(15 of 18)
The purge was as embarrassing a failure as the court-packing scheme. All nine Senators won re-election in 1938. Hardly less embarrassing was the fact that a recession in 1937-38, caused partly by Roosevelt's efforts to restrict Government spending, set back the recovery. Unemployment rose by 2 million within three months; steel production sank by three-quarters, auto production by one-half. For the first time since the great crash, the Republicans made a comeback, gaining seven seats in the Senate and 80 in the House. Just two years after the landslide of 1936, the New Deal's innovations were drawing to an end. The nation's new course, however, remained set. To keep it on that course, Roosevelt pushed through the Administrative Reorganization Act of 1939, which created the White House administrative staff, added to it the Budget Bureau and, in effect, gave birth to the presidential powerhouse of today.
The America of the New Deal era was still isolationist, justifiably preoccupied with its own enormous problems, but this was a condition that could not last. Adolf Hitler had also put the unemployed to work at building superhighways and other showy projects, but now his obsession was to acquire new territory. In 1938 came the Nazis' Anschluss of Austria; in 1938 Hitler browbeat the British and French into letting him seize the Sudentenland area of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a false promise of "peace in our time." In 1938 too the Japanese pushed southward across China and captured Canton.
The war that ignited Europe in 1939 took two years to reach America. By then, Roosevelt had won an unprecedented third term and become a national leader almost beyond politics. Though the war cost thousands of lives, it united the nation in a cause that seemed more just than any cause has seemed since then. In ways that were only half understood at the time, the war completed the New Deal. Government spending multiplied more than ninefold and ended unemployment as the WPA never had. It was wartime mobilization that rebuilt cities and industries, spurred black migration out of the rural South and created a gargantuan Government far beyond the dreams of the New Dealers.
Almost every American in his 40s or older remembers where he was on the April afternoon in 1945 when he heard that Roosevelt had died. John Morton Blum, now a historian at Yale, was then 23 and serving in the Pacific as a Navy lieutenant, executive officer of a patrol craft, PC 616. His small ship had just arrived at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and had routinely asked for news. Thus came the message that Roosevelt was dead.
"We were incredulous," Blum recalls. "I stretched out my arms in the signal for R, meaning repeat. Then the message came again, that Roosevelt was dead. The ship's signalman turned to me and said, 'My God, Mr. Blum, who's President now?' "
That element of surprise now causes some criticism of Roosevelt, for the President's badly deteriorating health was kept secret from the world when he ran for a fourth term in 1944. Some critics ascribe to that a number of dangerous miscalculations during the war years, particularly the concessions that he and the also ailing special