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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also referred to as FDR, was the 32nd president of the United States and the only president elected to the office four times, serving from 1933 until his death in 1945. Roosevelt led the United States through two of the greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II. He greatly expanded the powers of the federal government through a series of programs and reforms known as the New Deal. He also played a major part in the origin of the United Nations.
Rise in Politics
Roosevelt attended Harvard University and then went on to Columbia University Law School. Afterward he practiced law with a leading New York City law firm. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a lifelong advocate of human rights and liberal causes, and she particularly helped open her husband’s eyes to the deplorable state of the poor in New York’s slums. Roosevelt started his career in politics when he ran for a seat in the New York state senate in 1910 and won, serving from 1911 until 1913. During his early political career he became a champion of progressive reform. From 1913 to 1921 Roosevelt was assistant to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. In 1920 Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination for vice president on a ticket with presidential nominee James M. Cox, but the Democrats lost in a landslide to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. After Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921 and was for a time unable to pursue an active political career, Eleanor made political appearances on his behalf and kept his name alive in Democratic circles. In 1928 Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. During his term as governor he focused on tax relief for farmers and cheaper public utilities for consumers.
The Great Depression and the New Deal
The Great Depression began in 1929, and by the time of the 1932 presidential election the U.S. economy was in deep crisis. As the Democratic nominee for president, Roosevelt stated, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Running against Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt campaigned on a “new deal” for economic recovery. Unhappy with Hoover’s unsuccessful policies, American voters overwhelmingly elected Roosevelt. By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, most banks had shut down, industrial production had sharply decreased, farmers were struggling, and at least 13 million workers were unemployed. Roosevelt addressed the nation, declaring that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Taking immediate action, he launched “The Hundred Days”—the first phase of the New Deal. He ordered all banks closed until Congress could pass legislation allowing banks in sound condition to reopen. On March 12 he delivered the first of his radio “fireside chats.” Roosevelt’s radio addresses helped raise the country’s morale during the Great Depression. The Hundred Days established several federal aid programs, including the National Recovery Administration. Roosevelt greatly expanded the powers of the federal government, creating government regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The Second New Deal
The initial New Deal programs provided some relief, but because the country still had not recovered from the economic crisis, Roosevelt worked with Congress to pass additional New Deal legislation—the “Second New Deal”—in 1935. The key measures of the Second New Deal were the Social Security Act, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Wagner Act. The Social Security Act provided unemployment and disability insurance and old-age pensions. The WPA offered useful work for millions of unemployed people. The Wagner Act helped protect the legal rights of workers. Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1936, and with continued support from farmers, laborers, and small businesspeople he won the election.
Early Foreign Policy Achievements
Early on in his presidency Roosevelt initiated the Good Neighbor Policy to improve dealings with Latin America, and he supported mutual agreements to lower trade barriers between the United States and other countries. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, foreign policy began to overshadow domestic policy. Congress was dominated by isolationists who were determined to prevent the United States from being pulled into the war. It passed a series of neutrality laws designed to minimize involvement with warring nations. While the United States initially maintained neutrality, Roosevelt worked with Congress to allow Britain and France to purchase arms and to offer aid. In the 1940 election Americans showed their continued trust in Roosevelt’s leadership. He won the election with 55 percent of the popular vote.
World War II Leadership
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Speaking before Congress the following day, Roosevelt declared December 7 “a date which will live in infamy” and asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Congress quickly voted to do. The attack unified the American public and swept away any earlier support for neutrality. A few days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. With U.S. entry into World War II, Roosevelt mobilized industry for military production and formed an alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union. He met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to form war policy at Tehrān, Iran (1943), and Yalta (1945). During the war the major Allied powers agreed to establish a new global organization to help manage international affairs. This agreement was first articulated when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941. The proposed organization was eventually realized in the form of the United Nations. Despite declining health Roosevelt won reelection for a fourth term against Thomas Dewey (1944), but he served only briefly before his death on April 12, 1945.