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The First Six Months of FDR | The Nation

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The First Six Months of FDR

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In just 180 days, FDR has managed to completely transform the office of the presidency.

About the Author

Oswald Garrison Villard
Oswald Garrison Villard (March 13, 1872-October 1, 1949) was a US journalist who wrote many articles for The Nation. He...

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The President has passed the first important milestone of his four-year term. Six months have passed since he assumed power, and it is now a trite fact that more has been crowded into that brief period than into any other peace-time Administration in Washington. It may even be contended that the first six months of Wilson's war Administration were not so momentous so far as legislation is concerned. Beyond question no man is able to visualize, or even to guess, how far the New Deal may take us. It is like war. You begin a war in Cuba and end on the other side of the globe in the Philippines, which scarcely an American had ever heard of before. You begin to battle in Belgium and you fight in Asia, Africa and all over Europe before you are through. The country has started on a new path of controlled industry and economics and no one knows what the outcome will be--whether we shall hold on to our institutions, or whether we shall end completely socialized, or with a fascist dictatorship.

But that uncertainty need not keep us from trying to evaluate today what Mr. Roosevelt has accomplished and his manner of doing it, for that frequently counts for more than the actual achievement. Nor need we be deterred by the fact that the President has been actuated by no predetermined policy or program. He has not moved in accordance with any deep-seated political or economic philosophy. I still feel this even though, in his acceptance of Mr. Moley's resignation, he spoke of the latter's "participation during these two years in the development of policies based on our common ideals." During his term as Governor of New York there was not the slightest sign of advocacy of, or adherence to, any far-reaching policy of social reorganization. Nor did his speeches during his campaign in any way mark him as a radical reformer. Indubitably he has been governed, since he has been in Washington, by the immediate needs of the hour, especially at the very outset, when the banking collapse was upon us. To a certain extent that was inevitable; but to go on through three and one-half more years without a definite, clear-cut vision of the goal, or goals, to be achieved may easily prove to be a very different matter. The day may come, sooner than the President now realizes, when he will be faced with the question, "Under which king, Bezonian?" and have to decide once for all.

But today it is proper to pass judgment upon what Mr. Roosevelt has so far done without stopping to consider the remoter implications. I think we can all agree that his unbounded courage and cheerful self-confidence have had a vital effect upon the public. He has carried his tremendous burden almost jauntily--perhaps because of a certain streak of incurable youthfulness in him. In any event this attitude of his has helped to ease the national strain and to change the American mentality, and that, as I have already said on this page, is one of his greatest achievements. That we can today discuss and authorize radical measures without being called Bolsheviks is, I repeat, a tremendous step forward, for which we cannot feel too grateful. Side by side with that let me put the extraordinary spectacle of our greatest steel, coal, oil, and other magnates coming down to Washington, not to give orders as has been the habit of these privileged masters of capital, our real rulers in America for decades, but to sit like schoolboys before General Johnson, to be rudely lectured and told what they have got to do. What a reversal of roles! What a New Freedom for our government! Woodrow Wilson, the author of the New Freedom slogan, it will be remembered, undertook to do this very thing. His Assistant Secretary of the Navy has accomplished vastly more in six months in this respect--with the vital aid of an economic collapse and panic--than Mr. Wilson achieved during his entire term.

Then I want to praise here and now Franklin Roosevelt's attitude toward his high office. He has held it in the best American tradition, with complete simplicity, and has done nothing to augment, and much to decrease, that alarming tendency in Washington to adorn the Presidency with the trappings of royalty. He has been affable, approachable, modest, unassuming. Have you noticed that whereas Herbert Hoover was guarded at his summer camp by a company of marines at government expense they made roads for him when not protecting his precious person--there is no such flummery, not a uniform, at Hyde Park? To some the President's going off on a little schooner seemed an affectation; to me it was an extraordinarily happy procedure. There were no plain schooner yachts in the days of Cincinnatus and Israel Putnam. Had they existed, those patriots, after returning to their plows, would probably have treated themselves to similar simple vacations. Like Grover Cleveland, Mr. Roosevelt has, so far at least, exalted his office by regarding himself as a citizen temporarily projected into a high place, seeking no personal enhancement. I have not heard definitely, but I do not believe that Mr. Roosevelt enters the public parlors in the White House, when they are full of visitors, preceded by a bugler, as did the pitifully small Herbert Hoover, whose subconscious realization of his smallness made him surround himself with ceremonial.

So the manner in which the President has borne himself in office, the charm of his radio voice, the friendliness which everybody has felt for him have all done their share in winning the public to him. I believe he would carry every State in the Union if the people were called upon to vote for or against him today. At least it is true that he has done away with partisanship, and not by strident patriotic appeals. There is Congressman Goss of Waterbury, Connecticut, a typical rich manufacturer-Republican and apostle of that protection by which he and his class and group have profited so largely. Did he not assure an NRA gathering in Hartford the other day that he, who had voted and worked against Franklin Roosevelt, wished now to testify that he had never in his life seen such courage and such devotion as the President has shown since March 4? This is disarming your enemies with a vengeance!

I have not space for further listing of the things that impress me favorably about the President. But the other side? Yes, there is another side which must be portrayed if justice is to be done and the scales held evenly. On the side of our foreign relations Mr. Roosevelt's record is bad, almost disastrous. Like his predecessors, he has parceled out many of the highest diplomatic positions to large contributors to his campaign funds or paid political debts with them. He too has degraded the newspaper profession--or better, business--by giving offices, such as the London Embassy, to newspaper supporters. He has done nothing in regard to Manchuria; he has shown no teamwork with Norman Davis and made no genuine contribution to disarmament despite his moving appeal to the nations to ground arms. On the contrary--and this is the worst of his offending--without warrant of Congress he has ordered the building up of the navy to treaty size by the petty subterfuge of "emergency public works," thus initiating a new armament race which has already produced the inevitable repercussions in England and Japan and may easily lead to another world war. He has given no lead in dealing with Hitler's Germany, and no voice to American indignation thereat. So far the inter-Allied debt situation is worse befogged under his failure to lead than it was before. His treatment of the World Economic Conference was literally scandalous; his change of mind on currency stabilization, and his berating of the conference because he had changed his mind wrecked the meeting and reduced American influence to its lowest ebb. His repudiation of the gold clause in our bonds has also contributed enormously to the decline of American prestige.

At home the President has not yet really come to grips with some of the greatest vested interests, such as the protection barons. His attitude toward labor is in great need of clarification--as is that of the NRA, too. Yet it is a fact that he has abolished child labor-by accident if you please; and it almost looks, as one observer just back from Washington writes me, as if the government were "building a labor movement in America." He has, as I have said, no real chart by which to sail the ship of state, no deep philosophy, no real aim, no clarified vision of the America he wishes to create. Even his homily of the other day, that hereafter we are to treat all groups in the nation as neighbors have treated one another and allow no actions hurtful to anyone within the nation's boundaries, lacks clarity. Hence, if NRA fails and the emergency compels, we may yet see Franklin Roosevelt go to the fascist right as easily as to the radical left.

His severest tests are yet before him--especially the test of his leadership. He--and we--may sometime look back upon the just completed half-year as the golden period of his rule. As to that we shall know a great deal more when the next period of six months ends. Meanwhile, we can all be grateful for the good things that he has accomplished; wish him well every hour of the day and night; pray for his complete success, and help him, too, by rigid and faithful and unyielding criticism whenever and wherever criticism is due.

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