDR allowed his family to use his position in the White House as a device for corruption and accumulation of wealth. Flynn traces the ways FDR’s sons, James and Elliot, used their father’s name and power to blackmail and manipulate millions of dollars out of private businesses who needed government permissions to survive in an ocean of regulations. And his wife, Eleanor, not only made huge sums of money herself, but used her position to support left-wing and even communist groups who were trying to influence government policy.

Was FDR a conscious socialist or fascist? Flynn tells that at a press conference a young reporter asked Roosevelt this very question. FDR honestly seemed confused, replying that he was only a Christian and a Democrat. He apparently had no ideology other than political power for himself, and to attain and exercise it, he was willing to experiment with any type of system of controls and regulations that furthered that goal.

Indeed, that seems to be the most profoundly harmful legacy that FDR left for America. Can anyone doubt that the present occupant of the White House has taken this Rooseveltian principle to an even higher plain?

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).