A War of Words and
Words of War: The Purge
and the Isolationists
In the later half of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt addressed two persuasive problems. One he initiated, the other he reacted to. On his own impetus, he conceived and executed the purge of 1938. The preparation-for-war rhetoric was his response to foreign events and domestic isolationists. The purge, contrived for good reasons but conducted in a maladroit manner, was the second of a one- two self-inflicted wound that he dealt his rhetorical presidency--the other was the ill-fated Court fight. His war rhetoric, although often characterized by advance-retreat, was vindicated on December 8, 1941. As the purge was petty, so the war rhetoric was a prime accomplishment in Roosevelt's rhetorical presidency. Both persuasive campaigns, against domestic and foreign infidels, illustrate the possibilities and limitations of presidential rhetoric.
On the face of it, the purge addressed a genuine need, as the Court-packing scheme had in 1937. Elected as ostensible New Dealers, many Democrats-- closet conservatives, often from the South--bolted Roosevelt's coalition in the Court fight and found comfortable quarters with their Republican brethren in obstructing the president's liberal political agenda in 1937-38. At issue were Roosevelt's executive reorganization bill and the wages and hours measure. With the early victory of Senator Lister Hill in the Alabama primary in January 1938, Roosevelt and his cabal of purgers--his son James Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, Tom Corcoran, and Harold Ickes--concluded that they should help Claude Pepper in his senatorial primary race in Florida. When Pepper won handily over his