THE ROOSEVELT MYTH
John T. Flynn
Fox and Wilkes,  1998, xxiv + 437 pgs.
Ralph Raico points out in his incisive introduction to this fiftieth anniversary edition of The
that many take sharp criticism of FDR to constitute sacrilege against
religion of the United States. "Republican no less than democratic leaders revere and invoke the
memory of Franklin Roosevelt" (p. vii).
No reader of The Roosevelt Myth, unless totally blinded by preconception, can continue
to bow down in this temple of Rimmon. Quite the contrary, Roosevelt can be viewed only as a
near total disaster. The "Roosevelt-haters" of the 1930s and 1940s, not least among them Flynn
himself, have been vindicated by the account so vividly presented here.
Yet in one respect, our assessment seems paradoxical. Roosevelt, as he emerges from this
book was a vain, intellectually shallow person whose principal interest was to retain at all costs
his personal power. Can so petty a figure have been that dangerous?
Consider, for example, the amusing account Flynn provides of Roosevelt's decision to
run for a third term. In conversation with the Eternal Glad-hander, Postmaster-General Jim
Farley, who himself sought the presidency, Roosevelt alternately said that he would not run and
plotted his campaign strategy. One half of his brain seemed unaware of the activities of the other
"On July 1, 1940, two weeks before the [Democratic Party] convention was to meet,
Roosevelt asked Farley to visit him at Hyde Park...the conversation proceeded in the most
singular manner with literally three persons present Farley for one, Roosevelt the man who was
not going to run as the second, and Roosevelt the man who had decided to run as the third. In
breath he began to discuss vice-presidential candidates...he then began to outline the letter he
would write to the convention telling them he didn't want to run and at what point he should
send the letter. Then having gone into de-tails about how he would eliminate himself he said,
'Undoubtedly I will accept the nomination by radio and will arrange to talk to the delegates
before they leave the convention hall'" (pp. 192 193).
Can such an absurd person really have been so dangerous? As Flynn shows with crystal
clarity, the answer unfortunately is yes. Owing to the combined circumstances of economic
depression and a menacing diplomatic situation in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt's "gifts" were an
ideal recipe for disaster.
Roosevelt's total subordination of his country's welfare to his personal ambition began
before he took office in March, 1933. The outgoing president, Herbert Hoover, confronted a
dilemma. Faced with numerous bank failures throughout the country, Hoover wished to
announce a plan to help promote bank solvency. He knew, however, that a statement from him
would be worse than useless. He had utterly lost the confidence of Congress and the people.
He accordingly proposed to Roosevelt that he announce a plan to save the banks.
Roosevelt refused to do so, since continued bank failures until he took office were to his political
advantage. It would hardly do, would it, to have the banks recover under Hoover? Perish the
thought! "On February 28 , Hoover received a message that [Roosevelt adviser] Rexford
Tugwell had said that the banks would collapse in a couple of days and that is what they wanted"
(p. 22, emphasis in original). I leave aside here the issue of whether governmental action to end
the bank panic was appropriate. Roosevelt himself favored such action: the point was not to
allow Hoover credit for it.
Not an auspicious beginning, and matters soon got worse. Roosevelt had denounced
Hoover as a spendthrift, and his platform promised strict economy in government. But a
government that spent little would give Roosevelt scant opportunity to exercise the patronage he
craved. Accordingly, "Roosevelt sent his now famous message to Congress deploring the
disastrous extravagance of the Hoover administration.... As one reads that message now it is
difficult to believe that it could ever have been uttered by a man who before ending his regime
would spend not merely more money than President Hoover, but more than all the
presidents put together three times more, in fact, than all the presidents from George
Washington to Herbert Hoover" (p. 28, emphasis in original).
Here then, to reiterate, was the situation. Roosevelt confronted a major depression. The
solution, so far as the government was concerned, lay within his grasp. He had only to follow his
campaign pledge of economy. As good Austrians, we know, Paul Krugman to the contrary
notwithstanding, that if the government steps out of the way and allows malinvestments to be
liquidated, all is likely soon to be well. But just that solution went against the Rooseveltian
categorical imperative: spend money to gain power.
Very well, then; out with economy: the government must spend. But spend on what?
Roosevelt had little idea, and his vaunted Brain Trust gave him scant help. Flynn heaps scorn
upon the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, one of FDR's more bizarre schemes:
"Curiously enough, while [Secretary of Agriculture Henry] Wallace was paying out hundreds of
millions to kill millions of hogs, burn oats, plow under cotton, the Department of Agriculture
issued a bulletin telling the nation the great problem of our time was our failure to produce
enough food to provide the people with a mere subsistence diet.... It was a crime against our
civilization to pay farmers in two years $700,000,000 to destroy crops and limit production" (pp.
44-45, emphasis omitted).
I must not give readers the wrong idea. Roosevelt's efforts to extricate the United States
from the depression were not totally aimless. The New Dealers found the blandishments of
fascism much to their liking, and Mussolini's corporative state was the model for Roosevelt's
National Recovery Administration. "As I [Flynn] write, of course, Mussolini is an evil memory.
But in 1933 he was a towering figure who was supposed to have discovered something worth
study and imitation by all world artificers anywhere." What they liked particularly was his
corporative system.... The NRA provided that in America each industry should be organized into
a federally supervised trade association. It was called a Code Authority. But it was essentially the
same thing" (p. 39).
To Flynn's thesis of the New Deal as a combination of nonsense and fascism, there arises
an obvious objection. Did not the Supreme Court declare both the AAA and the NRA
unconstitutional? Flynn of course knew this, and wrote about these decisions, and Roosevelt's
"court-packing" response, at length. Incidentally, the subject betrays Flynn into one of his few
mistakes. He states: "On May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court, to everybody's relief, declared the
NRA unconstitutional.... And the decision was unanimous, Brandeis, Cardozo, and Holmes
joining in it" (p. 43). Justice Holmes retired from the court in 1932. (It's just this sort of point
that makes reading The Mises Review worthwhile, isn't it?)
Flynn rightly saw that even without these two programs, his thesis was intact. The
movement of the New Deal toward a planned economic system reflected the influence of a wide
variety of self-styled Great Minds. Derailing a few programs could not halt their forward
Our author ascribes special importance to the influence of Thorstein Veblen, whose
obscure writing style occasioned one of H.L. Mencken's best articles. "Perhaps the great pioneer
of planning in this country was Thorstein Veblen and it was from him that Tugwell and the
others drew their inspiration. Veblen, like so many of his kind, was an unpleasant fellow" (p.
In the plans of Tugwell, Leon Henderson, and their fellow technocrats, Flynn saw grave
danger to liberty. Anticipating the thesis of F.A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom
(1944), he maintained that a planned economy led inevitably to a totalitarian state. "Mussolini
and Hitler...realized that a system like this, which undertakes to impose a vast complex of decrees
upon a people while subjecting them to confiscatory taxes to support the immense activities of
the State cannot be operated save by an absolute government that has the power to enforce
compliance" (p. 140).
As if this group of planners were not bad enough, Flynn found another set of Bright Men
even more ominous. This group, whom our author terms "the spenders," believed that extensive
government outlays were necessary to ensure continued prosperity.
"Well," you may say, "so what? The dispute between Keynesian spenders and sound
economists is long-standing. Why does Flynn emphasize it so much?"
Flynn's point was not primarily that the spenders practiced unsound economics: indeed,
he unfortunately accepted the view that the economy requires a high level of spending to
maintain prosperity. (Flynn, in contrast to the planners, thought that extensive government
programs were not needed to achieve this.)
The danger that Flynn saw in the big spenders was not economic, but political. The
spenders wished to stimulate the economy: but what projects stood available? Civilian spending
had completely failed to achieve the goal of full employment. In point of fact, unemployment in
1938 was 11 million.
What could Roosevelt do? Only military spending remained available. "Here he was with
a depression on his hands" [with] the pressing necessity, as he put it himself, of spending two or
three billion a year of deficit money and most serious of all, as he told Jim Farley no way to
spend it. Here now was a gift from the gods.... Here now was something the federal government
could really spend money on military and naval preparations" (p. 157).
As Flynn saw matters, extensive government spending on the military, given the tense
diplomatic situation during the period 1938-1941, led almost inevitably to war. Roosevelt, with
his customary lack of thought, abandoned the Neutrality Act of 1936, legislation he himself had
enthusiastically backed. American participation in war, Roosevelt thought, meant a chance to
economic depression and secure renewed electoral triumph. Never mind whether entry into the
war served U.S. interests: a higher need, the fame and political fortune of Franklin Roosevelt,
was at stake.
Given Roosevelt's utter lack of strategic sense, it should come as no surprise that the
chief result of the war was an enormous expansion of Stalinist power in Europe and Asia. But for
that sorry tale, which Flynn recounts with great skill, readers must consult the book.
describe every major topic in Flynn's book, I have thought it more important to stress his chief
contribution: his brilliantly sustained argument that an irresponsible and ambitious president
unleashed the baleful forces of state planning and militarism in order to keep alive his power.
The book ends on a melancholy note: the dying Roosevelt, unable to think clearly, nevertheless
clung to power. He proved no match for Stalin in the conferences at Teheran and Yalta.