Program Summary

The longest-serving president in U.S. history, and leader through the Great Depression and World War II -- two of the nation's worst crises -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered by many to be our greatest president. In his early years, as a pampered, sheltered scion of a wealthy family, FDR exhibited no outward signs of greatness. With his cousin Theodore as a role model, however, FDR purposely forged a successful political career for himself, until his devastating paralysis from polio seemed to crush his dreams. With the support of his wife, Eleanor, FDR not only recovered, but remade himself into a strong, optimistic national leader. An aristocrat beloved by "ordinary" citizens and despised by many of his own class as a traitor, FDR, for better or worse, forever changed the American people's relationship with their government. The governmental "safety net" he created would be his greatest legacy -- and the source of ongoing controversy today.

Program Chapters: The entire program is streaming on the PBS and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE websites. The total viewing time is 4.5 hours. For your convenience, we have described the program in chapters. You may want to use specific chapters to focus classroom discussion and activities.

Part One -- The Center of the World

Chapter 1 -- Introduction
David McCullough introduces the program -- overview of FDR's life and his effect on the American public

Chapter 2 -- The Center of the World
FDR's childhood, adolescence and family -- his intense relationship with his mother, Sara and his elderly, ill father -- not accepted by other boys at boarding school at Groton -- doesn't get into the exclusive Porcellian Club at Harvard, but does become editor of "The Harvard Crimson."

Chapter 3 -- E is an Angel
Eleanor Roosevelt's unhappy childhood -- most of her immediate family (mother, father, and brother) die before she is 10 years old -- described herself as an "ugly little girl" -- attends boarding school in England -- meets FDR -- marries FDR on March 17, 1905 -- the couple has six children (five of whom survive infancy).

Chapter 4 -- A Secret Ambition
FDR's early political career -- association with Louis Howe -- becomes New York state senator and then secretary of the navy under Wilson

Chapter 5 -- The Discovery
The Roosevelts' marriage becomes troubled -- Eleanor discovers FDR's affair with Lucy Page Mercer but agrees to stay married -- frustrated by the "social slavery" of Washington society, Eleanor becomes politically active in her own right

Part Two -- Fear Itself

Chapter 6 -- Polio Strikes
FDR stricken with polio -- spends the next seven years trying to regain the use of his legs -- Sara Roosevelt tries to persuade FDR to abandon his political career, but Eleanor encourages him to remain in politics 

Chapter 7 -- The Larocco
FDR heads south to Florida -- Eleanor moves into her own house, Val-Kil, which FDR built for her, and takes on reform causes 

Chapter 8 -- Rebirth
FDR establishes a rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia -- in Georgia, learns about the lives of ordinary people --develops an understanding of pain and struggle

Chapter 9 -- The Return
FDR begins to resurrect his political career -- becomes governor of New York 

Chapter 10 -- The 1932 Campaign for President 
President Hoover is overwhelmed by the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression -- FDR changes his mind about government aid for the poor and assistance for the aged -- runs for president against Hoover 

Chapter 11 -- Mr. President 
Roosevelt wins the election 

Chapter 12 -- Credits 

Part Three -- The Grandest Job in the World

Chapter 13 -- Inaugural Address, 1933 
FDR takes the oath of office -- tells the country, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" 

Chapter 14 -- First Days in Office
The first Hundred Days of the New Deal -- the National Recovery Administration goes into effect -- banks are reopened -- FDR uses radio "fireside chats" to communicate directly with the people -- Eleanor expands the role of first lady -- travels across the country and reports back to FDR on the effects of the New Deal -- becomes his "legs, his emissary," at times more popular than her husband -- continually advocates for social reform for minorities and the poor 

Chapter 15-- Shifting the Balance of Power
The New Deal falters -- angry Americans turn to opposition leaders like Father Coughlin, Francis Townsend, and Senator Huey Long -- industry leaders oppose workers' power to bargain collectively -- the Supreme Court declares the NRA unconstitutional, but FDR forges ahead -- New Deal programs bring electricity to rural areas, build nation's infrastructure 

Chapter 16 -- Devotion of Ordinary Americans
Press agrees to "conspiracy of consent" and avoids any display of FDR's disability -- Second presidential campaign -- FDR popular with ordinary people but hated by the wealthy

Chapter 17-- Re-elected
Eleanor criticized for her sympathetic attitude toward African Americans -- FDR wins a second term in a landslide -- FDR challenges Supreme Court over New Deal legislation

Chapter 18 -- The Rising Threat of Facism
World War II begins -- FDR opposes isolationism -- World War II escalates, but the public opposes U.S. involvement

Part Four -- The Juggler

Chapter 19 -- A Secret Deal with Churchill
FDR devises the lend-lease program to provide Britain with support -- meets secretly with Winston Churchill and pledges U.S. help 

Chapter 20 -- The Incident
Sara Roosevelt dies -- Pearl Harbor attacked by the Japanese -- U.S. enters war -- Churchill moves into the White House to plan war strategy -- FDR galvanizes the country, setting high production goals

Chapter 21 -- Operation Torch
Visits soldiers in North Africa -- Some of FDR's wartime actions (internment of Japanese Americans, failure to rescue European Jews) seem questionable now -- Eleanor wants to use the war as a vehicle for social reform -- war production eliminates the last vestiges of the Depression -- FDR's failing health

Chapter 22 -- D-Day
D-day in June 1944 -- further deterioration of the Roosevelts' marriage -- Eleanor travels constantly -- FDR diagnosed with congestive heart failure 

Chapter 23 -- No One to Love
Sent to the South to recuperate -- FDR resumes his relationship with Lucy Mercer -- Despite ill health, FDR campaigns for a fourth term and wins -- forms an alliance with Stalin

Chapter 24 -- The Death of a President
FDR dies at Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, at age 63 -- the nation goes into mourning

Chapter 25 -- Film Credits

To find more film resources and classroom activities, visit the Teacher's Guide for FDR.

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