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Profile - Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Commander-in-Chief

Elected in the midst of a desperate economic catastrophe, Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) went on to be reelected for a total of four terms, during which he had to cope not only with the Great Depression, but also with a global war, only to die virtually in the hour of victory.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was distantly related to Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Although T.R. was considerably older than F.D.R, the two were fifth cousins, descended in the same generation from Nicholas Roosevelt (1658-1742), the grandson of Claes Martenszen Van Rosenvelt (d. 1659), who had settled in New York from The Netherlands in 1649. The president’s ancestors were mostly shippers, merchants, and ship builders, and became quite wealthy as a result. Family members were involved in the construction of the USS Constitution and other famous warships. F.D.R.’s father James Roosevelt (1828-1900) was a lifelong businessman. In 1880 the widowed James attended a party on the occasion of his kinsman Theodore’s graduation from Harvard, and there met Sara Delano, also from a prosperous mercantile family: she had first crossed the Pacific at age 8, going to China, where her father had business interests, including opium. Although Sara was nearly 30 years younger than James, the two were soon married, and F.D.R. was born in 1882. Cousin Theodore, while rising in politics, found time to take an interest in the young man’s education, often sending him books, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

In 1898, when the Spanish-American War broke out, F.D.R. was 16 and a student at Groton, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts. With another boy, he plotted to run away and join the Navy, but their plan failed when the school was quarantined by a scarlet fever outbreak. From early youth a skilled sailor, F.D.R. considered attending Annapolis, but was convinced by his family to go to Harvard instead. After college, Roosevelt – who earned a “Gentleman’s C” – attended Columbia Law School. Passing the bar before he graduated, Roosevelt dropped out to practice law. In 1905 F.D.R. married Eleanor Roosevelt, the daughter of Theodore’s late brother Elliot, who had been raised by her distinguished uncle. Franklin shortly became involved in Democratic Party politics, in contrast to his distinguished cousin’s Republicanism, which in 1913 earned him the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy. F.D.R. proved very active in this post; in a little less than eight years in office he managed to visit at least 24 U.S. Navy ships, from auxiliaries to battleships, while working to strengthen the navy and helping supervise the development of emergency war plans. In addition, during his time in office, he visited Marines on duty in Haiti and other places in the Caribbean.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Roosevelt tendered his resignation, seeking to secure a commission in the Navy, but President Wilson insisted he was of more use to the service as Assistant Secretary. During the war, F.D.R. promoted the proposal for the “North Sea Mine Barrage,” a barrier of some 70,000 marine mines that helped prevent German submarines from getting into the Atlantic Ocean. He also sponsored the development of railroad mounts for 14-inch naval guns, which performed well on the Western Front, and spent July-September 1918 in Europe visiting American sailors and marines, often close to the front; once a position he had been visiting was shelled just a short time after his departure. On August 5, 1918, while inspecting the 4th Marine Brigade, on the Western Front, Roosevelt authorized the men to wear the Corps’ “Eagle, Globe, and Anchor” on their combat uniforms, setting a precedent that continues to this day.

His trip to France and his visits to the front were the basis of his 1936 speech,

“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

During his very active time as Assistant SecNav, F.D.R. met many of the younger officers of the fleet and the Marine Corps, men who would later rise to high command during his own presidency, such as Harold R. Stark and William Halsey.

Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully for vice-president in 1920. Shortly afterwards he contracted what was then believed to be polio, but is now thought by some to have been Guillaume-Barre syndrome. Despite several years in rehabilitation, Roosevelt never recovered use of his legs, a fact that was not generally known, and politely overlooked by those who did know, including his political opponents, the press, and a surprisingly large number of very ordinary people. Roosevelt reentered politics, and in 1928 was elected governor of New York. Reelected in 1930, two years later he was elected President.

Depression and Rearmament. While solving the Depression was Roosevelt’s primary goal, he was also aware that the United States had fallen seriously behind in military readiness. The preceding three Republican administrations had been tight-fisted, and the Hoover Administration’s reaction to the onset of the Depression was to make severe cuts to already modest defense outlays. Between 1921 and 1933 not a single destroyer had been ordered for the US Navy, and only three aircraft carriers, 15 heavy cruisers, and seven submarines had been completed, laid down, or ordered. This had caused the Navy’s strength to fall nearly 20 percent below that agreed upon in the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922, dangerously narrowing the fleet’s edge over the Japanese. So under the umbrella of helping to stimulate the economy, Roosevelt initiated a modest rearmament program. During his famous first hundred days in office orders were placed for two aircraft carriers, four light cruisers, twenty destroyers, and six other vessels, a package worth $238 million, a bit of pump priming that had beneficial effects in terms of modernizing the Navy. Although the President had to cope with charges of warmongering, ably assisted by naval enthusiasts in Congress such as Carl Vinson (1883-1981), by the time the European War broke out in September of 1939, this and subsequent measures had provided the fleet with four battleships, three carriers, two heavy and nine light cruisers, 70 destroyers, and 27 submarines, either newly built or under construction, plus more vessels on order. During the same period, the proportion of resources devoted to naval aviation increased regularly, and the Marine Corps, withdrawn from “peacekeeping” duties in several Caribbean nations, devoted itself to refining amphibious techniques in cooperation with the Navy, to which it was still legally subordinate. Roosevelt also made frequent very public visits to the fleet, to give the service greater exposure, and was even present for some of the annual Fleet Problems, which were considerably expanded during his administration.

The strengthening of the naval services was more palatable to isolationists than efforts to strengthen the Army. Nevertheless, the Army also benefited from Depression relief programs. There were modest increases in manpower, but the big investment was in new equipment and infrastructure. For example, the M-1 Garand Rifle began field trials in 1934, while the proportion of resources devoted to the Air Corps rose notably, with contracts for the development of the B-17 bomber and other new aircraft. Meanwhile, money was spent to build infrastructure, including 800 new airfields and hundreds of armories and reserve centers.

All three services also benefited from an expansion of reserve officer training programs, so that well before the U.S. entered World War II many young men had already received commissions, including two of the President’s sons, and future presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Moreover, in a wonderfully prescient move, in 1937 the Civil Aeronautics Administration established the “Civilian Pilot Training Program” that by early 1941 had provided some 40,000 college men with introductory aviation training that included from some actual flight time.

Even the Civilian Conservation Corps, initiated in 1933 to put unemployed young men to work in the nation’s public lands and national parks, had a beneficial effect on the armed forces. About a quarter of all active duty Army officers, plus some from the Navy and Marine Corps, and about 30,000 reserve officers served in the CCC, as did many non-commissioned officers. The recruiting, organizing, clothing, feeding, and supervision of literally hundreds of thousands of young men (about 1.8 million men served hitches in the CCC, which attained a peak strength of about 500,000) gave these personnel valuable lessons in staff work, not to mention leadership, as the men were not under military discipline nor were they subject to any military training. George C. Marshall, later chief-of-staff of the Army, later wrote that the CCC was one of the most rewarding experiences of his military service.

Meanwhile, as his presidency proceeded, Roosevelt became increasingly aware of the rising tensions in the world, with aggressive regimes in Japan, Germany, and Italy. Fluent in German, he had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original and found it disturbing. Since the United States lacked a foreign intelligence service, during his first term Roosevelt began improvising one, recruiting people who had international business connections, such as his cousin Kermit Roosevelt and World War I hero William Donovan, both Republicans, to gather information during their travels. This information was often immensely valuable in helping Roosevelt cope with the intricacies of foreign policy during the increasingly turbulent ‘30s, with Japanese aggression in China, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, German rearmament, and Fascist and Communist intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

Of course it was the war in Europe that really sparked American rearmament, albeit that there was still resistance to even modest measures all across the political spectrum, from isolationist “America Firsters” to Communists. On Sep. 8, 1939, with the war in Europe underway, Roosevelt proclaimed a "limited national emergency." As existing legislation authorized more personnel than were actually in uniform, this permitted Roosevelt to order increases in the manpower: the Army was allowed to recruit 130,000 men to reach 280,000, the Navy added 25,000, to rise to 145,000, and the Marines about 7,000, bring the Corps up to 25,000. Meanwhile, the National Guard was authorized to raise its active strength from about 200,000 to 242,000, and states were subsidized to begin raising a 110,000-strong home guard – usually dubbed “State Guards”.

In May 1940, the President requested military spending be increased to $1.1 billion (perhaps $36.5 billion today for equipment of equal quality, which would hardly match modern capabilities). He also declared that the nation must be prepared to produce 50,000 new aircraft a year, a figure ridiculed by some – including Hitler – but actually exceeded during the war. In mid-June, as the Germans overran France, Congress ordered construction of 167,000 tons of combat ships and 75,000 tons of auxiliaries, an increase of about 11 percent, which was followed by a bill expanding naval aviation; From June 12 through July 1, 1940, the Navy awarded contracts for 66 new ships.

In July, in the face of fierce resistance by isolationists and pacifists, Congress passed what became known as the “Two Ocean Navy” bill, part of a package of emergency defense measures that appropriated about $12 billion by October of 1940. The bill included $4 billion for new ships: seven battleships, 18 aircraft carriers, 27 cruisers, 115 destroyers, and 43 submarines, plus many auxiliary vessels, totaling 1,325,000 tons of new combatants, 100,000 of new auxiliaries, and 15,000 new aircraft, an overall increase to the fleet of 70 percent.

By mid-1940, it had become clear that serious expansion of the Army could no longer be deferred. On Aug. 27th Congress authorized the federalization of the National Guard, which would shortly bring in 300,000 men, and then three weeks later, on Sept. 19th, passed the Selective Service Act. The latter was renewed, amidst near-hysteria in some circles, by one vote on Aug. 12, 1941, not four months before Pearl Harbor.

During his years in office, Roosevelt also made occasional suggestions that proved valuable, supporting experimentation with rotary-wing aircraft in the mid-1930s, promoting the conversion of merchant ships into escort carriers, and urging the development of the destroyer escort, often against some resistance from senior naval personnel.

Despite the modest naval buildup that began in 1933, and the more serious rearmament measures taken later in the ’30s, America was not well prepared for war by the time of Pearl Harbor. But the country was a lot readier than it would have been without those programs, which made an important difference in the way the war unfolded.

The Road to War. Although he issued a proclamation of neutrality when war broke out in Europe in September of 1939, F.D.R. reminded Americans that neutrality did not necessarily mean they should have no sympathies. Many of the actions taken that were declared to be in support of U.S. – and Hemispheric – neutrality favored the Allies over the Germans, if only by default. For example, within days of the outbreak of the war, F.D.R. instituted “Neutrality Patrol,” a program under which U.S. (and later Latin American) warships and aircraft were to monitor the movements of all shipping in Western Hemisphere waters to prevent hostile actions by any of the belligerents. Since the British didn’t have enough resources to secure the sea lanes in these waters from German attack, the policy distinctly favored them. Likewise, “The Neutrality Acts” were modified or ignored. One result was “cash and carry,” which permitted the sale of war matériel to belligerents provided they could pay cash and take it away in their own ships. This also favored Britain, which had extensive investments in the U.S. that could be turned into cash, and the ships to move the goods, in contrast to Germany, which had no money and was incapable of sending merchant vessels to the Americas. As the war dragged on, and American opinion increasingly favored the British, the president’s actions became even less neutral. He had early entered into a correspondence with Winston Churchill, and later met with the Prime Minister at sea at Argentia Bay in Newfoundland to frame “The Atlantic Charter,” essentially a summit conference that set mutually acceptable war aims. Meanwhile, American aid to Britain became increasingly overt. The “Destroyers-for-Bases” deal and “Lend-Lease,” which was soon extended to the Soviet Union when Hitler invaded, were both essentially violations of strict neutrality, as they involved the transfer of war matériel from a neutral to a belligerent. As time went on, American aircraft and warships helped interdict German shipping and tipped the Royal Navy off to the presence of German merchant vessels or submarines. American personnel even served as “advisors” on British ships and aircraft; during the “Bismarck Chase” in May of 1941 the German battlewagon was first spotted by a U.S. naval aviator flying a “Lend Lease” PBY for the British. By late 1941 the U.S. Navy was in state of quasi-war with German U-boats.

Arguably, F.D.R.’s focus on Germany led to missteps in dealing with Japan. Almost to the very day of Pearl Harbor the President seems to have believed that either a deal could be worked out with Japan or hostilities postponed until the Spring of ‘42. The claim that he deliberately “provoked” Japan into attacking the U.S., however, doesn’t hold water: He thought the U.S. should get into the war with Germany, which was not inevitable if the U.S. went to war with Japan.

Winning the War. The nation’s principal strategic decision, “Germany First,” was actually developed by the Navy, and then agreed to by the Army and approved by the President well before Pearl Harbor. During the war, Roosevelt generally limited his actions to matters appropriate to his office, concentrating on policy and grand strategy, the latter in cooperation with various allied leaders through a series of summit conferences. He maintained close contact with Army Chief-of-Staff George C. Marshall and the Chief of Naval Operations, initially Harold R. Stark and later Ernest G. King. From time to time FDR decided contentious issues between the services, most notably at the “Pacific Strategy Conference” in Hawaii in July of 1944, when he decided in favor of Douglas MacArthur’s proposal to liberate the Philippines rather than Chester Nimitz’s plan to by pass the archipelago and capture Taiwan.

Arguably some of Roosevelt’s decisions created problems in the post-war period. The most notable was the decision at Yalta in February of 1945, with Churchill in somewhat reluctant agreement, to give the Soviet Union special status in Eastern Europe. While this greatly strengthened Soviet power, it was essentially agreeing to a fait accompli. It’s also worth recalling that at the time the agreement was made, it was widely believed the war in Europe still had six months to run, and that the Soviets would be needed to help defeat Japan, which was expected to take another year.

Roosevelt died on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, three days short of the 80th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, less than four weeks before Germany surrendered (on May 8th) and four months before Japan requested an armistice (on August 15th).

The president had four sons, all of whom served in the war.


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