Free Market

The Truth about FDR

The Free Market

The Free Market 19, no. 6 (June 2001)


There are no good American history textbooks on the market. I've looked. We non-leftists have to settle for the least bad one we can find. A number of my friends told me a year ago that Tindall and Shi's America: A Narrative History was the least bad. So, I've used it this semester for my survey course covering the period from Reconstruction to the present.

Naturally, and not at all unexpectedly, the book is abominable, and nowhere more so than in its discussion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The authors are so enthusiastic about the revolution he effected in American government and society that you can practically hear the pom-poms shake.

Although I'm focusing on this particular text, such flagrant bias is, of course, hardly confined to Tindall and Shi. Gary Dean Best points out in his excellent book Pride, Prejudice, and Politics: Roosevelt Versus Recovery, 1933 - 1938 that while the reams of social and economic legislation for which FDR was responsible are spelled out proudly in every American history textbook, "the costs for the United States of his eight-year-long war against business recovery are mentioned in none."

In America: A Narrative History, we get all the details of Watergate and of Nixon's abuse of power (as we should), but not a word about FDR as the pioneer of such activity. When the Paulist radio station of poor Fr. James Gillis in Chicago criticized FDR' s court-packing scheme, the FCC took its license away. As early as 1935, FDR requested that the FBI initiate a series of investigations into a variety of right-wing organizations, and later in the decade secretly sought proof (which, of course, never came) that prominent members of the America First Committee were receiving Nazi money. America Firsters were routinely smeared as Nazis and traitors. Our authors provide us with plenty of one-sided coverage of Joe McCarthy, but nothing about any of this.

Naturally, our authors assure us that FDR's massive spending projects provided jobs and economic stimulus. It would probably be too much to expect a typical historian to appreciate Frédéric Bastiat's point about opportunity cost from his famous essay, "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen." At the very least, though, it cannot be unreasonable to expect some acknowledgment of the considerable amount of scholarship that over the past several decades has explored the peculiar distribution of FDR's spending. The corruption with which FDR's public-works projects were infested is fairly well-established- the rather curious preponderance of Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects in Western states where FDR's electoral margin had been thin in 1932, the intimidation of WPA workers into voting Democratic, and the like. Naturally, we get not a word about any of that.

FDR's agricultural policies were in a class of genius all their own. Convinced that falling prices were hindering economic recovery, FDR decided that prices were now to be raised by any means necessary. Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, as thoroughgoing a Soviet dupe as this country has ever seen, described the wholesale destruction of crops and livestock in which he and FDR engaged in order to boost farm prices as "a cleaning up of the wreckage from the old days of unbalanced production" (as Tindall and Shi quote him, approvingly).

Wallace, you see, knew precisely what quantity of production would bring things into "balance." What a waste that Wallace should have devoted his omniscience to a matter so mundane when thousands of crimes were doubtless going unsolved at that very moment.

Tindall and Shi assure us that "for a while these farm measures worked." Well, if by "worked" you mean they succeeded in their goal of raising the prices of food and clothing at a time when people were desperately poor, then I suppose they did "work." Slaughtering some six million pigs and engaging in the destruction of enormous supplies of wheat and cotton did tend to increase the prices of these items. Congratulations.

While this program was under way, the Department of Agriculture released a study regarding the American diet during these lean years. The Department constructed four sample diets: liberal, moderate, minimum, and emergency (below subsistence). Its figures were sobering: America was not producing enough food to sustain its population at the minimum (subsistence) diet.

John T. Flynn, a liberal journalist-turned-New Deal opponent, mused in his 1948 biography of Roosevelt: "How to better this may be a problem, but the last course a government run by sane men would adopt to get it solved would be to destroy a good part of what we do produce."

Responding to the Supreme Court's horse-and-buggy jurisprudence following a setback for his agricultural program, FDR conjured up a horrifying picture: "Are we going to take the hands of the federal government completely off any effort to adjust the growing of national crops, and go right straight back to the old principle that every farmer is a lord of his own farm and can do anything he wants, raise anything, any old time, in any quantity, and sell any time he wants?" This grave peril was wisely averted.

Interestingly, shortly after the Supreme Court declared the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) unconstitutional in early 1936, the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Agricultural Economics reported that in the case of cotton, farm income would have been at least as high and perhaps even higher in the absence of the AAA. The following month, Cornell University's James E. Boyle argued in the Atlantic that among other things the AAA had been responsible for the joblessness of at least two million souls, especially sharecroppers and other farm laborers. (What work is there for these people to do when nothing is being produced?)

The textbook's discussion of foreign affairs is no better. By 1941, FDR was practically desperate to involve the United States in World War II. That he used deceptive means to do so is acknowledged by everyone except, apparently, most textbook authors. Thus America' s entire discussion of the Greer incident consists of this sentence: "The first attack on an American warship occurred on September 4, when a German submarine fired two torpedoes at a destroyer." As a description of what really happened, that doesn' t even qualify as a bad joke.

What in fact took place is that the Greer, the American warship in question, had already been tracking the German submarine for several hours, signaling its location to British air forces that dropped depth charges on the sub-as, in turn, did the Greer itself. So much for the Germans' outrageous act of "piracy," as FDR described it. As Winston Churchill confided privately to aides, the president had made clear to him at the time that he intended to become more and more provocative, and that, in Churchill s words, "everything was to be done to provoke an incident."

Then we have the court-packing scheme, FDR's rather naked attempt to discipline and control a Supreme Court that had begun to strike down a number of key New Deal programs as unconstitutional. This wasn' t really such a big deal, Tindall and Shi assure us; this was a move "for which there was ample precedent and power." An attempt to change the Court' s size for the express purpose of diverting it from traditional constitutional interpretation is, in fact, rather lacking in serious precedent.

Funny, our authors never trouble themselves to provide us with even a single example of what the new jurisprudence was like. We're left to assume that since it upheld the New Deal, the Court must have been especially sober and wise- unlike the reactionary ravings of the "nine old men."

I have to provide my students with my own example: the classic case of Wickard v. Filburn (1942). The Court here decided that a farmer growing wheat for his own use on his own property did in fact fall under the heading of "interstate commerce" and thus was subject to federal regulation. Homegrown wheat, in the Court's words, "supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market. Homegrown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce." What can one say?

It was now obvious that the Court had no intention of allowing the interstate commerce clause ever again to limit the authority of the federal government. So much for the entire American heritage, to say nothing of the intentions of every single one of the framers of the Constitution, none of whom, in his worst nightmare, sought to construct a government utterly severed from any reasonable anchor of legal restraint.

Professor Clyde Wilson made a good point recently: The same intellectuals who condemn the Confederates who fought for states' rights- a recognizable American principle with a venerable lineage in the nation's history- also praise unreserved connivers like FDR, whose innovations had no roots in anything historically American and who willfully undermined the Constitution, the rule of law, and every major principle for which our ancestors stood.

At the end of my lecture on FDR, one of my students raised her hand and said, "Im confused. Are we supposed to like this guy? I'd always been told he was great."

How I love my job.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., teaches history at Suffolk Community College and serves as an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute (


Woods, Thomas E. "The Truth about FDR." The Free Market 19, no. 6 (June 2001).

All Rights Reserved ©
Support Liberty

The Mises Institute exists solely on voluntary contributions from readers like you. Support our students and faculty in their work for Austrian economics, freedom, and peace.

Donate today
Group photo of Mises staff and fellows