Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

BOOK II: Confusion

The Coming American Boom

For the second time, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced the Chief Justice on the front portico of the Capitol to be sworn in as President. For a man who took almost childish delight in breaking precedents, he must have derived a good deal of satisfaction from the fact that he was the first President, under the new law, to be sworn in on January 20 instead of March 4. Aside from that, it was the standard type of inauguration, including the rain.

But the scene in the great wide country had changed vastly. The nation was having its disasters, but they were natural ones—rivers swollen and farms inundated—but no great economic disturbances were in sight. Roosevelt appeared before the throng as the great physician who had healed the nation. True, the patient was not wholly recovered. The national income, payrolls, industrial production were still 20 percent under the 1929 figure and building was only about one-third of what it had been in 1929. Farm commodities were still under their 1929 price. But things were moving up.

The tremendous victory of the President at the polls had done something to his enemies. A sense of political frustration had swept over the business leaders of the country. Many of them were so beaten down by the popular endorsement of the President that the fight was taken out of them. A vague presentiment troubled them that some new condition had come which they did not fully understand and that the best thing to do was to make the best of it. Newspapers and magazines were saying that the Republican party was done.

Above the depressive undertone, however, was a rising tone of optimism. Men in Wall Street and business circles were talking about the coming American boom. Even the great steel industry, the last to feel the pull of this new life, was roaring along. I went through the steel towns before Christmas, just prior to the 1937 inauguration. As one approached the steel country the sky was ablaze with the radiance of the old beehive ovens—thousands of them brought into life again because the existing modern ovens were inadequate. At Pittsburgh a spirit of rush and movement was there again for the first time since 1929. In all the hotels and restaurants the orchestras were playing the new song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." The mills were working three shifts a day and the workers were getting 10 percent wage increases. They were paying up old bills and buying new things in the stores. Spindles were humming in the cotton textile mills of New England. By March there were some business men who were afraid the boom might get out of hand and go too far.

Labor was on the march. The great drive for the steel workers, with John L. Lewis as commander-in-chief of the CIO was under way. The workers were joining up in great numbers and ahead lay the promise of a grave issue. Sit-down strikes were in progress in many plants and the whole Pacific coast was tied up in a great shipping strike. But all this somehow did not impair the brightness of the outlook to business men who were hungry for the boom.

The great victory in November had done something to Roosevelt too. Almost his whole first-term program lay about him in ruins. All the theatrical features which had excited the imagination of the people had been taken off the boards. Despite that, there had been a steady rise in recovery or at least what looked like recovery. Unemployment was down to about seven million and it continued to decrease each month. The President confidently believed that he had licked the depression, but to whatever extent the country had recovery it was due entirely to the spending program of the administration.

This he had called "priming the pump." The pump, of course, was the great business machine into which America poured its investment billions and its vast labor energies and out of which was pumped the vast flood of goods and the income to buy them. Roosevelt had poured 16 billion dollars of borrowed public funds into that pump but he had failed to do anything about fixing the pump.

The pump was delivering up goods and income but only so long as he primed it. The great investment industries were idle. The building industry generally was still from a half to a third below prosperity figures. Without the revival of investment there could be no revival of the economic system. The system was being supported by government spending of borrowed funds.

The President did not too clearly perceive the full significance of all this. He imagined that the pump had begun to work and that very soon he could proudly announce that he could cease priming it, that is, that he could quit spending borrowed funds and balance the budget.

He was in a gay and triumphant mood. A naturally vain man, the tremendous victory at the polls had swollen his ego enormously. Few men in public life have ever received such thunderous applause or been surrounded by so many flatterers. The reason, of course, was that no man in our history had ever had in his hands a purse so full of billions to hand out to states and to cities, to business, to workers, to rich and poor alike. Flattery drenched his uplifted head. After all, this widespread applause, these innumerable flatteries could not all be wrong. In fact, were not the results of his wizardry before him? Perhaps he was a wizard after all. He became more cocky and, what is more, he decided he was going to punish certain powerful elements who had defied him. To begin with he was going to bring the Supreme Court to its knees.

Aside from this, what would Roosevelt now do? If, as he supposed, the economic system was now moving rapidly towards a healthful balance, what more could be asked of him? He would have to balance the budget and, probably, reduce the debt he had created. He had given the country a Social Security Act, opened the banks, tamed Wall Street. What else was there to do? It is not always easy to know from what Roosevelt said at any given moment just what he was about. For instance, in his 1937 inaugural address he gave the impression that there stretched before him certain great objectives—that millions of people worked at pitifully low salaries, that millions of farmers lived squalid lives, on farms worse than the poorest European farms, he said; that millions of people didn't have enough to eat. He used the phrase "one-third of a nation ill-clad, ill-fed and ill-housed" and from this he gave out the promise that he was just beginning to fight and that he proposed to use the powers of the government to put an end to all this.

Yet a short time after this he said to a very powerful senator among his own supporters that he was through with experimentation and that what he now wished to do was to consolidate his gains. This, coming a few weeks after the challenging inaugural oration, was the precise reverse of that address. Which of these points of view represented what was really in his mind?

I repeat here that until he was inaugurated as President, Roosevelt probably never entertained any doubts whatever about the soundness of our existing system. He had run with that school which believes government should put more of its weight on the side of the so-called "little people." This general attitude of benevolence to the interests of the masses, rather than to the interests of business, characterized those groups in this country who liked to call themselves liberals.

As already indicated, these were views into which he had fallen with the tide of the time in which he lived as a young man. They were the views of his associates and the party faction in which he had begun his career. It is perfectly obvious from any study of his speeches and his actions that he had not arrived at these principles through any long examination of the nature and structure of society. Looking at Roosevelt's whole program—that which he achieved and that which still remained—Raymond Moley describes it most vividly. One's astonishment at beholding it, he wrote:

"Arose chiefly from the wonder that one man could have been so flexible as to permit himself to believe so many things in so short a time. But to look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter's tools, geometry books and chemistry sets in a boy's bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator."

As nearly as one can make out, Roosevelt's opinions at this moment were generally that big business was immoral, that the poor were not getting a fair break and that the depression was the result of the sins of business and that business must be punished for these sins. But it is perfectly obvious that he did not know what the sins were which had done the damage.

Beyond doubt business men commit sins, singly and in organized groups. Some of the sins spring from greed. Others spring from perfectly proper motives. Some are sins of the heart; some are sins of the head without conscious iniquity in them. Some of the sins injure the whole social economy very seriously. Others, however wicked, do not have that effect—may actually help it. There is no evidence that Roosevelt ever put his finger on the real causes that make the free private enterprise system fail to work. Along with this he had drifted to the general theory, only vaguely defined, that the government must step into the situation and by the use of its credit and its regulatory power, take a controlling part in making the system work. He certainly had not explored the direction in which this theory would lead him. It is the theory of the all-powerful benevolent state toward which Europe had been drifting for fifty years and which had begun with certain small, uncertain experimental steps very much like those Roosevelt was taking. But the last thing in his mind was any suspicion that the steps he was taking would lead him as far as they finally did and as they must inevitably lead any statesman who tries them.

If he was right, he had to believe that presently the whole economic system would be moving along smoothly and that at this point he must do something to give the working man and the poorer elements in the community a better break. Furthermore, to do this he must remain in power, that is he must not merely continue to be President throughout his four years, but must have a Congress amenable to his wishes and a Court that would not balk him. To do this he must have votes all the time and particularly two years hence in the 1938 Congressional elections. Under no circumstances could he permit a recurrence of the depression.

The three forces that he wished to set in motion were under way. First, there was the great industrial labor movement. Second, the election had crushed his enemies and put in his hands tremendous power to work his will. Third, the country was rolling on in another great American boom. How would it all turn out?

Bright as it all seemed one cloud moved over this serene landscape. The great sit-down strike drive had begun. The union was encamped inside the Fisher Body plant and the General Motors plants in Detroit. Vice-President Garner was aroused at this. He went to Roosevelt. He spoke plainly. And Roosevelt assured him that he agreed that the strikes were illegal and not right. Garner got the impression Roosevelt would issue a statement against them. But he did not.

Later in January, after the inauguration, Garner, Robinson and Roosevelt were discussing the legislative program. Garner talked about the sit-down strikes. They were an illegal seizure of property. If the Michigan governor did not stop it the people of Michigan were being denied a republican government. The federal government must intervene. But Roosevelt refused to move. He said any attempt to get the men out would mean bloodshed. The argument broke into an angry brawl. Garner angrily told Roosevelt: "John L. Lewis is a bigger man than you are if you can't find some way to cope with this." Senator Robinson quieted the Vice-President. But from that moment on Garner was in a state of continuous disgust over the development of the labor situation. Senator Byrnes offered a resolution declaring it to be the sense of the Senate that the sit-down strike was illegal. Senator Joe Robinson, majority leader, told him he favored it, but as leader could not go along. The resolution, under Roosevelt's influence, was defeated. But this subject was to divide the Democratic party dangerously for the whole of the second term.

The outlines of the President's character now began to appear, but only vaguely. When Roosevelt became President he was very little known personally. His long illness immediately after World War I had withdrawn him from general circulation until he ran for governor of New York. He did not get around as men in public life do and he had few actual personal contacts with the men who were to deal with him later.

He appeared now before the public as a genial, happy and at times merry person, warm-hearted and generous. He had acquired the reputation of being a public speaker of extraordinary talents. But many stories got around that those famous speeches he delivered were written for him by others and his talent was rather that of an actor who declaimed them well.

In Washington, among his Democratic associates and leaders, he had begun to acquire a reputation for being a little shifty and undependable in an agreement. Garner said he was a hard man to have an arrangement with—"he would deviate from the understanding."

Many stories were told about the readiness with which he made promises and the equal readiness with which he forgot them. In personal conversation he was full of tall tales about himself and his prowess in laying out imaginary disputants. The public generally, however, knew nothing of this and the image of the high-toned, aristocratic gentleman of unimpeachable personal integrity persisted popularly.

He was a handsome man with a colorful personality and singularly favored by nature in his physical get-up. It was not surprising that he should be a vain man. He sat, after his 1936 victory, at the topmost peak of fame. Courtiers flattered him; politicians, organizations, people of all sorts seeking some part of that vast treasure which he had been given by Congress vied with each other in extolling him. A kind of legend grew up around him from this source—about his charm, his voice, his lightening shafts of wit and such. He would have been less than human if he had not yielded to the whisperings of vanity.

For another thing, a curious laxity in the behavior of his family was causing a good deal of talk around the country. In Washington a group of senators sent one of their number to suggest to him that the escapades of some of his sons were bringing his own name under unprofitable criticism. He assured the senator that he had given his sons a good education, done everything possible to put them upon the right path and he did not feel he was responsible for what they did. Magazines and newspapers printed stories about the members of his family in their efforts to exploit the White House for commercial ends. This was a source of a good deal of surprise in a family which was supposed to be wealthy. Mrs. Roosevelt's activities, her lectures and her radio broadcasts for money running into large sums were, to say the least, unusual. It took the public a little while to get used to her.

Altogether, the sum total of it was the feeling in certain quarters that the ethical standards of the family were not too high, not what had been expected of people of their standing and class. It surprised many. It disappointed and disturbed others. The tradition of the White House as an exemplar of good manners and good conduct was being subjected to some strain. The seriousness of it lay in one fact of tremendous significance. Of that we shall see later.

For the time being we may rest with the comment that already that fatal spiritual drug, Power, had begun its work upon the mind and spirit of the President. Power is an insidious intoxicant. It has produced in history some of its most appalling tragedies. Power now had come into the hands of this man. What were his moral and intellectual qualities for resisting its corrosive effects? The President's immense victory in November was a heavy dose to take, save for a soul well-armed. This thing called power had been a subject of grave preoccupation with the men who built the Republic. They had made the most elaborate arrangements to keep this dreaded cup out of the hands of presidents. Now it was in the hands of one, and filled almost to its brim—though not quite. If what follows has any lesson for history it is because it is one more clinical experiment in the effect of power upon the human mind and upon human society.