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Ken Burns Overlooks Secret of FDR’s Success: Power of the People

President Franklin D. Roosevelt seated at desk with microphones shortly after giving an evening radio address to the people of the United States. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

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Was Franklin Roosevelt our greatest president? In his remarkable 14-hour documentary series for PBS, The Roosevelts, Ken Burns makes that claim, but not without giving due credit to FDR’s distant cousin Theodore (who inspired him to enter public life and whose own bold presidency laid the foundation for the New Deal) and his wife, Eleanor (who pushed FDR to be bolder than he might otherwise have been).

Although Burns gives historians William Leuchtenburg and Geoffrey Ward (who is also Burns’ creative partner) air time to praise FDR’s achievements, Burns cleverly – perhaps even somewhat wickedly – allows conservative pundit George Will to argue that FDR transformed both the presidency and American society more than any other individual in the nation’s history.

FDR “fundamentally changed the relationship of the citizen to the central government,” says Will. “We are all living today with an office enlarged permanently by Franklin Roosevelt.”

But missing from The Roosevelts is the real secret of FDR’s success – the escalating protests that created a sense of urgency throughout the country and the political savvy of a small cadre of FDR’s progressive advisers.

Will and other talking heads acknowledge that great public figures emerge in times of crisis and that FDR confronted two of the nation’s most severe emergencies – the Great Depression and World War II. In explaining how FDR rose to the occasion, the series gives primary credit to his noteworthy personal qualities. Burns and his interviewees describe FDR as courageous, bold, supremely self-confident, optimistic, not rigidly ideological, open to new ideas and willing to experiment. In his actions and speeches (including his popular fireside chats on the radio), FDR gave Americans confidence in themselves and reminded them that the national government could be a positive force in their daily lives.

But missing from The Roosevelts is the real secret of FDR’s success – the escalating protests that created a sense of urgency throughout the country and the political savvy of a small cadre of FDR’s progressive advisors.

FDR had not run for president as a progressive, and he took office with no bold plan to lift America out of the Depression. When he was elected in November 1932, and even after he took office in March 1933, FDR’s ideas about what to do were very unclear. He promised Americans a “new deal” but he had very few specifics. In fact, FDR was at first a cautious politician. The one clear idea he had in mind when he took office was to cut the federal budget, and the person he hired to do that job was his budget director, a conservative Congressman from Arizona named Lewis Douglas. He was also, initially, reluctant to use the power of government to regulate business practices, to create jobs, to support union organizing, or to support struggling farmers.

Taking office in March 1933, more than three years into the Depression, FDR inherited a nation that had lost faith in itself and in the social order. More than 13 million Americans were jobless. Right-wing demagogues competed with a flourishing radical movement of angry farmers, veterans, workers and others for the loyalty of the American people and politicians.

FDR also worked with a Congress that had a huge filibuster-proof Democratic majority. In 1932, voters gave FDR 57 percent of the vote. Equally important, the Democrats went from 37.7 percent of House seats in 1928 to 49.6 percent in 1930, to 71.9 percent in 1932. (There were 313 Democrats in the House). In addition, voters sent 59 Democrats to the Senate, which then had 96 members. Two years later, in 1934, the Democrats increased their margin in the House to 322 and in the Senate to a whopping 69 members. It was only after the 1934 landslide that Congress enacted most of FDR’s major New Deal reforms.

Burns’ documentary series tells the story of those remarkable accomplishments. But what he overlooks is the battle for FDR’s heart and mind.

With a large Democratic majority in Congress, including a significant number of members who were considerably to his left, FDR instigated economic and social reforms that saved and humanized capitalism, despite the barbs of many critics, including most newspapers and business leaders, who accused his New Deal agenda of leading America to socialism. During his first two terms, FDR oversaw some of the most far-reaching economic and social legislation in the nation’s history, including Social Security, protections of workers’ rights to unionize, a federal minimum wage, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new regulations on banks, public utilities and business stock transactions, a huge work relief program for the unemployed and unemployment insurance. Several government-sponsored enterprises brought electricity and jobs to rural areas, including the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Civilian Conservation Corps put 300,000 young men to work in 1,200 camps planting trees, building bridges and cleaning beaches. The Public Works Administration (PWA), and later the Works Progress Administration (WPA), provided jobs to millions of Americans to build schools, libraries, hospitals, airports and roads. It also paid artists, writers, actors and others to create murals, produce plays and musicals, and write travel guides and oral histories.

Burns’ documentary series tells the story of those remarkable accomplishments. But what he overlooks is the battle for FDR’s heart and mind. It was a battle that went on inside and outside the White House.

Battle Inside the White House

Inside the White House, it was a battle between FDR’s progressive advisers and cabinet members (including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, and, perhaps more than anyone, Eleanor) and his more moderate and even conservative advisers.

Outside the White House, it was a battle between mass organizations (most of them led by radicals) and business groups. The grassroots groups included labor unions, community organizing groups, veterans’ organizations, and organized small family farmers, including a radical group called the National Farmers Union. The business groups included banks, manufacturers, the real estate industry and corporate farmers. These business groups were split between reactionary business leaders and more moderate groups – and even a handful of liberal corporate leaders who recognized the need for reform.

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”

FDR, as well as members of Congress, were influenced by the rising tide of protest taking place all over America. When the Depression began in 1929, most Americans were afraid, paralyzed, blamed themselves, felt ashamed and were not sure what to do – or whether there was anything to do at all. By the time FDR took office in 1933, the nation was more than three years into the Depression. By then, the anger that had been simmering under the surface had erupted into large-scale protest.

FDR recognized that his ability to push progressive legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by protesters – workers, World War I veterans, the jobless, the homeless, and farmers – even though he did not always welcome working closely with these constituencies. The well-worn story that ends with FDR telling a group of activists, “I agree with you. Now, go out and make me do it,” has never been documented, but it is emblematic of the New Deal era. As protests escalated throughout the country, FDR became more vocal, using his bully pulpit to criticize big business and to promote policies to jump-start the economy, protect the needy and expand workers’ rights.

By the time he ran for re-election in 1936, FDR occasionally sounded like a radical. He directly confronted the business leaders who believed that the upper-class president was a “traitor to his class.” He said, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”

But to understand how FDR got to that point, one has to see it in the context of the battle for FDR’s heart and mind.

Frances Perkins’ Maneuvers

Frances Perkins excelled at the “inside/outside” game. Shewas one of a handful of FDR’s close inner circle advisers with regular access to the president. FDR trusted Perkins’s political judgment and her lobbying skills. She was effective at outmaneuvering and out-arguing some of the president’s more conservative advisers. She was also adept at working with labor and consumer groups, advising them about which Congress members to lobby, what arguments to make and when to resort to protest and rallies to draw attention to issues and help push legislation over the finish line.

Perkins consistently supported workers’ right to organize unions and to pressure employers. For example, in May 1934, San Francisco’s longshoremen’s union, led by Harry Bridges, went on strike against the big shipping companies. The business leaders, with the support of police, tried to reopen the docks with replacements, but strikers held their ground, thwarting the police escorts, seizing the trucks, and dumping the cargo into the streets. Two strikers were killed, and dozens of longshoremen and cops were injured in the waterfront battle called “Bloody Thursday.” The governor called in the National Guard, who restored order, but the calm was only temporary. The ship owners had not made any concessions, and the longshoremen were now angrier than ever.

“I have come to the conclusion that the Department of Labor should be the Department for Labor, and that we should render service to working people.”

A dramatic silent funeral procession down Market Street swung public opinion in favor of the strikers. Bridges urged the dockworkers to avoid further violence with police or soldiers. Instead, he called for a general strike, which he hoped would bring the ship owners to the negotiating table. The longshoremen shut down the docks. The Teamsters expanded their sympathy strike from the waterfront to the rest of the city. About 130,000 San Francisco workers – printers, streetcar operators, bakery-wagon drivers and others – stayed home from work to show their solidarity with the longshoremen. It was the first general strike in the United States since the Seattle walkout in 1919.

The city came to a standstill. The papers called the strike a “civil war” and a “Communist-led insurrection.” The city’s business leaders, as well as state and city officials, implored Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was standing in for FDR while the president was out of the country, to mobilize federal troops to quell the general strike. Hull agreed with them. FDR’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, told Perkins that a general strike was tantamount to an attempt to overthrow the government.

The unflappable Perkins rushed to a naval communications facility to get a message to FDR before he heard from Hull or Cummings. He not only sided with Perkins – saying the strike should be settled through negotiations, not military force – but he also made it clear to the other cabinet members that she was in charge of handling the crisis. As Perkins predicted, the workers returned to work within two days, the employers and the union negotiated their differences, and the workers won better wages and working conditions, and a union-sponsored hiring hall.

Perkins said, “I have come to the conclusion that the Department of Labor should be the Department for Labor, and that we should render service to working people.” She was true to her words. Perkins also played a pivotal role in most of the important social and workplace legislation, including Social Security and the federal minimum wage, enacted during the first half of the 20th century.

Saving the Farm Economy

Henry Wallace also had FDR’s ear and his trust and used it skillfully to persuade the president that bold actions were necessary to address the farm crisis and quell the growing anger of America’s farmers.

“Unless something is done for the American farmer, we will have a revolution in this country within less than twelve months.'”

Between 1929 and 1932, farm income fell by two-thirds. Farm foreclosures were occurring at a record pace. As Adam Cohen recounts in his 2009 book Nothing to Fear, these experiences radicalized many farmers throughout the farm belt. For example, in May 1932 – while FDR was campaigning for president against incumbent Herbert Hoover – 2,000 farmers attended a rally at the Iowa state fairgrounds and urged fellow farmers to declare a “holiday” from farming, under the slogan “Stay at Home – Buy Nothing Sell Nothing.” In effect, they were urging farmers to go on strike – to withhold their corn, beef, pork and milk until the government addressed their problems. They threatened to call a national farmers strike if Congress did not provide farmers with “legislative justice.” In Sioux City, Iowa, farmers put wooden planks with nails on the highways to block agricultural deliveries. In Nebraska, one group of farmers showed up at a foreclosure sale and saw to it that every item that had been seized from a farmer’s widow sold for five cents, leaving the bank with a total settlement of just $5.35. In Le Mars, Iowa, a group of farmers kidnapped Judge Charles Bradley off the bench while he was hearing foreclosure cases and threatened to lynch him if he did not agree to stop foreclosures.

The farm belt protests continued after FDR took office in March 1933. “Farmers were becoming more radicalized by the day,” Cohen writes in Nothing to Fear. “Edward O’Neal, president of the Farm Bureau Federation, warned Congress that ‘unless something is done for the American farmer, we will have a revolution in this country within less than twelve months.'”

Wallace kept FDR aware of these protests and used the growing farm rebellion to persuade the president to support a number of innovative and controversial programs, including crop subsidies, to keep farmers afloat. Wallace was the key advocate for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Farm Credit Administration, and the food stamp and school lunch programs, all of which improved conditions among farmers and hungry Americans.

As a result, the US Department of Agriculture changed from a marginal department into one of the largest agencies, in size and influence, in Washington. Wallace’s agency was also widely considered the best-run department in the federal government.

Business groups and Republicans in Congress opposed Wallace’s plans, as they did most of the New Deal initiatives. Radical farm groups, like the National Farmers Union, thought the plans did not go far enough. But it is clear that the New Deal farm programs saved the farm economy and helped stabilize rural areas.

During FDR’s first two terms, Wallace developed a broad following among farmers, union activists and progressives. FDR was impressed by Wallace’s popularity, his intelligence and his integrity and believed that they shared a common view of government’s role in society. In the summer of 1940, having decided to run for an unprecedented third term, FDR picked Wallace to be his vice presidential running mate.

The Power Behind the Women

Eleanor Roosevelt played a similar role as a progressive voice within the White House and as someone who had close ties to progressive and even radical figures and organizations that wanted an even bolder New Deal. She effectively pushed FDR to appoint women (including Perkins) to key positions in government.

Active with a number of civil rights organizations, often serving as their voice within her husband’s administration, ER got to know A. Philip Randolph, the head of the nation’s first African-American labor union (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and the nation’s preeminent civil rights activist. By 1940, the nation was gearing up for World War II, but African Americans were consistently being excluded from well-paying jobs with private defense contractors. Only 240 out of 107,000 workers in the aircraft industry were black. Even where they were hired, they were consigned to the worst jobs.

Randolph looked FDR in the eye and told him, “Time is running out. We want something concrete, something tangible, positive and affirmative.”

After hearing Randolph speak about these issues, ER arranged for Randolph, Walter White, and T. Arnold Hill (from the Urban League) to meet with FDR on September 27, 1940. FDR listened, but did not make any promises. FDR’s chief military and cabinet advisers opposed integration of the armed services and the defense industry.

Angered by FDR’s indifference, Randolph formulated a plan and came up with a slogan: “We loyal Negro Americans demand the right to work and fight for our country.” He set up a National March on Washington Committee. He enlisted the NAACP, the Urban League, the porters, and black newspapers to spread the word. They set a date for a mass march on the nation’s capital: July 1, 1941. Randolph kept the heat on, writing FDR letters demanding a meeting and upping the number of marchers to 100,000 African Americans – a frightening idea to the president and to most white Americans.

Discrimination in wages and seniority persisted in the defense industry. The armed services remained segregated.

FDR heard about the proposed march, but refused to schedule another meeting with Randolph to discuss it. FDR asked Eleanor to contact her friend Randolph to urge him to cancel the march. She eventually persuaded her husband to agree to another meeting. On June 18, 1941 – two weeks before the scheduled protest march – Randolph and Walter White sat down with FDR at the White House. Randolph looked FDR in the eye and told him, “Time is running out. We want something concrete, something tangible, positive and affirmative.”

“How many people do you plan to bring?” FDR asked him. “One hundred thousand, Mr. President,” Randolph responded. This figure staggered the president. He turned to White, who headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “Walter, how many people will really march?” FDR asked. “One hundred thousand, Mr. President,” White said without hesitation.

FDR relented. A week later, on June 25, FDR signed Executive Order 8802, which Randolph had helped draft. It stated, “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” The order also created a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate reports of discrimination. Randolph called off the march.

In reality, the FEPC did not live up to Randolph’s expectations. Discrimination in wages and seniority persisted in the defense industry. The armed services remained segregated. As blacks migrated to northern cities to take the worst jobs in the defense plants, they encountered racism from whites at work and in the housing market. Nevertheless, weak though it was, the FEPC marked the beginning of federal efforts to end racial discrimination in employment. Future efforts would build on this foundation.

Could Randolph have pulled off the threatened march of 100,000 African Americans? If anyone in America could have, it would have been Randolph, and that is what FDR feared. Although FDR had promised much more than he delivered, Randolph – and America – had learned valuable lessons about power and about organizing. Whether or not he was bluffing, Randolph faced down the president with the threat of a massive protest march. FDR reluctantly agreed to Randolph’s demands.

In 1948, Randolph not only again threatened mass protest if President Harry S. Truman failed to order an end to segregation in the military, but he also urged black men to resist the draft until the president relented. Truman was furious, but he signed an executive order commanding integration of the armed forces and of federal civil service jobs. And in 1963, Randolph’s ties to the civil rights and labor movements helped him organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which had over 250,000 participants. Both of these marches – one canceled, the other carried out – were major milestones in America’s march toward economic and racial justice.

None of these incidents can be found in Burns’ series on the Roosevelts. In fact, there are few scenes of Depression-era protest in the documentary. But, in fact, the widespread protest by angry Americans led by progressives, and the savvy inside maneuvering by a handful of FDR’s trusted, and most progressive, advisers – accounted for much of his willingness to try bold ideas that turned into his major accomplishments as president. That was the secret of FDR’s success.

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