Life of the Week: President Franklin D Roosevelt

On 7 December 1941 the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing 2,403 people. The next day, American president Franklin D Roosevelt (aka FDR) announced that the attack was “a date which will live in infamy”...

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

That same day, 8 December 1941, Franklin D Roosevelt announced the US’s entry into the Second World War after officially declaring war on Japan.

Here, we explore the president’s life…

Born: 30 January 1882, Hyde Park, New York, US

Died: 12 April 1945, Warm Springs, Georgia, US

Remembered for: Being the president of the United States during the Great Depression – the longest economic downturn in US history, between 1929 and 1939 – and the Second World War. Franklin is also often remembered for his programme for relief, recovery, and reform, known as the New Deal (1933–38). He is the only president to have been elected four times.

Family: Franklin was the only child of James and Sara Roosevelt. His father was a wealthy and notable businessman in New York.

Franklin married his fifth cousin Eleanor Roosevelt (the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, 1858–1919) in 1903, and together they had six children; one of whom died in infancy. Eleanor continues to hold the record as the longest-serving First Lady of the United States.

His life: Franklin D Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in New York in 1882. Growing up, he was privately educated before attending the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts as a teenager.

In 1900 Franklin attended Harvard University, where he studied history for four years. While studying for his degree, he became the editor-in-chief of the university’s daily newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

In 1904 Franklin completed his degree and went on to study at Columbia Law School. After passing the New York State Bar exam to practise law, he dropped out of the school in 1907.

Franklin began working on Wall Street in 1907, joining the prestigious law firm Carter Ledyard and Milburn. Just three years later, Franklin became involved in politics and was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910.

In 1913, Franklin was appointed by President Wilson as the assistant secretary of the Navy – a position he held for the next seven years. After the US entered the First World War in 1917, Franklin travelled to Europe in 1918 to assess the battlefields and American naval bases.

In 1921, Franklin contracted polio – an infectious virus that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis of the limbs. He became paralysed from below the waist, and for a number of years hid away from public life. Determined to overcome the infection, Franklin took up swimming to regain his mobility.

In 1928 Franklin was elected as the governor of New York. The following year the US stock market crashed, sending the country into an economic depression. Soon after this, Franklin helped to establish the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), which was created to help the rising number of unemployed people in the state to find work.

In 1930 Franklin became the front-runner for the presidential nominations for the Democratic Party, and in 1932 he was nominated as the leading candidate for the presidential election that year. In November 1932, after winning a majority in the elections, Franklin became the 32nd president of the United States.

Franklin’s presidency began at the height of the Great Depression, which was the longest economic recession in US history. It is estimated that in 1932 some 13,000,000 people were unemployed. Determined to bring the US out of the depression, in his first inaugural speech Franklin stated: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and prosper”.

Franklin was intent upon expanding the country’s economy, increasing employment, and recovering the business and agricultural sectors. During his presidency, he imposed heavy taxes on the highest earners of society, and enforced stricter control over the banks. Between 1933 and 1938, Franklin’s government instituted a series of domestic programmes known collectively as the New Deal, which aimed to bring about economic relief and reform of the financial system.

In 1935 Franklin enforced the Social Security Act, which for the first time in US history allowed elderly people to receive pensions. In 1938 Franklin established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes), to help people who had contracted polio.

(Left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Jospeh Stalin sit for photographs during a conference in February 1945. (Photo by IWM via Getty Images)

In 1936 Franklin was re-elected as president. Amid the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the late 1930s, Franklin was determined to retain some neutrality to prevent the US from being dragged into a second world war. After France and Britain went to war with Germany in 1939, Franklin began sending aid to British troops.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese Navy launched a surprise air attack on the US’s naval base centered at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Some 2,403 people died and more than 1,000 were injured as a result of the attack.

Many consider this drastic event as the defining moment of America’s entry into the Second World War. The day after the attack, 8 December 1941, America officially declared war on Japan when Franklin D Roosevelt addressed the United States Congress. He famously described the Pearl Harbor attacks as “a date which will live in infamy”.

Germany and Italy officially declared war on the US on 11 December 1941. After being put under pressure from the public and his ministers who wanted to seek revenge on Japan, Franklin ordered that a significant proportion of the US armed forces be sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese in 1942.

During the war, Franklin developed plans to create what later became the United Nations organisation – an institute set up to prevent conflicts between major nations across the world.

During the final months of the war, Franklin’s health began to deteriorate. On 12 April 1945 Franklin died of a brain hemorrhage, aged 63, at Warm Springs, Georgia, US.

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