A Look Back At Roosevelt And His Legacy Of Hope

LIKE Abraham Lincoln before him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the enormous satisfaction of knowing before his death (50 years ago today) that he had accomplished the great tasks he had set for himself.

In 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered six days before Lincoln's assassination on April 15. Lincoln's war had been won. He was already thinking about binding up the wounds and reuniting the nation.

In 1945 when, on April 12, President Roosevelt was enjoying a relaxed chat with friends while sitting for his portrait in the cottage at Warm Spring, Ga., he knew that victory was assured. The war was almost over.

On the day before, Lt. Gen. William Simpson's Ninth Army had reached the Elbe at Magdeburg, Germany, and the Russians had launched the offensive that would soon bring them first to Berlin and then to the meeting on the Elbe.

On that pleasant April morning at Warm Springs, Roosevelt had another reason to feel content with his achievement during his presidency.

When, 12 years before, he had first come to office in the White House, his country was in the depth of its worst depression. Some 10 million workers were not only unemployed but also at the end of their resources, with no pension, no savings, and no hope.

Roosevelt had restored hope almost at once, largely by the vibrancy of his personality. Despair gave way to hope, and soon a fountain of new federal programs began to revive employment and business activity.

Roosevelt was not a trained economist. (His contemporaries at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., including Walter Lippman, regarded him as a pleasant but unimpressive playboy more interested in club life than in academic work.) Yet as president he had an instinctive awareness of what was wrong with the American economy and what had to be done to correct the trouble.

The essential fact about the US in 1933 was that a very large number of people had run out of buying power. They had no money. The American economy could produce endless goods of every variety, but it had learned how to produce with fewer and fewer workers.

The same was true on the farms. Before, even a small family farm had employed one or more ''hired hands.'' But the new tractors, harvesters, corn and cotton pickers, and a hundred other labor-saving devices had washed out the need for human labor.

The new machines, perfected and deployed during the first quarter of this century in the United States, marvelously increased productivity and disastrously decreased the ability of the masses to buy what could be produced.

Henry Ford had glimpsed the problem, and the solution, when he announced a $5-a-day minimum wage for his workers. They had to have money to be able to buy his cars.

Putting money back in pockets

The New Deal legislation of the early Roosevelt years was designed to revive buying power -- the ability of the people to buy food, clothes, and manufactured goods.

The marketing of the New Deal programs was largely done with the humanitarian argument. But the economic effect was to put money back into people's pockets. Roosevelt understood that you can't have prosperity without buyers.

One can only wonder what would have happened to the American economic system, indeed to American society, had Roosevelt not sensed the need for reviving the purchasing power of the ranks of the people. The smell of rebellion was in the air.

During President Herbert Hoover's term, the bonus marchers had come to Washington. These were the veterans of World War I who had been promised a bonus some day. They were out of work. They wanted their bonus not years later, but then, when they desperately needed to buy food for wives and children.

Hoover called in the cavalry from Fort Meyer, across the Potomac River, to drive them out of Washington. But farmers were meanwhile organizing another march on Washington. Others were talking about marches. Too many people were living in shacks, near the town dumps, on pickings from the garbage, for domestic peace.

The largely unregulated enterprise system that prevailed down to the New Deal had one great flaw. It did not provide ways and means of maintaining mass-buying power. Its weakness reached a climax in the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed. If Roosevelt had not come along to revive mass buying power -- no one knows what would have happened. Something would have cracked.

Something had to be done

In my home town of Toledo, Ohio, every third person was subsisting on charity and every third storefront downtown was empty. The country was in trouble. Something had to be done. Roosevelt did something. Things began to get better, slowly at first, very slowly. The economy didn't revive again until war production and the draft sopped up surplus labor and put buying power back into the hands of the majority.

Then came the war, and the job of producing the weapons of war, and organizing the manpower in the armed forces, and sending weapons and men to the battle fronts. And then Allied retreat turned into resistance and then into counterattack, and -- first in Europe, and then in the Pacific -- the aggressors were turned back.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat down in an easy chair that morning 50 years ago he was a contented man. He had not only led his country in a tremendous victory at war, out of which it emerged as the greatest power on earth, he had also left with it an economic system that could survive a downturn of the economic cycle with none of the horrors the country had suffered in the Great Depression.

His work was finished. One can only wish that he might have been allowed to enjoy for a little longer the knowledge of his success.

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