Chapter 15 • The Roosevelt Myth
John T. Flynn • 1948
WHEN THE WAR DRUMS ROLLED A GREAT GOLDEN VEIL CAME DOWN upon the American scene through which its actors would be viewed. Behind it they postured—statesmen and generals and admirals—in the role of heroes. And lifted above them all, posing in the full glory of the stage lights, decorated by propaganda with the virtues of a national god, was the figure of the Leader. When the battlefield is so far away, war is the greatest of all shows. It is the greatest of all booms. The money flows in rushing streams and for millions it becomes and remains the dizziest and most abundant memory of their lives. The lights have been going out, the bands have ceased playing, the propaganda machines are being slowly silenced and little by little life, scenery and actors are assuming their normal dimensions. Despite all this, many good people in America still cherish the illusion that Roosevelt performed some amazing feat of regeneration for this country. They believe he took our economic system when it was in utter disrepair and restored it again to vitality; that he took over our political system when it was at its lowest estate and restored it again to its full strength. He put himself on the side of the underprivileged masses. He transferred power from the great corporate barons to the simple working people of America. He curbed the adventurers of Wall Street, and gave security to the humble men and women of the country. And above all he led us through a great war for democracy and freedom and saved the civilization of Europe.
But not one of these claims can be sustained. He did not restore our economic system to vitality. He changed it. The system he blundered us into is more like the managed and bureaucratized, state-supported system of Germany before World War I than our own traditional order. Before his regime we lived in a system which depended for its expansion upon private investment in private enterprise. Today we live in a system which depends for its expansion and vitality upon the government. This is a pre-war European importation—imported at the moment when it had fallen into complete disintegration in Europe. In America today every fourth person depends for his livelihood upon employment either directly by the government or indirectly in some industry supported by government funds. In this substituted system the government confiscates by taxes or borrowings the savings of all the citizens and invests them in non-wealth-producing enterprises in order to create work. Behold the picture of American economy today: taxes which confiscate the savings of every citizen, a public debt of 250 billion dollars as against a pre-Roosevelt debt of 19 billions, a government budget of 40 billions instead of four before Roosevelt, inflation doubling the prices and reducing the lower-bracket employed workers to a state of pauperism as bad as that of the unemployed in the depression, more people on various kinds of government relief than when we had 11 million unemployed, Americans trapped in the economic disasters and the political quarrels of every nation on earth and a system of permanent militarism closely resembling that we beheld with horror in Europe for decades, bureaucrats swarming over every field of life and the President calling for more power, more price-fixing, more regulation and more billions. Does this look like the traditional American scene? Or does it not look rather like the system built by Bismarck in Germany in the last century and imitated by all the lesser Bismarcks in Europe?
No, Roosevelt did not restore our economic system. He did not construct a new one. He substituted an old one which lives upon permanent crises and an armament economy. And he did this not by a process of orderly architecture and building, but by a succession of blunders, moving one step at a time, in flight from one problem to another, until we are now arrived at that kind of state supported economic system that will continue to devour a little at a time the private system until it disappears altogether.
He did not restore our political system to its full strength. One may like the shape into which he battered it, but it cannot be called a repair job. He changed our political system with two weapons—blank-check congressional appropriations and blank-check congressional legislation. In 1933, Congress abdicated much of its power when it put billions into his hands by a blanket appropriation to be spent at his sweet will and when it passed general laws, leaving it to him, through great government bureaus of his appointment, to fill in the details of legislation.
These two baleful mistakes gave him a power which he used ruthlessly. He used it to break down the power of the states and to move that power to Washington and to break down the power of Congress and concentrate it in the hands of the executive. The end of these two betrayals—the smashing of our economic system and the twisting of our political system—can only be the Planned Economic State, which, either in the form of Communism or Fascism, dominates the entire continent of Europe today. The capitalist system cannot live under these conditions. Free representative government cannot survive a Planned Economy. Such an economy can be managed only by a dictatorial government capable of enforcing the directives it issues. The only result of our present system—unless we reverse the drift—must be the gradual extension of the fascist sector and the gradual disappearance of the system of free enterprise under a free representative government.
There are men who honestly defend this transformation. They at least are honest. They believe in the Planned Economy. They believe in the highly centralized government operated by a powerful executive. They do not say Roosevelt saved our system. They say he has given us a new one. That is logical. But no one can praise Roosevelt for doing this and then insist that he restored our traditional political and economic systems to their former vitality.
The most tragic illusion about this man is that built up by the ceaseless repetition of the false statement that he gave us a system of security.
Security for whom? For the aged? An old-age security bill was passed during his first administration which provides for workers who reach the age of 65 a pension of $8 a week at most. And even this meager and still very badly constructed plan had to be pushed through against a strange inertness on his part. Roosevelt’s mind ran in curious circles. People have forgotten his procrastination about putting through the social security bill until in the 1934 congressional elections the Republicans denounced him for his tardiness. It is difficult to believe this now after all the propaganda that has washed over people’s minds. And when he did finally consent to a bill, like so many good ideas that went into his mind, it came out badly twisted. It contained a plan for building a huge reserve fund that would have amounted to nothing more than a scheme to extract billions from the workers’ payrolls without any adequate return. Over the protest of the President, the Congress finally took that incredible joker out of the law. But it is in every respect a pathetically inadequate law. Does anyone imagine that $8 a week is security for anyone, particularly since Roosevelt’s inflation has cut the value of that in half?
But what of the millions of people who through long years of thrift and saving have been providing their own security? What of the millions who have been scratching for years to pay for their life insurance and annuities, putting money in savings banks, commercial banks, buying government and corporation bonds to protect themselves in their old age? What of the millions of teachers, police, firemen, civil employees of states and cities and the government, of the armed services and the army of men and women entitled to retirement funds from private corporations—railroads, industrial and commercial? These thrifty people have seen one-half their retirement benefits wiped out by the Roosevelt inflation that has cut the purchasing power of the dollar in two. Roosevelt struck the most terrible blow at the security of the masses of the people while posing as the generous donor of “security for all.” During the war boom and in the post-war boom created by spending 40 billion dollars a year the illusion of security is sustained. The full measure of Roosevelt’s hopeless misunderstanding of this subject will come when security will be most needed—and most absent.
To say that Roosevelt roused in the people a social consciousness is absurd. There has always been a social consciousness in our people. And when Roosevelt as governor in New York took his first steps in this field, he was merely following in the footsteps of Al Smith, who made him governor. Of course when the depression arrived, its grave necessities stirred the minds of our people to social measures upon a greater scale. Roosevelt had never given the subject a thought until he was elected governor. However, has anyone ever bothered to consult those fruitful studies in social problems which Herbert Hoover caused to be made while he was Secretary of Commerce and President before the onset of the crisis brought this subject to everyone’s mind?
As for the great war for freedom and democracy, it would be well to get that clear in our minds. In one breath we are told that Roosevelt did not take us into that war—that we were dragged in by the dastardly attack by the Japs at Pearl Harbor, while Roosevelt was trying to keep out. In the next breath we are told he took us into that war for freedom and democracy. But how has it advanced the cause of democracy? We liberated Europe from Hitler and turned it over to the mercies of a far more terrible tyrant and actually tried to sell him to the people as a savior of civilization. Behold Europe! Does one refer to the wreckage there as liberation and salvation? Is anyone so naive as to suppose that democracy and free capitalism have been restored in Europe? Fascism has departed from Germany, but a hybrid system of socialism and capitalism in chains has come to England, which is called social democracy but is on its way to Fascism with all the controls without which such a system cannot exist. And in America the price of the war is that fatal deformity of our own economic and political system which Roosevelt effected under the impact of the war necessities.
Roosevelt’s star was waning sadly in 1938 when he had 11 million unemployed and when Hitler made his first war moves in Europe. All his promises had been defaulted on. The cities were filling with idle workers. Taxes were rising. The debt was soaring. The war rescued him and he seized upon it like a drowning man. By leading his country into the fringes of the war at first and then deep into its center all over the world he was able to do the only things that could save him—spend incomprehensible billions, whip up spending in the hot flames of war hysteria, put every man and his wife and grandparents into the war mills, while under the pressure of patriotic inhibitions, he could silence criticism and work up the illusion of the war leader. Of course the war against Germany was won—America with her 140 million people, Russia with her 180 million, France, England and the Commonwealth with another 100 million, with practically all the naval power and with the choice of the earth’s resources, against 70 million of the enemy—of course we won. But at what price to our institutions? And then, while the war was still raging and as victory appeared, Roosevelt disappeared from the scene. The staggering debts, the larcenous inflation, the insoluble division amongst the victors, the appalling consequences of his fantastic surrenders to Moscow—all this is left in the hands of his successors, after the ballyhoo is spent, the fireworks extinguished, the martial music silenced and the money nearly gone, leaving only the great spectacle of a disordered, divided and bankrupt world.
On the moral side, let me say that I have barely touched that subject. It will all yet be told. But go back through the years, read the speeches and platforms and judgments he made and consider them in the light of what he did. Look up the promises of thrift in public office, of balanced budgets and lower taxes, of disbanded bureaucrats, of honesty in government and of security for all. Read again the warnings he uttered to his own people against those wicked men who would seize upon a war in Europe to entangle them upon specious visions of false war abundance. Read the speeches he made never, never again to send our sons to fight in foreign wars. Look up the promises he made, not to our own people, but to the Chinese, to Poland, to Czechoslovakia, to the Baltic peoples in Lithuania and Latvia and Estonia, to the Jews out of one side of his mouth and to the Arabs out of the other side. He broke every promise. He betrayed all who trusted him. If any escaped it was the British and the Russians because they were represented by two strong men who, in dealing with Roosevelt, were inflexible realists who knew what they were about, who played the game with him upon the basis of solid realism, as they should, who remembered their own countries and held him with iron resolution to his incredible pledges.
The figure of Roosevelt exhibited before the eyes of our people is a fiction. There was no such being as that noble, selfless, hard-headed, wise and farseeing combination of philosopher, philanthropist and warrior which has been fabricated out of pure propaganda and which a small collection of dangerous cliques in this country are using to advance their own evil ends.