David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • China’s Emergence as a Great Power Began with FDR

    Jan 21, 2011David B. Woolner

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    In his remarks at the ceremony welcoming Chinese President Hu to Washington, President Obama took note of "China's rise as a strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations." He also observed that at a time "when some doubt the benefits of cooperation between the United States and China, this visit is also a chance to demonstrate a simple truth. We have an enormous stake in each other's success. In an interconnected world, in a global economy, nations -- including our own -- will be more prosperous and more secure when we work together."

    With China now possessing the world's second largest economy and with more and more talk of the importance of the "G2 relationship" in the post-Great Recession world, no one would doubt the veracity of the president's statement. China, and the Chinese-American relationship, has indeed become critical to the world's peace and prosperity. Nevertheless, for most Americans recognition of China's status as a "Great Power" is something that has occurred rather slowly and relatively recently, within the last decade or so. But one individual who never doubted that China would play an important role on the world stage was Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was FDR, in fact, who perhaps more than any other world leader first recognized China's potential as a world power.

    FDR's interest in China was in some respects linked to the history of his own family, as his maternal grandfather, Warren Delano II, was involved in the China trade in the 19th century. But it was the onset of the World War II in Asia that greatly intensified his interest in the region. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937. It was the US refusal to recognize the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, as well as the former's desire to dominate China (along with US insistence that Japan pull its troops off the Asian mainland), that eventually placed the two countries on a collision course. This led to the dramatic events of December 1941 -- and turned the Second World War into a truly global conflict.

    Following the American entry into the war, FDR and a number of his advisors placed great hopes in the possibility that China might serve as America's principle ally in the Pacific. Given China's proximity to Japan, for example, the US Army Air Force hoped to launch bombing raids on Japan from air bases located on the Chinese mainland in areas not under Japanese control. But given the overall weakness of the Chinese nationalist forces (which stemmed in part from their long struggle with the Japanese and in part from their on-again-off-again struggle with the Chinese communists), these hopes were soon dashed. The Japanese were able to put a quick stop to the raids by overrunning the air bases from which they were launched.

    Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

    Due to this and other failures, the emergence of China as a major theatre of military operations in the US effort to defeat the Japanese never really materialized. This did not mean, however, that China was not important to the war effort or that FDR had given up on the possibility of her emergence as a Great Power once the war was over. On the contrary -- and unbeknownst to most Americans -- roughly four fifths of the Japanese army was located in China during the Second World War. It was critical, therefore, that China stay in the conflict, if only to keep the Japanese troops tied down.

    Moreover, in spite of the difficulties China experienced during the war, FDR never lost sight of her potential. In part out of this belief, and in part to encourage the Chinese nationalists to keep up the fight, FDR began to promote the idea of China joining the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union as one of the world's four (later five) policemen that would help keep the peace once the war was over. It is for this reason that China today holds one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council at the United Nations.

    There is, of course, something of a paradox in all of this. Having built up China's wartime image through numerous references to the country as a key US ally and as one of the powers who would help maintain the peace after the defeat of the Axis, it is not surprising that the resumption of the Chinese civil war in 1946 and the defeat of the nationalists at the hands of the communists three years later would be regarded as a major blow to US foreign policy and one of the starting points that added to the onset/intensification of the Cold War. In this sense, one could argue that FDR's legacy with respect to China is negative, particularly in light of the oft expressed wartime fear that we might "lose" China as an ally if we did not make a concerted effort to keep her in the war.

    But did the nationalists' defeat really mean that we had "lost" China? Certainly in the geo-political sense the answer is no. Once again, FDR's basic assumptions were correct, some would say tragically correct. China -- communist or not -- was indeed more likely to line up with the Americans than with the Soviets in any major showdown among the Great Powers, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were to discover some thirty years later.

    FDR was also correct when he predicted, as President Obama confirmed earlier this week, that China would emerge as one of the world's leading post-war powers. She is a power that we must engage with if we hope to make progress on host of international issues.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    Share This

  • In Times of National Trauma, the Nation Looks to the President

    Jan 14, 2011David B. Woolner

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    President Obama's stirring address at the memorial service for the victims of the Arizona tragedy reminds us that the president of the United States is much more than merely the head of government. He is also our head of state -- the national figure we look to for guidance and comfort in times of national trauma.

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    President Obama's stirring address at the memorial service for the victims of the Arizona tragedy reminds us that the president of the United States is much more than merely the head of government. He is also our head of state -- the national figure we look to for guidance and comfort in times of national trauma.

    Over the course of his twelve years as president, FDR found himself having to address an unprecedented number of national and international crises that required equally unprecedented leadership qualities. First and foremost, of course, was the trauma caused by the crash of 1929 and the subsequent rise of the Great Depression. In the midst of the profound anxiety and fear that had gripped the nation by the time Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, he famously rejected the harbingers of despair and instead counseled that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." This line would not only go on to capture the imagination of a generation, but would also set the stage for the long struggle that lay ahead as the nation worked its way out of the worst economic crisis in history. In years that followed, FDR would return to this theme time and time again in speeches, major addresses, and via his famous "Fireside Chats" on the radio. By reminding the American people that they need not fear the challenges they faced and in fact had "conquered fear," FDR gave them the one thing they needed more than anything else: hope. Hope in themselves and in the future; hope in their ability to lift the nation out of its economic malaise; hope that together, the people and their leaders could transform the American government into an active instrument of social and economic justice.

    But coping with the economic crisis was not the only challenge FDR had to face. He also had to guide the nation through the most destructive war in human history. For six long years, the forces of liberal democracy struggled against the anti-democratic forces of fascism in Europe and Asia. During these dark days, it is no exaggeration to say that democracy itself teetered on the brink of catastrophe, especially in the early years of the conflict. FDR understood this. He never doubted for a moment that the war was about much more than conquest or the mere acquisition of territory. It was, first and foremost, a moral conflict that threatened to bring about the destruction of modern civilization. Throughout his tenure as a war president, therefore, FDR insisted on couching the conflict in moral terms. It was for this reason that he joined Winston Churchill in drawing up the set of guiding principles known as the Atlantic Charter in August of 1941 to govern the conduct of Great Britain and the United States during the war. It was a document which, among other things, not only made it clear that neither government sought "aggrandizement, territorial or other" in the conduct of the war, but also insisted that "all peoples have the right to choose the form of government under which they live."

    Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

    FDR's most famous wartime address -- which came six months before the Atlantic Charter -- was animated by the same spirit. Here, the president, in asking the American people to make further sacrifices in support of Great Britain's effort to resist Axis aggression, did so not merely because such a sacrifice might serve to shield the United States from the ravages of war. Rather, he did so because he wished them to join a wider effort to secure a future based on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear -- "everywhere in the world."

    Inspired by the president's simple yet eloquent language, the American people embraced the Four Freedoms as the war aims of the United States and, once in the conflict, would not rest until the forces of democracy would go on "to win through to absolute victory." In the process, they also came to appreciate that the United States could no longer afford to turn away from the rest of the world, but must accept its share of responsibility to provide the moral, political and economic leadership required to advance FDR's vision put before them in the dark days of January 1941.

    Judging by the reaction of the press on both the left and the right to President Obama's moving remarks in Tucson, it appears that he too has risen to the occasion. His heartfelt speech not only crystallized the mood of the nation, but also reminded us of our common responsibilities as citizens, of the values we share and of the need for each and every one of us to use this tragic occasion, as he said, "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy" and to never forget "all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

    The president is right when he says that "only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation" in a way that would make the victims of this senseless tragedy proud. Only time will tell if his compassionate words will serve as a guide for us in the future.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    Share This

  • How Roosevelt Saved Capitalism: The 74th Versus the 112th Congress

    Jan 10, 2011David B. Woolner

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Amid much fanfare, the 112th Congress convened for the first time last week. In his opening address, the new Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, urged his colleagues to move forward "humble in our demeanor, steady in our principles, and dedicated to proving worthy of the trust and confidence that has been placed in us." Reaching out to both sides of the aisle, he also observed that if the newly elected members of the House "brace ourselves to do our duty, and to do what we say we are going to do, there is no telling what together we can accomplish for the good of this great and honorable nation."

    In the wake of the first midterm elections of the Obama presidency, it will be interesting to compare the 112th Congress's legislative accomplishments to those of the Congress that FDR inherited in the wake of the 1934 midterm elections. Like today, the 74th Congress convened at a time when the nation was in the midst of a continuing economic crisis and faced numerous threats abroad. Unlike today, however, the prevailing political philosophy of the 74th Congress -- and a good share of the public -- was vastly different. In 1935, thanks in large part to FDR's rhetorical skills and leadership, the people's faith in government as the protector of the common good was at one of its highest points in our history. United by a sense of common purpose and steadfast in the belief that government should act as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice, the 74th Congress gave us such landmark legislation as the Social Security Act, which not only provided old-age pensions and support for children and the handicapped, but also the established our country's first nationwide system of unemployment insurance. The same Congress also passed the National Labor Relations Act, which sought to stabilize labor relations and bolster unions' security. It guaranteed the right of workers to join unions and created the National Labor Relations Board, a three-member federal review board responsible for determining which unions would represent workers in specific industries or factories and for guarding against unfair labor practices by employers, employees, or unions themselves.

    Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

    The 74th Congress also passed many other important bills. It passed the Soil Conservation Act, which encouraged farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices in an effort to save one of nation's most precious natural resources -- its soil. The Rural Electrification Act brought the revolutionary benefits of electricity to the 9 out of ten farmers who did not have it when FDR took office. The Commodities Exchange Act established federal regulation of all commodities and futures trading activities and required all options to be traded on organized exchanges. The Public Utility Act facilitated the regulation of electric utilities. The Flood Control Act of 1936 committed the federal government to the protection of people and property on over 100 million acres of land through the US Army Corps of Engineers. And it passed the 1935 and 1936 neutrality laws, as well as five other significant pieces of legislation.

    As even this brief summary of the work of the 74th Congress shows, under FDR's leadership these and other New Deal measures dramatically expanded the scope of the federal government's responsibilities in American life. Where Washington had previously been only a distant regulator of economic and social affairs, it was now the government's responsibility to maintain economic prosperity, mitigate the worst effects of unfettered capitalism, spread industrial and agricultural development to impoverished regions of the nation, guarantee workers' right to choose their unions, protect the bargaining rights of those unions, and conserve and develop the nation's vast natural and artistic resources.

    Contrary to some critics' views, the New Deal was not intended to radically change the foundations of American capitalism. Rather, it revised that system in order to save it. Moreover, it did so not by abandoning government, but by strengthening it. For as FDR and the 74th Congress well understood, they had inherited a nation that was dominated by the forces of wealth and privilege. As a consequence, and as FDR once remarked, "[f]or too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor -- other people's lives." "Against economic tyranny such as this," he went on, "the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government."

    A good share of the 112th Congress, particularly under the Republican leadership in the House, appears determined to take the country in the opposite direction. They would prefer to let market forces, rather than the "organized power of government," determine the social and economic fate of the nation. It is too early to tell whether their determination to reduce its role will succeed or whether the impact of these conservative forces on future generations of Americans will be as large as that of the 74th Congress. Over the course of its two-year tenure, that Congress passed a number of legislative initiatives that still benefit us today.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    Share This

  • FDR's Four Freedoms and Global Security

    Dec 22, 2010David B. Woolner

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    On January 6, 1941, at a time when democracy was literally under siege in much of Europe and Asia, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon his fellow countrymen to help the United States establish a world based on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression; Freedom of Worship; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear. At the time of the speech, all of Western Europe lay under the heel of the Nazi dictatorship, and with only Great Britain and the Royal Navy standing between Hitler's war machine and the United States, FDR felt it was crucial that the US do all it could to help the British wage war and carry on their resistance to German aggression. In the meantime, things were not much better in the Far East, where the militarist Japanese regime continued its aggressive war in China and had now moved into Indochina in the wake of the French defeat in Europe.

    With democracy itself teetering on the brink of collapse, and with Hitler having declared that he had established a ‘"New Order" of tyranny' in Europe, FDR proposed that the United States promote the very antithesis of such an order, "a greater conception" based on a "moral order" that embraced the Four Freedoms as its fundamental guiding principles. It was to establish these principles that he called upon the American people to make the sacrifices needed to help America's allies win the war. America, he said, must become the great "arsenal of democracy," and by the time the United States had formally entered the war in December 1941, establishing the Four Freedoms-"everywhere in the world"-had in essence become the war aims of the United States.

    Few Americans -- especially younger Americans -- are familiar with the Four Freedoms, but the vision that FDR articulated in such simple yet eloquent language had an enormous impact not only on the war, but also on the post-war world. For in calling for a world based on these fundamental human freedoms, FDR established a clear link between fundamental human rights and global security. Equally important, the rights that the Four Freedoms called for not only included those that are essentially political in nature, such as speech and worship, but also those that concern one's well being and personal security -- want and fear.

    Inspired by these goals the United States went on to direct the effort to establish the postwar multilateral economic and security apparatus -- including the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the IMF and World Bank -- that would lead to an unprecedented period of economic prosperity; economic prosperity that helped prevent the possible outbreak of a Third World War.

    For the generation that fought the war, then, the promotion of human rights and the establishment of global security were inseparable. As we head into the year that will mark the 70th anniversary of FDR's Four Freedoms speech, we will do well to remember this, as well as his admonition that achieving the Four Freedoms "everywhere in the world" is not some "vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation."

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    Share This

  • Supremely Challenging: Obama, FDR and the Courts

    Dec 17, 2010David B. Woolner

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    The recent decision by a federal judge in Virginia to rule that the key element of the Obama health care law is unconstitutional has raised speculation that the ultimate fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be decided in the Supreme Court. Indeed, the vehemence of the politically charged legal challenge to the health care bill (which is also being heard in a Florida court in a suit filed on behalf of 20 states) brings to mind another potential parallel between the Obama administration and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Both leaders took office in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis. Both men also faced a serious threat to America's national security,  in FDR's case the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia and in President Obama's case the rise of a pernicious form of international terrorism. It now looks as if President Obama, much like FDR, will also face a serious legal challenge to what is likely to be the single most important piece of social reform legislation to be passed during his tenure in office: his health care bill. In fact, in the wake of the Virginia ruling, some commentators have even gone so far as to argue that it is the Court -- not Congress -- that represents the biggest threat to President Obama's legislative agenda.

    Such an analysis would be familiar to FDR, who long before he took the oath of office anticipated that his election might one day result in a showdown with the Court. Nor was FDR alone in this thinking. His cousin Theodore Roosevelt (a man whom FDR greatly admired and emulated) was often heard to bemoan its shortcomings. In his famous address proclaiming his "New Nationalism" in 1910, he argued that the New Nationalism regards "the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people."

    It was this tendency of the Court to concern itself mostly with property rights -- and in doing so, to rule largely in favor of entrenched and often wealthy interests, rather than in favor of legislative reform -- that so frustrated those in favor of social legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Given this record, FDR logically concluded that he might run into difficulties -- though not with the Constitution, which, as he noted in his first inaugural, was "so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form."

    In his first two years in office, it looked as if perhaps the Supreme Court might be willing to uphold much of the New Deal legislation, but in the spring of 1935 it became clear that this was not the case. Beginning on "Black Monday," May 27, 1935, and over the course of the next 13 months, the Court struck down more acts of Congress than in any period in our history, including such key New Deal provisions as the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Roosevelt was furious, and in a press conference held the next day remarked that the nation must decide one way or the other "whether...we are going to... restore to the Federal Government the powers which exist in the national Governments of every other nation in the world."

    Fearing for the ultimate fate of such landmark pieces of legislation as Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, FDR eventually decided that he had no choice but to take steps to try to safeguard the New Deal. In February 1937, therefore, he unleashed his famous "Court Packing Plan" in a message to Congress. "Life tenure for judges," he argued, "was not intended to create a static judiciary. A constant and systematic addition of younger blood will vitalize the courts." As such, the president recommended that in cases where a given justice who had served at least ten years waited more than six months after he had reached his 70th birthday to resign or retire, the Executive should be allowed to add a new judge to the bench. He also recommended that under this scheme a president should be allowed to appoint up to six new justices to the Supreme Court and a potential 44 new judges to the lower courts.

    Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

    Contrary to current public perception, FDR was perfectly within his legal bounds to request a change in the make-up of the Court. Moreover, other advocates of judicial reform had occasionally floated the idea of expansion on previous occasions. But given the widespread belief in the sanctity of the Court -- a sentiment as powerful today as it was in 1937 -- his proposal, as the noted historian William Leuchtenburg has written, "generated an intensity of response unmatched by any legislative controversy of [the twentieth] century, save perhaps the League of Nations episode."

    In spite of the controversy in generated, it looked at first as if it the bill would pass. But in the end, FDR's Judiciary Act never reached the floor of the Senate. Ironically, it was the actions of the Court itself, as much as the opposition of those who stood against it, that undercut the need for the proposal. For in the three months before the bill was dropped, the Court embarked on a dramatic change of course, thanks largely to Justice Owen Roberts' change in attitude. It unexpectedly upheld the legality of the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and a state minimum wage law that was very similar to one the Court had struck down just a few months earlier. Shortly thereafter, one of the so-called conservative "Four Horsemen," Justice Van Devanter, announced his decision to retire, thus giving the president the opportunity to appoint a justice more sympathetic to the New Deal.

    The defeat of the Court packing scheme was a major political blow, but as the president himself once commented, it seemed as if he had lost the battle but won the war. For the consequences of the struggle with the court and the debate it generated were far reaching and are widely regarded as initiating what is often called the "Constitutional Revolution of 1937." From that moment forward, the Court not only upheld every New Deal statute that came before it, but also embarked on a new era of jurisprudence that fundamentally altered the character of its activities and the nature of its decisions. In so doing, it also recognized the need in a modern economy for an expanded role of the state.

    It is this latter point on the role of government, as much as the particulars of the health care law, that is now under siege in the courts. Moreover, much like the case in 1937, one could also argue that it is our legal system itself that is on trial in this debate. Are we really going to return the Supreme Court -- as was the case in much of the 19th and early 20th centuries -- to a narrow focus on property rights? Or will we recognize that in a modern society it is right and proper for the Federal Government to ensure the health and security of its citizens?

    To succeed in winning over the public and the judiciary to the view that government can and should act to ensure the general welfare of the people, President Obama might steal a word or two from FDR's cousin, Teddy, who in the same speech as quoted above said:

    The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock.

    Those who oppose all reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    Share This

Pages