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5 Pivotal Moments In FDR's Life – And How My Understanding Of Them Has Changed

by John Traynor 21st May 2019

Historian John Traynor looks back at how his conception of key episodes in President Roosevelt's life has evolved over time.

As I was finishing off my latest book, Mastering Modern United States History (2nd edition) I realised with a combination of pride and alarm that I have been writing for Macmillan / Palgrave / Red Globe Press for more than thirty years! Given that my first book, published in 1987, was on FDR, I thought it might be interesting to take a brief look at some of the new ideas on Roosevelt and the New Deal that have come into focus in the ensuing period.
Here are five areas that caught my eye in terms of contrasting my thinking then with now.
  1. FDR’s illness in 1921: While it has long been clear that the Polio attack of 1921 was a pivotal moment for Roosevelt in every sense, not least his development personally, recent research offers fascinating new detail on the nature of the medical advice he received at the time. It is now clear from detailed examination of the course of Roosevelt’s devastating illness that the physician who attended FDR was guilty of serious mistakes in his judgement of the medical emergency. While this may not have changed the course of the illness, the details of this episode are intriguing.
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  2. The Presidential election of 1936: I think that when I wrote the first book I believed that Roosevelt had effortlessly cruised to a second victory in 1936. In fact, it is now clear that the heavy burden of presidential office in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of the 20th Century was already taking its toll. Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, was sharply critical of his initially lacklustre campaign while FDR himself lamented his lack of motivation. Perhaps for the first time, I really appreciated the personal burden he was shouldering even at this early stage.
  3. Agriculture and the New Deal: I can clearly remember writing with great enthusiasm about the many rural recovery projects connected to the New Deal. Now, I would note that many experts in this area see these schemes as rather quaint and anachronistic. Little or no thought was given to the long-term consequences of such programmes and remarkably many sharecroppers and tenant farmers were worse off after government intervention.
  4. Limitations of the New Deal: Recent research into the New Deal has revealed serious limitations as well as obvious strengths. For instance, liberal policymakers were constrained by the southern system of racial oppression which meant that earnest New Dealers had to work hand-in-hand with the forces of racism.
  5. FDR’s performance at Yalta: We are probably all familiar with the photographs of a weary, poorly looking president at Yalta in February 1945, two months before his death. This remains an area of great interest and new research offers fascinating insights into the President’s willpower and battling performance at Yalta.
Image credit: Photo of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta Conference in 1945. Taken by US Government and available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
These are just some personal thoughts on how things have changed between 1987 and 2019. One thing has certainly not. FDR remains a figure of the greatest importance in shaping the modern history of the United States.
Featured image credit: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park, 1932. Photograph taken by Oscar Jordan and available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY 2.0.