Revisiting FDR and 'Unimagined Power': Echoes

By Amity Shlaes

Last week, reader Chris Ryan wrote to say that in analyzing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inaugural address of 1937 my last column contained a "serious factual error." I noted that when Roosevelt said the U.S. sought "an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world," the instrument the president was referring to was the government. Mr. Ryan disagrees.

He argues that FDR wasn't referring to government in this section — that the president had moved on to matters of the spirit. The suggestion here is that my column made Roosevelt look more aggressive than he was. Mr. Ryan says "such distortions of people's words are dishonest."

Here's my take. Roosevelt relished ambiguity, precisely because it allowed him to have it both ways. Indeed, you can hear FDR chuckling in the background when modern history buffs squabble over what he meant. That's what he wanted us to do. As my Bloomberg View colleague Jonathan Alter has noted in his book "The Defining Moment," Roosevelt once backed free trade and protectionism in the same speech. A distraught speechwriter, Ray Moley, pointed out that the principles were mutually exclusive. FDR blithely told the speechwriter to "weave them together."

But to the 1937 inaugural. Speechwriter Sam Rosenman notes in his memoir, "Working With Roosevelt," that this speech involved multiple drafts and contained more "work, corrections, inserts, substitutions and deletions by the President than any of the other speeches." Exactly what was intended by these changes, readers may judge for themselves: A copy of the relevant pages from two of those earlier drafts are posted here, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.

But since Mr. Ryan's charges are so strong, it seems worthwhile to supply some more facts. Roosevelt had campaigned the prior fall vowing that he would escalate the fight against business if he won, promising that in him businessmen would find they had met "their master." Whoa.

Then he did win, in a landslide so historic it seemed Democrats would rule always and forever. Everyone, including those in his administration, therefore expected that laws even more radical than those of FDR's first term would be passed and signed. And those of the first term had already been disastrous for business: The National Recovery Act and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which strangled promising utilities, were just two examples. When you review the second inaugural speech, it helps to recall that context.

In the speech, FDR reminds the country that from the beginning the settlers in the New World realized that they must strengthen government. And he placed his own first term in that tradition: "Instinctively we recognized a deeper need — the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization." Note the use of the word "instrument."

Then Roosevelt moves on to other topics, winding his way toward both the spiritual and political change the nation had already begun. He says that "using the new materials of social justice we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations."

Then the president suggests that Americans have learned to think differently about economics. "In that purpose we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit. Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays."

Roosevelt ends the paragraph by taking up the instrument image again. "We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world."

Mr. Ryan thinks Roosevelt is referring this time to an event purely spiritual in nature. But the case that Roosevelt has moved back to government — that he means it is government that will have unimagined power — is also strong. That's because the word "instrument" has already been established in this speech as a governmental instrument. The lines that follow also suggest FDR's instrument here is for action, not philosophizing.

"This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life. In this process evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned."

Here FDR sounds like he's giving marching orders to his antitrust lawyers, not laying out the Sunday school curriculum.

A few moments later, Roosevelt utters the famous lines about "one third of a nation" being "ill clad, ill housed, ill nourished." (The FDR Library reports that Roosevelt seems to have made those ratios up, but never mind.) Roosevelt also talks about using America's "rediscovered ability to improve our economic order." Rediscovered ability means time for action.

Most importantly, what this speech is remembered for is that it did, in fact, foreshadow aggressive presidential action. Roosevelt soon launched his plan to pack the Supreme Court with justices friendly to his view, a level of executive intervention into the judiciary branch so egregious that his own party blocked it.

In short, Mr. Ryan's interpretation is possible. My interpretation — that Roosevelt was talking about government — is also possible. This is not a factual dispute.

(Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg View columnist, oversees the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2011 Bloomberg

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