George Rawick

Books in Review

Roosevelt as a Saint

(Summer 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 3, Summer 1957, pp. 201–204.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919–1933
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Haughton Mifflin Company. $6.00, 557 pp.

Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. is the very model of a modern Stevensonian liberal-intellectual. He is intelligent, urbane, sophisticated – a man of affairs. He combines an academic post at Harvard with an active career as liberal publicist and speech-writer for his alter-ego, Adlai Stevenson. He writes well and intelligently.

Schlesinger, Jr. has one major passion in life it would seem �Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Thus, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning history, The Age of Jackson, the product of the speculative-frontier, Andrew Jackson, is seen as the spiritual ancestor of the product of Groton and Harvard, Franklin Roosevelt. Thus, Schlesinger’s bible for liberals, The Vital Center, is filled with Roosevelt idolatry.

Professor Schlesinger now has given up playing about the fringe of the Roosevelt myth and has penetrated to its very heart. He has openly declared himself – he has begun to produce a four volume history of the period in American history from World War One to the election of Dwight David Eisenhower �entitled The Age of Roosevelt. The first volume of this magnum opus, The Crisis of the Old Order, is now upon us. It is an interesting example of that genre of literature in which biographies of saints have an important place.

It would seem that Schlesinger has studied the devices of melodrama and of the old spell-binding orators with considerable care. He sets the stage for the appearance of The Hero with appropriate thematic material and musical background. Knowing full well that Real Heroes are always Pure Men in Shining Armour, marred by no flaw, and that Real Villains are always Evil Men with Scowling Faces, relieved by no venture Schlesinger gives us his Hero, FDR, and his Villain, Herbert Hoover, in this simplistic manner.

Schlesinger’s literary devices are the standard stuff of a TV Soap-opera script writer. The first chapter is a description of the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt. The second paragraph begins:

Saturday, March 4 dawned gray and bleak. Heavy winter clouds hung over the city. A chill northwest wind brought brief gusts of rain. The darkness of the day intensified the mood of helplessness. “A sense of depression had settled over the capital,” reported the New York Times, “so that it could be felt.”

Schlesinger immediately turns to a description of the ride of the outgoing and incoming presidents to the steps of the Capitol. The “motionless and unheeding” Hoover rode in uncomfortable silence with a Roosevelt who smiled and waved his top hat at the men and women along Washington’s Constitution Avenue. Then, briefly, Schlesinger takes us around the United States, gripped in Depression, on the verge of upheaval with “fear in the country club” and “angry men marching in the silent street.” And then back to the actual inauguration – the taking of the oath, the Inauguration Address. And after this, the inaugural parade. And it is on this that Schlesinger ends the chapter:

The high clear notes of the cavalry bugles announced the inaugural parade. Franklin Roosevelt, in the presidential car, waved greetings to the crowd along the way – men and women now curiously awakened from apathy and daze. The horsemen wheeled into line, and the parade began. In Washington the weather remained cold and gray. Across the land the fog began to lift.

And all this with Bugles!

With this prologue, Schlesinger can begin his analysis. Unfortunately, his analysis has nothing new or interesting. He offers a very standard New Deal interpretation of events, based on no new research, no new materials. Utilizing easily available data, Schlesinger tells us about the forerunners to FDR in the liberal movement, stringing together a few scattered comments about the Populists, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, William J. Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and the founding of the New Republic magazine as an organ of the new liberalism, concerned with increased government regulation of the economy and social-welfare measures. He carefully skirts or avoids discussion of American capitalism’s entry into the international imperialist struggles, he ritualistically whips the monopolists. He is concerned only with sketching in the harbingers of the coming of Roosevelt.

Schlesinger’s treatment of the nineteen-twenties is of the same nature. The Bad Republicans were in office during the Age of Normalcy, values were crude and bad, the intellectuals were disaffected, and the liberals unable to make headway. All of this was bad, of course! And then the Crash came. Herbert Hoover was unable to do anything about it, although Schlesinger believes that a “small amount of spending” by the government in the first days of the depression might have saved the day. But, unfortunately, no one thought that the depression would last. However, there were many plans for change and reform in the air and Schlesinger talks about some of them, including a scattering of comments about the revival-on-the-left and the like.

Schlesinger then offers what is perhaps the only interesting section of his book �not interesting because of its originality or insight, but because he includes it at all. He discusses the growing radical mood of 1932 – the Unemployed Councils, the various spontaneous cooperative associations that sprung up to meet the depression, the march of the Bonus Marchers on Washington, D.C., the agricultural revolt in which farmer’s dumped milk on the roads in order to raise prices, and, with guns in hand, prevented local law officials from foreclosing on unpaid mortgages on farms and homes.

It is in this context that Schlesinger discusses the steps in the political struggle to win the Democratic nomination for Franklin Roosevelt. And in this discussion, the reason for the section of the radical mood of 1932 becomes clear: only Roosevelt could have saved the country from Ruin and Revolution! Roosevelt is, just like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the liberal-conservative or the conservative-liberal.

The book ends with a section sketching in the early life of Franklin Roosevelt. All this is in the way of introduction to the three volumes that will follow in this ambitious project. The last paragraph of the book is worth quoting for it contains what must be the major thesis of the volumes to come. Schlesinger writes:

Many had deserted freedom, many more had lost their nerve. But Roosevelt, armored in some inner faith, remained calm and inscrutable, confident that American improvisation could meet the future on its own terms. And so on March 4, as he took the silent ride in the presidential limousine down the packed streets to the Capitol, he was grim but unafraid. Deep within, he seemed to know that the nation had resources beyond its banks and exchanges; that the collapse of the older order meant catharsis rather than catastrophe; that the common disaster could make the people see themselves for a season as a community, as a family; that catastrophe could provide the indispensable setting for democratic experiment and for presidential leadership. If this were so, then crisis could change from calamity to challenge. The only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself. And so he serenely waited the morrow. The event was in the hand of God.

This is the thesis. It will be interesting to see how Schlesinger develops it. The major point that James MacGregor Burns in his volume Roosevelt: the Lion or the Fox makes is that Roosevelt did not provide leadership at all, that this was his major weakness. The picture of Roosevelt that has emerged from the serious studies of such as Burns, Frank Frieddel, and the many who have written monographs on select aspects of the New Deal, is that Roosevelt was a great politician, able to wield together a coalition in Congress and in local Democratic Party machines precisely because he did not lead, but found a consensus of Party opinion, and then adopted the least-common denominator position as his own. Thus, for example, Roosevelt refused to take any initiative to end the Jim Crow policies of the Civilian Conservation Corps because of fear of upsetting Southern congressmen. Roosevelt was the master of winning today’s election �but this does not make him the great democratic statesman of the liberal myth.

In the last analysis, the work of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on Roosevelt is important neither for its contribution to our knowledge, for it makes none, nor for its new analysis, for it offers none. It is important, however as part of the sociology of American liberalism and of American intellectual life today. Schlesinger, like Roosevelt, does not “lead” liberal opinion. He merely finds a consequence of its view, and makes this least-common denominator view his own. He thus provides American liberals, looking back on “the days of glory of the New Deal,” with an “authoritative liberal version of the Life of Franklin Roosevelt.” Indeed, the book is similar in import to an official Life of a Saint, which puts forward the accepted and orthodox version of the canonized hero’s career.

Schlesinger gives the academic, professional seal of approval to the commonly held liberal notion of Franklin Roosevelt.

All of this would neither be surprising nor worthy of comment if Schlesinger’s book had not found widespread acceptance among historians and intellectuals. Almost all who have reviewed the book, with a notable exception here and there, fell over themselves in their hasty praise. It became a Book-of-the-Month-Club offering. In the world of Eisenhower and Dulles, Knowland and Charlie Wilson, there must be some solid rock upon which the liberal intellectual can build his Church! In a world of uneasiness and confusion, in which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in an article for the Reporter asked, without really offering an answer, “What next for American liberalism?”, the need for a Liberal Hero becomes compulsive, for those who cannot stand the present, are uneasy about the future, and are dimly aware of the fact that they really have no alternative to the path of Eisenhower and Dulles, Knowland and Wilson! And if there is nothing in the present and nothing in the future, then there has to have been something in the past! Thus Arthur Schlesinger’s book and the wide liberal acclaim it has received!

Last updated on 11 January 2020