David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • Obama Can Revolutionize Rural America with Broadband, FDR-style

    Feb 18, 2011David B. Woolner

    FDR brought prosperity to rural America with the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Obama can do the same with wireless internet.

    FDR brought prosperity to rural America with the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Obama can do the same with wireless internet.

    In a speech delivered last week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, President Obama unveiled his plan to bring high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of America. Such an initiative, he said, would spark "new innovation, new investment and new jobs," and, if successful, would connect "every corner of America to the digital age."

    Investing federal dollars in bringing the benefits of high-speed wireless to rural America is not unlike the efforts Franklin Roosevelt launched more than 75 years ago to bring electricity to America's family farms. In Roosevelt's day, it is estimated that roughly nine out of ten farms in America lacked electricity. As such, most farm families still lived a life that was more reminiscent of the 19th century. With no electricity, there was no running water, and hence no indoor plumbing or bathrooms. Water had to be brought into the house from wells or a nearby stream and heat was provided by indoor stoves. No electricity also meant that most farms lacked the convenience of modern appliances and had no way to obtain entertainment or information over the radio.

    Prior to FDR's administration, advocates of rural power had found private companies disinterested due to the high costs of extending lines into the countryside, so they turned to the federal government. But even though many of the ideas being floated at the time involved the development of rural access to electricity through public-private cooperation, such plans fell on deaf ears.

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    All of this changed, however, with FDR's election to the White House. A strong believer in the need for the federal government to take the lead in the development of public power, FDR launched the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 (which remains America's largest public utility) and in 1935 established the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA. The REA was a new federal agency whose sole purpose was to bring the benefits of electricity to rural America.

    In its initial efforts, the REA tried to extend electricity to rural areas by providing low-cost government loans to private utility companies who would then be tasked with the job of building a full-scale rural electrical grid. But the agency soon found that most private companies were still not willing to participate in the program. As an alternative, and with the strong support of progressive Republicans like Senator George Norris of Nebraska, the REA then turned to the farmers themselves, urging them to form themselves into electricity cooperatives. These cooperatives would then receive low-interest REA loans, which would be used to finance the construction of local generating and distributing facilities and the lines needed to take the power to individual farms. The rural electrification program flourished under this formula, and by the time FDR died in 1945, it is estimated that nine out of ten farms in the country had electricity -- the exact reverse of the situation when he assumed office.

    As predicted, rural electrification revolutionized life on the farm and remains one of the most significant -- if largely forgotten -- legacies of the New Deal. It vastly improved farm life, bringing running water and refrigeration, for example, which improved health and sanitation, as well as the radio, which linked farm families to the rest of the nation. It also made it possible for new labor-saving appliances and technologies to be introduced not only on the farm, but also in rural villages and schools, all of which improved the rural economy and quality of life.

    President Obama's National Wireless Initiative is not unlike rural electrification. Properly administered and executed, it too can improve rural America's quality of life and has the potential, as the President observed, to "accelerate breakthroughs in health, education, and transportation." It also provides us with another example of how the federal government, in the tradition of the New Deal, can and must take the lead in improving the economic infrastructure of the country -- even in a digital age.

    **For more on how FDR changed life in rural America, and how we can do it again today, check out Lynn Parramore's October, 2010 talk on the subject here. She joined other experts to talk about the enduring legacy of the New Deal.

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

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  • Egypt's Protests: U.S. Public Opinion is on Democracy's Side

    Feb 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.

    Over the course of his first two terms in office, Franklin Roosevelt's freedom of action in foreign policy was severely hampered by American public opinion. Torn asunder by the devastating effects of the Great Depression and bitter about American involvement in World War I, the American people of the 1930s largely turned their backs on the rest of the world and disavowed their international responsibilities. In the absence of American support, the League of Nations foundered and the enemies of democracy flourished. Piece by piece, Hitler's Germany expanded at the expense of her neighbors, Italy invaded Abyssinia, Franco launched his fascist crusade in Spain, and the Japanese invaded China. Restrained by neutrality laws passed in the mid 1930s that did not distinguish between aggressor and victim, FDR could do little to assist the targets of aggression and by the end of the 1930s the United States found itself confronting a new world war.

    Retrained by this "isolationist" sentiment, Roosevelt's response to the international dimension of the world crisis in many ways mirrored his response to the internal crisis. He periodically tested the limits of American isolationism by engaging in limited diplomacy during the 1930s. Once war broke out, he gradually increased America's support to those who opposed fascism until December 7, 1941, when America found itself under attack and in the war.

    FDR pursued this course of action because he understood the critical need for his administration not to get too far out ahead of the public in the exercise of American foreign policy. He also spent a good deal of his time trying to educate the public about the dangers fascism and the need for the United States to do what it could to help preserve democracy, in part by setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.

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    As far as U.S. policy toward the current crisis in Egypt is concerned, President Obama, unlike FDR, does not find himself nearly so constrained by public opinion. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans, though cautious, support the promotion of democracy in Egypt and are very sympathetic with the plight of the protesters. Moreover, an increasing number of Middle East policy analysts have come forward to criticize the Obama administration for its failure to act more decisively in support of the democracy movement. Then there is the reaction among the protesters themselves, where -- rightly or wrongly -- there is a growing sense that U.S. policy at best is contributing to the prolongation of the crisis and at worst is now helping prop up the Mubarak regime.

    Given the volatile nature of the Middle East, one can sympathize with the Obama administration's fears about the risks involved in pursuing a more forward policy. But with such a strong consensus emerging both at home and abroad in favor of "real change" in Egypt, it runs a real risk of falling far behind public opinion on an issue of immense historic importance. This would be a tragic mistake that would not only reduce our long-term credibility in the Middle East, but would also damage our standing in other parts of the world -- not to mention the damage it might do to President Obama's stature at home.

    Faced with this dilemma, the best solution may be for President Obama to embrace the public sentiment in favor of democracy while at the same time exercising the same sort of leadership that FDR exercised in the mid to late 1930s. In short, it is probably high time that he came out strongly and unequivocally for the forces of democracy. Doing so might anger those in power in the Middle East, but it would place the United States and U.S. policy where it rightly belongs -- on the side of the people.

    Given the passion for democracy that has erupted in much of the Middle East, pursuing such a policy should not be viewed as risky idealism, but quite the contrary, as hard-headed realism. The people of Egypt have made their choice. It is time for the United States to do the same.

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

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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."

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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