Summary and Keywords
Franklin D. Roosevelt was US president in extraordinarily challenging times. The impact of both the Great Depression and World War II make discussion of his approach to foreign relations by historians highly contested and controversial. He was one of the most experienced people to hold office, having served in the Wilson administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, completed two terms as Governor of New York, and held a raft of political offices. At heart, he was an internationalist who believed in an engaged and active role for the United States in world.
During his first two terms as president, Roosevelt had to temper his international engagement in response to public opinion and politicians wanting to focus on domestic problems and wary of the risks of involvement in conflict. As the world crisis deepened in the 1930s, his engagement revived. He adopted a gradualist approach to educating the American people in the dangers facing their country and led them to eventual participation in war and a greater role in world affairs. There were clearly mistakes in his diplomacy along the way and his leadership often appeared flawed, with an ambiguous legacy founded on political expediency, expanded executive power, vague idealism, and a chronic lack of clarity to prepare Americans for postwar challenges. Nevertheless, his policies to prepare the United States for the coming war saw his country emerge from years of depression to become an economic superpower. Likewise, his mobilization of his country’s enormous resources, support of key allies, and the holding together of a “Grand Alliance” in World War II not only brought victory but saw the United States become a dominant force in the world. Ultimately, Roosevelt’s idealistic vision, tempered with a sound appreciation of national power, would transform the global position of the United States and inaugurate what Henry Luce described as “the American Century.”
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