Reagan and FDR

Happy birthday Gipper!  Reagan and I share the same birthday.  My beloved bride has the same birthday as FDR, January 30.  My daughter’s birthday is February 9.  This time of year is a good time for cake at the McClarey household!

It will come as little surprise to faithful readers of this blog, that I consider Ronald Reagan to be one of the great American presidents.  My views on him are sent forth in this recent thread.  He restored our prosperity and brought the Cold War to a successful conclusion.  His radiant optimism was a tonic for the nation’s shaken morale.  He deserves to be on Mount Rushmore if there were room.

It will perhaps stun faithful readers of this blog to learn that I have similar feelings for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Although I believe much of the New Deal was counterproductive and completely wrong-headed, FDR understood that raising the nation’s morale was absolutely critical.  His sunny ebullient optimism, and his ringing phrase, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” were just what the nation needed.  His fireside chats, which Reagan emulated in his Saturday radio chats, were a brilliant stroke which helped forge a personal bond between FDR and much of the nation.  (Although not my Republican shoemaker grandfather who remained impervious to the charms of FDR to his dying day!)  During the war his leadership was masterful and greatly aided the US in winning in 3 and a half years a global conflict.  Prosperity was restored to the US on his watch, although it was due to the War and not the New Deal.

Reagan was a supporter of FDR.  He used to say he didn’t leave his party, his party left him.  Looking at Reagan side by side with FDR, it is hard not to believe that Reagan learned many valuable leadership lessons from FDR.

Reagan and FDR  were both ardent patriots with a deep love for this nation.  Their optimism was based on their belief that the US could overcome its present difficulties and go forward to a brighter future.  I find this personally appealing.  Optimism and courage are necessary both in our lives here on Earth and in our spiritual lives.  I have always agreed with Saint Francis, “Let gloom and despair be among the Devil and his disciples.”

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Happy Birthday to you and Ronaldus Magnus!

    It would be quite interesting to hear your thoughts in another post on how FDR was the right man at the right time for WWII. I had always thought that America would have been better off if FDR had never been born (based on the epic failure of his economic policies which 70 years later continue to be a moral/financial plague on this nation).

  2. Try as I might I can’t gather up the admiration for FDR the way I can for RWR. Leaving aside his economic mistakes, his complete misunderstanding of Stalin had truly horrible consequences. Stalin rolled him.

    That said, I agree that it is important that a leader display confidence and grace under fire, and both Reagan and Roosevelt did that.

  3. As a practical matter Mike there was absolutely nothing that FDR could have done regarding Soviet control over Eastern Europe after World War II short of igniting World War III. FDR and Churchill merely recognized a fait accompli. Whether they recognized it or not, the Red Army wasn’t going to move from East Germany, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria unless they were driven from it. I think precious few Americans would have been willing to pay the price to accomplish this. Truman was much harder edged than FDR regarding Stalin, but he never considered the type of war to drive the Soviets back into the Soviet Union that Patton supported. Other than Patton I can think of no high ranking American civilian or military who thought such a war would be a good idea.

  4. Don,
    I don’t disagree that FDR had limited options. But the fact remains that the record is clear that he trusted Stalin — he really did! His statements at the time (including private statements to advisors) reveal an appalling naivety that greatly disturbed those with better judgment including Churchill. And Truman was a slow learner himself. After the famous iron curtain speech Truman was so angry at Churchill he called Stalin to apologize. Finally, while we may have had limited options regarding the eastern Europe the forced (and that is a mild word for it) return of thousands of Russian prisoners to the USSR against their will was an inexcusable moral lapse on the part of FDR. It was one of the saddest episodes in US history.

  5. “He restored our prosperity and brought the Cold War to a successful conclusion. His radiant optimism was a tonic for the nation’s shaken morale.”

    As a retired military who served almost my entire career during the cold war, I would have completely agreed with these statements – back then.

    21 years later I don’t think they completely stand the test of time. Let me break it down:

    1. On “restoring prosperity” – he may have restored temporary (immediate) effects from the “Carter Malaise”, but the long term effects of Reaganomics of deficit spending and deregulation started us on the glide path of crushing debt we are in today.


    The other reality is it was the brutal austerity by Paul Volker and the Fed that stopped the rampant inflation. Reagan was his cheerleader, but he had no say in that decision as the Fed acts independently of the government.

    2. Regarding the “Cold War” – again he a a PART in this but there were two other factors that played a much bigger role, the first being Pope John Paul II, the second was that with or without Reagan, the Soviet economy would have collapsed (in fact already had) because it was always destined to collapse. Reagan just happened to be in the chair when the music stopped.

    To his credit he had to work within the confines of the system as it was in his time, and I do believe that he knew that the unbridled capitalism he unleashed would have to be reigned in at some point as evidenced by this speech:

    Ronald Reagan’s Speech on Project Economic Justice

    3. Regarding his optimism, There I’ll agree. At times I wanted to jump off a tall building after listening to “Jimmah” and his constant whining and droning, and Reagan could deliver a speech like no other in my lifetime – I think that was his biggest contribution, getting people to believe in themselves and America again.

  6. In regard to Stalin Mike, FDR was already sending cables to Stalin in March of 1945 accusing him of breaking his Yalta commitments over Poland, Germany, prisoners of war and other issues. The Grim Reaper prevented us from knowing how FDR would have dealt with Stalin post war, but I assume he would have followed a similar path to that taken by Truman. The forced repatriation of Soviets who were captured by the Western allies while serving the Nazis is something that should not have been agreed to at Yalta and not something carried out in 1946, long after FDR’s death. I would note however, that not all of the Soviets so repratriated were innocent victims. More than a few had commited atrocities while serving with the Nazis, including cossacks who served in the Waffen SS. They however should have been tried in the West rather than turned over to the Soviets. I would note that Britain and the US did refuse to turn over to the Soviets displaced persons from lands annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, including the Baltic States, Eastern Poland, Western Ukraine and West Byelorussia. A good article on the subject of the forced repatriations is linked below.


  7. Jim, in regard to Reagan I respectfully disagree. He supported the anti-inflationary policies of Volker at a high political cost. These policies led to the recession of 81-82 which cost the Republicans quite a few seats in Congress. Reagan had the nerve to stay the course and reappointed Volker in 83. The deregulation movement initiated by Reagan was also very important in starting a wave of prosperity that went on for two decades. The deficit spending was a huge problem that Reagan failed to address, but the return to prosperity, at the time, was more important than balancing the books, which Congress was simply not going to do in any case. We always have to remember with Reagan that he never had a GOP house, and for his last two years he faced a Congress completely controlled by the Democrats.

    In regard to the Soviet Union, their economy had been collapsing since 1917, by Western standards. The Soviets nonetheless maintained their empire. The Reagan military build up, and especially his bringing the Pershing missles to Europe and his much derided Star Wars proposal, convinced enough Soviet leaders that they simply could no longer keep up with the US and they needed to bring the Cold War to an end. John Paul II and his support for Solidarity in Poland was of course very important, but it was Reagan and his build up that came at precisely the right time to topple the Soviet Union. A good article on the subject is linked below.


  8. I can’t imagine anyone who could have done a better job executing that war – from marshaling resources to putting the best people in the right roles. The world owes thanks to FDR for that. On the flip side, FDR deserves the world’s scorn for the sellout of Eastern Europe. Millions and millions of people suffered or were murdered because of that. Look how many subsequent wars were waged because the USSR was empowered. Shameful. I get the pragmatism of assisting the USSR and allying ourselves with them for the objective of defeating Hitler, but one would think that considering Stalin was just as bad or worse and just as guilty for the starting that war that aid would be limited to such a degree as to keep the USSR in the game and no more. I can’t help but to think that it all may have turned out differently if FDR wasn’t such a statist to begin with.

  9. Must disagree, RL. Via-a-vis the post-war situation in Eastern Europe, I think Mr. McClarey is correct, for the most part. There is one qualification, and that concerns the situation in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Competitive and passably fair elections were held in these countries (in November 1945 and February 1946, respectively) and the means the local Communists used to seize power involved industrial actions and the staffing of the government departments over which they were given control in the coalition ministries of the immediate post-war period. One might at least give some thought to counter-factual scenarios in which effectively implemented clandestine operations might have disrupted certain of their activities and given elements of the civil society enough power to resist that the Soviets might have accepted a Finland solution for one or the other.

    The situation that FDR inherited in 1933 was far more dire than that which Mr. Reagan inherited in 1981, so I think an analogy between the two is of limited utility. Between the last quarter of 1929 and the first quarter of 1933, the country had seen a fall in real domestic product of nearly 30%; forty percent of the banks in the United States had failed, and depositors could only get their money back in time-consuming bankruptcy proceedings; equities had lost 85% of their nominal value; the body of business corporations were posting a collective loss; fully half the homeowners with mortgages (a proportionately smaller group then) were delinquent on their payments; and a quarter of the formal-sector work force was unemployed. The principal policy problem that Mr. Reagan faced was currency erosion; the year-over-year decline in domestic product from 1979 to 1980 was 0.2%.

    I do not know how much of the prosperity of the last three decades I would attribute to Mr. Reagan’s policy preferences. That aside, there is the question of how prosperous this era has been in relation to cross-sectional or historical means. If I am not mistaken, the last thirty years have seen a mean growth of domestic product per capita of 1.4% per annum. The United States is about at the technological frontier, so it does not reap the benefits of economic dynamism from the application of technologies developed elsewhere (as does South Korea); it has also grown faster than western Europe (since 1980) and Japan (since 1990). Still, it has grown more slowly than it did during the period running from 1929 to 1980, when mean annual improvements in real income per capita were on the order of 2.0%. It is difficult to tease out the sources of spatial and temporal variation in economic dynamism.

    Deregulation is a good thing when it acts to bust up state-administered cartels and dispose of price controls; it is also a good thing when there are other policy instruments which are as effective or more effective toward certain ends than command-and-control regulation. It is a good thing when regulations have collected like barnacles and lead to perverse results. It was also not exclusive to the Reagan Administration. The deregulation of the transportation sector was an initiative of the previous administration, and Mr. Carter did his best (against Congressional opposition) to sell decontrol of oil prices. However, deregulation of the financial sector and the evolution of the culture of financial institutions has led to four separate crises over the last thirty years. It has not been a successful enterprise.

    One should point out that the country began running deficits on the current account of the balance of payments in 1981/82 and was a net debtor by the end of 1984. If one looks at Federal Reserve figures, one can see a secular increase in the propensity of households to make use of debt over that time. These are aspects of the Reagan legacy as well, though to be sure, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. Congress consenting to the consumption taxes necessary to stanch the accumulation of household debt (or, in fact, doing anything at all other than feeding their favored client groups).

    Did you catch Henry Paulson on PBS the other night? Noting that a year after a hideous banking crisis Congress had still not crafted legislation to create an institutional architecture for rapidly winding-down firms in the capital markets like Lehman Brothers, he said he had to conclude they do nothing unless a crisis forces it. Mr. Carter, Mr. Reagan, and everyone after them have had to confront the same problem: Congress is rotten.

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