A homeless person during the Great DepressionFranklin Delano Roosevelt is the only United States president to have been elected to four terms of office. FDR transformed the presidency and placed the institution at the very center of American life. During 12 years in office, Roosevelt shepherded his nation through the two greatest American crises of the 20th century -- the Great Depression and World War II -- and left a legacy of political freedom and domestic security to the American people.

When Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, America lay in the depths of the Depression. Between 12 million and 15 million Americans, about 25 percent of the work force, were unemployed. Millions of people had lost their life's savings. Many had lost their homes and lived in makeshift shacks. Many more stood in long lines for free soup and bread. Eleven thousand of America's 25,000 banks had failed. Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt's predecessor, had steered a mostly idle course through the crisis, waiting for the economy to correct itself, but the correction had not come.

Franklin Roosevelt was not the type of man who waited for events to happen. In his inaugural address, he swore to bring the nation a New Deal, and backed by a soundly Democratic Congress, he took Washington by storm. Within days of taking office, he closed the remaining banks, avoiding a run on deposits that would have finished them all. He set up a system for judging the soundness of banks and reopened the ones that were solid. He moved to put the government itself on a budget, freeing up federal dollars for relief and reform measures.

Social Security posterThe changes came quickly, as Roosevelt dished up a veritable alphabet soup of reform. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) set aside millions for direct relief payments to the poor. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) funded forestry jobs for thousands of men. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) set codes for fair business practices. The business community, who helped pay the bill for many Roosevelt programs through taxes and regulatory fees, vilified Roosevelt. The people he saved from the soup lines beatified him.

FDR created programs on the fly, and not all of them worked as intended. In May, 1935, the Supreme Court struck down the regulatory business codes of the National Recovery Administration. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was ruled unconstitutional in 1936. Altered to suit the courts and reenacted, it still largely failed in its mission of increasing farm prices. Roosevelt programs paid Americans to do everything from building airport runways to writing local histories. Although the New Deal had its critics, Roosevelt's programs left an impression upon America that lasted for decades.

Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration alone, Americans built 125,000 public buildings, 75,000 bridges, 8,000 parks, 800 airports, and more than 650,000 miles of roads, creating a modern American infrastructure and earning a paycheck all the while. Perhaps the most influential of Roosevelt's New Deal programs was the Social Security Act, which provided pensions to the elderly through a payroll tax. Altered over the years, Social Security has remained a significant source of support for elderly and disabled Americans.

Although the New Deal mitigated American misery, it would take another great tragedy to end the Depression -- World War II. While America struggled to repair its shattered economy, fascist dictators in Germany, Italy, and Japan built massive armies and began their quest for world domination. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would lead America in the fight to defeat fascism and keep democracy alive. But Roosevelt would wage two wars, one secret and the other official.

The Axis leaders -- Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Tojo Hideki in Japan -- went on the move toward the end of the 1930s, taking territory by threat or by force. Hitler led the fascists in aggression. By mid-1940, he had crushed most of Europe and brought England to the brink of collapse.

Roosevelt and ChurchillFrom the late 1930s onward, Roosevelt had conducted a determined, if partially covert, program to draw America into the war against the Germany, Italy and Japan, while simultaneously assuring an isolationist America that we would not go to war unless attacked. FDR spoke forcefully against Axis aggression and personally lobbied Hitler and Mussolini to cease their violent aggression. He propped up the British with all the weapons he could muster, convincing a reluctant Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, so that Britain could continue to receive American weapons even though it did not have the money to pay for them. And he met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to secretly plan an American phase of the war.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt built his Army. With the help of industrial tycoons, Roosevelt oversaw the conversion of the United States into the biggest munitions producer the world had ever known. He pushed a draft bill through Congress so America could bring men to battle when it needed them.

FDR at the Yalta ConferenceAfter Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America declared war against the Axis. Roosevelt fought the fascists with every weapon he could muster. He spent billions on arms. He oversaw the invasion of Europe and the bloody battles against the Japanese on the islands of the Pacific. He led America to a victory over the Nazis and authorized the building of the world's first atomic bombs, fiendishly destructive weapons that his successor, Harry Truman, would use to finally defeat Japan. At Yalta in February 1945, Roosevelt met with the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin and Churchill to negotiate the boundaries of Europe and parts of Asia.

The voters elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt president four times. Only death, it seemed, could remove him from office. By the time he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, the nation had, on the strength of a wartime economic boom, emerged from the Depression. Germany was in ruins, and the victory of democracy over fascism was virtually assured. Many of the Americans who mourned the death of their president would remember him forever as the man who saved their jobs, their homes, their farms, and their way of life when America stood at the brink of disaster.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?



  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH