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FDR: Master Politician

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often called FDR, served as President of the United States from 1933-1945 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest to hold that position. Despite the contention around this notion, FDR undeniably accomplished a lot in his unprecedented four terms. Not only did he see the country through the Great Depression and the bulk of World War II, but he also set the stage for an international world order that remains strong today. While he did not achieve all his successes single handedly, one cannot ignore his political mastery. Throughout his career, he demonstrated unmatched political skill whilst going toe-to-toe with some of the most influential figures in modern history.


FDR demonstrated his superior political aptitude in all four of his presidential elections, especially when running for his third presidential term. 30 presidents ran before him, however, none dared to challenge the two-term precedent set by George Washington. Though alienating some key supporters in the process, he won a third term in the 1940 election by a landslide, winning over 80% of the electoral vote.[1]


How did Roosevelt embark on such a precarious road and still win? Silence was his primary tactic. While closely observing European political developments, FDR refused to comment on his willingness to run for a third time.[2] With the onset of war in 1939 and Hitler’s ruthlessly efficient invasion of France underway, Roosevelt scrapped his plans to retire. Determined to win a third term and convinced that announcing his unprecedented candidacy himself would anger the public, he urged the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to nominate him.[3] When the DNC did as he asked, he took on their call to action, which saved his public image. FDR claimed to be the best man for the job considering the gravity of the events in Europe, and the American public agreed.[4] Roosevelt was also aided by his unremarkable but surprisingly friendly opponent, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie. Willkie failed to mount a successful campaign and even agreed with FDR on controversial topics of the time, such as instituting a peacetime draft.[5] He would go on to be a staunch ally of Roosevelt, even serving as his personal representative abroad on multiple occasions.[6] Thus, FDR not only won the election, but even gained the support of his main competition.


With Germany pushing back the allies and Japan conquering the Pacific, FDR was faced with numerous challenges that he unexpectedly overcame. First, there was the question of how to get the U.S., a country weary of war and populated with immigrants from both sides of the conflict, to enter WWII. As the conflict abroad grew, Roosevelt knew he had to enter the war and renege on his own anti-war rhetoric as a result. To start, he needed to convince the American public the Axis powers were a threat, even if they were thousands of miles away. He appealed to their moral compass by arguing that “the landmarks and traditions which have marked the progress of civilization toward a condition of law, order, and justice are being wiped away.”[7] Despite the claims that he was trying to bring the nation to war, FDR attempted to push the public closer to an interventionist viewpoint through both policy and rhetoric. Though he never expected the attack on Pearl Harbor–a far more challenging target for the Japanese than Guam or the Philippines–FDR knew that the threat of American sanctions on a resource-starved Japan could provide an opportunity to join the conflict.[8] By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, FDR’s rhetoric already prepared the country for war. Thus, with the American people united around him, the U.S. joined WWII.

In the war, FDR was faced with the daunting task of keeping the unlikely alliance between the United

Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union alive. Roosevelt and Churchill were especially friendly with one another since they were both leaders of English-speaking capitalist democracies. In contrast, Stalin was a communist autocrat who could only converse with the two through interpreters. FDR served as the mediating factor between the staunchly anti-communist Churchill and the distrustful Soviet leader. His role was pivotal, considering that failing to bring Stalin into the fold could have jeopardized victory altogether.

As the first president to diplomatically recognize the Soviet Union, FDR was in a strong position to win over Stalin. Roosevelt employed a number of tactics to manipulate one of the most paranoid and powerful men in Europe. He affectionately called him “Uncle Joe” to present a friendly disposition, openly criticized Churchill to convince him that the English-speaking powers were less unified than expected, and reaffirmed their commitment to opening up a second front in Europe to alleviate the Nazi pressure off the Soviets.[9] These measures, although small in scope, kept the alliance together long enough to win the war. Unfortunately, with the death of FDR in 1945, the alliance swiftly collapsed.

Nonetheless, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accomplished the impossible in three separate feats. He convinced the American public to carry him in a landslide vote to the first and last ever third term, he turned WWII into a massively popular war practically overnight, and formed three distinct and fickle world leaders into a united front. Though situational factors undoubtedly played a role in all three of these successes, they nevertheless showcase FDR’s bold, effective, and masterful political abilities that made him one of the most effective politicians in American

history.


Bibliography


Articles:

See How They Ran! “1940: FDR’s Third Presidential Campaign,” December 2, 2016. http://www.roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu/seehowtheyran/portfolios/1940-fdrs-third-pre

sidential-campaign-fdr-a-third-term/.

Google Arts & Culture. “A Third Term?” Accessed September 26, 2022.

https://artsandculture.google.com/story/a-third-term/ZwWBBatPTBcA8A.

Engel, Jeffrey A., Mark Atwood Lawrence, and Andrew Preston. America in the World: A

History in Documents from the War with Spain to the War on Terror. Princeton University

Press, 2014.

Hixson, Walter, ed. American Diplomacy of the Second World War: The American Experience in

World War II. 1st edition. New York: Routledge, 2002.


Peters, Gerhard, and John T. Woolley. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt Event Timeline.” The

American Presidency Project. Accessed September 26, 2022.

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354007.

“Why (and How) FDR Ran for His Third Term | History News Network.” Accessed September

26, 2022. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/152895.

Pictures:

Daugherty, Greg. “How the WWII Tehran Conference Tested the Unity of the ‘Big Three’

Allies.” HISTORY. Accessed September 27, 2022.

https://www.history.com/news/tehran-conference-1943-wwii-importance-roosevelt-churc

hill-stalin.

Hixson, Walter, ed. American Diplomacy of the Second World War: The American Experience in

World War II. 1st edition. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Why Not Peace with Hitler? Anti-War Protest in NYC, July 7 1941, 2015.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrhjmT4Zg5I.

[1] Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt Event Timeline” (The

American Presidency Project), accessed September 26, 2022,

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354007.

[2] “Why (and How) FDR Ran for His Third Term | History News Network,” accessed

September 26, 2022, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/152895.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A Third Term?,” Google Arts & Culture, accessed September 26, 2022,

https://artsandculture.google.com/story/a-third-term/ZwWBBatPTBcA8A.

[5] “1940: FDR’s Third Presidential Campaign,” See How They Ran! (blog), December 2, 2016,

http://www.roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu/seehowtheyran/portfolios/1940-fdrs-third-presidentia

l-campaign-fdr-a-third-term/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jeffrey A. Engel, Mark Atwood Lawrence, and Andrew Preston, America in the World: A

History in Documents from the War with Spain to the War on Terror (Princeton University Press,

2014), 116.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Walter Hixson, ed., American Diplomacy of the Second World War: The American

Experience in World War II, 1st edition (New York: Routledge, 2002).

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