The Real 100 Days

Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering his inaugural address, March 4, 1933. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, image 48224291.

The chronically insecure Richard Nixon appointed a Hundred Days Group to try to ensure passage of the requisite amount of legislation in his first hundred days.

Newt Gingrich declared one in 1995, pledging that the Contract with America would be passed in one hundred days.

In 2011 Andrew Cuomo congratulated himself on a successful first hundred days when the New York legislature passed an on-time budget for the first time in many years.

And so it has been for elected officials since 1933—many of them trying to evoke for themselves the warm glow of accomplishment that accrued to Franklin Roosevelt after his famous first hundred days, March 9 to June 16, 1933.

Much is being made today about the impending end of President Trump’s first hundred days and whether his record of accomplishment will live up to his promises. But it was the news media, not Franklin Roosevelt, who gave the benchmark its name. Its origins might give students of history pause.

The first “first hundred days” marked the period between Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba on March 20, 1815, the turbulent battles including his defeat at Waterloo that ensued, and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII—under escort from the Duke of Wellington—on July 8, 1815. (It was actually a period of 111 days, but the French are not such sticklers for precision in the face of a grand pronouncement.) Thus it was the prefect of Paris, Gaspard, Comte de Chabrol, who first used the term “les Cent Jours” in welcoming the return of the king and the Bourbon monarchy. Were the newsmen of 1933 being ironic in dubbing the Roosevelt’s first months in office a modern-day “cent jours”?

We will never know, but it may be worth revisiting the historical context of the modern concept of the hundred days. Roosevelt took office at a time of unparalleled national despair. Trump may have described the country as beset by American “carnage” in his inaugural, but it is impossible for us to imagine the state of the nation when Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933.

A string of bank closings beginning on February 14 had sent the nation’s financial system into a new crisis.  Most of the nation’s banks were closed. On inauguration morning the governors of Illinois and New York closed the Chicago and New York stock exchanges.

These were the final weeks of what historians have come to call the “interregnum,” the seemingly interminable four months between the election and inauguration of FDR. After this terrifying episode of presidential limbo, Inauguration Day was changed from March 4 to January 20.

But the conditions in 1933 were just the most recent in a series of economic disasters. Since 1929 the Great Depression—the deepest and longest in our history—had tested the endurance of Americans. Eighty years later the grim statistics of life in the United States in 1933 remain shocking.

Depression era breadline, New York City, 1932. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, image 7420(244).

In a population of about 125 million, one in four workers was jobless.  In industrial cities like Youngstown, Ohio, close to three-quarters were unemployed.

Nineteen million Americans depended upon meager relief payments to survive. There was no national safety net.

Those lucky enough to have jobs earned (on average) 30 percent less than three years earlier.

Over 1,300 municipalities—and many states—had defaulted on their obligations to creditors.

Two statistics, selected from thousands, capture the sense of paralysis that gripped the nation.

  • In 1929 the US Steel Corporation—a cornerstone of the American economy—boasted 225,000 full-time employees. In 1933 it did not have a single full-time worker.

 

  • The nation’s farmers were in even worse shape. Farm prices fell 53 percent from 1929 to 1932; farm income fell 70 percent. By early 1933, 45 percent of farmers were delinquent on their mortgages.

Violence erupted at farm foreclosure sales and the homeless gathered in tent cities called Hoovervilles.

Some voices, fired by desperation and fear, even called for a suspension of constitutional government and near-dictatorial powers for the president. Instead the new president famously declared in his first Inaugural Address:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

He called for “action, and action now.”

Immediately on taking office, the banking crisis consumed the president and his advisors.  Columbia law professor Raymond Moley, head of Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, and the new Treasury Secretary William Woodin worked day and night with Hoover’s financial team, including former Secretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills and other holdovers from the previous administration.

The plan they adopted was essentially that of Hoover’s team, a conservative approach designed to save rather than subvert the capitalist system.

On his first full day in office, by executive order, Roosevelt declared a four-day national banking holiday effective Monday, March 6.

He then called Congress to Washington in special session. Their first task was to pass legislation under which the banks could be reorganized and reopened.

On March 8, to explain the banking plan, FDR held the first of the 997 press conferences of his twelve-year presidency.

On March 9, five days after his inauguration, he signed the Emergency Banking Relief Act. It gave him broad discretionary powers over banking and currency and was introduced, passed, and signed in less than eight hours.

Roosevelt’s advisors believed it was key to get people to deposit, not withdraw, their savings from the banks. To explain the plan to the public, the president delivered his first Fireside Chat, on banking, on March 12.

In plain language Roosevelt spoke to the America people as if speaking to a single family gathered around their firesides.

He calmly and clearly explained the reorganization. “My friends,” he said, “ I want to talk for a few minutes . . . about banking. . . . I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.” He explained the phased reopening of the banks, concluding by asking the public to return their savings to the reorganized banks. “My friends,” he assured them, “it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.” Amazingly, people returned their precious savings to the re-opened banks.

The people also began a national conversation with their new president. In the week following his inauguration, more than 460,000 people wrote to FDR. He was forced to replace Hoover’s one mailroom clerk with a staff of fifty; over the course of his presidency, an average of six thousand people a day wrote to their president.

On March 16 Roosevelt decided to keep Congress in session to move forward on the relief and reform measures that would address systemic problems in the financial system, agriculture, and industry—and meet the immediate problems of food, shelter, and work for the suffering masses.

The list that follows is the standard of accomplishment that has proved an elusive benchmark for every president who followed.

March 20, Economy Act. Ironically, an attempt to reduce the budget—this act cut veterans’ pensions, reduced federal salaries by 15 percent, and reorganized several government agencies. It was the opening salvo of the New Deal. Like most Democrats, FDR believed a balanced budget would put the government on sound financial footing. So the regular federal budget actually contracted even as the new emergency spending skyrocketed. He believed the Economy Act would save $500 million; the actual saving was about $240 million. The real value was probably in terms of morale, a signal of the new administration’s determination to act decisively.

March 22, Beer–Wine Revenue Act. As the repeal of the Volstead Act of 1919 made its way through the states, the Beer–Wine Revenue Act legalized the sale of wine and beer that contained no more than 3.2 percent alcohol—and people rejoiced. The act went into effect on April 7. The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was enacted on December 5, ending the failed experiment of Prohibition.

March 31, Civilian Conservation Corps Reconstruction Relief Act. This act created 250,000 road construction, soil erosion, flood control, national park, and reforestation jobs for young men on relief between the ages of 18 and 25. Those employed received $30.00 weekly, $25.00 of which was sent to their families. The CCC employed more than two million young men (referred to as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”) by the end of 1941 and is credited by some historians with a vital role in preparing young men for the war effort.

April 19, Abandonment of Gold Standard (executive order). This brought about a decline in the dollar value abroad, but commodity, stock, and silver prices increased on American exchanges.

May 12, Federal Emergency Relief Act. This act vastly enlarged and reorganized Hoover’s Emergency Relief Act. It was administrated by Harry L. Hopkins and was replaced by the WPA in 1935. Half of the $500 million appropriation was allotted to the states.

May 13, Agricultural Adjustment Act. At the time about 30 percent of the American workforce was agricultural. The AAA was designed to raise farm prices by cash subsidies or rental payments to farmers in exchange for curtailment of production and by establishing parity prices for certain basic commodities. Funds came from taxes levied on farm product processors. This feature of the AAA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1936.

May 18, Tennessee Valley Authority Act. This act authorized the TVA to construct dams and power plants and to produce and sell electric power and nitrogen fertilizers in a seven-state region. It inaugurated Roosevelt’s vision for progressive land and social reform, model communities, and resettlement, reforestation, and agricultural educational programs.  It also provided the basis for the Sunbelt, the industrial development of the Tennessee Valley. Between 1933 and 1945, electrification grew from about 2 percent to 75 percent of the population in the Tennessee Valley.

May 27, Federal Securities Act. This act required most new securities issued to be registered with the Federal Trade Commission and established the Securities and Exchange Commission.

June 5, Abandonment of Gold Standard. FDR signed the gold repeal joint resolution—which canceled the gold clause in all federal and private obligations—making all debts and contractual agreements payable in legal tender.

June 13, Home Owners Refinancing Act. This act authorized the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to refinance nonfarm mortgage debts. HOLC made loans on about one million mortgages by June 1936, or about 20 percent of the nation’s mortgages.

June 16, National Industrial Recovery Act. This act created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and established regulatory codes for control of numerous industries. Employers were exempted from antitrust action; employees were guaranteed collective bargaining and minimum wages and maximum hours. The second section of the act established the Public Works Administration (PWA), which provided employment by public works construction. The PWA spent more than $4 billion on 34,000 public works projects. In 1935 the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional.

June 16, Glass–Steagall Act. The Glass–Steagall Act created the Federal Bank Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits, separated investment from commercial banking to halt speculation with deposits, and widened the powers of the Federal Reserve Board. The Graham–Leach Act of 1999 repealed important provisions of this act, leading—many observers say—to the abuses that resulted in the recession that started in 2008.

June 16, Farm Credit Act. This act reorganized agricultural credit activities and agencies.

June 16, Emergency Railroad Transportation Act. This act created the office of federal coordinator of transportation and gave the Interstate Commerce Commission supervision over railroad holding companies. It tried to smooth out operating duplications and inefficiencies and required national railroads to limit layoffs due to consolidation.

***

And then — and only then — Franklin Roosevelt took a vacation. He left Washington for a sailing vacation and returned to the family vacation home on Campobello Island, for the first time since contracting polio there in 1921.

 

CHRISTMAS, 1941

Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library)

It was Christmastime when Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington on December 22, 1941—two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and eleven days after Hitler audaciously declared war on the United States.

For eighteen months Churchill had wooed Roosevelt, cajoling, charming, and even begging him to bring the United States into the war against Germany. Now Churchill’s prayers were answered:  the United States would certainly enter the war. On learning of the attack, Churchill later wrote, “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the thankful and the saved.”

Churchill had come to Washington to make sure that earlier agreements of an Anglo-American alliance against Germany (should America enter the war) remained firm in the face of the Pearl Harbor attack. Understandably, the American people had an overwhelming desire to strike back at the Japanese. Churchill needed to turn them from thoughts of revenge to Britain’s view of the realities of the Axis threat. His task was made more difficult by Japan’s stunning victories in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. In the Philippines American troops were trapped on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula and the Rock of Corregidor. Within a matter of days, Guam, Wake, and Hong Kong had fallen. American territories were being invaded and American lives lost. Americans wanted to throw everything they had against the Japanese.

Yet there was Britain’s precarious position to consider: if the Soviets fell, Hitler would throw his full strength into the temporarily delayed invasion of the United Kingdom. If Britain fell, what would be next for the United States? Germany was the more powerful of the foes. In an Anglo-American alliance, Churchill’s longstanding policy was the defeat of “Germany First.” He needed to make sure that the great power of the American war machine was leveled first against Hitler and second against the Japanese. Fortunately, Roosevelt agreed with him. But his position was not without dissent from some military advisors—and critics in the press and public.

Whatever his motives, Churchill’s presence was a tonic to the shattered Americans. On December 23 he joined FDR in a news conference in the Oval Office. More than two hundred journalists crowded into the room, some using edges of the president’s desk to take notes. “Wearing polka dot bow tie, a short black coat, and striped trousers,” Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us, Churchill

stared imperturbably into space, his long cigar between his compressed lips as Roosevelt spoke. When the time came for the prime minister to speak, reporters in the back called out that they could not see him. Asked to stand, Churchill not only complied, but scrambled atop his chair. “There was a wild burst of applause and then cheering,” The New York Times reported, . . . “as the visitor stood there before them, . . . with confidence and determination written on the countenance so familiar to the world.” (p. 303)

Bernard Baruch was among those invited to the White House that Christmas season. He “believed that Churchill’s visit would ‘galvanize’ American public opinion,” according to Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook.

With the Pacific fleet in ruins, Wake Island fallen, Singapore besieged, and the Philippines invaded, Baruch considered Churchill “the best Christmas present” to restore heart and hope to the Allied world. “The pink-cheeked warrior in the air raid suit” was the leading symbol of resistance to the Blitz: “Do your worst, we can stand it,” his presence seemed to say. “We won’t crack up.” (Cook, pp. 409–410).

Wartime blackout regulations and tight security precautions were already in place in Washington; nevertheless, Roosevelt insisted on lighting the national Christmas tree. Various reports describe the event. “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies,” he declared. Churchill joined Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the balcony of the White House before a crowd of 20,000 and in a national radio broadcast that reached millions. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” Churchill said, and then:

Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

On December 26 Churchill addressed a Joint Session of Congress, declaring himself half-American. “By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.” Much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s distress (who had a more internationalist vision), he stressed the unity and implied superiority of the English-speaking world, speaking of the “outrages they have committed upon us at Pearl Harbor, in the Pacific Islands, in the Philippines, in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, December 23, 1941. (FDR Presidential Library)

The White House hosted a steady stream of diplomatic and military dignitaries during Churchill’s two-week visit. Meetings were held every day and long into the night—including Christmas day when a War Council was held from 5:30 to 6:45 pm. The war planners set themselves to the business at hand: North Africa, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, military strategy, war production, tonnage, and the Far East were among the subjects of talks. Ambassador Maxim Litvinov from the USSR, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada, and the chiefs of the American Republics of South America and the Missions of the Allied Power and Refugee Governments came and went.

Since Churchill’s arrival he and FDR had been working on a Joint Declaration of Unity and Purpose for the Allies. As they laid the groundwork for war, they also began to frame the peace. It was FDR who suggested to Churchill on the morning of December 29th the name that would signify both war power and the promise of peace: the United Nations.

On New Year’s Day Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Maxim Litvinov of the USSR, and T. V. Soong of China signed the Declaration of the United Nations. An exultant Churchill declared, “Four fifths of the human race” has resolved Hitler’s end.

The next day twenty-two additional countries signed: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa, and Yugoslavia. Subsequently Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela signed.

Those countries that signed by March 1945 would become the founding members of the United Nations.

The Declaration read in part:

The Governments signatory hereto,

Having subscribed to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dated August 14, 1941 known as the Atlantic Charter.

Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world,

Declare:

(1) Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.

(2) Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.

 

What then was this Atlantic Charter that underpinned the entire agreement?

It was nothing less than a declaration of goals for the postwar world, an instrument for peace forged in the exigencies of war: “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, [it envisioned] . . . a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”

To ensure that world, Roosevelt and Churchill called for permanent disarmament and envisioned a “permanent system of general security.”

All of the nations of the world, for realistic as well spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten aggression outside of their frontiers, [the signatories] believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential.

Churchill had come to the Atlantic Conference seeking American entry into the war against Hitler to preserve the British Empire. The Atlantic Charter was Franklin Roosevelt’s vision, a reimagining of the lost promise of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed vision for an end to all war. Out of it grew the United Nations—an ambitious idea for a post-war world of peace, disarmament, decolonization, democratic self-determination, respect for human rights, and free trade.

This is the legacy of Christmas 1941—and a reminder of work we have yet to complete.

 

Sources:
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, Volume 3, 1939–1962. New York: Viking, 2016.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

 

On Democracy and the Election

fdr-1st-inaugural-copy

Franklin Roosevelt famously considered General Douglas MacArthur the most dangerous man in America.  Huey Long was number two.   What would he think of Donald Trump?

That got me thinking about what advice he might give us today.  When Roosevelt wanted the American people to face a difficult challenge, he often asked them to look to the past to find strength in the endurance of our forebears and wisdom in the actions of past leaders.  So, in the wake of our recent election, I turned to Roosevelt himself for some strength and wisdom.

Where, then, are the parallels for today? We face an uncertain future with an unproven president-elect whose campaign has stigmatized great swaths of the American public.

First of all, let us remember FDR’s charge to be wary of the hazards of fear.

Second, let us remember a comment from Woodrow Wilson that Roosevelt often repeated when things looked grim for progressive government. “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time” (as quoted in James MacGregor Burns, The Lion and the Fox, 1956, p. 54). Perhaps progressive government in our generation had its moment with the Obama presidency and the pendulum has swung back to the country’s natural center.

But Roosevelt also said in the aftermath of a conservative backlash in 1938, “You have read that as a result of the balloting last November, the liberal forces in the United States are on their way to the cemetery—yet I ask you to remember that liberal forces in the United States have often been killed and buried, with the inevitable result that in short order they have come to life again with more strength than they had before” (Address at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, December 5, 1938).

We are deeply worried today about our populace, which seems hopelessly divided into separate and antagonistic camps. Roosevelt had something to say about that too, and in the aftermath of this election it is a warning that bears serious attention. In 1940, with Hitler’s conquest of Europe complete but for the elimination of Great Britain, the United States was deeply divided—more divided, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, than he ever again experienced in his long life.

War hovered over all, and the argument between interventionists and isolationists grew each week more savage and despairing. There have been a number of fierce national quarrels in my lifetime—over communism in the later Forties, over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over Vietnam in the Sixties—but none so tore apart families and friendships as the great debate of 1940–41. Though historians have dealt ably with the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact in those angry days
[A Life in the Twentieth Century, p. 241].

While the attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to most national discord a year later, Roosevelt warned in his his 1940 Annual Message to Congress that internal conflict—which pits one group against another—is an open door to totalitarianism:

Doctrines that set group against group, faith against faith, race against race, class against class, fanning the fires of hatred in men too despondent, too desperate to think for themselves, were used as rabble-rousing slogans on which dictators could ride to power. And once in power they could saddle their tyrannies on whole nations and on their weaker neighbors.

Roosevelt was warning Americans to unite in the face of an external threat, but he was also speaking to a nation that was tearing itself apart. His deeper message was to strengthen democracy by uniting behind its values, which in 1940 as in 2016 require us to work together to use the tools of our democracy to preserve it.

Our times are not as desperate as those of 1933 or 1940. We are a nation that enjoys many blessings. We have serious challenges and we must meet them, but now is not the time for fear and dissention. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to strengthen our democracy, for what FDR said in 1940 must be reconfirmed in 2016. President-elect Trump used the tools of a demagogue to gain the presidency, but we must not allow the country to descend into autocracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FDR’s Last Personal Diplomacy: Ibn Saud and the Quest for a Jewish Homeland

The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States goes back seven decades, to when King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal.

New York Times, September 29, 2016

 With Saudi-American relations in the news again, I thought it worth remembering that today’s alliance had its beginnings in one last bit of Rooseveltian personal diplomacy: an attempt to use his redoubtable skills on behalf of European Jews.

The meeting with King Abdulaziz (often known in the West as Ibn Saud) took place immediately following the Yalta Conference in February 1945 when the Big Three—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Roosevelt—hammered out the final diplomatic agreements of the Second World War. Besides the conference with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt also arranged meetings with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia that are little remembered today.

By scheduling the meetings without Churchill’s knowledge, Roosevelt breached the United States’ longstanding hands-off policy respecting Britain’s sphere of influence in the region. When Churchill learned of the meetings, he hastened to schedule talks of his own. But a change was already under way.

The strategic importance of the Middle East had become increasingly clear during the war, and Roosevelt’s economic and military advisers were anxious to secure America’s military presence in the Middle East—as well as cement America’s budding oil-drilling partnership with Saudi Arabia. These were solid reasons for Roosevelt to meet with Ibn Saud, but there is ample evidence that Palestine was the main purpose of the president’s visit.

In 1944 both Republicans and Democrats vied for Jewish votes with pro-Zionist planks in their campaign platforms. But this statement from Roosevelt, read to the Zionist Organization of America on October 15, confirmed the loyalty of American Jewry to the Democratic Party. “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and Democratic Jewish commonwealth.   I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if reelected, I shall help to bring about its realization” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 259).

Historian Robert Rosen and others point out that Roosevelt had also privately promised his Jewish friends to try to solve the problem of Palestine before the war was over. Before he left for Yalta, he conferred with Rabbi Stephen Wise and told his Cabinet that he would meet Saud and “try and settle the Palestine situation” (quoted in Rosen, pp. 409–410).  Historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman recount that after the election he began to make plans for the Yalta trip, stating to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, “I am going to take a trip [the Yalta Conference] this winter and will see a lot of people. . . . I want to see if I can’t unravel this whole situation [the question of Palestine] on the ground,” leading them to conclude that Roosevelt hoped to use his personal, persuasive diplomacy to settle matters on Palestine (p. 297). In early January, Roosevelt told Stettinius that when he met with Ibn Saud after Yalta, he wanted a map with him that showed the small size of Palestine in relation to the Arab world in order to make the case that “he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs with the understanding, of course, that the Jews would not move into adjacent part of the Near East from Palestine” (Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

 Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Roosevelt’s translator at Yalta, Charles Bohlen, recorded in his memoirs Witness to History (p. 212) that Roosevelt raised the subject with Stalin during the Yalta Conference in a controversial conversation that contained an unfortunate remark that led some to label Roosevelt anti-Zionist. Breitman and Lichtman interpret the anti-Semitic exchange as an “ice-breaker,” which Roosevelt used to test the waters of Stalin’s potential opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine—and found no resistance (p. 301). Roosevelt biographer Frank Freidel agrees, “In actuality Roosevelt was stubbornly pro-Zionist, and had a difficult time with Ibn Saud when he tried to persuade the king to accept 10,000 more Jews in Palestine” (p. 594). Breitman and Licthman also tell us that Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who worked closely with the president, believed that Roosevelt “like the late Justice Brandeis, thought a Jewish state would become a model of social justice and would raise standards of living in the region. FDR also knew that Saudi Arabia badly needed outside funds for development. Surely a farsighted Arab leader would recognize such benefits—along with the advantages of American aid” (p. 299) Adding to all of these considerations, the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in late January revealed to the world the horrors of the Holocaust. Thomas Lippman, another scholar of the subject, states categorically that Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud because “the Jews had a claim on the world’s conscience, and on Roosevelt’s” (p. 3).

By all accounts the meeting with King Abdulaziz was extraordinary. Ibn Saud and his retinue of 47—which included an astrologer and food taster—traveled across the Arabian peninsula from Riyadh to Jeddah where they boarded the U.S.S. Murphy for a two-day sail on the Red Sea to Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. Only once before had the king left the Arabian peninsula. Fitted out for the king’s use, the Murphy’s deck was covered with colorful carpets and shaded by an enormous brown canvas tent. A flock of sheep, brought along for fresh meat, grazed in a corral. Food was cooked on charcoal braziers on the deck. Abdulaziz, 64 years old, a large and imposing black-bearded man dressed in Arab robes, his headdress regally bound with golden cords, was seated on a golden throne. The king was attended by barefoot Arab warriors armed with long rifles, each with a scimitar bound to his waist. One American witness described it as “a spectacle out of the ancient past on the deck of a modern man-of-war” (quoted in Lippman, p. 2).

Roosevelt waited on the U.S.S Quincy, surrounded by his own retinue of admirals and high-ranking diplomats. Ibn Saud was transferred to the Quincy and the two leaders, meeting from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on February 14, 1945, forged an improbable alliance that linked the two nations and shaped the history of the Middle East for decades to come.

I first learned about the meeting between Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 2003 when American Counsel to Saudi Arabia, Hugh Geohagan, visited the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. His purpose was to discuss returning to the Library a collection of objects that had been borrowed a few years earlier for an exhibition, “Gifts of Friendship,” in the King Abdulaziz Archives in Riyadh. Held in 2002, the exhibition commemorated the centennial of Abdulaziz’s rule by displaying the state gifts that he and Roosevelt exchanged in their shipboard meeting in 1945.

DC-3 passenger plane given by FDR to King Abdelaziz.

Ibn Saud’s gifts to FDR included brightly colored camel’s hair robes embroidered with gold, hand-painted perfume bottles, a bottle of granular musk, lumps of ambergris, a gold dagger set with diamonds, and a gold filigree sword and belt set with diamonds. In return FDR famously gave the king a DC-3 passenger plane (fully staffed with a crew supplied by the U.S), which marked the beginning of the Saudi Air Force. When he saw that the king had trouble walking, FDR spontaneously gave him one of his wheelchairs. The gifts were extraordinary, but not as extraordinary as the meeting itself.

Formal talks began after they had exchanged the gifts and enjoyed lunch and Arabian coffee. “Roosevelt came straight to the most urgent point: the plight of the Jews and the future of Palestine, where it was already apparent that the governing mandate bestowed upon Britain by the League of Nations twenty years earlier would come to an end after the war” (Lippman, p. 8).

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

An account of the conversation, FDR Meets Ibn Saud, was published by U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia Col. William A. Eddy, who was deeply involved in the intricate intercultural arrangements for the meeting. Born in what is now Lebanon, Eddy was fluent in Arabic, and as translator, was the only person to hear both sides of the conversation between the two leaders. As quoted from Eddy’s account in Rosen (pp. 412–413), “President Roosevelt was in top form as a charming host, witty conversationalist, with the spark and light in his eyes and that gracious smile which always won people over to him whenever he talked with them as a friend. . . . With Ibn Saud he was at his very best.” Roosevelt said that he felt “a personal responsibility” for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had suffered “indescribable horrors at the hands of the Nazis: eviction, destruction of their homes, torture, and mass murder” and asked the king for his advice. The king replied that the Allies as victors should give the Jews and “their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.” Roosevelt responded that the Jews had a deep desire to settle in Palestine and were fearful of remaining in Germany. The king said he did not doubt that the Jews did not trust the Germans, but “surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims. If the Allies do not expect firmly to control future German policy, why fight this costly war?” He lectured the president on the long history of animosity between Arabs and Jews.

Continuing with Eddy’s account as recounted in Rosen, Roosevelt persisted, saying that he counted on Arab “hospitality” and on the king’s help solving the problem of Zionism, but the king repeated his position. “Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives.” Later Roosevelt returned a third time to the subject. The king lost patience, observing that American “oversolicitude for the Germans was incomprehensible to an uneducated Bedouin with whom friends get more solicitude than enemies.” Ibn Saud’s final remark on the subject reiterated his unalterable position. According to Arab custom, he said, survivors and victims of battle were distributed among the victors according to their number and their supplies of food and water. Palestine, he said, was a small, land-poor country “and had already been assigned more than its quota of European refugees.” Still Roosevelt persevered. “The Arabs would choose to die,” he told the president, “rather than yield their land to the Jews.” Roosevelt offered economic aid, irrigation projects, and improved living standards for the Saudi people who were then poverty stricken by war-time disruptions to their economy (quoted in Rosen, pp. 413–414).

But the king was adamant. Was his confidence shaken? He later told Eleanor Roosevelt that his failure to convince Ibn Saud was his one complete failure. To Rabbi Wise he said, “I most gloriously failed where you are concerned.” To Congress, in his report on the Yalta Conference, he said only, “I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He later reported to Wise:

There was nothing I could do with him. We talked for three hours and I argued with the old fellow up hill and down dale, but he stuck to his guns. He said he could see the flood engulfing his lands, Jews pouring in from Eastern Europe and from America, from the Riviera and from California, and he could not bear the thought. He was an old man and he had swollen ankles and he wanted to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause [quoted in Rosen, p. 415].

Roosevelt himself had less than two months to live. Judge Joseph Proskauer later recalled that FDR was frightened now for the Jews in Palestine. He believed that “either a war or a pogrom would ensue” (quoted in Rosen, p. 416).

 Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Why did he do it? This was one of Roosevelt’s last acts. Surely he knew that his life was slipping away. Too ill to endure a fourth inauguration ceremony on Capitol Hill, a swearing in was held at the White House followed by the second briefest inaugural address in history. Yet two days later he began his 14,000-mile journey to Yalta, where he secured his twin priorities of Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific and Stalin’s commitment to the United Nations. It was only Roosevelt’s vision of a secure and peaceful postwar world that sustained him—not only at Yalta, but also to extend his arduous journey and meet with King Abdulaziz.

Many historians have reported on Roosevelt’s supreme confidence, his steadfast belief that through personal diplomacy—by meeting adversaries face to face—he could solve problems that stymied others. Breitman and Lichtman report on a telling incident, “After attending a presidential session on the Middle East, State Department economic advisor Herbert Feis said, ‘I’ve read of men who thought they might be King of the Jews and other men who thought they might be King of the Arabs, but this is the first time I’ve listened to a man who dreamt of being King of both the Jews and the Arabs’” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

Despite his own failure at Great Bitter Lake, Roosevelt’s belief in the power of personal diplomacy was intact. It was, after all, the foundational idea for the United Nations—that is, that seemingly intractable problems can be solved in a world organization that brings people together to overcome their differences. A belief fervently shared by Eleanor Roosevelt, for FDR it was the only hope that the world could avert war.

With his health failing, FDR went to Warm Springs on March 30 to attempt to recover his strength. There he would write his “Jefferson Day” radio address, scheduled for April 13. He died on April 12.

 

With his powers of personal diplomacy failing, Roosevelt bequeathed to all of us the hope that what he knew about “science of human relationships” could be invested in a world organization. The fate of the Jews of Europe, like so much unfinished business of the Second World War, would fall to the United Nations. There has been no end to war, but neither has there been a Third World War.

 

Sources

Bohlen, Charles E. Witness to History: 1929-1969.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1973.

Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman.   FDR and the Jews. Cambridge:  Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2013.

Coppola, John.  “A Pride of Museums in the Desert: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Gift of Friendship’ Exhibition,” Curator 48/1 (January 2005): 90-100.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.  Boston and New York: Little Brown, 1990.

Lippman, Thomas, W. “The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud,” The Link (April-May 2005):1-13.

Rosen, Robert. N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.

 

Hillary R[oosevelt] Clinton: Or, Channeling Eleanor and Franklin

When Hillary Clinton was First Lady, critics lampooned her for “talking” to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been dead for more than thirty years. (Full disclosure: when I was director of the FDR Library, between 1999 and 2010, I regularly did the same thing with both Roosevelts. They give great advice!) The revelation about Hillary and Eleanor caused quite a stir as Hillary Clinton was ridiculed for “talking with ghosts” and other New Age-y things. But Mrs. Clinton was not particularly embarrassed; in fact, she herself wrote in “Talking It Over,” her weekly syndicated newspaper column, “[Eleanor Roosevelt] usually responds by telling me to buck up, or at least to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.” “Talking It Over,” which ran from 1995 to 2000, was itself an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt—as Mrs. Clinton explained in her first column:

Some people may wonder whether I am looking to Eleanor Roosevelt for my inspiration. In thinking about this article, I re-read the column that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote nearly every day for the better part of three decades. She called her column “My Day” and covered subjects as varied as her annual picnic for disadvantaged boys, the meaning of religion in our lives and the fuss over a new bob in her hair. Sounds familiar!

My hope is that this column, like hers, will prompt all of us to think more about the human dimension of our lives. In some small way, I hope it will help bridge the gaps in our society so that we can reach beyond stereotypes and caricatures—and respect one another for the unique contributions each of us makes to our country.

irst Lady Hillary Clinton at the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, October 5, 1996

irst Lady Hillary Clinton at the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, October 5, 1996

My wish too is that it will provide information about problems facing us that people can use to help decide what they think should be done. Mostly, though, this column will give me the chance to talk things over in the hope that some of you will join the conversation.

During my tenure at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, we were well aware of the Clintons’ admiration for the Roosevelts. President Clinton visited three times while he was president (a record) and again after he left office. Senator Clinton visited the Library for an awards ceremony and on another occasion to ascertain the needs of both the National Park Service and the National Archives, the government agencies responsible for maintaining the Roosevelt National Historic Sites and the Roosevelt Presidential Library. Through the special historic preservation program “Save America’s Treasures” (which she started as First Lady) she took a special interest in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill Cottage, a National Park Service site. As senator she was an early supporter of the funding necessary for the much-needed renovation of the Roosevelt Library that was completed in 2013.

And it is clear that Hillary Clinton has not forgotten the Roosevelt legacy in her campaign for the presidency. Her decision to kick off her campaign at the Four Freedoms Park in New York City shone an international spotlight on her commitment to revitalizing the Roosevelt legacy, “To be here in this beautiful park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be.” Located on Roosevelt Island in the shadow of the United Nations, it memorializes FDR’s Four Freedoms speech to a war-torn world to fight for Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want “everywhere in the world.”

In declaring her candidacy for president, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Four Freedoms as “testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations and a reminder of our unfinished work at home and abroad.” She spoke of her husband and Barack Obama as “two Democrats guided by” Roosevelt’s “fundamental American belief that real and lasting prosperity must be built by all and shared by all.”

President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and every American answered. He said there’s no mystery about what it takes to build a strong and prosperous America: “Equality of opportunity. . . Jobs for those who can work . . . Security for those who need it . . . The ending of special privilege for the few . . . the preservation of civil liberties for all . . .a wider and constantly rising standard of living.” . . . It’s America’s basic bargain. If you do your part, you ought to be able to get ahead. And when everybody does their part, America gets ahead too.

This past July, as she accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton faced a new challenge—the vitriol and fear mongering of her opponent. Again she turned to Roosevelt.“[A] great Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came up with the perfect rebuke to Trump more than eighty years ago, during a much more perilous time. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt believed that hope—paired with a sense of civic responsibility—gave people the courage they needed to counter fear in the midst of the Great Depression and against fascism and totalitarianism a decade later. And as Eleanor Roosevelt described it in her final book Tomorrow is Now, that hope was always linked to a practical appreciation of the worth and obligations of every individual in a democracy.  “We have to work with the people as they are in this country, with all their shortcomings. . . . I remember clearly my husband’s words in his last State of the Union address in 1945:  ‘[I]n a democratic world, as in a democratic nation, power must be linked with responsibility and obliged to defend and justify itself with the framework of the general good’” . Things are not so very different today. Like the Roosevelts, Hillary Clinton must inspire us to act not only in our own best interest but for the general good, which—and this is the genius of democracy—benefits us individually as well.

Dr. Cynthia M. Koch is the Historian in Residence and Director of History Programming at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation. She is also the Past Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park.