Sunday, October 7, 2012

Traitor To His Class - H.W. Brands

Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands is a large and fairly comprehensive account of Roosevelt’s life and times. Brands has written an in-depth and thought provoking biography that should also be an entertaining page turner for anyone interested in this period of history, as well as for those interested in how the modern world came to be. This book is not without its flaws, however.

Brands’ biography is a mostly positive depiction of America’s 32nd President. Born in 1882, Roosevelt was raised in a world of wealth and privilege.  He grew up near presidential power, being a cousin to Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, America’s 26th President. His mother, Sara Ann Delano Roosevelt was possessive and at times domineering.

In 1905 Roosevelt married his cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt.  In 1918, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. Afterward, she went on to have her own extramarital relationships and the marriage become more of a partnership. Eleanor’s life is in itself a fascinating story and Brands spends a good deal of pages exploring it.

Roosevelt worked his way up though both elected and appointed State and Federal government as well as Democratic Party positions. After an unsuccessful bid for Vice President in 1920, he contracted polio. The disease left him unable to walk without artificial aids for the remainder of his life.

Undeterred by the disability, Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York in 1929. After the onset of the Great Depression, he was well positioned for a Presidential victory in 1932. It is surprising that this great reformer was elected under a relatively conservative platform.

President Roosevelt shepherded America though the Great Depression. His “New Deal” was a series of laws that fundamentally changed the United States and still resounds into present times. Later, he was a key architect of the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Brands’ book is often very detailed. He provides a vivid account of Roosevelt’s life and career. The New Deal legislation, as well as the men who helped Roosevelt to design and implement it, are covered in intricate depth. The years leading up to and through World War II are similarly explored.

This book is not without some weaknesses, however. I found it slightly frustrating that, for all its attention to detail, in some aspects this biography seems to skim over key details and provides a weak analysis of certain important controversies and topics.

For instance, there is a somewhat heated debate these days concerning whether or not Roosevelt’s policies ended and/or ameliorated the Depression. Brands skirts around this issue. He does provide accounts of various Roosevelt Administration officials’ opinions and analyses of this question, but fails to provide detailed statistics or economic or objective political analysis to help understand it. In the book’s conclusion, Brands devotes a few paragraphs to the subject but I would have appreciated a little more space dedicated earlier on to the issue.

A similar treatment is accorded to the argument, which I call a myth, that in 1945 during the Yalta conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, that Roosevelt somehow gave away Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Brands does explain Roosevelt’s actions at the conference in a positive light and hints at the controversy. I feel that there was room for a more in-depth analysis here as well.

Likewise, Brands poorly handles what was the darkest moment of the Roosevelt administration, the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor, Americans of Japanese descent, who were born in the United States and who were American citizens, were rounded up and placed into camps for the duration of the war. To add insult to injury, most of these people had their homes, businesses and farms stolen by opportunistic neighbors who took advantage of their fellow citizens’ misfortune. This outrage, directly approved by Roosevelt, was one of the most egregious violations of the rights of American citizens during the twentieth century. To my surprise, Brands devotes only a few pages to this reprehensible, unconstitutional act. Furthermore, while conceding that it was prompted by hysteria, Brands almost excuses Roosevelt’s decisions here as occurring under the pressures of war.

Regardless of these flaws, this is a solid account of Roosevelt and his life. The author clearly portrays the fact that this President was one of the key makers of the modern world. In the first days of his administration, Roosevelt took steps to forestall the collapse of the American banking system. This bold and decisive action may vary well have staved off a revolution in the United States (my contention, not Brands’s). His New Deal Legislation changed the way that people throughout the world thought of government. These policies expanded the size and scope of government to unprecedented levels. It was characterized by massive public works projects, the American Social Security system, and government regulations in an entire host of areas such as finance, monetary policy, labor relations, etc.  Roosevelt did not invent many of these initiatives; he did, however, put them together into a package to forge what I would describe as a modern capitalistic democracy with a government aimed at promoting the social good. Twenty-first century democratic nations throughout the world are in part the legacy of Roosevelt’s policies.

If helping to invent the modern industrial and post industrial democracy was not enough, Roosevelt played a key, and I would argue the most important role, of any individual in defeating the Axis as well as shaping the postwar geo-political world. Well before America’s entry into the Second World War, Roosevelt focused the massive industrial production of the United States towards defeating the Axis. From 1937 on, Roosevelt began implementing a political and industrial strategy aimed at supplying Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union with massive military aid. This material assistance certainly changed the course of the war and allowed these nations to hang on against the Axis onslaught. Simultaneously, he maneuvered the United States into a policy of confrontation with Germany, Italy and Japan. By the time the war broke out, conflict between the United States and the Axis powers was inevitable. Of course, after the United States’ entry into the war, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were the prime movers of allied strategy that led to the eventual defeat of the Axis. Though he did not live to see the post war world, he was instrumental in creating much of it. He championed the founding of the United Nations and firmly established the concept of an active and engaged American foreign policy that so affected the globe in the ensuing decades.

I must admit that I cannot discuss Roosevelt without being a little defensive. Though I certainly recognize the man’s shortcomings and believe that, like most major world leaders, he did some terrible things, I have an admiration as well as a little bit of a defense instinct for this President. This protective tendency on my part is the result of living at a time and in a nation where Roosevelt’s reputation as well as legacy are under attack by forces of the political far right. I must agree with Brands’ comment regarding the critics of the time,

“the objective and honest of those who had once denounced Roosevelt for class betrayal recognized that in a decade rife with fascists, militarists, and communists abroad and irresponsible demagogues at home, he was the best thing that could have happened to them."

If one wants to understand the modern world and how it got to be the way it is, then one must understand Roosevelt and his administration. It can be argued that this man was the most influential person of the twentieth century. As a student of history, despite Roosevelt’s defects, I am in awe of his accomplishments. Though it is difficult to say for certain how history would otherwise have played out, the world may look very, very different today had he not become the American President in 1932. This book is an informative and relatively complete account of his life and accomplishments.


Miguel said...

Thanks for the review. I find FDR a fascinating figure, even if I think he's sometimes portrayed as a saint.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - He was very fascinating in ways that I did not get to touch upon in the above.

These days, at least in America there is a lot of negative views expressed about him from some. Granted, others do bestow the "Saint" image to him a little too freely.

BookBelle said...

As much as you love Roosevelt, I can hear your ambivalence about the author's approach in your review. To me, it almost seems like the author had a far greater book in his mind that didn't make it down on the paper or, perhaps, his editor did not share his enthusiasm for Roosevelt and something was lost in the editing. This all equals up to disappointment for the close reader. As an aside, I love Eleanor and can never get enough on her. Do you think that in today's society she and FDR would have divorced? She always seems to me that she has lesbian traits (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Andrew Blackman said...

Nice review! I can see why FDR is under attack - the US seems to have moved a long way to the right since his day. If some people are calling a mild, centrist president like Barack Obama a socialist, they must foam at the mouth when thinking of FDR :-)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Andrew!

I agree with you totally. If you follow American political trends over the past thirty years, what was centrist a few years ago is now considered extremely liberal. What is called centrist today is was conservative a few years ago. Conservatives today would be unrecognizable even to Ronald Reagan.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - Not sure if the Roosevelt's would have divorced or not today. In some limited ways their relationship had some similarities with the Clintons. This books indicates that they came very close to divorce.

This book made it pretty clear that after she discovered FDR's affair, Eleanor had affairs with other women. Interesting as per this book FDR seemed to have cared less and even encouraged the relationships.

I do not know if it was lack of enthusiasm on Brand's part. More of a hesitancy to analyze some of the big controversies.

Ryan said...

To be perfectly fair, it is decidedly unfair to discuss any president (or world leader) with broad strokes. Every president has done terrible things and one has to take the sentiment at the time into account. For example, the early presidents owned slaves, but they cannot be held accountable for that given the mores of the time.

I remember reading a fascinating biography of Harry Truman a few years back and if there was ever a president that came down on both sides of the fence, it was he.

Anyway, I'm going to find and read this book.

Miguel said...

These days, at least in America there is a lot of negative views expressed about him from some.

Well, like you I've heard that the New Deal wasn't as amazing as legend would have us believe, but that it actually widened the recession. Of course, one must take into the account the need to discredit socialism these days. It's hard to know who to trust in these things.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I agree, as I alluded to every President, and likely every world leader, did some bad things.

I would disagree just a little about the broad strokes. I believe that we must sum up a Presidents record, good and bad and come to an ultimate conclusion.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Miguel - My opinion on the entire "Did Roosevelt End the Depression" issue is a little complex is as follows.

1 - When he came in he stopped a catastrophic slide that would heave led the US into chaos and perhaps Revolution.

2 - His policies initially did bring down Unemployment and the US began to recover. Too early into the recovery he went conservative too early and attempted to balance the budget by cutting spending. Thus the US slipped back into high unemployment and the Depression did not really end.

3 - He brought desperately needed relief to those suffering from the economic downslide as a result of his social programs.

Caroline said...

I'm afarid I'm not that interested in politicians although I'm interested in history. My belief is that there can never be a good politician, in the moral sense, because what the character traits which are needed to want to become a politician already prevent that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - There is some truth to what you say.However I think certain politicians have helped advance human progress and well being. In certain cases in a major way. There are also situations where politicians have shown amazing courage.

With the above said all have used at least some deception. However it takes all kinds to make the world work.

Tom Cunliffe said...

I think FDR is much admired around the world - he provided fantastic leadership when the world needed it. I don't think anyone fully understood at the time quite what the consequences of Yalta would be - and in any case, when world leaders meet to carve up a post-world war solution there have to be compromises on all sides. Russia had a position of some power in any case having driven the GErmans back to Berlin. Sounds like a great read

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I totally agree with you on the Soviets. They were much stronger then many people realize and it would have been virtually impossible to dislodge them from Eastern Europe.

JaneGS said...

Interesting review. I am an FDR fan, and I actually have a real problem with the title of the book and the premise that because FDR's administrations implemented federal programs that led the USA out of the Depression that he was a sellout to his "class." As the daughter of immigrants who left the UK after WWII because of the rigidness of the class structure, FDR was always held up as a shining example of how person of wealth and privilege should behave towards those less fortunate.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I think that the title of the book is actually a little ironic. Kind of like the way a person or group will p[playfully take on the words that a critic uses against their enemies. One of the points of this work was that FDR policies ultimately benefitted capitalism.

Violet said...

It's interesting to look at history through different lenses. :) I have a different perspective on World War II history, seeing as how NZ and Australia fought for the British Empire. This is an interesting article about what happened between American and Australian troops during World War II. On the other hand, my great aunt met a GI and moved to the US as a war bride. :)

I'm not sure I would give Roosevelt credit for being the most influential person in the twentieth century. I think HH the Dalai Lama was pretty influential. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - One can focus on many details and legitimately see these things differently. Imagine how a Japanese American who was put into a camp feels about Roosevelt.

As for the most influential person there really are many contenders. I knew a bit about the Dalai Lama but my knowledge general and superficial. I suspect that you know more then I in order to award him that distinction.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

WOW. What an in-depth analysis of this book!! Fascinating! I don't know that much about Roosevelt, except for the fact that he created the New Deal, and was unfaithful to his wife, who was a great personality in her own right. (I also didn't know that she, too, had affairs, after she found out about his. Even though I don't like infidelity, I think it serves him right!! )

I also had no idea Roosevelt was involved with the rounding up of American citizens who just happened to be descendants of Japanese immigrants, and having them placed in concentration camps!! UGH. This type of thing would be termed 'racial profiling'' nowadays. Inexcusable behavior!!

In spite of the flaws you've pointed out, I'll put this book on my TBR shelf at Goodreads. I should definitely be reading more biographies and memooirs!

Thanks for your excellent review of this book!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - The thing about Eleanor Roosevelt was that she was a very faithful and devoted wife until she discovered FDR's affairs.After that their marriage really was only a partnership and a platonic friendship. As per this book FDR knew about her affairs and acted like he could care less.

The thing with the Japanese Americans was indeed terrible. A few years ago I believe that survivors were paid compensation by the US government.