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Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Schooling of a War President

The First Move to Washington

World War I and the Vice Presidency

Roosevelt's seven years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy provided a strong groundwork for his tenure as a war president. He was in charge of procurement, civilian personnel, the budget, and management of yards and docks, giving him crucial administrative experience that he had previously lacked. FDR brought Louis Howe with him to Washington. Howe wrote FDR's speeches, took care of labor relations with the Navy's civilian work force, and took charge of patronage, giving postmasterships and shipyard jobs to loyal Democrats with the aim of building a political machine that would eventually challenge Boss Murphy's in New York.

Wilson, meanwhile, was performing excellently as president, serving as a role model for the young Roosevelt watching from the Navy office. The eloquent Wilson addressed Congress directly to pass his reforms, the first president since Jefferson to do so. He persuaded the American people to support his reforms and had many of them passed through popular support. He enacted most of his New Freedom ideas into law during his first years in office, restructuring the nation's banks, establishing the Federal Reserve system, beating down trusts and monopolies, and enacting child-labor and workman's compensation laws. FDR, meanwhile, was busy charming the socialites of Washington and calling on his wife to do the same. Although people in Washington were impressed with his social graces, none believed that he had the seriousness to become the president of the United States. Eleanor transformed herself into the true politician's wife, making hundreds of house calls, attending teas, dinners, openings, and receptions. She was forced to hire a social secretary to help her keep track of all of her duties. The secretary, Lucy Mercer, who was a member of an impoverished branch of an eminent family, was beautiful and lively at parties, all the things that Eleanor was not. Lucy soon became an addition to all the parties to which Eleanor was invited.

Howe, ever the political schemer, urged FDR to become personally involved with the contract negotiations with the Navy's civilian labor force, which FDR did. Howe had realized early on that the 100,000 people involved in these negotiations could be useful political ammunition for FDR's future. Roosevelt also used his position in charge of Navy procurement to good advantage in the fight against monopolies and trusts, changing the ways in which the military bought steel and campaigning against coal companies. These efforts paralleled Wilson's battles against trusts and monopolies in early 1914.

It was early in FDR's career as Assistant Secretary of the Navy that World War I began in Europe. Roosevelt and Daniels took almost opposite approaches to the rise of war in Europe. Daniels, unlike the intensely aware Roosevelt, seemed to ignore the fact that America had a large stake in any war between the major powers of the world. It was about this time that Roosevelt was trying to prepare the country for impending war that he decided to run for Senator in New York. He lost in September of 1914, in a defeat so complete that only Boss Murphy could have engineered it. FDR learned some valuable lessons from this failed campaign for Senator. He learned that he could not run a campaign in a few weeks, that he could not openly defy Tammany Hall and win in New York, and that Progressives and Democrats with similar goals in New York needed to work together for Democrats to win.

On May 17, 1915, a German U-boat sank the liner Lusitania, which was carrying 128 American civilian citizens along with munitions for Britain in her cargo. Americans were outraged at what was seen as cold-blooded murder on the seas. Wilson, however, was determined not to go to war. He chose instead to send notes of such caustic content to the German Premier that William Jennings Bryan resigned as Secretary of State rather than sign such provocative documents. The sinking of the Lusitania, however, did focus the national eye on the lack of military preparedness in America. President Wilson informed the Secretaries of the Army and Navy to draft plans for quick increases in their strength. Roosevelt was finally proven right.

Wilson won the election of 1916 against Charles Evans Hughes, running on the slogan "He kept us out of war." Wilson received the bulk of his support from Midwesterners of German origin, who harbored the most fervent anti-war sentiment. Germany, however, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on February 3, 1917. When FDR was suddenly called back from an inspection trip to the Caribbean because of "political considerations," he realized that Wilson was not facing the question of whether America was going to war, but when. Even so, the ever-cautious Wilson held Roosevelt's eagerness for military preparedness in check. Wilson did not want to make any preparations for war that would allow historians to say that America had incited war with the Central Powers in 1917. On April 2, Wilson called for a special session of Congress in which he asked for a declaration of war, saying that the world must be made safe for democracy. FDR watched and learned from President Wilson's masterful handling of the American entry into World War I.

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