This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States of America. Elected in 1932, at the height of the Depression, FDR introduced the New Deal in a bid to tackle the economic crisis. He would go on to be re-elected for an unprecedented three more terms, and to lead the USA during the Second World War. In 1921 he contracted polio and was paralysed from the waist down, but always sought to play down his disability.
When did you first hear about Franklin D Roosevelt?
As a teenager, reading 20th-century history for my own pleasure. My school in Birmingham was bizarre in that the history teaching was very classically orientated – anything that happened after 1485 was thought to be dangerously modern and of little interest. However, growing up in the postwar years, I had an avid interest in the Second World War, and that led me to discover FDR.
What kind of person was he?
He came from a long-established, well-respected family and was as Establishment as you could get. Patrician in outlook, he was bred for command and took it for granted that his voice would be heard. However, as a politician his instincts were populist – and he understood that the pyramid had to be built from the bottom. As president, he took radical action to deal with the economic crisis facing America. He was totally pragmatic in his approach and was willing to try anything if he thought it might work.
On the other hand, he never attempted to introduce any sort of civil rights for black people. It was just too big a problem – so he left it alone, aware that politics is very much the art of the possible.
What made him a hero?
He was a hugely important figure in the history of the 20th century, elected US president four times – an achievement that has never been equalled before or since. He won in 1932 and again in 1936; by 1940, the Second World War had started, and FDR believed that America needed him – so he again stood for president, and his actions subsequently proved him right. Whether facing up to the Depression or confronting the Axis powers during the war years, he rose to the challenge.
What was his finest hour?
For a colossal historical figure such as FDR who was on the scene for so long, it’s hard to single out just one episode. But at the beginning of his presidential tenure he was presented with the immense problem of the Depression; that was scary in a way we can’t understand today, and was considerably worse in America than in Britain.
Once the chaos started, it resulted in mass unemployment, banks failing and crop prices plunging – and he tackled it all. Then he went on to forge a wartime alliance with Britain (which was a lot harder to achieve than is often realised because American sentiment at the time was largely isolationist), invent ‘lend-lease’ to show his support for us, and help lead the Allies to victory.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
Well, in certain respects he had feet of clay. He was frequently unfaithful to his wife, Eleanor. Furthermore, in a way I think he was rather weak in not trying to tackle America’s civil rights issue. Being pragmatic is one thing, but there are times when that can veer close to cowardice.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
No. FDR lived his life under such unimaginable pressure compared with ours – and on top of all that he had to live with his disability caused by polio. My problems – for instance, being out of work – just pale into insignificance beside the challenge he faced when he became president: saving a country that was falling apart under the impact of the Depression.
If you could meet FDR, what would you ask him?
I think that when people elsewhere in the world speak of ‘America’, they’re instinctively thinking of that amazing half century of ‘can-do’ US dominance, from the 1930s to the 1980s – which was FDR’s America, really. So I’d ask him if he’s surprised that it endured so long – or surprised that it eventually came to an end.
Lee Child is the author of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels