Franklin D. Roosevelt: Socialist or “Champion of Freedom”?

President Obama is not the first president to be smeared by conservatives for suggesting that the country prospers when we all prosper.

In recommending this program I am thinking not only of the immediate economic needs of the people of the Nation, but also of their personal liberties—the most precious possession of all Americans. I am thinking of our democracy. I am thinking of the recent trend in other parts of the world away from the democratic ideal.

Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations—disappeared not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion, government weakness,—weakness through lack of leadership in government. Finally, in desperation, they chose to sacrifice liberty in the hope of getting something to eat. We in America know that our own democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need to act together, to meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 1938

One of the consistent arguments that conservative Republicans are hurling against President Obama and the Democrats this election season is that President Obama’s support for federal intervention in the economy, through such programs as his ill-fated jobs bill or the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, represents an attack on individual liberty. They claim the promotion of government intervention in the economy is somehow “un-American” and that what the president really wants is to turn the United States toward socialism. We have even heard the charge, uttered by one right-wing conservative Congressman, that a significant number of liberal members of the House of Representatives are in fact “members of the Communist Party.”

The use of such tactics to discredit those who believe in government intervention in the economy is not new, of course. Franklin Roosevelt faced similar charges when he ran for re-election in 1936. Like President Obama and those in Congress who favor government programs to put people to work and ensure that all Americans can enjoy a healthy and productive life, FDR’s New Deal—including his passage of unemployment insurance and Social Security—was attacked as “undisguised state socialism” by one senator. Others went so far as to insist that FDR was a communist, including FDR’s erstwhile colleague Al Smith, who, as one of the founders of the right-wing American Liberty League, warned in the 1936 election that “the people could either breathe the clear fresh air of America, or the foul breath of Soviet Russia.”

FDR brushed aside these attacks in part by insisting that we were a rich nation that could “afford to pay for security and prosperity without having to sacrifice our liberties into the bargain.” He also turned to our nation’s history, reminding the American people that in the first century of our republic, when “we were short of capital, short of workers, and short of industrial production, but…were rich…in free land, and free timber and free mineral wealth,” the federal government “rightly assumed the duty of promoting business and relieving depression by giving subsidies of land and other resources.” Thus, he said, “from our earliest days we have had a tradition of substantial government help to our system of private enterprise.”

FDR then acknowledged that economic conditions were very different in the mid 1930s from what they were in the 19th century, but not because the nation was poorer than it had once been. On the contrary, in many ways the nation was richer, “because now we have plenty of capital, banks and insurance companies loaded with idle money; plenty of industrial productive capacity and many millions of workers looking for jobs.” In light of this, he insisted that he was “following tradition as well as necessity” by striving to use government “to put idle money and idle men to work, to increase our public wealth and to build up the health and strength of the people—to help our system of private enterprise to function again.”

This last point is critical, for as FDR well understood, it was the failure of the free market to provide the average American with basic economic security—in other words, a decent job at a decent wage—that got us into the crisis in the first place. Prosperity, in short, was not dependent on the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, but rather on the economic strength of the millions of men and women who make up America’s vast working and middle class. For without their purchasing power—or what he called the “fair distribution of buying power”—a strong, vibrant economy was not possible.

Moreover, the same principle held true for the health and maintenance of America’s democratic system of governance. Indeed, as FDR saw it, the events of the 1920s and 30s made it obvious that “democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.” Viewed from this perspective, the real threat to our individual liberties came not from government, but from the “heedless self interest” of those in positions of vast wealth and power, whose greed crushed individual initiative and so restricted “the field open for free business” that private enterprise “became too private….it became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.” In such a system, the political equality the American people once enjoyed became “meaningless in the face of economic inequality,” and as such “life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.”

For Roosevelt, then, government intervention in the economy was not about destroying individual liberty; it was about restoring individual liberty. It was about making capitalism work in such a way as to ensure equal economic opportunity for all Americans, not just the privileged few at the top. Above all else, it was about preserving our democratic way of life at a time when anti-democratic forces were on the rise the world over.

This is a good reminder for President Obama and others who understand that it is quite natural for our government to take steps to restore the balance of economic opportunity in our free market economy in times of high unemployment and economic distress. They might also do well to remind themselves and the American people this election season of FDR’s maxim that “[t]he true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it. That the most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

In his April 1945 eulogy of President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill characterized FDR as a "Champion of Freedom."