“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Historians have had much to say about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s one-of-a-kind presidency; he has been called “the first modern president,” and Peter K. Parides remarks that “the description of FDR’s legacy as a modern transformation, especially in the realm of military science and technology, is a conclusion that is almost universally shared by scholars.”
Franklin Roosevelt of New York, was the 32nd President of the United States, serving from 1933 until his death in April 1945. Elected to an unprecedented (and now impossible) four terms, FDR led the country through both the Great Depression and World War II. Though justifiably controversial today, among both the left and right, Roosevelt is generally regarded by scholars as one of the top three presidents in American history.
Roosevelt’s “New Deal” reshaped American politics by giving the government a far larger role in ensuring the welfare of its citizens. He vowed to stand up for the “Forgotten Man” and attempted to do so through Social Security, labor rights, housing, banking regulations and minimum wages. He governed in a proactive, innovative, experimental and occasionally improvised manner. For a figure like Roosevelt, who lived an ambitious and complicated life in an extraordinary time, the sciences were inevitably tied to his accomplishments. In Political Science #3, we look at some of these occasions:
- At just 31 years of age, the then New York State Senator was appointed to the role of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Serving under President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Roosevelt pondered how to restrict the passage of German submarines into the Atlantic. The British allies insisted that nothing could be done, but Roosevelt was not willing to abandon the idea. When approached by Ralph Browne, an inventor carrying the blueprints for the “Browne Submerged Gun,” Roosevelt sensed an opportunity. The design was essentially a floating buoy with a tube that would fire an explosive shell when its dangling copper wires closed their electrical circuit against the metal of a passing U-boat’s hull. Skeptical of the weapon’s efficiency but seeing potential in the triggering system, Roosevelt referred Browne to the Bureau of Ordnance and the projectile weapon was eventually replaced with a mine. Roosevelt pushed heavily for the manufacture of 100,000 of the new design. The laying of these mines came to be known as the North Sea Mine Barrage and did what the British had deemed impossible: hindered the passage of German U-Boats into wider waters. Historians and the military alike have suggested that it was potentially the mining of the North Sea which led to the mutiny of the German Navy.
- A promising and privileged young man—related to a former US president, no less—Roosevelt had long held ambitions of becoming President of the United States. His time in the state legislature, his tenure as Assistant Secretary to the Navy and his unsuccessful bid for the Vice Presidency were all part of a path he had charted toward the highest office. These plans were halted when Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921. As we saw with President James Garfield in Political Science #2, historical medical diagnoses are subject to reassessment. As a new generation of practitioners apply their knowledge of modern medical science to Roosevelt’s case, arguments have been made that FDR actually suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome. Regardless, while these medical reevaluations are interesting, polio still remains the most widely accepted diagnosis.
- FDR responded to his loss of mobility with the innovation and resolve that would become his trademark—as well as some light engineering. Unhappy with the size and stigma of traditional wheelchairs, he designed his own, made of a simple desk chair with wheels. Conscious of appearances, especially in political life, he hid the depths of his disability by learning to walk short distances and stand for speeches through the use of steel leg braces. However, the most impressive of the lot was his car, which he had fitted with hand controls that allowed him to drive without the use of his feet, returning some of the freedom and independence that this willful and energetic man had always enjoyed.
- In an ever-changing world of new and improving technology, Roosevelt eventually did re-enter elective politics in 1928, winning the office of Governor of New York. While radio was not a new political tool at the time (President Calvin Coolidge was particularly pleased with his own radio voice), the medium was becoming increasingly popular. It was during his time as Governor that Roosevelt began harnessing this technology to deliver the innovative radio addresses that would later be known as his legendary “Fireside Chats.” Roosevelt was also the first president to appear on television and the first president to own a TV set, though he was less enamored with that device.
- With his landslide victory over President Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as President of the United States on March 4, 1933. Confronting the ravages of the Great Depression, Roosevelt made conservation a key part of his New Deal programs. Trying to provide jobs to the unemployed, he created the Civilian Conservation Corps. Those employed by the CCC worked to conserve and develop natural resources on government-owned land and were responsible for more than half of the reforestation in America’s history. Addressing soil erosion and drought, particularly as a consequence of the Dust Bowl, Roosevelt formed the Soil Conservation Service and the Great Plains Shelterbelt. The response to the Dust Bowl was an unprecedented government effort to address an environmental issue.
- Through the Tennessee Valley Authority (which still exists today), Roosevelt’s administration undertook one of the largest hydropower construction programs in American history. The dams which provided the region with electricity also offered flood control and agricultural benefits. This opened the region up to new industries and greater economic opportunity. A similar bill had previously been vetoed by President Coolidge and more recently in 1931 by President Hoover for being “socialistic,” but Roosevelt didn’t appear to share this concern.
- Seeing the benefits of bringing electricity to isolated communities, Roosevelt continued with the Rural Electrification Act. The executive order gave federal loans to provide electricity to rural parts of America. The legislation improved the quality of life and work efficiency of those in neglected areas, notably those on farms and ranches. The law is still in effect today and was most recently amended in 2014 to provide broadband to those in remote regions.
- Roosevelt saw many opportunities for science to improve both lives and the economy, but he saw its potential for problems, too. In 1936, he wrote a letter to the Engineering Schools of America. Addressing “educators of high administrative authority,” he said:
“The design and construction of specific civil engineering works or of instruments for production represent only one part of the responsibility of engineering. It must also consider social processes and problems, and modes of more perfect adjustment to environment. Engineering must cooperate in designing accommodating mechanisms to absorb the shocks of the impact of science.”
- Through the New Deal, FDR had worked aggressively to restore the economy and provide relief, but he would soon face another tremendous challenge: World War II. Prior even to the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war, FDR issued Executive Order 8807, creating the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Understanding that technology and scientific knowledge would need to be exploited to the fullest, the agency coordinated scientific research for military purposes. Some of its focuses included guided missiles, radar technology and medical treatment. However, it cannot be forgotten that OSRD also carried out some disturbing and dangerous human experiments.
- The most secret and ultimately significant part of the OSRD was the S-1 Section, which began the work that would come to be known as the Manhattan Project. The beginnings of this program stem from a 1939 letter to FDR drafted by Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner and signed by Albert Einstein. They warned that Germany was utilizing uranium in an effort to create “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” The president responded by assembling the Advisory Committee on Uranium. Thus began a series of projects and works that would lead theoretical physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer and others toward the development of the first nuclear weapons. Due to Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 before the weapons were completed, we’ll never know for certain how FDR would have used the bombs. Instead it fell to his Vice President and reluctant Presidential successor, Harry Truman, to make that devastating and world-changing decision. If interested in a detailed and captivating telling of the history of nuclear weapons, I highly recommend “The Destroyer of Worlds” episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.
Ultimately, there are more facts and theories about the enigmatic Roosevelt than could possibly be discussed here, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a little more about a few of the occasions where the sciences influenced Roosevelt and vice versa. If you’re keen to hear more about FDR’s life, I can recommend H.W Brand’s Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt biography and this episode of the 10 American Presidents podcast. I’d also urge you to read up on Eleanor Roosevelt.
For better or for worse, it seems unlikely that there will ever be another presidency like that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
If you missed them, the previous two installments of Political Science can be read here: