Criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Both during and after his terms, and continuing today, there has been much criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Critics have questioned not only his policies and positions, but also the general consolidation of power that occurred due to his responses to the crises of the Depression and World War II. Also controversial was the unprecedented length of his tenure as President.

By the middle of his second term, much criticism of Roosevelt centered on fears that he was heading toward a dictatorship, by attempting to seize control of the Supreme Court in the Court-packing incident of 1937, attempting to eliminate dissent within the Democratic party in the South during the 1938 elections, and by breaking the tradition established by George Washington of not seeking a third term when he again ran for re-election in 1940. As two historians explain, "In 1940, with the two-term issue as a weapon, anti-New Dealers... argued that the time had come to disarm the 'dictator' and to dismantle the machinery."[1] These criticisms largely ended after the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

Rejection by allies[edit]

Numerous of FDR's allies and appointees turned against him, such as Vice President John Nance Garner, Brain truster Raymond Moley, Postmaster General James A. Farley[2] and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy.[3] Outside the administration prominent switchers included journalists Walter Lippmann[4] and Frank Kent,[5] as well as newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and historian Charles A. Beard. Some supporters turned against Roosevelt but rejoined his administration after the US entered World War II, such as Lewis Douglas[6] and Dean Acheson.

Criticism of the New Deal and of tax policy[edit]

Further information: Critics of the New Deal

Roosevelt was strongly criticized for his economic policies, especially the shift in tone from individualism to collectivism with the dramatic expansion of the welfare state and regulation of the economy. Those criticisms remained strong decades after his death. One factor in the revisiting of these issues in later decades was the rise to prominence of Ronald Reagan by 1980.[7] When, in 1981, Reagan was quoted in The New York Times saying that fascism was admired by many New Dealers (not including Roosevelt), he came under heavy criticism, for Reagan had greatly admired Roosevelt and was a leading New Dealer in Hollywood.[8]

Today, Roosevelt is criticized by conservatives and right libertarians for his extensive economic interventionism. These critics often accuse his policies of prolonging what they believe would otherwise have been a much shorter recession. Their argument is that government planning of the economy was both unnecessary and counterproductive, and that laissez-faire policies would have ended the suffering much sooner. Austrian School of economics professor Thomas DiLorenzo says Roosevelt did not 'get us out of the Depression', or 'save capitalism from itself,' as generations of Americans have been taught.[9]

More recently, right libertarian Jim Powell, in his 2003 book FDR's Folly, stated that the median joblessness rate throughout the New Deal was 17.2 percent and never went below 14 percent. However Powell does not count government workers on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as employed; they of course worked at full-time paid jobs. Powell states the Depression was worsened and prolonged "by doubling taxes, making it more expensive for employers to hire people, making it harder for entrepreneurs to raise capital, demonizing employers, destroying food... breaking up the strongest banks, forcing up the cost of living, channeling welfare away from the poorest people and enacting labor laws that hit poor African Americans especially hard."[10] Liberal historians reject Powell's charges and note that it was Hoover who raised taxes, not FDR, and that the New Deal did more for blacks than any administration before or since.[11]

A 2004 econometric study by Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian concluded that the "New Deal labor and industrial policies did not lift the economy out of the Depression as President Roosevelt and his economic planners had hoped," but that the "New Deal policies are an important contributing factor to the persistence of the Great Depression." They believe that the "abandonment of these policies coincided with the strong economic recovery of the 1940s."[12] They do not credit FDR for the remarkable prosperity of the 1940s.

New Deal defenders argue that the failure of industry to create new jobs in the 1930s was caused primarily by the lack of new technologies and new industries; apart from radio, there were few growth industries that emerged in the 1930s that compared to the 1920s, when automobiles and electricity created the demand for new products that in turn created many new jobs. By contrast in the 1930s companies did not hire more workers because they could not sell the increased output that would result.[13]

Criticism of Roosevelt as a "Warmonger"[edit]

As World War II began, Roosevelt was among those concerned at the growing strength of the Axis Powers, and he found ways to help Great Britain, the Chinese Nationalists, and later the Soviet Union in their struggle against them. His program of Lend-Lease supplied military equipment to those powers despite the U.S. government's official neutrality. This prompted several isolationist leaders, including air hero Charles Lindbergh, to criticize him as a warmonger who was trying to push America into war with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. This criticism was largely silenced in the public arena after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but some persisted in the belief that Roosevelt knew of the attack beforehand.

Criticism of Roosevelt as a "Fascist"[edit]

After 1945 the term "Fascist" conjured up images of Nazi death camps, but in the 1930s it had a very different connotation, meaning the centralization of political power as in Benito Mussolini's Italy and of a "third way" between communism and capitalism. While most American businessmen thought Roosevelt was hostile to them, some critics said he was too friendly.

The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) first charged Roosevelt with being fascist less than two months after he took office. On May Day, 1933 the CPUSA ran a series of newspaper advertisements denouncing "the whole Roosevelt program of preparation for fascism and war" and calling Roosevelt a "fascist dictator." The ads' examples of alleged fascist activities included "forced labor for the unemployed" and harsh tactics against striking farm workers in California. At this time members of the CPUSA had to pledge loyalty to the Soviet Union and took direction from Soviet officials. Scholar Paul Kengor wrote that the charges were ridiculous.[14]

Left-Liberal publications such as The Nation and The New Republic worried that the Civilian Conservation Corps' (CCC) integration with the military could start a transformation to a fascistic society. While the CCC was operated by the military and had some militaristic aspects, the Roosevelt administration allayed these fears by emphasizing the CCC's civilian character. Unlike its German counterpart, the CCC was never a compulsory service.[15]

Conservatives made the most significant criticism. They warned of "regimentation." They made cautionary comparisons of Roosevelt's economic programs to communism and fascism, Roosevelt responded in a June 1934 "fireside chat." He said that the critics were motivated by self-interest. Roosevelt stated that everything he did was within America’s political tradition.[16] Without providing details, Roosevelt privately told his Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes on October 4, 1933 that the New Deal was doing some things that were being done in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Roosevelt was a pragmatist who had studied under William James. As a pragmatist, Roosevelt was willing to consider various sources of ideas for social experiments.[17]

The most prominent of Roosevelt's critics in regards to fascism was his immediate predecessor, Herbert Hoover Hoover saw a connection between the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the "Swope Plan," named after Gerard Swope. Hoover was an ardent supporter of trade associations, but saw the Swope Plan as fascistic because of its compulsory nature.[18]

The Swope Plan was the starting point for drafting the NIRA.[19] It was corporatist, but far less extensive than fascist corporatism. Historian John A. Garraty said that the NIRA was similar to experiments in Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. While it obviously did not turn America into a fascist distatorship, it concentrated economic power in the hands of interest groups such as industrial organizations and labor unions. Garraty said that another influence was the concept of the corporate state, where capitalists and workers, supervised by the government, worked out problems to avoid wasteful competition and dangerous social clashes.[20] Historian Ellis Hawley reviewed the legislative history of the NIRA. A key member of the Brains Trust, Raymond Moley, led efforts to review industrial recovery plans. Another significant influence was Hugh Johnson, who drew on his experience with the war industries board.[21] Historian Amity Shlaes stated:

The NRA was the consummation of a thousand articles and a thousand trends. It was the ideas of Moley, the trade unions, Stuart Chase, Tugwell, Stalin, Insull, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Mussolini's Italian model all rolled into one.[22]

According to comparative law scholar James Q. Whitman, it was not the NIRA statute that fueled suspicions of fascism but the leaders of the National Recovery Administration. The head of the NRA, Hugh Johnson, admired Mussolini. Both Johnson and his assistant, Donald Richberg, made disturbing statements indicating that they were hostile to parliamentary government. Richberg denied being a fascist but described Roosevelt several times as a "Man of Action."[23]

Garraty suggested that there were some "striking" similarities between Roosevelt's programs and German antidepression policies but concluded that the New Deal did not have much in common with fascism in total because of the vast political differences between the two systems. Roosevelt expanded political participation for the less fortunate. Garraty stated that the main reason for the similarities was that both nations were dealing with problems that were unique in the industrial world.[24] Garraty stated that the New Deal lacked any consistent ideological base. While the Brains Trust got a lot of attention, theorists never had much impact on Roosevelt. Roosevelt drew on populism, with its hostility to bankers and its willingness to inflate the currency; Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism in its dislike of competition and deemphasis on antitrust laws; and the ideas of social workers from the Progressive Era. Louis Brandeis influenced Roosevelt on financial reforms. The War Labor Board from World War I influenced Roosevelt's labor policy.[25]

Other scholars had varying views on the relationship between the New Deal and fascist economics:

  • New Deal historian William Leuchtenburg said in 1967 that "Mussolini's corporate state did not find [an] American following." Leuchtenburg said that if the New Deal had any foreign counterparts, it was in Scandinavia. Overall, according to Leuchtenburg, Roosevelt was a net exporter of ideas. Arthur Schlesinger had similar findings.[23]
  • John P. Diggins found only superficial similarities between the New Deal and Italian fascism. However, Diggins produced some quotations indicating that Roosevelt was interested in fascist economic programs and admired Mussolini.[26]
  • Kiran Klaus Patel stated that "there was a special closeness between the German Labor Service and the CCC, just as there was a whole series of similar measures in social, cultural, and economic policies in Nazi Germany and under the New Deal." Patel stated that the two nations' politics were obviously different, with America adopting reform while Germany adopted fascism. The main reasons for the economic similarities according to Patel was the growth in state interventionism along with the fact that Germany and the United States faced similar problems.[27]
  • Ludwig von Mises wrote that the New Deal was a “replica” of Bismarck’s social policies.[28] Milton Friedman also said that Bismarck’s Germany influenced the New Deal. According to Friedman, other sources included Fabian England, Sweden, and American universities, particularly Columbia.[29]
  • James Q. Whitman said that in its day-to-day operations the NRA only had limited resemblance to fascist corporatism. American corporatism was of an indigenous nature that traced back to nineteenth century German theorists of corporatism. It was also built on America's World War I experience, which used corporatism to manage the economy. European corporatism was an ideology of political economy, built on conflicts between labor and capital. It appealed to "thuggish anti-parliamentarians who were the fascists." America's corporatism was only an economic ideology. Americans viewed Congress as a "place full of incompetents, nor rogues."[23]

A different line of attack came from Michael S. Sweeney, who accused Roosevelt of misusing the Office of Censorship during the war. Sweeney says Roosevelt used it to censor media coverage of his travels in order to conceal his deteriorating health and to hide visits with his former mistress, Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd.[30]

Accusations of racism[edit]

Further information: Japanese American internment

Executive Order 9066, which sent 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps, has been charged by critics as being racist, immoral, unconstitutional, unnecessary, and ineffective in stopping spies of the Empire of Japan.

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the white American athletes were invited to meet Roosevelt. No such invitation was made to the black athletes including even Jesse Owens, who had won four gold medals. A widely believed myth about the 1936 games was that Hitler had snubbed Owens, something that never happened. Owens said, "Hitler didn't snub me--it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram." (Triumph, a book about the 1936 Olympics by Jeremy Schaap)

Failure to do enough for the Jews of Europe[edit]

Beginning in the 1960s FDR was charged[31] with not acting decisively enough to prevent or stop the Holocaust. Critics cite instances such as the 1939 episode in which 936 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis were denied asylum and not allowed into the United States because of strict laws passed by Congress.[32]

Some argue that the Roosevelt Administration knew that the Nazis were systematically slaughtering Jews and followed a policy of not rescuing them.[33] According to professor David Wyman, Roosevelt’s record on Jewish refugees and their rescue is very poor and one of the worst failures of his presidency.[33] He has been criticized for failing to issue public statements or address the issue of European Jews in any of his 998 press conferences.[34]

Defenders of Roosevelt, such as Robert N. Rosen argue that Roosevelt made numerous attempts to allow Jewish refugees to enter the United States and that at weaker periods of his presidency, he simply didn't have the political capital to wage these battles.[35] Rosen argues that the mood in the country favored the strong desire to remain neutral regarding European affairs and distrust of anything that smacked of internationalism.[35] Rosen argues there were divisions in the American Jewish community, which had not reached a consensus as to the best policy for freeing their European counterparts from Nazi persecution.[35]


  1. ^ Herbert S. Parmet and Marie B. Hecht. Never Again: A President Runs for a Third Term (1968) page x.
  2. ^ Thomas Spencer, "Loyal Democrats: John Cudahy, Jim Farley, and the Politics and Diplomacy of the New Deal Era, 1933-1941," Wisconsin Magazine of History (Spring 2011) 94#3 pp 2-15
  3. ^ Michael R. Beschloss, Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1981)
  4. ^ F. Krome, "From Liberal Philosophy to Conservative Ideology? Walter Lippmann's Opposition to the New Deal," Journal of American Culture (Spring 1987) 10#1 pp 57-64,
  5. ^ Eugene W. Goll, "Frank R. Kent's Opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal," Maryland Historical Magazine, (Summer 1968) 63#2 pp 158-171
  6. ^ Kelly McMichael Stott, "FDR, Lewis Douglas, and the Raw Deal," Historian (Fall 2000) 63#1 pp 105-19
  7. ^ Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffery O. Nelson, eds. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2006) 619-21, 645-6.
  8. ^ "Reagan says many New Dealers wanted fascism." New York Times. December 22, 1981.
  9. ^ DiLorenzo, Thomas. The New Deal Debunked, The Free Market, Volume 24, Number 11, November 2004
  10. ^ Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly: How Franklin Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression, Random House, 2004.
  11. ^ Harvard Sitkoff, ed. Fifty Years Later: The New Deal Evaluated (1985) defends the New Deal
  12. ^ Cole, Harold L and Ohanian, Lee E. New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis, 2004.
  13. ^ Rick Szostak, Technological Innovation and the Great Depression (1995)
  14. ^ Paul Kengor. Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books (2010). ISBN 978-1-935191-75-9, pp. 23, 113-118.
  15. ^ Kiran Klaus Patel. Soldiers of Labor: Labor Service in Nazi Germany and New Deal America, 1933--1945. New York: Cambridge University Press (2005) ISBN 978-0-521-16866-3, p. 152-154.
  16. ^ Franklin Delano Roosevelt; edited by Russell D. Buhite and David W. Levy (1992). FDR's Fireside Chats. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 46. ISBN 0806123702. 
  17. ^ Lewis S. Feuer, “American Travelers to the Soviet Union 1917-32: A Component of New Deal Ideology, American Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, Part I (Summer 1962), pp. 119-149.
  18. ^ John A. Garraty, "The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression," The American Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 4 (October 1973), pp. 907-944.
  19. ^ Hess, Jerry, “Oral History Interview with Leon H. Keyserling,” Harry S Truman Library, May 3, 1971. (Available at; retrieved January 29, 2013)
  20. ^ John A. Garraty. The American Nation: A History of the United States Since 1865 (Volume Two). New York: Harper & Row (1979). ISBN 0-06-042268-8, p. 656.
  21. ^ Ellis W. Hawley. The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly: A Study in Economic Ambivalence. New York: Fordham University Press (1995) ISBN 0-8232-1609-8,, p. 23.
  22. ^ Amity Shlaes. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins (2007) ISBN 978-0-06-621170-1, p. 151.
  23. ^ a b c James Q. Whitman, "Of Corporatism, Fascism, and the First New Deal," The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Autumn 1991), pp. 747-778.
  24. ^ John A. Garraty, "The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression," The American Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 4 (October 1973), pp. 907-944.
  25. ^ John A. Garraty. The American Nation: A History of the United States Since 1865 (Volume Two). New York: Harper & Row (1979). ISBN 0-06-042268-8, p. 660.
  26. ^ Early in 1933 Roosevelt told a White House correspondent that "I don't mind telling you in confidence that I am keeping in fairly close touch with that admirable Italian gentleman." In June 1933, Roosevelt wrote to Ambassador Breckinridge Long in Italy about Mussolini: "There seems no question that he is really interested in what we are doing and I am much interested and deeply imipressed by what he has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and to prevent general European trouble." John P. Diggins. Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America. Princeton University Press (1972). ISBN 0-691-00581-8, pp. 279-281.
  27. ^ Kiran Klaus Patel. Soldiers of Labor: Labor Service in Nazi Germany and New Deal America, 1933--1945. New York: Cambridge University Press (2005) ISBN 978-0-521-16866-3, p. 4-5.
  28. ^ Ludwig von Mises. Liberalism: In the Classic Tradition. San Francisco: Cobden Press (2002). ISBN 0-930439-23-6, Kindle Location 282.
  29. ^ Milton and Rose Friedman. Free to Choose. New York: Avon Books (1980). ISBN 0-380-52548-8, pages 83-84.
  30. ^ Sweeney, Michael S. Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. University of North Carolina Press. 2001. Pp. 274
  31. ^ In works such as Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York, 1968), David S. Wyman's Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938–1941 (1968), and Henry L. Feingold's The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938–1945 (1970)
  32. ^ Feingold, (1970) pp 66, 103
  33. ^ a b FDR defenders enlist TV critics to refute Holocaust film May 9, 1994. Retrieved August 21, 2012.
  34. ^ New Documents Shed More Light On FDR's Holocaust Failure Laurel Leff and Rafael Medoff. David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. April, 2004. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  35. ^ a b c Saving The Jews Robert N. Rosen. Retrieved August 22, 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Billington, Monroe Lee; Clark, Cal M. "New Mexico Clergymen's Perceptions of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal," New Mexico Historical Review, Fall 2009, Vol. 84 Issue 4, pp 521–544, most of the clergy were favorable, and criticisms focused on relief programs and agricultural policies.
  • Craig, Campbell. "The Not-So-Strange Career of Charles Beard," Diplomatic History, (Spring 2001) 25#2 Historian Charles Beard accused FDR of unnecessary provocation of Japan
  • Garraty, John A. "The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression", American Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 4 (1973) pp. 907–44. in JSTOR
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy, Chapter 1, Columbia University Press, 1997
  • Jim Powell, "How FDR's New Deal Harmed Millions of Poor People"
  • James Q. Whitman, "Of Corporatism, Fascism, and the First New Deal," The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Autumn 1991), pp. 747-778.
  • Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Truth About FDR

External links[edit]