President Franklin D. Roosevelt was, and still is, one of most admired and esteemed presidents in American history. I grew up hearing a lot of good things about FDR. I also heard some bad things from those who felt the “New Deal” created the modern welfare system with all its contested problems. One thing is certain, FDR’s name was esteemed by most scholars and ordinary Americans who lived through the Depression and the Second World War. Rarely could you get a serious taker for a critical debate on FDR’s accomplishments, at least not among those who loved and adored him as a president.
When FDR died on April 12, 1945, Americans grieved deeply as a nation. His picture hung in millions of homes. He was lionized by multitudes and is still considered by a large number of people to be one of our five best presidents. Amazingly, he is the only president to have served three full terms in office. He had just been elected to a fourth term less than six months before he died. (Constitutionally no single person can be elected to more than two full terms now. A vice-president who assumes the office for any reason might be elected for two terms, thus serving more than eight years total but the Constitution was amended after FDR to stop anyone from being elected to more than two full terms.)
What about FDR? Well, the “New Deal” is no longer credited with ending the Depression. Several scholars have debunked this myth pretty severely. It might have had a minor impact on the economic state of the US but most now agree that World War II ended the Depression. And the major credit for winning the war in Europe is certainly not given to FDR by most modern historians. Most now believe much more credit should go to the Soviet Union than to the efforts of the American allies. (It is true both groups were needed but the balance of time and perspective has clarified a great deal here.) Another aspect of FDR’s increasingly tarnished legacy, one that bothers very few moderns, was recently exposed in a feature film (Hyde Park on the Hudson) which revealed what we already knew about FDR’s sexual relationships with several different women. But these debates are, to my mind at least, a mere walk in the park when you consider another part of the FDR legacy that has been addressed very powerfully in a new book titled FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. (I’ve not read the book yet, just some reviews, but I think I get the broad argument clearly enough.)
Washington Post syndicated columnist Richard Cohen, not a conservative critic of FDR in the least, recently commented on this new book saying:
It sets out to find a middle ground and instead makes things worse. It is a portrait of a president who, in the authors’ own words, “did not forthrightly inform the American people of Hitler’s grisly ‘Final Solution’ or respond decisively to his crimes.” This is a Roosevelt who almost always had a more pressing political concern