For those Americans who know anything at all about the history of the Great Depression and the New Deal, the story line seems simple, dramatic, inspiring and familiar:
Capitalists and speculators went wild with greed in “The Roaring Twenties,” leading to a stock market crash and hard times. Banks closed, once prosperous workers sold apples on street-corners or became hobos in shanty-towns, while the Republican President Herbert Hoover did nothing for the destitute and suffering nation. Then FDR arrived on the scene, inspiring new hope with his golden words (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) and a flurry of radical reform in his first hundred days in office. While conservatives squealed, this “new deal for the American people” improved the lives of everyone and got the economy humming again – just in time to face the challenges of World War II. No wonder a grateful nation rewarded Franklin Roosevelt with an unprecedented four terms – and a consistent ranking as one of our three greatest presidents (along with Washington and Lincoln).
Like most other Americans of my generation, I learned this story from my parents and grandparents, not just from history teachers in school. My grandparents on my father’s side, immigrants from Ukraine, became naturalized citizens in part to vote for Roosevelt: in their tiny home in a gritty neighborhood of South Philadelphia, they always kept a heroic black-and-sepia portrait of FDR over the mantelpiece, encased in a dime-store brass frame with a cracked pane of glass. My grandfather was a barrel-maker who managed to keep working throughout the Depression, so he never benefited personally from New Deal programs, but he revered the 32nd President for his general support for “the little guy.” My father recalled April 12, 1945, the day of Roosevelt’s sudden and shocking death from a cerebral hemorrhage, as one of the darkest occasions of his life: along with many other sailors at his base in San Francisco, he wept uncontrollably.