Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is widely recognized as one of the most influential politicians in American history. During his twelve-year tenure as president, Roosevelt expanded the authority of the federal government, revived the U.S. economy from the depths of the Great Depression, and executed steadfast diplomacy amidst the perils of global conflict. Through his revolutionary reforms and transformative socioeconomic policies, Roosevelt helped guide America out of the shadows and into an era of unprecedented prosperity and global influence.
FDR was born at his family’s Springwood estate in Hyde Park, New York, on January 30, 1882. The only child of James and Sarah Roosevelt, Franklin enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in the affluent Hudson Valley community. From an early age, Franklin fostered a friendly relationship with his distant cousin Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States (1901 – 1909). While the two differed on party platform—Theodore a progressive Republican and Franklin a Democrat—FDR’s relationship with Teddy undoubtedly stimulated his interest in politics. Franklin attended Harvard University from 1900 to 1903, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1904, he matriculated into Columbia University’s Law School, but dropped out after passing the New York State Bar Exam in 1907.
While studying at Harvard, FDR started courting Teddy’s “favorite nice,” Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin’s 5th cousin once removed. In 1903, Franklin proposed to Eleanor, much to the dismay of his mother, who was staunchly against the betrothal. She tried to dismantle their relationship several times over the course of the engagement, but despite her best efforts, the young lovers were wed on March 17, 1905. Following the honeymoon, FDR and Eleanor moved into Springwood, which was also Sarah Roosevelt’s residence until her death in 1941. The couple had six children during their marriage, five of whom survived to adulthood.
In 1910, Roosevelt entered the political realm as a member of the Democratic Party. He initially sought a position in the state assembly, but when incumbent Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler decided to run for reelection, FDR shifted his focus to the state senate. He won the nomination—in a district that was heavily Republican—and served on the senatorial committee until 1913.
Following his service in the New York Senate, Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. When World War I broke out in 1914, FDR adamantly advocated for the expansion of naval forces, a position poorly received by Wilsonian Democrats and isolationists, who feared that military buildup would jeopardize American neutrality. However, with the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram and unrestricted submarine warfare plaguing the seas, the United States was drawn into war in 1917. Roosevelt played a key role coordinating the mobilization and deployment of naval forces. Under his watchful eye, the U.S. Navy quadrupled its pre-war size within the first six months of conflict.
In September 1918, Eleanor discovered that FDR was having an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer, after she found several romantic letters hidden in his suitcase. Eleanor had grown increasingly suspicious of Franklin the year prior, as rumors of infidelities circulated within the Roosevelts’ private circles. She confronted FDR and offered him a divorce; however, several family members advised against the idea, saying that such a scandal would destroy FDR’s career and result in disinheritance. The two remained married and Franklin promised to never contact Mercer again, but the affair forever changed the dynamic of their relationship. Eleanor moved out of the main Springwood estate and into a nearby cottage called Val-Kill, where she pursued her sociopolitical interests independent of FDR. Unsurprisingly, Franklin broke his promise to Eleanor, as he and Lucy maintained a formal correspondence for nearly three decades thereafter.
In 1920, FDR resigned from his Assistant Secretary of the Navy position and received the Vice-Presidential nomination from Presidential candidate James M. Cox and the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the Cox-Roosevelt campaign was soundly defeated by Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Following the loss, Roosevelt took a hiatus from public office and resumed law practice in New York City, serving as Vice President of the Fidelity and Deposit Company.
In August 1921, while on vacation in Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis—a viral disease of the central nervous system, particularly the gray matter of the spinal cord—which paralyzed him below the waist. The sudden, pronounced disability placed FDR’s political career in jeopardy, but Roosevelt was determined to hold public office again. Through years of therapy and rehabilitation, Roosevelt made noticeable improvements in lower extremity strength and mobility. He even regained the ability to ambulate short distances while wearing iron leg braces and swiveling his hips forward; however, he could never walk unaided again and spent much of his life in a wheelchair. Wary of the public’s perception to disabilities, how they may characterize “weakness” and incompetence, FDR attempted to demonstrate the highest level of independence possible while in the community. Inevitably, word of Roosevelt’s impairment became public knowledge and one of his most iconic characteristics.
Roosevelt spent much of his recovery time around the natural hot springs of Warm Springs, Georgia, whose waters supposedly had curative properties. In 1927, he created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, a treatment center for polio victims. Eleven years later, FDR established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—known today as March of Dimes—which was crucial in the funding and distribution of polio vaccines.
In 1928, Roosevelt triumphantly returned to public office. At the behest of Al Smith, the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate, FDR campaigned for Smith’s former position as Governor of New York. While Smith lost the presidency to Republican Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt won the governorship by less than one percent of the vote. During his two-term tenure as governor, FDR advocated for union rights, unemployment insurance, expansion of public utilities, and workday regulations, all of which were precursors to his innovative New Deal legislation.
The 1932 Election and First Presidential Term
“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a New Deal for the American People.”
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
July 2, 1932
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the United States economy suffered progressive deterioration. In March 1932, the U.S. banking system collapsed, thrusting Americans into the most despondent period of the Great Depression. It was evident that the American public had lost faith in President Hoover and the Republican Party, and the Democrats sought to capitalize on this opportunity for political superiority. During the Democratic National Convention, FDR emerged as the frontrunner for presidential nominee; however, after three rounds of voting, he lacked the sufficient two-thirds support necessary to win the candidacy. Prior to the fourth ballot, Roosevelt worked out a deal with House Speaker and fellow presidential candidate John Nance Garner. In exchange for electoral support, Garner was promised the Vice-Presidential nomination. Garner agreed and withdrew from the race, backing Roosevelt in the process. With the additional votes, FDR easily won the nomination over contemporary Al Smith. That November, Roosevelt defeated the incumbent Hoover in a landslide victory of historic proportions—carrying all but six states—and the Democrats seized control of the House and Senate for the first time in fourteen years.
On February 15, 1933, after delivering a speech at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida, FDR was the target of a failed assassination attempt. The perpetrator, Giuseppe Zangara, a deranged bricklayer who “hate[d] all officials and anyone who is rich,” fired five shots at close range to the President-Elect’s touring car, wounding five bystanders in the process. One of the wounded, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, died nearly three weeks later of peritonitis. Roosevelt escaped uninjured. Zangara was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and four counts of attempted murder. He was executed in the electric chair on March 20, 1933.
By the time FDR was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, America’s economic calamity was at its worst. Over twenty-five percent of the nation’s workforce (about twelve million people) were unemployed, and the aforementioned banking crisis had not resolved. Roosevelt knew that substantial federal interventions—consisting of government-funded relief programs, economic planning, and energy conservancy—were necessary to ease the effects of the Depression. During his first hundred days in office, FDR swiftly issued numerous executive orders and domestic policies that stimulated nationwide socioeconomic relief and reform—a series of legislative actions known collectively as The First New Deal.
Prior to policymaking, Roosevelt had to resolve the banking crisis. On his second day in office, he declared a national “banking holiday” to examine fiscal practices and bank integrity. On March 9, he called a special session of Congress and passed the Emergency Banking Act, which gave the federal government power to examine the health of individual banks and allowed the Federal Reserve to issue emergency currency. On March 12, FDR appealed to the American public over radio—the first of many “Fireside Chats”—informing them of the changes made to the banking system and reassuring their financial security. The appeal worked as deposits exceeded withdrawals when the banks reopened on March 15.
Roosevelt’s New Deal policies enacted sweeping financial and governmental reforms and generated millions of jobs through public works projects and federal assistance programs. To examine each individual piece of legislation goes beyond the scope of this article. However, we’ll highlight and summarize some of the New Deal’s most significant features:
Beer-Wine Revenue Act (March 22, 1933) – legalized the sale and consumption of “non-intoxicating” alcoholic beverages (those under 3.2% ABV). This law provided the crucial first steps towards the 21st Amendment, which was being ratified on December 5, 1933, and repealed Prohibition entirely.
Civilian Conservation Corps (May 5, 1933) – widely considered to be one of the New Deal’s greatest successes, this work relief program conscripted nearly three million men to work on various conservation and development projects nationwide during its nine-year existence. In exchange for food, shelter, and a $30 monthly wage, these laborers planted over three billion trees and established over seven hundred state parks.
Federal Emergency Relief Act (May 12, 1933) – created in response to widespread unemployment and financial inadequacies of many state relief efforts. FERA granted over $3 billion for various work projects and assistance programs across the country. FERA aided twenty million Americans during its years of operation and established a framework for future public welfare programs.
Tennessee Valley Authority (May 18, 1933) – the Tennessee Valley was one of the nation’s most destitute areas during the Great Depression. Crop yields were at all-time lows through poor farming practices, malaria was rampant, and over 90% of residents lived without electric power. The TVA was created to harness the region’s natural resources and create essential public power utilities. Thousands of individuals were put to work—constructing dams, reforesting woodlands, and administering malaria prevention methods—which sparked much-needed economic growth. Today, the TVA is the largest public utility in the U.S., providing energy to nearly ten million Americans across seven states.
Securities Act (May 27, 1933) – the first piece of federal legislation drafted to combat the unregulated and fraudulent practices of Wall Street. Issuers were now required to accurately disclose all information regarding an investment’s financial integrity to prospective buyers. All entities participating in security exchanges were also required to register with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and later the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This restored public confidence in the stock market and established a new standard of truthfulness and trust.
Abandonment of the Gold Standard (June 5, 1933) – since 1900, the American dollar had been backed by the gold standard, meaning currency could be redeemed for its value in gold. When the Depression hit, many Americans rushed to withdraw their dollars and exchange them for gold, which lead to rampant gold hoarding and increased interest rates. Consequently, many banks failed, and thousands lost their uninsured savings. Following the 1933 banking holiday, FDR prohibited banks from performing gold outflow transactions in an effort to preserve the nation’s dwindling gold reserves. On April 5, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, which required all persons in possession of gold bullion and certificates exceeding $100 to exchange their assets at Federal Reserve banks for $20.67/ounce. By May 10, over 770 million dollars-worth of gold had been returned. In order to keep up with exchange rates, the FED had to print more money, which significantly devalued the dollar, thereby causing inflation. This, in turn, raised the prices of domestic goods to pre-Depression levels. In January 1934, Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act, which increased the exchange rate of gold from $20.67 to $35 per ounce in order “to stabilize domestic prices and to protect the foreign commerce against the adverse effect of depreciated foreign currencies.”
Glass-Steagall Act (June 16, 1933) – created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insured individual bank accounts and granted the Federal Reserve greater oversight regarding bank credit. This act also limited speculative banking practices by restricting relationships between commercial banks and investment/security firms.
Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation restored faith in the American financial system, increased private investments, and employed millions of people through public works initiatives. The successes of these programs directly contributed to the upturn of the American economy in 1934, the first year of economic growth since the stock market crash. However, FDR’s New Deal was not without its critics. Conservative politicians—Democrats and Republicans, alike, including former presidential candidate Al Smith—and wealthy businessmen formed the American Liberty League in 1934, which lobbied against “oppressive and anti-capitalist” New Deal policies and opposed the rapid expansion of the federal government. Conversely, populist and liberal politicians believed that the New Deal was not doing enough for the unemployed and elderly. In 1935, FDR adopted a more progressive agenda to alleviate the hardships of the Great Depression in his Second New Deal.
On August 14, 1935, Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, which provided government-funded benefits for the elderly, disabled, jobless, and their dependents. The program was financed through newly introduced payroll deductions—known today as Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes—which started at 1%. Although seemingly modest, the inflated tax rates actually curbed economic growth in the short-term, as consumers had less available earnings to spend on goods and services. Additionally, Social Security benefits were initially denied to social workers and agricultural/domestic laborers (many of whom were minorities), although these groups were gradually included with Social Security expansion decades later.
Another major piece of Second New Deal legislation was the Wagner Act of 1935, otherwise known as the National Labor Relations Act. This landmark bill outlawed company unions and affirmed the rights of private sector workers to assemble independent trade unions, collectively bargain, and coordinate action against unfair labor practices. The law also founded the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which acted as the supervising body over labor representation and litigation. The stipulations of the Wagner Act greatly benefitted organized labor, as union membership increased by 27% over the next twelve years.
Despite the ratification of numerous relief policies, American unemployment still hovered around twenty percent in 1935. Determined to restore employment opportunities to pre-Depression levels, FDR revamped his work relief efforts and established the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA put 8.5 million Americans to work. While the majority of projects revolved around infrastructure, wildlife preservation, and public utilities, the WPA’s Federal Project Number One program embraced the arts and humanities. Thousands of artists were recruited for public art projects, while researchers and archivists in the Historical Records Survey recorded interviews with former slaves and indexed millions of documents in the interest of historic preservation.
While domestic and economic issues preoccupied the forefront FDR’s first term, foreign policy also drew some significant consideration. Roosevelt was attentive to the devolving geopolitical conditions in Europe and Asia, particularly the aggressive actions perpetuated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. However, the president did little publicly to deescalate the situations. Much of Roosevelt’s foreign policymaking concerned the Good Neighbor Policy, which ensured friendly relations and mutual defense agreements between the U.S. and Latin American nations. Using non-interventionalist tactics, FDR withdrew American forces from Haiti and renegotiated treaties with Panama and Cuba, ending their designation as U.S. protectorates. In December 1933, Roosevelt signed the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which effectively nullified the United States’ abilities to interfere unilaterally in Latin American matters.
The 1936 Election and Second Presidential Term
The relative success of FDR’s New Deal programs made him widely popular among the American populace. As the incumbent, he easily secured the Democratic Party’s renomination and was set to face off against Kansas Governor Alfred “Alf” Landon, his progressive GOP opponent, in the 1936 Presidential Election. In what can only be described as the largest landslide victory in American history, FDR decisively won the election, carrying 60.8% of the popular vote and winning every state except Maine and Vermont. Roosevelt’s triumphant victory can largely be attributed to the consolidation of the “New Deal Coalition”—an alliance of voters consisting of poor Southern whites, ethnic minorities, Catholics, Jews, blue collar workers, farmers, and urban intellectuals. The Coalition realigned the traditional voting blocs and advocacy groups represented by Democrats and Republicans, marking the emergence of the Fifth Party System.
One of the first items on FDR’s presidential agenda was to address the jurisdictive opposition to his New Deal programs, particularly in the conservatively inclined Supreme Court. On February 7, 1937, Roosevelt unveiled his Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, which would have allowed him to appoint an additional judge for each Justice over the age of 70, of whom there were six that year. This proposed “court packing” legislation ran into intense opposition from Republicans and members of his own party, arguing it would disrupt the delicate balance of powers. As Democrats held significant margins in the House and Senate, the Justices feared this bill would pass. Although the controversial proposal was struck down in the Senate, the Supreme Court never again ruled against any future New Deal legislation.
With the Judicial Branch in his pocket, FDR turned his attention towards Congress. He became an active participant in the 1938 midterm elections, lobbying for candidates who were supportive of New Deal reforms and campaigning against fellow Democrats who ran on conservative platforms. Through these actions, Roosevelt hoped to assemble a more New Deal-friendly legislature; however, his strategy failed as most conservative incumbents were reelected to Congress. The Democrats ended up losing 77 congressional seats and twelve governorships, effectively dashing any hopes of future New Deal policies. The last major piece of New Deal legislation approved by Congress was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a federal minimum wage, time-and-a-half overtime pay, and outlawed “oppressive” child labor.
Foreign affairs had grown exponentially more volatile during Roosevelt’s second term. In 1937, Imperial Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China, inciting the Second Sino-Japanese War, while Fascist Italy emerged victorious in its violent conquest of Ethiopia. The following year, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, mobilized troops into the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, and coordinated Kristallnacht—a series of attacks across Germany lead by Nazi paramilitary forces that resulted in the destruction of Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues and imprisonment of 30,000 Jews. These atrocities turned the American public against the rising Axis powers, and FDR wanted to dissuade any further aggression that could trigger another world war. However, the president was hamstrung in his efforts for peace. Habituated isolationism and the American Neutrality Acts prevented any sort of unilateral intervention in foreign affairs, but FDR was determined to assert greater American influence.
In September 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Poland and official start of World War II, FDR organized a special session of Congress to amend the Neutrality Acts. He established a policy called “cash-and-carry,” which allowed warring nations to buy armaments from the United States under the conditions that they paid in cash and transported the provisions themselves. This arrangement primarily benefitted of Great Britain and France, although Roosevelt was sure to reassert American neutrality. One year later, FDR passed the Selective Training and Service Act—America’s first peacetime draft—which increased the United States’ standing army from 189,000 in 1939 to 1.4 million by mid-1941.
The 1940 Election and an Unprecedented Third Term
Before FDR, every president since George Washington had abided by the two-term tradition. Prior to July 1940, Roosevelt gave little insight regarding his disposition for a third term. However, given the growing Nazi threat and volatility of WWII, Roosevelt concluded that he was the only candidate capable enough to preserve and protect American interests over the course of the conflict. He informed his constituents at the Democratic National Convention that he would seek a third term in the 1940 election. Roosevelt’s decision sent inflammatory shockwaves throughout American politics. Republicans, and even members of his own party, believed this break in tradition was the first step toward dictatorship. Despite the polarizing response, Roosevelt secured his party’s nomination, defeating his former running mate and Vice President John Nance Garner in the process. The liberal Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace was selected to take Garner’s place on the ballot.
Roosevelt’s opponent was Wendell Willkie, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Indiana. Unlike previous Republican candidates, Willkie was an ardent supporter of most New Deal legislation and advocate for internationalism, but he was still no match for the incumbent Roosevelt who won 55% of the popular vote and nearly 85% of the electoral.
With a third term secured, Roosevelt continued to push more aggressive legislation regarding military and economic aid. In December 1940, FDR drafted the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed Allied nations to acquire “leased” weapons and supplies for their war efforts against the Axis Powers. The policy originally applied to Britain and China once it was approved by Congress in March 1941; however, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union later that June, Roosevelt extended the agreement to the Soviets. The Lend-Lease Act stimulated the American economy—reducing unemployment by nearly 10% alone in 1941—and generated over $50 billion worth of supplies over the course of WWII.
In August 1941, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met aboard American warships off the coast of Newfoundland in a top-secret meeting called the Atlantic Charter Conference. During these discussions at sea, FDR affirmed America’s support for Britain and the Allied Power, but refused to play an active role in the conflict. The two leaders also deliberated over Allied intentions and their social, political, and economic goals in the post-war world. The Atlantic Charter was later ratified by 47 countries under the Declaration of United Nations, which formally unified the Allied Powers and served as the basis for the intergovernmental monolith that exists today.
Following the Conference, Roosevelt dispatched U.S. naval forces into the North Atlantic to protect Allied supply ships from German U-boat attacks. On September 4, 1941, a German submarine fired upon the USS Greer. Although the Nazi projectiles missed their target, this aggressive behavior provoked an unofficial naval war between the United States and Germany. Roosevelt enacted a “shoot on sight” policy, which permitted American warships to fire upon German frigates if they entered U.S. Naval territory.
After the fall of France in 1940, Imperial Japan signed a mutual defense pact with Nazi Germany and Italy and moved to seize the colonial federation of French Indochina. FDR responded to Japan’s aggression in July 1941 by freezing their assets and placing embargos on American oil exports, effectively reducing Japan’s oil resources by nearly 90%. The Roosevelt Administration was unwilling to ease the policy until Japan relinquished their occupation of Southeast Asia. With no hope for a diplomatic resolution, the Privy Council of Japan authorized a strike against the United States.
America’s Entry into World War II
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was
suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
– President Roosevelt in his address to Congress
December 8, 1941
In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, Japanese armed forces launched a surprise attack on American and British military installations in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The bombing runs destroyed 21 naval vessels, scrapped over three hundred aircraft, and killed 2,403 soldiers and civilians. The following day, after FDR delivered his famous “Infamy Speech,” Congress declared war on Japan. Four days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
The devastating attack on Pearl Harbor spurred intense panic and anti-Japanese rhetoric nationwide. This heightened state of reactionary emotions culminated on February 19, 1942, when FDR issued Executive Order 9066—the forced removal of individuals “deemed a threat to national security” from designated “military areas.” While the executive order did not explicitly identify Japanese Americans as the intended targets, over 120,000 Japanese immigrants and their descendants, regardless of citizenship status, were evicted from their homes and relocated to internment camps further inland. The controversial act was relaxed slightly in 1943, but fully rescinded until January 1945.
In November 1943, Roosevelt traveled to Persia (modern-day Iran) for the Tehran Conference—the first in-person meeting between the “Big Three” Allied leaders, consisting of FDR, Winston Churchill, and Soviet Chairman Joseph Stalin. The discussions primarily revolved around opening a second front against Germany. While Stalin demanded immediate action, Churchill wanted to delay future campaigns until victories were secured in Italy and the Balkans. Roosevelt sided with Stalin and the three leaders agreed to invade Nazi-occupied France in Spring 1944, an operation known as D-Day.
As WWII progressed, knowledge of the Holocaust became more prevalent in America’s social conscience. Outrage over the systematic incarceration and extermination of millions of Jews and other social minorities mounted considerable pressure on the U.S. government to take greater action against these atrocities. On January 16, 1944, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., Director of Foreign Funds John Pehle, and chief counsel Randolph Paul met with Roosevelt and presented their “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of Jews”—an eighteen-page memo detailing the State Department’s deliberate efforts to suppress information about the Holocaust and hinder relief efforts. Six days later, FDR signed Executive Order 9417, which established the War Refugee Board (WRB)—an independent government organization tasked with “the rescue, transportation, maintenance, and relief of victims of enemy oppression.” The WRB, in conjunction with various European resistance groups and Semitic organizations, helped liberate nearly 200,000 Jews from concentration camps.
On June 22, 1944, Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill into law. Part of his proposed Economic Bill of Rights, the G.I. Bill affirmed various benefits to WWII veterans and their families, including tuition reimbursement, low-interest mortgages, and unemployment assistance.
The 1944 Election and Final Months of Presidency
After years of faithful leadership, the demands of public office had taken their toll on FDR, who presented to many as a sicklier version of his former self. Despite his declining health, Roosevelt managed to secure the Democratic Party’s presidential renomination, overcoming Virginia senator Harry F. Byrd’s challenge. The precarious nature of FDR’s well-being prompted party leaders to nominate a replacement for Vice President Henry Wallace, who was viewed as poor presidential successor due to his eccentric policies and mediocre leadership. Wallace’s opponent was Missouri senator Harry Truman, who ended up defeating the incumbent VP on the second ballot.
The Republican presidential nominee was New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey—a moderate legislator who wanted to reform New Deal policies and reduce government influence in socioeconomic affairs. The Democrats defeated the Republicans in the 1944 election; however, it was the narrowest margin of victory during FDR’s presidency. The Roosevelt-Truman ticket secured 53.4% of the popular vote and 81.4% of the electorate.
Shortly after his fourth inauguration, the ailing Roosevelt traveled to Yalta, Crimea, to discuss post-war relations with the rest of the Big Three powers. Germany was on the brink of collapse. The Soviets had advanced within forty miles of Berlin while Western Allied forces were held up at the Roer River, giving Stalin considerable leverage in the negotiations. The Soviet leader demanded spheres of political influence in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. FDR and Churchill, wary of Stalin’s intentions, pushed for free elections and democratic governments, but ultimately conceded to the Soviet stratagem. The three leaders drafted the Declaration of Liberated Europe, which acknowledged the people’s right to “create democratic institutions of their own choice;” however, the Soviets interpreted the agreement’s loose language as an authorization to establish puppet governments throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.
In addition to political realignment, the Big Three discussed the division of Germany following its unconditional surrender. They agreed that Germany (and similarly Berlin) would be divided into four occupied military zones—the Soviets controlled the East while U.S., British, and French forces controlled the Western partitions. Stalin also pledged to deploy Soviet forces in the Pacific theater “two or three months” after Germany’s surrender in exchange for a sphere of influence over Manchuria following Japan’s eventual surrender.
Following the Yalta Conference, FDR returned to the United States in a state of physical deterioration. The constant travel and stress had drastically exacerbated the president’s medical ailments. In late March, FDR retired to his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, for some rest and recuperation. On April 12, 1945, while sitting for a portrait, Roosevelt suddenly complained of a “terrific headache” and collapsed seconds later. He had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and was pronounced dead within three hours. That evening, as FDR’s funeral train was being prepared, Vice-President Harry Truman took the oath of office as the 33rd President of the United States. Roosevelt’s body departed from Warm Springs on April 13 and arrived in Washington D.C. the following morning. Hundreds of thousands of spectators gathered along the funeral procession route to pay their respects before the train continued on to Hyde Park, New York, where FDR was buried on April 15, 1945.
The FDR National Historic Site
The home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is now a National Historic Site under the safeguard of the National Park Service, which preserves nearly nine hundred acres of the original 1,522-acre property. The NPS established two park units on the Roosevelt estate—the Home of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill cottage. Unfortunately, Val-Kill was closed during my visit, but the former First Lady was undoubtedly an important figure in American politics and social activism. She deserves her own article (hence the limited coverage in this one), and it is my intention to write it once Val-Kill reopens.
A trip to the FDR Historic Site begins at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center, named after Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture (1933 – 40) and third term Vice-President. Here, visitors can watch an introductory film about the Roosevelt family and meet park rangers for scheduled house tours.
Adjacent to the Visitor Center is the FDR Library and Museum. Dedicated on June 30, 1941, this facility was America’s first presidential library and the only one ever to be used by a sitting president. Today, the library’s archives contain over 51,000 books, 150,000 photographs, and seventeen million documents detailing the Roosevelt Era.
The Roosevelt Museum consists of two floors. On the main level, visitors can examine exhibits detailing FDR’s early life, the Great Depression, and New Deal politics. Guests can also listen to recordings of the president’s famous Fireside Chats and visit his private study. Often referred to as “the most historic space” in the museum, this well-preserved office was used by FDR while vacationing in Hyde Park. Here, Roosevelt penned countless pieces of legislation and discussed pressing matters with politicians and dignitaries from around the world. Museum exhibits on the lower floor analyze WWII, FDR’s death, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s role as “First Lady of the World.” Within the archives, visitors can view Roosevelt’s 1936 Ford Phaeton, model ship collection, and numerous pieces of artwork.
After touring the library and museum, visitors may partake in a guided tour of Roosevelt’s Springwood estate. The central portion of the home was originally built in 1793; however, significant renovations were performed and additions constructed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to give the residence its current appearance. The interior of the home is furnished as it would have been in 1941. Tourists are able to view various rooms, furnishings, and décor representative of the Roosevelt family’s interests and lifestyles. Directly in front of Springwood is the Rose Garden. Positioned in the garden’s central lawn is a large, rectangular block of Vermont white marble, which marks the final resting place for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The FDR National Historic Site is an outstanding place to not only learn about America’s longest-tenured president, but also understand the complex challenges his administration had to overcome. Roosevelt’s successes and failures transformed America’s social, economic, and political structures; his effective leadership cemented America’s superpower status on the world stage. To say FDR made a lasting impact on domestic and international affairs would be an understatement. One can truly appreciate FDR's accomplishments at Springwood, where his legacy is forever enshrined.
Check out these resources from Google Books:
Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life. United Kingdom: Penguin Publishing Group, 2017.
Jenkins, Roy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The American Presidents Series: The 32nd President, 1933-1945. United States: Henry Holt and Company, 2004.
Renshaw, Patrick. Franklin D Roosevelt. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. United States: Random House, 2008.