It is time to revise history, or perhaps to revise the revisions. There is an uncatalogued hobgoblin that should be chased up and classified by the Smithsonian, that requires part of the U.S. conservative historical community to persist in defaming Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was, in fact, rivaled only by Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan as America’s greatest and most effective conservative). FDR had barely settled in his grave, with Fala sadly silent and Eleanor back in Washington Square, when the Yalta Myth descended on him.
This held that he had been swindled by Stalin out of Eastern Europe and had approved the delivery of those countries to the hob-nailed jackboot of the USSR. He and Winston Churchill had extracted from Stalin at Yalta the unconditional promise of democracy, fair elections, and independence for all those countries. They achieved all that they sought. As Roosevelt biographer Ted Morgan has written, “If it had been a good deal for Stalin, he would not have violated every clause of it.” At the first summit conference after 1945, at Geneva in 1955, President Eisenhower, despite all the false histrionics of his Republican party about Yalta, began by demanding that the collective post-Stalin leadership honor their deceased leader’s Yalta promises to Eastern Europe.
Many of us who have specialized in Roosevelt studies had just finally driven a stake through the heart of the Yalta Myth when the hobgoblin lunged at our throats from another quarter. The Wall Street Journal’s admirable opinion pages erupted a few years ago in the contra-historical fabrication that Roosevelt didn’t end the Great Depression in the U.S.
When he came into office in 1933, Roosevelt found unemployment at 33 percent (not the mere 25 percent that this nursery school of detractors claims), with no direct federal assistance for the jobless; the banking system and stock and commodity exchanges closed; farm prices beneath subsistence levels; 45 percent of residential housing under threat of foreclosure; and machine-gun nests at the corners and on the steps of Washington’s great federal buildings for the first time since the Civil War.
When he left the White House twelve years and 39 days later, to the most heart-rending dirges and lamentations the nation had uttered or heard since Lincoln departed (on the same caisson), unemployment was less than half of 1 percent; millions of mortgages and the whole banking system had been refinanced; most of rural America benefited for the first time from electricity and flood and drought control; Prohibition had long been repealed and the liquor industry repossessed from the folkloric gangsters who had been running it; the U.S. had pioneered nuclear fission and set up the United Nations, had half the world’s economic production, was on the verge of the defeat of Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan, and had unlimited moral authority, military and economic power, and cultural influence.
If Franklin D. Roosevelt did not lead America out of the Depression, who did? The hobgoblin’s answer is that the New Deal didn’t. There was actually a series of New Deals, starting with the giant workfare projects that put 40 percent of the unemployed to work at once and endowed the country with the greatest infrastructure and conservation assets in history; followed by Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and some other (not necessarily very successful) regulatory initiatives; then by the huge defense and military buildup of 1939–41, which brought conventional unemployment below 10 percent prior to the 1940 election, and eliminated it before Pearl Harbor; and finally by the GI Bill of Rights of 1944, which financed university or technical education, and small-business or farm acquisition, for the 13 million members of the armed forces (10 percent of the population).
The hobgoblin then grumpily states that the war ended the Depression (as if Elmer Fudd had been the U.S. commander-in-chief). The able historian (and good friend) Amity Shlaes, like distinguished deceased historians Frank Freidel and Arthur Schlesinger, and the otherwise groundbreakingly effective Doris Kearns Goodwin, has bought into this myth. Germany, Britain, Japan, and France all cut their unemployment numbers after 1934 by steadily more massive rearmament and comprehensive conscription. (Soviet statistics are too unreliable to yield useful comparisons, and were complicated by the Stalinist novelty of physically liquidating about 10 percent of the work force.)