I have started a new book, David Kaiser’s No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. The introduction is entitled “A Generation, A Man, A Moment.” Kaiser describes Roosevelt as believing that he needed to preserve democracy for the good of the whole world.
FDR was a member of the Missionary Generation, which was born roughly from 1863 to 1884. They became involved with the Progressive movement and led other reform movements such as women’s suffrage and racial equality. Some of them, however, also contributed to the rejection of the Versailles Treaty in 1920 and the end of Wilson’s dream.
Kaiser recounts FDR’s early life, from his pampered home life to boarding school at Groton and then Harvard. He also covers FDR’s marriage to Eleanor and mentions the affair with Lucy Mercer.
FDR entered politics in 1910 and rose to Assistant Secretary of the Navy when Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912. In 1920 he was nominated for vice president. After he contracted polio in 1921, FDR made his comeback in politics by nominating Al Smith for president in 1924.
The prosperity of the 1920s came crashing down in October 1929, according to Kaiser, “the fruits of [FDR’s] generation’s unrestrained greed.” This set the stage for Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency in 1932. Kaiser points out that, in his inaugural address, FDR explained the moral reasons for the nation’s economic woes.
As the economy improved over the next four years under the New Deal, Democrats gained seats in the House and Senate, and FDR was re-elected in a landslide in 1936. Kaiser quotes from FDR’s second inaugural address at some length. I especially liked the quote that the American people had recognized “the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”
Kaiser refers to Kenneth S. Davis’s five-volume biography of FDR and its conclusion that FDR saw himself as the instrument of broader historical forces. Kaiser then mentions some of the people with whom FDR surrounded himself in his efforts to shape the course of history. Roosevelt gave these and later talented, driven associates the freedom to “plan and advocate drastic courses of action both publicly and privately.”
The foreign situation that Roosevelt faced also brought immense challenges. The rise of totalitarian, expansionist powers in Italy, Japan and Germany threatened the opinions, traditions and military power of the United States. As the United States rejected the League of Nations, it also let its military decline.
German conquests in the spring of 1940 destroyed the foundations of the world order on which the United States had relied. The U.S. faced a worldwide coalition that it would need to fight on its own. Germany appeared ready to expand into the Atlantic and threaten the Western Hemisphere. The Japanese also appeared ready to move against the Philippines at any moment.
Kaiser describes FDR’s response to this threat as typical when he defined the problem for the American people and chose new people to deal with it. He brought in two Republicans, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, as Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy, respectively. Both men took the situation seriously and advocated action to counter the threats. So also did the service chiefs, General George Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark. All of these men were members of the Missionary Generation, Kaiser notes.
To mobilize the nation’s resources for defense, FDR created agencies as he had done with the New Deal and brought in leaders from industry and labor to lead them. Kaiser notes that by early 1941 the scope of the war to come was not clear and the decisions of the type of war that the United States eventually would need to fight were more complex than many have tended to believe.
Roosevelt decided in June 1941 that the U.S. would need to enter the war at a relatively early date and that it should seek the complete defeat of all of its enemies. He concluded this after Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Japan escalated the war in the Far East.
Kaiser closes the introduction by describing FDR and his fellow members of the Missionary Generation as pursuing their lifelong goal of bringing order out of chaos and laying a foundation for sustained human progress. To do so they had to exercise authority, and FDR’s maintenance of the American people’s confidence in the authority of their government in the midst of depression and world war was his greatest achievement.