'Franklin Delano Roosevelt' Distilled In historian Alan Brinkley's biography, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he calls the former president the most important individual of the 20th century. Roosevelt presented national concerns to the public with his Fireside Chats.

'Franklin Delano Roosevelt' Distilled

'Franklin Delano Roosevelt' Distilled

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In historian Alan Brinkley's biography, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he calls the former president the most important individual of the 20th century. Roosevelt presented national concerns to the public with his Fireside Chats.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
By Alan Brinkley

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After the election of 2008, pundits and armchair historians were quick to compare Barack Obama with another American president who faced a banking crisis, high unemployment and entered the White House with the burden of huge expectations - Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As he pressed ahead with his New Deal, FDR also encountered venomous attacks from the Right, disappointed exasperation from the Left. But along the way, he transformed the U.S. government and the Democratic Party, prepared an isolationist public for a global conflict, became the principle architect of an allied victory and of the world that followed the Second World War.

In a new biography, historian Alan Brinkley describes him as the most important individual of the 20th century. If you've questions about FDR's legacy, his accomplishments and shortcomings, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, what we learn about the man accused in the bomb attempt over Detroit, from 300 online posts - says Farouk 1986.

But first, Alan Brinkley the Nevins professor of history at Columbia University, the author of this short biography titled �Franklin Delano Roosevelt.� He joins us today from our bureau in New York. And Alan Brinkley, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor ALAN BRINKLEY (History, Columbia University): Nice to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And the most interesting part of your book, I found, was the description of FDR as a man with millions of admirers and almost no intimate - a person whose personality was elusive and even deceitful at times.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, he was a very complicated man, and he, of course, had millions of admirers and many acquaintances, but as you say, very few friends. He was a man who kept his inner self to himself and seemed to have an almost infinite ability to adapt himself to whomever he was talking to, but very few people with whom he was really intimate.

CONAN: And this is a personality trait that he began to develop in dealing with his mother, an imperious woman of - I gather - and one who kept him on an allowance until 1941.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, it is true that he had a long struggle - a long and loving struggle - to win some independence from his mother. But also, one of the things that shaped his personality I think was his father's ill health, starting when he was very young boy and he learned to keep his feelings to himself to avoid upsetting his father who had a heart condition and everyone was afraid that even the slightest stress might make his health worse.

CONAN: And then there's the great physical crisis of his life, the attack on polio, and he erected this ebullient, cherubic personality to sort of divert people away from the fact that he couldn't walk.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, the polio certainly did enhance his need to project an ebullient, jolly personality and he used his personality to disguise his paralysis. He would walk through a room, wearing steel braces and holding on to the arm of a aid or a son, and he would be talking to everybody and smiling and waving, just to keep the attention to his face and not to his legs.

CONAN: And a lot of changes from that bout with polio. His personality is fascinating, yet inevitably you are drawn back to the case that his father was an aristocratic, well, gentleman, who dabbled in businesses but really, as far as Franklin's life, mostly, was - stayed at home. And again, as you said, during the last part of his life, was bound to his bed by illness. And indeed, that's what Franklin's mother wanted him to do.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Exactly. His mother wanted him to give up politics after he had polio and move back to Hyde Park, where he could be a gentleman farmer and be under the thumb of his mother for the rest of her life. And Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well, would have none of that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BRINKLEY: And they conspired along with Louis Howe, his closest aide, until he became president. And they are ones who helped him restore his political career after - while he was trying to recover from polio at the same time.

CONAN: He clearly liked political roughnecks like Louis Howe, and these were men his mother despised.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, Louis Howe was a newspaper reporter and he was certainly not an aristocrat. He was a, sort of coarse, even sort of profane, speaking man, and Sarah Roosevelt just hated him. And he lived in the house with them for much of the time and then later lived in the White House for the short time before he died - when Roosevelt became president. Sarah Roosevelt thought he was way below Franklin's level and shouldn't have been involved with him at all. But, in fact, I don't think Roosevelt would ever have become president without Louis Howe.

CONAN: One more question about personality, then, of course, there's a lot to talk about in terms of politics. But nevertheless, one episode that is hard to understand, he formed a very close relationship with an aid named Missy LeHand - you say it was not a romantic relationship, but nevertheless very close, while he was in the White House. She later suffered from a stroke and was in bed, sick, in the White House and he never once visited her?

Prof. BRINKLEY: As far as anyone can tell he never went to visit her in the White House. So, it's may not - it may be that he saw her but there's no evidence that he did. He was not a man to hang on to relationships there weren't any longer helpful to him. And Missy LeHand was probably, of all the people in his life during his presidency, the person who was closest to him, until she had the stroke. And then, once she was disabled, he was of no more use to her.

CONAN: That sounds awfully cold.

Prof. BRINKLEY: She was her no�

CONAN: Awfully cold.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes, well, he was in many ways a cold man. For all of his public warmth, he was a fairly cold man.

CONAN: Is the comparison to the situation the country faced on the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the situation we faced last January with Barack Obama taking office - is it accurate, do you think?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, there are some parallels. And clearly the economic crisis that Obama inherited is often compared to the Great Depression, although the crisis, at least so far, is not nearly as bad as the Great Depression was. One big difference is that Obama came into office very shortly after the crisis began, whereas Roosevelt became president after four years of depression.

And so, is as discredited as the Republican Party seemed in 2008, Roosevelt was facing Republican Party that was so deeply discredited by the four years of depression that had preceded his election, that he had almost carte blanche, in dealing with the Congress - something that Obama has not had.

CONAN: Let's get callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Alan Brinkley whose new book is, �Franklin Delano Roosevelt.� 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. And we will start with Will(ph). Will calling us from Swartz Creek in Michigan.

WILL (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

WILL: Aren't we sort of over glamorizing FDR. It seems like I've seen in the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, comments about FDR, programs, about him - that he was a notorious anti-semi. He made many derogatory remarks of people that we wouldn't tolerate today. Wasn't he also responsible for turning a boatload of German refugee Jews back to Germany, when - which - all of them -perished. So, this does not sound like a man to be admired.

CONAN: Alan Brinkley?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, it is certainly not true that he was a notorious anti-Semite. Turning away the St. Louis, which I should add the leaders of several other countries did, as well, is not an action that anyone should admire. That wasn't really Roosevelt's call, directly. That was the State Department's decision. Roosevelt could have overruled it, but didn't. But Roosevelt was far from an anti-Semite. In fact, there were more Jews in Roosevelt's administration than in any previous administration.

WILL: That's - wow, I don't know if I can accept that because my gosh, turning away that boatload, whether it was not - it was on his watch.

CONAN: Oh, no question it was on his watch.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes, it was.

CONAN: Indeed, in your book, Alan Brinkley, you say he clearly could have done more to assist Jewish refugees. In fact, just 1,000 or so were brought into the United States.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, there were many more than 1,000 that came in, but about 1,000 were brought in through the War Refugee Board that was created towards the end of the war, when it was really too late to save very many Jews from Europe. But I don't defend the turning away of the St. Louis, but that is not the same as saying that he was a notorious anti-Semite, which he certainly was not.

CONAN: And, indeed, if there was one great moral failing of the - of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it was presumably that of declining to take up the cudgels of civil rights, which his wife certainly wanted him to do.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes, she did. And Roosevelt resisted this because he believed, perhaps correctly, that were he to do so, he would lose support from all of the Southern Democrats in Congress, which was a very significant part of his - the Democratic coalition.

CONAN: Nevertheless, he did not push integration in the armed forces, which did not happen until after his death. And that was under his successor.

Prof. BRINKLEY: That's right - under Truman, in 1948.

CONAN: So those things aside, and they certainly have to be reckoned in, and these are important aspects of things that went on in his life. Nevertheless, Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the country.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes, he did, in many ways. He - yes, I mean, there certainly are issues, moral issues, ethical issues for which he can be severely criticized. But you have to remember that Roosevelt believed that he had one clear mission, which was to revive prosperity in the aftermath of the Great Depression. And he saw all these other things - civil rights, even international issues - as a kind of distraction from the crisis of the Great Depression.

CONAN: We're talking with Alan Brinkley about his new biography, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt." More of your calls after a short break - 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided this country through some of its darkest times. Though he himself came from a background of privilege, his isolating experience with polio, which left him paralyzed, may have made him more empathetic with those less fortunate.

We're talking with Alan Brinkley about his new biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You can read an excerpt about FDR's early life on our Web site at npr.org. If you have questions about FDR's life and legacy, his accomplishments and shortcomings, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Mack(ph), Mack with us from Charlotte.

MACK (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

MACK: A couple of questions. I had heard it was not Roosevelt's back-to-work program that got this country back on its economic footing, but the war. Which is it, and would you please comment on the results or the consequences of the radical right's criticism of Roosevelt, calling his programs communistic and/or socialistic. And I'll take your comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, Mack. Thanks very much.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, Roosevelt was not a - not someone that the right admired. That's for sure. And he had a kind of reputation on the right comparable to, oh, maybe the way the right is attacking Obama today.

As for the, you know, the ending of the Great Depression, Franklin - it's absolutely correct that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression. When Roosevelt entered office, there was 25 percent unemployment. His policies helped create some reduction in that unemployment, down to about 15 percent, but until the war, unemployment rarely went very much below 15 percent. And the Depression, which was really a 13-year depression, didn't really end until well into World War II.

So I think Roosevelt's policies kept things from unraveling and kept things from getting worse and in some ways made things better, but he did not end the Great Depression.

CONAN: It's interesting. You say he was - got venomous criticism from the right, and that's quite correct. He also disappointed a great many of his supporters on the left.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes, he did, just as Obama seems to have been doing in the last few months, as well. People on the left thought Roosevelt didn't go far enough. People on the right felt that he was destroying capitalism and was a socialist, and some of the same charges that Obama is getting. Socialism is being used all the time to describe Obama, and communism was a term often used against Roosevelt.

CONAN: And we forget, though, the attraction of those great -isms in the 1930s, when American-style capitalism was under such siege, such desperate unemployment. Times were so bad that many people found other ideologies extremely attractive, both on the right, fascism, and on the left, communism.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, there were these three great ideologies battling themselves through the '30s and into the war: communism, fascism and democracy, capitalist democracy. And Roosevelt was obviously the international representative of democracy as we understand it.

And I think that's the greatness of Roosevelt, is that he - that he defended that ideology and led the world, led the democratic world, to destroy fascism and to begin the battle or the rivalry with communism.

CONAN: And though much of Europe was ceded, effectively, to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, you argue that, in fact, toward - by the Tehran Conference - indeed, that was before Yalta, and certainly by Yalta -neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had much leverage over Mr. Stalin and the Red Army.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, the Red Army already occupied most of Eastern Europe, and so the question facing Roosevelt and Churchill at the end of the war, or towards the end of the war, was how do you restore the old regime to these Eastern European countries - Poland in particular. And the answer was to start another war, to go to war against the Soviet Union, and no one was prepared to do that. So, yes, in a way, Roosevelt and Churchill did cede Eastern Europe to communism, but it was a cessation that, to do otherwise, would have created another world war in the immediate aftermath of the one that had just ended, which I think is not something that anybody was prepared to do.

CONAN: Jim's(ph) on the line, calling from Palo Alto.

JIM (Caller): Yes, well, about the war, wasn't it Roosevelt that backed up after we had already taken Berlin? Anyway, but my real question is: When did Roosevelt first learn about the Nazi death camps, the Holocaust, and why didn't he speak out against them? And didn't Roosevelt know ahead of time - and the likely attack on Pearl Harbor when he withdraw our defenses from there?

CONAN: A lot of accusations there. The Soviets took Berlin. Perhaps American forces conceivably might have beaten them there, but it was a terrible, bloody battle to take Berlin. But anyway, go ahead.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yeah, no, the American forces were never pulled back from Berlin. They just were - they just didn't get to Berlin as fast as the Soviets did.

As far as Pearl Harbor goes, no one pulled back any defenses of Pearl Harbor. One could argue that there should have been better defenses in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, but...

CONAN: Well, John Toland, the historian and fiction writer, also thought that Roosevelt wanted the excuse of an attack at Pearl Harbor to get the United States into the war unequivocally, and that he knew about it in advance and did little to stop it.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I think there's no very good evidence of that. It's certainly true, I think, that Roosevelt understood that his policies in the Pacific was going to lead to a war with Japan, at least in the last month or so before Pearl Harbor. He understood that a war was coming, and his policies had made that more likely.

But I don't believe any of the arguments that he understood that Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked and wanted it to be attacked just to get us into the war. I think that's not something that very many historians would accept.

CONAN: Let's now go next to Joan, Joan with us from Dorchester in Massachusetts.

JOAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Joan. You're on the air.

JOAN: Oh, hi. I wanted to know if Roosevelt ever realized what a great mistake he made in interning the Japanese. Did he realize it or admit it later?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I'm not sure that he ever repented his role in the Japanese internment, one of the worst civil liberties infringements in our history, I think. Roosevelt really didn't play much of a role in this. His attorney general opposed the internment, but the War Department thought it was important to do, and Roosevelt, for the most part was, you know, left those decisions to the War Department and didn't protest.

I'm not aware of his ever saying anything about it later on that suggested that he thought that it was - had been a mistake.

CONAN: Joan, thank you.

JOAN: Thank you.

CONAN: I guess the other question that people ask, he, of course, authorized the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. Is there any indication of how or if he would ever plan to use it?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I think the odds are that he would have used it if he thought that it was necessary to end the war, but there's nothing in any records about what Roosevelt's intentions were. In fact, the atomic bomb was still something that, you know, was very much an unfinished project when he died. So he had no way of knowing what an atomic bomb really was or whether it was ever going to be possible to create one.

CONAN: You point out in your introduction to your book that Franklin Delano Roosevelt has no shortage of biographers. Here's an email question from Catherine(ph): Why do historians feel compelled to rewrite biographies? What can Alan Brinkley's 128-page book tell us we don't already know?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I doubt that there's anything in my book that isn't - is entirely new. I've been a New Deal historian through most of my adult life, so perhaps some of the things in the book are unique to me. But the point of this book was really just to give people an introduction to Franklin Roosevelt.

There's so many biographies of Roosevelt, and enormous ones, many, four or five volume, so there's a lot of competition for who has written the longest Roosevelt biography. I'd probably win the contest of the shortest one. It's 100 pages. I wouldn't call it even really a biography. It's a kind of introduction to Roosevelt and his life and his achievements and, to some degree, his failures.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Paul: While he was not perfect, he did many good things and certainly was far more successful than any Republican politician of his day or since. He writes, the right will never forget him -forgive him for succeeding as a Democrat and for saving the elderly with Social Security. And one thing you do know - you do note in your book is that, indeed, politicians to this day still take positions on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mr. BRINKLEY: That they do. And, in fact, there's a fairly robust anti-Roosevelt movement in the contemporary right, I think inspired by Obama and his interest in Roosevelt. There's been - for a long time, there were no books of any consequence that were anti-New Deal. But in the last five years, I think there have been five or six such books, including a very successful book by Amity Shlaes called "The Forgotten Man."

CONAN: Yet, there was - in a lot of ways, if you think about Ronald Reagan's presidency, a lot of the intellectual content of that was to roll back communism, which he saw the legacy of Yalta and Roosevelt and, indeed, to roll back the New Deal.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, I think you could argue that the Reagan administration was the beginning of a repudiation of the New Deal. Although, you have to remember that Reagan was himself a New Dealer as a young man and, in fact, continued to admire Roosevelt while he was president. He hosted a luncheon for - in honor of Roosevelt while he was president and invited many New Deal historians and New Dealers themselves to come to it.

CONAN: And yet, this - there are Democrats, many of them to this day who say, this is the champion of the common man, that in the 20th century, the man who was able to extend the role of government to say that government was able, indeed, obligated to step in and take action when nothing else worked.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, I think Roosevelt probably had the most success in helping ordinary people to identify with government of any president. And that's what made him so powerful and that's what allowed him to be reelected three times was that he seemed to identify with the least among us. And that's a rare talent in a politician.

But Roosevelt had a - who was such an aristocrat himself and so isolated from the world, nevertheless, managed to create this connection with working people and farmers and people who were unemployed, who saw him as someone who identified with their misery and their problems. And that's what made him such an extraordinary politician.

CONAN: Alan Brinkley's book is �Franklin Delano Roosevelt.� You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to John. John with us Vancouver in Washington.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm hoping that a biography in the future might change the diagnosis FDR's paralytic illness from polio to the more likely diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, there's a lot of dispute over what his illnesses were and there were many of them. There's a book that's just come out, which I haven't read, that argues that he had cancer as well as everything else. So, I think there's a lot of accusations about what his health problems were but not very good evidence about what they actually - what actually was ailing him.

CONAN: There had been studies, though, that suggested that John is correct, but indeed, you just site it as polio. And as far as we know, that's what he believed he had.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well - and he knew that he had heart problems in his last year or so, but he didn't really want to learn about his own illness, so he just did what the doctors told him and didn't want to hear about it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John. There is - we were talking at the beginning of this conversation about the fact that he had in some ways a very cold personality. There was one circumstance in which he seemed to open himself up to people a little bit more directly, and that was at Warm Springs, the site that he very largely with his own money developed into a refuge for polio patients.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Yes. In the '20s, when he was looking for a cure for polio himself, he bought this little resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, and turned it into a center for people who were trying to recover from what at the time was usually called infantile paralysis. And one of the things that he loved about Warm Springs were the swimming pools there because for people with polio, the water was a wonderful therapy. It allowed people to move around in a way that they couldn't on the ground.

But nothing that Roosevelt did actually cured anyone. But what Roosevelt managed in Warm Springs was to give a kind of confidence to people, even very young people who were there, to - as a kind of model of someone who could rebuild his life even after polio. And Warm Springs was not so much a medical facility as it was a place to build up the confidence and the psychological health of people who would - who were suffering from the aftermath of polio.

CONAN: And we just have a minute left, but I would be remiss if I did not bring up his relationship with his wife, Eleanor, who, of course, had a career of her own and a following of her own, and whom you describe as, well, very largely estranged for most of their marriage.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, starting in the late teens, so they'd been married for some years before that, she discovered that he'd had an affair with her own social secretary and that really changed the character of their marriage. And yes, there was a real estrangement between them but also a bond as well. Bonds of history, bonds of politics, and bonds I think of their own - bonds of affection, but not of a marriage of the kind that we normally imagine.

CONAN: Well, Alan Brinkley, thank you very much for your time today and thank you very much for the book.

Mr. BRINKLEY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Alan Brinkley's book is "Franklin Delano Roosevelt," and he joined us today from our bureau in New York.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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