When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933, Americans expected him to fulfill certain promises that he had made during the presidential campaign: balance the budget; lower taxes; reduce government spending; downsize government; and keep the U.S. out of foreign wars. Americans were in for a surprise. Roosevelt not only broke all of his promises, he also engaged in the most radical restructuring of society in American history.
For over 100 years, Americans had placed individual liberty at the top of their value scale. While there were certainly exceptions (like slavery and tariffs), the following philosophy guided our American ancestors: Individuals come into life with certain talents and abilities. They use these talents to get the food, clothing, and shelter necessary to sustain their lives. In order to improve their own well-being, they enter into trades with others — trades in which both sides mutually benefit. In this process, they begin to accumulate wealth and property. It is the inherent right of the individual to keep the fruits of his earnings and to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth. It is the right of the individual to decide what to do with that wealth — donate it to the poor, spend it, invest it, or whatever.
Thus, the core of our ancestors’ philosophy was that the individual in society — and his right to live his life the way he chooses — are sovereign and supreme. In other words, as long as an individual does not murder, rape, steal, and so forth, he has the God-given right to be free of government control. In fact, our ancestors believed that one of government’s few functions was to protect peaceful individuals as they pursued happiness in their own way.
Thus, it is not a coincidence that for over a century, our ancestors said no to: income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, central banking, economic regulations, and the like.
With his New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt abandoned that philosophy. From the day he assumed the presidency, Roosevelt told the American people that what mattered was not the sovereignty of the individual, but rather the sovereignty of the nation — society — the collective. He said that whenever the freedom of the individual collided with the interests of society, as expressed through the government, the individual’s interests would have to be sacrificed.
How did FDR sell this new order of things to the American people? He said that the stock market crash of 1929 proved the failure of America’s free-enterprise system. What was needed, Roosevelt said, was massive government intervention into people’s economic affairs in order to save free enterprise.
Of course, by 1933, the U.S. had an entire generation of people who had been forced to attend public (government) schools. They had been taught that good citizenship meant obedience and support of their political rulers. Thus, it did not occur to most Americans that Roosevelt was lying to them — that what had failed in 1929 was not free enterprise, but rather the socialized, central planning of the Federal Reserve Board — the agency that had been created in 1913 to stabilize the monetary system.
Immediately after his election, FDR approached Congress and asked to be given virtually unlimited powers to deal with the economic emergency. Give me the power to rule by decree, Roosevelt said, because I know the way out of this crisis.
And Congress gave him what he requested. What was Roosevelt’s plan for America? Contrary to the campaign promises he had made, he embarked on a massive program of governmental borrowing; government spending; public works (including road construction); tax hikes; military spending; welfare; economic regulation; and a national youth corps. It was a way of life and a philosophy that were totally contrary to every principle on which this nation was founded.
There were two obstacles to Roosevelt’s plans: the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court. When the New Deal legislation ultimately reached the court, much of it was declared in violation of the Constitution and the way of life that had been established in 1787. For example, the National Recovery Act required entire industries to combine into government-protected cartels and directed them to fix wages and prices in their respective industries. If a businessman disagreed with the cartel, he was threatened with a massive protest by “Blue Eagle” demonstrators. More important, he was threatened with prosecution and punishment.
The Supreme Court said that this way of life was not constitutionally permitted in the U.S. The court declared the NRA and several other New Deal programs unconstitutional.
Roosevelt was outraged. How can “nine old men” interfere with my power to do what is right for America? Roosevelt asked. He came up with a plan to pack the court with additional judges who would rule in his favor. But although FDR was changing America’s economic system without a constitutional amendment, the American people refused to permit him to change the judicial system. FDR’s court-packing scheme failed. However, as a result of the pressure he had put on the court, one justice changed his vote (“the switch in time that saved nine”), enabling Roosevelt to win the judicial war. From 1937 on, the court took the position that government had omnipotent powers over the wealth and economic activity of the American people.
Ironically, in 1933, another man assumed high political office, and it is instructive to review his philosophy and programs. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany when that nation, too, was suffering from the Depression. The Germans actually had it worse — they were still suffering the effects of World War I. Their industrial base had been shattered; thousands of young men had been killed; they were still paying reparations; their country had been split in two (the Polish Corridor separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany); and there was communist agitation.
Hitler immediately approached the Reichstag and said: Give me the power to rule by decree; I know the way out of this crisis.
The Reichstag granted Hitler his wish. And when German President von Hindenberg died, the Reichstag granted Hitler’s request to combine the offices of president and chancellor into one. Hitler had secured even more power than Roosevelt to address the German economic emergency.
What did he do? He embarked on a massive program of governmental borrowing; government spending; public works (including road construction, e.g., the Auto-bahn); tax hikes; military spending; welfare; economic regulation; and a national youth corps. Hitler’s philosophy was encapsulated in the Nazi Party platform: “The activities of the individual must not be allowed to clash with the interests of the community, but must take place within its confines and be for the good of all.”
Any German who objected to Hitler’s plan was immediately threatened with persecution and prosecution.
If you detect a similarity between the economic philosophy and programs of Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler, then it will not surprise you to know that Hitler sent the following letter to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Dodd on March 14, 1934:
The Reich chancellor requests Mr. Dodd to present his greetings to President Roosevelt. He congratulates the president upon his heroic effort in the interest of the American people. The president’s successful struggle against economic distress is being followed by the entire German people with interest and admiration. The Reich chancellor is in accord with the president that the virtues of sense of duty, readiness for sacrifice, and discipline must be the supreme rule of the whole nation. This moral demand, which the president is addressing to every single citizen, is only the quintessence of German philosophy of the state, expressed in the motto “The public weal before the private gain.”
John Toland observes in his biography Adolf Hitler (1976):
Hitler had genuine admiration for the decisive manner in which the President had taken over the reins of government. “I have sympathy for Mr. Roosevelt,” he told a correspondent for the New York Times two months later, “because he marches straight toward his objectives over Congress, lobbies and bureaucracy.” Hitler went on to note that he was the sole leader in Europe who expressed “understanding of the methods and motives of President Roosevelt.”
And Hitler was not Roosevelt’s only admirer. Benito Mussolini had led Italy into fascism, an economic philosophy that called for government control over economic activity, including government-business partnerships. Mussolini said that he admired FDR because he was, as Mussolini, a “social fascist.”
Of course, Hitler had his admirers too. Toland points out:
[Winston] Churchill had once paid a grudging compliment to the Führer in a letter to the Times : “I have always said that I hoped if Great Britain were beaten in a war we should find a Hitler who would lead us back to our rightful place among nations.”
Toland points out that the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith would later write:
Hitler also anticipated modern economic policy . . . by recognizing that a rapid approach to full employment was only possible if it was combined with wage and price controls. That a nation oppressed by economic fear would respond to Hitler as Americans did to F.D.R. is not surprising.
It was this similarity between communism, socialism, fascism, welfare statism, and New Dealism that caused Friedrich Hayek, who would later win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, to warn the West that it was following the same collectivist, statist road as the Nazis, socialists, fascists, and communists. Hayek’s famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944), angered Americans — they did not like hearing what Hayek said to them.
In the late 1930s, Hitler’s economic program of massive government intervention was moving toward collapse. Thus, he did what rulers have done throughout history. He moved toward war in order to distract the German people from the growing economic crisis. But the German people remembered the ravages of World War I and were overwhelming against another war. Even many of Hitler’s generals were opposed to the invasions of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. When Chamberlain made his famous trips to Germany trying to secure peace, the German people wildly cheered him. But Hitler believed that war would be in the best interests of the nation.
As the end of the 1930s approached, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were also collapsing. There was a deep economic depression in 1937. People were figuring out that free enterprise is not saved by massive government control over people’s lives and money. Roosevelt came to a firm conclusion before his reelection in 1940 that he kept secret from the voting public: Americans would have to go to war. There was a problem: the American people were even more insistent than the German people about staying out of another European war. But Roosevelt believed that war would be in the best interests of the nation.
Even though the Russian communists, the National Socialists (Nazis), the welfare statists, the fascists, and the New Dealers all had the same philosophical core, Roosevelt felt much more sympathy toward the communists. In fact, as recently opened Soviet files show, the Roosevelt administration was riddled with communist spies. Roosevelt believed that while the Nazi goals — full employment, public works, public highways, Social Security, national health care, public schooling, and so forth — were good and honorable, he did not like the notion of Aryan superiority promoted by the Nazis. He instead leaned toward what Stalin was doing, because he believed that the communists were for the little guy — the proletariat — the masses.
Hitler, on the other hand, was an ardent anticommunist. Like later American presidents, he rose to political power and justified his huge military buildup by pointing to the threat of communism. The goal of the communists, Hitler repeatedly said, was world conquest and domination. The West must combine to keep communism from taking over the world, he continually told Great Britain and the United States.
Franklin Roosevelt disagreed — Joseph Stalin (“Uncle Joe,” he called him) was a man he could work with; the threat to world peace came from the Nazis, not the communists. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, while fighting to defeat the Nazis, fully agreed with Hitler’s assessment of the communist threat to the West.
After FDR’s death and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Harry Truman concluded that communism was the enemy and West Germany (even Nazis) was America’s friend.
And this sets the backdrop for what happened to American soldiers who were in Nazi POW camps that were “liberated” by America’s communist ally — the Soviet Union — as the war neared its end.