John T. Flynn had the distinction of being singled out by Franklin D. Roosevelt as a writer who “should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine, or national quarterly.” Until the New Deal came along, however, Flynn had never been known as a conservative. During the 1920’s, he served as a financial analyst for the New York Globe, and the following decade wrote a popular series of muckraking books and articles while beginning a regular column with the New Republic.

It was FDR’s political program that got him thinking. The court-packing scheme, the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the President, and an economic regime bordering on fascism —all this was too much for Flynn, and he would go on to become one of the most dogged of the President’s opponents. The Roosevelt Myth, when it was first published in 1948, hit number two on the New York Times best-seller list. Now, a 50th anniversary edition, with a new (and excellent) introduction by historian Ralph Raico, brings this scathing and relentless indictment to a country whose leaders, of whatever political stripe, almost to a man treat FDR with a reverence that more civilized men reserve for things divine.

Flynn, although possessing a reasonable grasp of market economics, never fully managed to shed his progressive past. “Flynn was not a strict libertarian,” Raico notes in his introduction, “nor was his thinking on economics notably sophisticated.” But no strictly economic analysis of the Roosevelt years can match the color, verve, and compelling idiosyncrasy of Flynn’s pen or substitute for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotal material about Roosevelt and the men who surrounded him.

In any case, it takes little specialized training to reach, as Flynn did, the central point that FDR, for all his tinkering and legislative innovation, utterly failed to correct the Depression. Flynn’s admiration for Herbert Hoover may have been misplaced, but it was based on his perception that Hoover, unlike Roosevelt, saw business recovery—not puerile scapegoating of “economic royalists”—as the key to lifting the nation out of its unprecedented slump. Roosevelt himself said that he had never read a book on economics; as Flynn put it, “it is entirely possible that no one knew less about [it] than Roosevelt.” Ignorance was indeed bliss for FDR, who seems to have held that no economic law was a match for his iron will. (Thus H.L. Mencken’s “Constitution for the New Deal,” which appeared in the June 1937 issue of the American Mercury, gave the President the power to “repeal or amend, in his discretion, any so-called natural law, including Gresham’s law, the law of diminishing returns, and the law of gravitation.”)

At no time during the 1930’s did the percentage of Americans unemployed drop below double digits. From 1933- 1940, unemployment averaged a whopping 18 percent. FDR’s best year was 1937, when the rate dropped temporarily to 14.3 percent, but by the end of the year the economy was nearly as bad as it had been when he entered office. By the time of America’s entry into World War II, unemployment was still at 18 percent—the same rate that obtained during Roosevelt’s first year as President! If the war relieved unemployment and restored “prosperity,” it did so in ways that were hardly ideal: Production, while high, was diverted from consumer needs into war materiel, and the 12 million men conscripted into military service, while no longer showing up as “unemployed” in national statistics, can hardly be said to have experienced an economic (or any other) turn for the better.

Like his predecessor, FDR and his advisors believed that falling prices, like falling wages, were a principal cause of the Depression rather than a symptom of it. The natural remedy, therefore, was to increase prices by any means necessary. Hence the logic of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers to destroy enormous quantities of crops and livestock and to take countless thousands of acres out of production entirely. Flynn’s description of Henry Wallace is a good example both of the author’s prose style and of his skill as a chronicler and critic of the inanities of the FDR years:

Henry Wallace, as mild-mannered a man and mystic as ever knelt on a prayer rug or slit a pig’s throat or burned a field of corn, became Secretary of Agriculture and came up with a plan that was supposed to be more effective and more orderly than cinch bugs, boll weevils or dusts storms in providing our people with the scarcity that everybody needed.

While this program was under way, the Department of Agriculture released a study regarding the American diet during these lean years. The Department constructed four sample diets: liberal, moderate, minimum, and emergency (below subsistence). Its figures were sobering: America was not producing enough food to sustain its population at the minimum (subsistence) diet. “How to better this may be a problem,” Flynn observed, “but the last course a government run by sane men would adopt to get it solved would be to destroy a good part of what we do produce.”

Flynn is equally withering on Roosevelt’s conduct of foreign affairs. As a diplomat, the President was at best incompetent, and as commander-in-chief he was an outright liar. That FDR at the very least deceived the American public repeatedly on matters of grave national concern, especially regarding his intentions for the United States in World War II, can no longer seriously be denied; and indeed the best the intelligentsia have been able to do is to echo the bland, patrician assurances of William F. Buckley, Jr., that, after all, the President was lying to us for our own good. To which argument Flynn replies: “[I]f Roosevelt had the right to do this, to whom is the right denied? At what point are we to cease to demand that our leaders deal honestly and truthfully with us?”

Then there is the matter of FDR’s almost criminal naiveté regarding Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt exerted his influence throughout the normal channels of civil society, from the movies to the press, to promote a wholly fictional and laughably propagandistic view of the great Russian nationalist. (It was only the uncouth, you understand, who persisted in regarding Stalin as a communist.) “[U]nder the influence of the propaganda he had promoted,” Flynn adds, “and reinforced by his own eagerness to please Stalin, no one in the country was more thoroughly deceived by it than Roosevelt himself.” What it all added up to, ultimately, was that the U.S. government “put into Stalin’s hands the means of seizing a great slab of the continent of Europe, then stood aside while he took it and finally acquiesced in his conquests.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was, after Lincoln, the consummate Great President and the chief architect of the present regime, so it should not be surprising that, despite his thorough debunking at the hands of Flynn, FDR should continue to elicit the adulation of professional historians and the ruling elite. As Raico puts it, “It seems that there is no degrading inanity, no catastrophic blunder that is not permitted a truly ‘great president.'”


[The Roosevelt Myth, by John T. Flynn (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes) 437 pp., $14.95]