President Roosevelt: Struggle with the Isolationists--Political Situation (1930s)


Figure 1.--

The President, flush with his sweeping electoral success in 1936, was embolded to confront the Supreme Court. The Court was the only branch of government still dominated by conservative Republicans, but the justices were using their power to virtually dismantle the New Deal. The President sent Congress a bill designed to reorganize the Federal judiciary. The impact of the effort badly damaged the President politically. This weakened his habd in the fight with the Isolationists. The fight over the Ludlow Amendment in Congress illustrated a dramatic shift in the political situation. Many of the progressive forces in Congress with isolationist and pacifist sentiments had abandones the President to vote with the President. The Administrations victory in defeating the Ludlow Amendment was achieved by holding the largely pro-national security Southern Democrats. The fact that the New Deal failed to act on issues like lynching and emmigration has to be seen with this political dynamic in mind. The President after his Quarantine speech (October 1937) put national defense and preparation first. His success in large measure is due to the fact that he maintained his focus and priority. It is easy to criticize what he did not do. It is also also unimaginable to consider the consequences if he had failed to defeat the isolationists. There is also no doubt that he was going to allow the fight with the isolationists to be couched as a debate over collective security. The Quarantine sppech in fact was essentially a statement of collective security, but only in these such generalized terms did the President dare to reveal his true feelings. This was a fight that the President even with his persuasive powers would have lost. This was because wile he could bring the Southern Denocrats along on military preparadness, he would have lost many of them on collective security. Isolationist feeling was strong in the South, although it was not combined with pacifism as was the case of some of the progressive forces that had deserted the President to vote for the Ludlow Amendment. The President's political position was weakened in the 1938 Congressional byelection, when Republica for the firt time since 1930 picked by Congressional seats. So during the late 1930s, the President persued what could be achieved and that was a low level of military preparaness. It was far short of what was needed, but it was what could be achieved with the prevalent isolationist sentiment and in fact laid the foundation for the air and naval power tht would win World War II.

Presidential Campaign (November 1936)

The Democrats overwhelmingly renominated President Roosevelt. The Republicans nominated Governor Alf Landon of Kansas. The United States after 4 years of the New Deal wa still mired in depression. The campaign was fought largely on domestic issues and was essentially a referendum on the New Deal. Landon attacked the competence of the Roosevelt Administration and the New Deal, charging that there was massive waist and unproductive spending. Besides the criticism he provided no real depression-fighting program of his own. The New Deal had not ended the Depression, but the economy had improved and various New Deal agencies has ameliorated the difficult conditions of many Ameicans. The President did not actively enter the fray until October. He ten began a series of trips and radio broadcasts. The President proved to be a political campaigner without peer. Landon sensing defeat attacked Social Security justa few days before the voting. This was a New Deal program passed in 1935 and due to go into effect in 1937. One would think the President''s inability to end the Depression after 4 years would have hurt him. It did not. American voters appear to have concluded that at least the President was attempting to solve the problem while the Republicans essentially wanted to block his efforts. President Roosevelt scored one of the most sweeping electoral victories in American history. Roosevelt won 61 percent of the popular vote, the greatest electora; victory in a contested election up to that time. He gannered nearly 99 percent of the electoral vote. The Presiden's victory was accompnied by further Democratic gains in Congress, virtuaslly emasculating the Republican opposition.

Court Packing Episode (1937)

The President, flush with his sweeping electoral success in 1936, was embolded to confront the Supreme Court. The Court was the only branch of government still dominated by conservative Republicans, but the justices were using their power to virtually dismantle the New Deal. The President sent Congress a bill designed to reorganize the Federal judiciary. Opponents immediately dubbed it the "court-packing bill". The President used one og his Fire Side Chats to explain the bill (March 9, 1937). The National Recovery Administration which was the most important New Deal agency was ruled unconstitutional by the Court. The Court also struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The President's proposal was to expand the number of justices on the Court which would allow him to appoint justices sympathetic to the New Deal. The press which had long been hostile go the New Deal led a storm of protest. It played into the hands of Republicans who had been charging with little traction that the President was trying to create a dictatorship. (Ironically many of these same individuals were resisting the President's efforts to confront the dictatorships abroad.) The President's proposal seems to have caused a change on the court, especially with Justice Owen Roberts who began voting with the loberal minority. Journalists described this as "the switch in time that saved nine." The President's bill, however, was severely criticized and failled in Congress. The question became moot, however, when the retirement of justices enabled the President to appoint justices with a liberal, pro-New Deal outlook. The impact of the effort badly damaged the President politically. This weakened his habd in the fight with the Isolationists.

Ludlow Amendment (1934-38)

Isolationists sought to put as many limitations as possible on the possibility of America ever going to war again. Congressman Louis Ludlow from Indiana prposed a constitutional amendment requiring a national referendum to approve any Congressional declaration of war--unless the United States itself was attacked. FDR took the threat seriously and had his son James pass on to the press his thoughts as to why this would be harmful. [Freidel, Rendezuous, p. 289.] It was not just a vague threat. Ludlow submitted his proposal in 1935 during the Ethiopian crisis. It had been bottled up in committee by the Democratic leadership. Ludlow had not, howver, given up. And by late 1937 had almost enough signatures to secure relase. The Panay Incident (December 1937) brought the extra sigatures needed. Passage would have been a virtual no-confidence vote in the President's conduct of foreign affairs. [Davis, p. 156.]

Political Calculations

With one major exception, most of the major reforms of the New Deal were passed by Congress during President Roosevelt's first term (1933-37). The First Hundred Days were one of the most important periods of legislation in American history. The Republican Party was reduced to a relatively weak opposition in Congress. Liberal reformers were ascendent. The basically conservative American public was willing to tolerate deep-seeded reforms as a result of the Depression crisis. More than any single legislative achievement, what the New Deal changed was public attitudes toward the role of government, especiallt the Federal Government. Since the New Deal, Americans have expected the Government to address major problems faced by the American people. The power of this change is such that it now seems strange to think that before the New Deal this was not what Americans expected of their governent. Until the New Deal, individuals were expected to solve their own problems, especially economic problems. President Roosevelt and his Congressional allies, however, did not have a free hand. While the Republican opposition had been reduced, a critical part of the New Seal Semocratic coalition was the largely conservative Southern Democrats. A noted New Deal scholar explains, "The chief strength of te opposition to his foreign policy came from the sources he counted on to uphold his domestic meeasures. It looked as though he might have to chose between them. It amounted to this: he could risk collective security to get domestic reform, or he could risk domestic reforms to get an acceptable foreign policy." [Tugwell] The fight over the Ludlow Amendment in Congress illustrated a dramatic shift in the political situation. Many of the progressive forces in Congress with isolationist and pacifist sentiments had abandones the President to vote with the President. The Administrations victory in defeating the Ludlow Amendment was achieved by holding the largely pro-national security Southern Democrats. The fact that the New Deal failed to act on issues like lynching and emmigration has to be seen with this political dynamic in mind. The President after his Quarantine speech (October 1937) put national defense and preparation first. His success in large measure is due to the fact that he maintained his focus and priority. It is easy to criticize what he did not do. It is also also unimaginable to consider the consequences if he had failed to defeat the isolationists. A measure of the President's skill is that despite the deteriorating the growing power of the conservatives that he managed to guide one of the most important New Deal legislative measure through Congress--The Fair Labor Standards Act. This along with the Social Security Act (1935) are the twin pillars of the New Deal.

Roosevelt Srategy

President Roosevelt in late 1938 began a cautious strategy of confronting the NAZIs within the limited scope permitted by the IUsolationists in Congress and the considrable support that they enjoyed with the American public. The President persued a multiple prong strategy. First, President Roosevlt began to promote what he call "Hemispheric Defense". While public opinion was resolutely oposed to any involvement in Europe. Defense of the Americas was a different matter for which there was considerable public support as well as Republican support. Second, America must begin to rearm. The United States had a sizeable navy, but the army was miniscule. Here the threat was not yet obvious for huge increases, but increased defense spending could be achieved because even many isolationists supported it. The President after Munish was especially interested in air craft production. Third, the President began to pomote changes in the Neutrality Acts. The Allies could order arms in America, but once war broke out this would no longer be possble. FDR saw that this had to be changed. Third, the President began to use American diplomacy to influence the NAZIs. The basic card Roosevelt had to play was the threat of American industrial support the Allies. This meant in effect that beginning with Munich the Hitler and the NAZIs were in a race to defeat the Allies (Britain and France) before the weight of American industrial might could be mobilized. [Freidel, Rendezuous, p. 306-307.] The Kaiser and German generals made the same gamble in 1914. Hitler came much closer to suceeding.

Roosevelt's Tactics

Notice that Tugwell writing after World War II above uses the term "collective security". After Pearl Harbor that became an acceptable term. It would have been, however, political suicide for the President to advocate collective security. This was what President Wilson had advcated in the fight for the Treaty and League of Nations. Wilson lost that fight. Roosevelt had been a strng advicate for the Treaty and League and spole for it as Vice Presidential candidate in 1920. The result was a desvestating electoral defeat and a decade of Republican acendancy. There is no doubt that the President as Tugwell suggests was a strong believer in collective security. There is also no doubt that he was going to allow the fight with the isolationists to be couched as a debate over collective security. The Quarantine sppech in fact was essentially a statement of collective security, but only in these such generalized terms did the President dare to reveal his true feelings. This was a fight that the President even with his persuasive powers would have lost. This was because wile he could bring the Southern Denocrats along on military preparadness, he would have lost many of them on collective security. Isolationist feeling was strong in the South, although it was not combined with pacifism as was the case of some of the progressive forces that had deserted the President to vote for the Ludlow Amendment. So during the late 1930s, the President persued what could be achieved and that was a low level of military preparaness. It was far short of what was needed, but it was what could be achieved with the prevalent isolationist sentiment and in fact laid the foundation for the air and naval power that would win World War II.

Economic Downturn: The Roosevelt Recession (1937-38)

Historians discuss why President Roosevelt's popularity declined fter his stunning 1936 electoral victory. Several developments have been postulated, but none was probably more important than the economic downturn that the press quickly labeled the Roosevelt recession. Unemplyment began to increase (September 1937). Substantial declines were reported n each of the follwing months. Continued but less precipotous declins were reported in the first half of 1938. Substantial production declines were reported and sharp declines were reported in the stock market. The economy lost much of the gains that had been achieved during the New Deal. Economists debate the cause of the Recession. Some New Dealers believed that it resulted from the machinations of anti-Roosevelt industrialists. Many econmists today believe it was largely the result of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau's efforts to control spending a balance the budget. The economy did not turn up again until the Government began increasing spnding again followed soon after by an influx of military orders from Europe. The downturn had profound political consequences. Essentially conservative Americans had been willing to tolerate liberal reformers when they seemed to be resolving the Depression. The economic downturn, however, convinced many voters that the New Deal reforms were not working.

Congressional By-election (November 1938)

The Republican Party had since 1930 steadily lost Congressionl seats in each election. The Republicans by 1938 had only 88 Congressmen and 16 Senators. This was not a viable opposition, although they could often count on support from conservative Democrats. The 1938 election, however, was to prove a shocking and unexpected reveral of the President's electoral magic, in effect essentially ending the New Deal. The principal development was that after several years of improving economic conditions, the economy begn to turn down again and by 1938 the country was experiencing a serious recession--the press dubbed it the Roosevelt Recession. This time the public did begin to blame the Presidebnt and the New Deal. The President's response was to prepare further government involvement and reforms. He also decided to enter the Congressional races and work against anti-Mew Deal legislators, including Democrats. The press called in a purge, lickening it to what Stalin was doing in the Soviet Union. Another factor was the backlash from his failed Court Pcking scehme. This and the purge charge appears to have had some resonace with the Republicans who had been charging that the President wa trying to create a dictatorship. An upswing of violent labor incidents was widely reported in the press which often blamed the workers. Many voters seem to have associated the violence with the New Deal, specifically the National Labor Relations Act (1935). Middle-class voters not only reacted to the violence, but began to thanl that the New Deal was to closely tied to organize labor. The results devestated the President politically. The Democrats lost 6 Senate seats and 71 House seats. The Republicans nearly doubled their Congressional position. And many of these Republicans were extremely hostile to the President with isolationist views. Many of the Democrats which were defeated were the most ardently New Deal Democrats. Few conservative Southern Democrats lost their seats. While the Democrats still had comfortable majorities in both houses, the Republicans and Southern Democrats now frmed a cinservative coalition that made further New Deal reforms unlikely. The election also made the Isolationists a very real challenge to the President's ability efforts at military preparadness and to resist the dictators.

Presidential Campaign (November 1940)

The 1940 presidential election is arguably the most important election in American history. The first American President, George Washington, retired after two 4-year terms. This set a precedent that every other president had followed. FDR because of the international crisis decided to run for a third term which became a campaign issue. The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. His Republican opponent was a surprise choice, Wendell Willkie, a wealty busniessman who had swept the Republican primaries. Willkie did not crticise FDR's support for the democracies, by the time of the camapign only England. His nomination was an indication of the shift in public opinion toward intervention. Willkie instead pledged "all aid to the Democracies short of war". He attacked the New Deal on domestic issues, what he referred to as the socialistic policies of the Administration. Roosevelt's foreign policy was, however, an issue in the campaign. The isolationists led by the American First Committee accused FDR of trying to drag America into the war. Speaking in Boston on October 30, the President assured his audinence, "I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Usually the phrase was "foreign wars" and usually the President added, "unless we are attacked". The election was another victory for FDR, but not the landslide of previous camapigns. Still FDR carried 39 of the 48 states. The election, however, was much closer than suggested by the results. FDR saw his re-election as strong pupblic support for a program of military preparedness and aid to Britain.

Sources

Black, Conrad. Franklin Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs: New York, 2003), 1280p.

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940 (Random House: New York, 1993), 691p.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p

Tugwell, Rexford. The Democratic Roosevelt (New York, 1957).








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