(Editor’s Note: March 2003 marks the 70th anniversary of the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as America’s 32nd President. Was he really a good chief executive? John T. Flynn was one who argued that he was, at the very least, greatly overrated, as this review of Flynn’s 1948 book explains.)
For every thousand books written, perhaps just one comes to enjoy the appellation, "classic." That label is reserved for a book that through the force of its originality and thoroughness, shifts paradigms and serves as a timeless, indispensable source of insight.
Such a book is The Roosevelt Myth by John T. Flynn. First published in 1948, Flynn’s definitive analysis of America’s 32nd president was reissued in 1998 in a 50th anniversary edition by Fox & Wilkes, with a new foreword by Ralph Raico. It is the best and most thoroughly documented chronicle of the person and politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
John T. Flynn was a successful and influential journalist with a reputation for candor and first-rate research. He was neither a shill for Big Government nor a puppet of Big Business. He railed against both when they conspired to undermine the Constitution, erode our freedoms, or suck the nation into foreign entanglements. He saw right through the public relations job depicting FDR as a valiant crusader for noble causes.
Was FDR a man of principles, a man guided in his thinking by a fixed set of lofty and noncontradictory ideas? Far from it, Flynn proves, in what is an important theme of the book. FDR’s thinking and behavior show him to be a real-life exemplar of an old Groucho Marx wisecrack: "Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others!"
Running against Herbert Hoover in 1932, Roosevelt campaigned as an advocate of limited government, even (correctly) accusing Hoover of "reckless and extravagant spending" and of thinking "that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible." After being elected, however, FDR promptly championed reckless and extravagant spending and tried to centralize just about everything in Washington. He did so not because he had become a scholarly statist intellectual, but simply because he was an opportunist capitalizing on the public’s demand for "action."
Yet the depression that FDR inherited was still very much with us after two terms in the White House. He zigged and zagged from one Rube Goldberg policy contraption to the next. His elitist brain trusters covered for his failures and cooked up new schemes, in what Flynn called "the dance of the crackpots."
Flynn’s critique of the Mussolini-inspired New Deal’s two main hallmarks – the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) – remains one of the most devastating ever penned. The "crazy antics" of the NRA put a New York tailor behind bars for pressing a suit of clothes for 35 instead of 40 cents. With the AAA, "we had men burning oats when we were importing oats from abroad on a huge scale, killing pigs while increasing our imports of lard, cutting corn production and importing 30 million bushels of corn from abroad."
While most American industrialists were willing, if not eager, to comply with the NRA, but Michigan’s Henry Ford resisted and refused to sign any code. "I do not think that this country is ready to be treated like Russia for a while," he wrote. "There is a lot of the pioneer spirit here yet." However, all other carmakers signed the code, which astounded Ford. His colleagues preferred Roosevelt’s promise of stability and government regulation to competition and free trade.
Ford stood almost alone, defying the law, and he needed a legal loophole to keep out of jail. He didn’t need to sign the auto code, he argued, as long as he complied with its provisions. This he did with good humor. "The code minimum wage is hardly a good dole," Ford teased. Later he said of the auto code, "If we tried to live up to it we would have to live down to it."
President Roosevelt tried to pressure the recalcitrant Ford into signing the code. Ford would receive no government contracts until he signed — and with the large increase in government agencies during the 1930s, that meant a huge business. For example, the bid of a Ford agency on 500 trucks for the Civilian Conservation Corps was $169,000 below the next best offer. The government announced, however, that it would reject Ford’s bid and pay $169,000 more for the trucks because Ford never signed the auto code.
Joining Ford in support of free competition was Sewell Avery, the president of Montgomery Ward. Avery was born in Saginaw and educated at the University of Michigan Law School. His family was prominent in the state’s lumber industry and Avery became president of U. S. Gypsum, the nation’s leading seller of plaster and wallboard. His business sense was remarkable and he made U. S. Gypsum profitable even during the Great Depression. Montgomery Ward stockholders unhappy with the company’s performance elected him president in 1931 hoping he could transfer his genius to retailing.
Avery, according to one employee, "turned the place inside out . . . . All the fellows were hustling and bustling to make the grade." Montgomery Ward again became profitable and its stock recovered sharply with Avery at the helm.
Then came the NRA codes for retailing. Avery called the New Dealers "impractical and dreamlike idealists." He stood alone among the nation’s retailers and courageously ignored the NRA codes. When the government clamped down, Avery refused to pay $30,000 for code administration. The government barred him from receiving any government contracts. The stalemate ended in May 1935, when the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional.
During World War II, Avery challenged government efforts to unionize warehouse and retail workers. Finally, after a long resistance, the Attorney General came to the Montgomery Ward headquarters in Chicago and forcibly evicted Avery. National Guardsmen carried him out of the building in full view of spectators and cameramen. "To hell with the government," Avery snapped at the Attorney General. "You . . . New Dealer!"
Avery seemed to have lost the battle, but in a sense he won the war. A Gallup poll showed that 61 percent of Americans sided with Avery, not the government. Many newspapers compared Roosevelt with foreign dictators and, within three years, Avery was back at the helm at Montgomery Ward and the government had ended its price-fixing schemes.
John T. Flynn’s view of FDR’s coterie of planners was similar to that of Ford’s and Avery’s and it was right on target. He saw each of them as "a kind of little man who will tell you that he can’t hit a nail straight with a hammer, but who loves to spread a big country like the United States out before him on top of a table, pull up a chair and sit down to rearrange the whole thing to suit his heart’s content."
One can hardly read a classic like Flynn’s book and fail to come away with a sense of disgust that the liberties and the pocketbooks of a nation were placed in the hands of so beguiling a schemer as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not even America’s entry into World War II was without its shameful lies and prevarications from an administration whose one consistency was to place its own preservation above the long-term welfare of the nation. Indeed, for a fresh perspective on FDR’s wartime leadership, the interested reader should see a remarkable recent book The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II by the noted historian, Thomas Fleming.
Given the continuing deification of FDR, John T. Flynn’s The Roosevelt Myth is as relevant and necessary today as it was a half-century ago. Americans who prefer their history not be twisted to serve statist ends or sanitized by the politically correct should be sure to stock their libraries with this classic. No one who reads it with an open mind will ever think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt the same way again.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He wishes to thank historian Burton Folsom, author of Empire Builders: How Michigan Entrepreneurs Helped Make America Great, for his research and assistance regarding Henry Ford and Sewell Avery.)