Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

14.
James MacGregor Burns: Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom

With the publication of Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom ( 1970), James MacGregor Burns completed a distinguished two-volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The book was awarded both the Pulitzer and the Naonal Book awards for its broad scope, literary style, and erudition. Soldier of Freedom is concerned with every aspect of Roosevelt's wartime Presidency, and foreign policy and military developments are naturally prominent. But the sections on domestic policy during the war are especially illuminating, and some of the highlights of that material are reprinted below. Burns argues that the war opened up opportunities for important social gains, as the government expanded its influence over American life in ways the New Dealers had never dreamed of. Not all these opportunities were lost. Government responsibility for economic stability and growth, for example, became a fact of life which even Republicans ultimately accepted. But crucial opportunities were allowed to slip away. The government might have used the wartime emergency to redistribute income, to provide adequate housing and health care for all citizens, and to make a bold attack upon the inferior social position of racial and ethnic minorities. Improvements in American race relations were an especially inviting goal in view of the identification of the Nazi ideology with racism. But the government did not make satisfactory progress toward these goals, and the chief responsibility for this failure rests with Roosevelt.

Burns, of course, does not lay all the blame upon a single man, even one who happened to be the Chief Executive. He concedes that the demands on Roosevelt's time and energies were incredibly heavy and often wonders how the President kept his poise and his health as well and as long as he did. And, as a political scientist, Burns is particularly sensitive to the obstructive power of Congress, which was even more reactionary during the war than it had been in the 1930s. But in the end he places much of the fault for the meager social gains of the war upon the shoulders of Roosevelt. For it was the President who decided not to intervene in the 1942 elections to secure a more liberal Congress, who frequently shunned political conflict with established interests, who declared that the New Deal was over, who devised the haphazard planning apparatus that failed to produce clear social goals or effective postwar plans for reconversion. Roosevelt's ideals were as steady as ever: He was, as he said in the 1930s, a Christian and a democrat, and also a humanitarian who had begun to move against worldwide poverty and oppression just as he had fought in the 1930s against injustice at home. But he never linked his ends with appropriate means, never devised plans or

From James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, 1940-1945, pp. 271-273, 280-281, 300-302, 305-307, 421-426, 459-468, 606-609, 611-612. Copyright © 1970 by James MacGregor Burns. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

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