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.