Perhaps no form of government," said Lord Bryce, "needs great leaders as much as democracy." For democracy is not self-executing. It takes leadership to bring democracy to life. Great democratic leaders are visionaries. They have an instinct for their nation's future, a course to steer, a port to seek. Through their capacity for persuasion, they win the consent of their people and call forth democracy's inner resources.
Democracy has been around for a bit, but the 20th century has been the crucial century of its trial, testing and triumph. At the century's start, democracy was thought to be spreading irresistibly across the world. Then the Great War, the war of 1914-18, showed that democracy could not assure peace. Postwar disillusion activated democracy's two deadly foes: fascism and communism. Soon the Great Depression in the 1930s showed that democracy could not assure prosperity either, and the totalitarian creeds gathered momentum.
The Second World War found democracy fighting for its life. By 1941 there were only a dozen or so democratic states left on earth. But great leadership emerged in time to rally the democratic cause. Future historians, looking back at this most bloody of centuries, will very likely regard the 32nd President of the U.S., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the leader most responsible for mobilizing democratic energies and faith first against economic collapse and then against military terror.
F.D.R. was the best loved and most hated American President of the 20th century. He was loved because, though patrician by birth, upbringing and style, he believed in and fought for plain people--for the "forgotten man" (and woman), for the "third of the nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." He was loved because he radiated personal charm, joy in his work, optimism for the future. Even Charles de Gaulle, who well knew Roosevelt's disdain for him, succumbed to the "glittering personality," as he put it, of "that artist, that seducer." "Meeting him," said Winston Churchill, "was like uncorking a bottle of champagne."
But he was hated too--hated because he called for change, and the changes he proposed reduced the power, status, income and self-esteem of those who profited most from the old order. Hatred is happily more fleeting than love. The men who sat in their clubs denouncing "that man in the White House," that "traitor to his class," have died off. Their children and grandchildren mostly find the New Deal reforms familiar, benign and beneficial.
When pollster John Zogby recently asked people to rate the century's Presidents, F.D.R. led the pack, even though only septuagenarians and their elders can remember him in the White House. Historians and political scientists are unanimous in placing F.D.R. with Washington and Lincoln as our three greatest Presidents.
Even Republicans have come to applaud this most successful of Democrats. Ronald Reagan voted four times for F.D.R. Newt Gingrich calls F.D.R. the greatest President of the century. Bob Dole praises F.D.R. as an "energetic and inspiring leader during the dark days of the Depression; a tough, single-minded Commander in Chief during World War II; and a statesman."
F.D.R. was not a perfect man. In the service of his objectives, he could be, and often was, devious, guileful, manipulative, evasive, dissembling, underhanded, even ruthless. But he had great strengths. He relished power and organized, or disorganized, his Administration so that conflict among his subordinates would ensure that the big decisions would come to him. A politician to his fingertips, he rejoiced in party combat. "I'm an old campaigner, and I love a good fight," he would say, and "Judge me by the enemies I have made." An optimist who fought his own brave way back from polio, he brought confidence and hope to a scared and stricken nation.
He was a realist in means but an idealist in ends. Above all, F.D.R. stood for humanity against ideology. The 20th was the most ideological of centuries. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin systematically sacrificed millions to false and terrible dogmas. Even within the democracies, ideologues believed that the Great Depression imposed an either/or choice: if you abandon laissez-faire, you are condemned to total statism. "Partial regimentation cannot be made to work," said Herbert Hoover, "and still maintain live democratic institutions."
Against the worship of abstractions, F.D.R. wanted to find practical ways to help decent men and women struggling day by day to make a happier world for themselves and their children. His technique was, as he said, "bold, persistent experimentation...Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Except for the part about admitting failure frankly, that was the practice of his Administration.
When he came to office in 1933, laissez-faire had undermined the temples of capitalism, thrown a quarter of the labor force out of work, cut the gross national product almost in half and provoked mutterings of revolution. No one knew why things had gone wrong or how to set them right. Only communists were happy, seeing in the Great Depression decisive proof of Karl Marx's prophecy that capitalism would be destroyed by its own contradictions.
Then F.D.R. appeared, a magnificent, serene, exhilarating personality, buoyantly embodying new ideas, new courage, new confidence in America's ability to regain control over its future. His New Deal swiftly introduced measures for social protection, regulation and control. Laissez-faire ideologues and Roosevelt haters cried that he was putting the country on the road to communism, the only alternative permitted by the either/or creed. But Roosevelt understood that Social Security, unemployment compensation, public works, securities regulation, rural electrification, farm price supports, reciprocal-trade agreements, minimum wages and maximum hours, guarantees of collective bargaining and all the rest were saving capitalism from itself.
"The test of our progress," he said in his second Inaugural, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." The job situation improved in the 1930s, aided by the Works Progress Administration, the famous WPA, with which government as employer of last resort built schools, post offices, airfields, parks, bridges, tunnels and sewage systems; protected the environment; and fostered the arts. By the 1940 election, the anticapitalist vote, almost a million in 1932, had dwindled to 150,000.
The New Deal never quite solved the problem of unemployment. Thou0gh F.D.R. was portrayed as a profligate spender, his largest peacetime deficit was a feeble $3.6 billion in 1936--far less, even when corrected for inflation, than deficits routinely produced 50 years later by Reagan. It took World War II and the Defense Department to create deficits large enough to wipe out unemployment, proving the case for a compensatory fiscal policy.
Before F.D.R., the U.S. had had a depression every 20 years or so. The built-in economic stabilizers of the New Deal, vociferously denounced by business leaders at the time, have preserved the country against major depressions for more than a half-century. F.D.R.'s signal domestic achievement was to rescue capitalism from the capitalists.
"We are fighting," he said in 1936, "to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world." F.D.R.'s brilliant (and sometimes not so brilliant) improvisations restored America's faith in democratic institutions. Elsewhere on the planet, democracy was under assault. Hitler was on the march in Europe. Japan had invaded China and dreamed of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese domination.
F.D.R.'s education in foreign affairs had been at the hands of two Presidents he greatly admired. Theodore Roosevelt, his kinsman (a fifth cousin), taught him national-interest, balance-of-power geopolitics. Woodrow Wilson, whom he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, gave him the vision of a world beyond balances of power, an international order founded on the collective maintenance of the peace. F.D.R.'s internationalism used T.R.'s realism as the heart of Wilson's idealism.
But Americans, disenchanted with their participation in the Great War, had turned their backs on the world and reverted to isolationism. Rigid neutrality acts denied the President authority to discriminate between aggressor states and their victims and thereby prevented the U.S. from throwing its weight against aggression.
To awaken his country from its isolationist slumber, Roosevelt began a long, urgent, eloquent campaign of popular education, warning that unchecked aggression abroad would ultimately endanger the U.S. itself. "Let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy," he said. The debate in 1940-41 between isolationists and interventionists was the most passionate political argument of my lifetime. It came to an abrupt end when Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.
As war leader, F.D.R. picked an extraordinary team of generals and admirals. In partnership with Churchill, he presided over the vital strategic decisions. And also, in the footsteps of Wilson, he was determined that victory should produce a framework for lasting world peace.
He saw the war as bringing about historic changes--the rise of Russia and China, for example, and the end of Western colonialism. He tried to persuade the British to give India its independence and tried to stop the French from repossessing Indochina. In the Four Freedoms and, with Churchill, in the Atlantic Charter, he proclaimed war aims in words that continue to express the world's aspirations today.
Remembering America's reversion to isolationism after World War I, he set out to involve the U.S. in postwar structures while the war was still on and the country still in an internationalist frame of mind. "Anybody who thinks that isolationism is dead in this country is crazy," he said privately. "As soon as this war is over, it may well be stronger than ever."
In a series of conferences in 1944, he committed the country to international mechanisms in a variety of fields--finance and trade, relief and reconstruction, food and agriculture, civil aviation. Most of all, he saw the United Nations, in the words of the diplomat Charles E. Bohlen, as "the only device that could keep the U.S. from slipping back into isolationism." He arranged for the U.N.'s founding conference to take place in San Francisco before the war was over (though it turned out to be after his own death in April 1945 at the age of 63).
The great riddle for the peace was the Soviet Union. Perhaps Roosevelt, as some argue, should have conditioned aid to Russia during the war on pledges of postwar good behavior. But the fate of the second front in the west depended on the Red Army's holding down Nazi divisions in the east, and neither Roosevelt nor Churchill wanted to delay Stalin's military offensives--or to drive him to make a separate peace with Hitler.
With the war approaching its end, the two democratic leaders met Stalin at Yalta. Some say that this meeting brought about the division of Europe. In fact, far from endorsing Soviet control of Eastern Europe, Roosevelt and Churchill secured from Stalin pledges of "the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people." Stalin had to break the Yalta agreements to achieve his ends--which would seem to prove the agreements were more in the Western than the Soviet interest. In fact, Eastern Europe today is what the Yalta Declarations mandated in 1945.
Take a look at our present world. It is manifestly not Adolf Hitler's world. His Thousand-Year Reich turned out to have a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. It is manifestly not Joseph Stalin's world. That ghastly world self-destructed before our eyes. Nor is it Winston Churchill's world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into history.
The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt's world. Of the figures who for good or evil dominated the planet 60 years ago, he would be least surprised by the shape of things at the millennium. And confident as he was of the power and vitality of democracy, he would welcome the challenges posed by the century to come.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said Isaiah Berlin, was one of the few statesmen in any century "who seemed to have no fear at all of the future."
Pulitzer-prizewinning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is the author of The Age of Roosevelt. He is currently at work on his memoirs
From the April 13, 1998 issue of TIME