Roosevelt's Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party (review)
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Roosevelt's Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party. By Susan Dunn. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 361. $27.95 cloth)

Roosevelt's Purge describes President Franklin D. Roosevelt's unsuccessful effort to rid the Democratic Party of conservative, anti-New Deal Democrats. In the summer of 1938, FDR intervened in certain Democratic primary elections, seeking to help engineer victory for liberal Democrats challenging conservative incumbents. His targets included senators Walter George of Georgia, "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina, Millard Tydings of Maryland, Guy Gillette of Iowa, and U.S. representative John O'Connor of New York. These politicians had angered Roosevelt by opposing the addition of new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, by refusing to go along with executive-branch reorganization, or because they said "no" to both. In each case, except for that of O'Connor, FDR's opponent won. For President Roosevelt, the failure of the purge was a major setback. His attempt to establish a truly liberal Democratic Party, which would rescue the New Deal and propel it to greater heights, proved an embarrassment and a personal humiliation.

Several factors led to such a disappointing result. The White House "elimination committee," composed of such stalwarts as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Works Progress Administration head Harry Hopkins, performed its job poorly. The committee never devised a coherent program for defeating Democratic enemies of the New Deal. Roosevelt himself was animated by personal dislike of Senator Tydings and perhaps some others, temporarily losing his compass. Most of all, the American people—particularly Southerners—did not want the president butting into state and local affairs. They rebuked Roosevelt, letting him know that he was [End Page 122] out of his jurisdiction. The national Democratic Party and the state Democratic parties were not the same.

This book has a lot to recommend it. Its broad themes are on target. Roosevelt badly miscalculated when he chose to try to take out members of his own party, which was obviously an unusual and dangerous course of action. The abortive purge is covered in impressive detail, while the cast of characters is varied and colorful. Dunn's writing is engrossing, though chapter seven on Walter George ends abruptly. Dunn's description of Roosevelt's personality is particularly valuable: he was a tough man at heart, a battler who enjoyed a good scrap every once in a while: "his easygoing air of affability was only a mask" (p. 21).

Dunn gets on shaky ground when she strays from the purge itself into later times. She asserts that New Deal economic policies lacked the inherent power to achieve the type of political realignment FDR sought. Southern Democrats were not about to leave the Democratic Party over maximum hours, minimum wages, or even something like Supreme Court packing. Only when President Harry Truman and the Supreme Court rejected segregation, interjecting race squarely into the equation, would Southerners truly reconsider party affiliation, back away from the Democrats, and gradually move into the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan played big roles in this shift. By the early twenty-first century, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were driven much more by ideology than by any need for moderation, conciliation, and compromise. "Roosevelt," according to Dunn, "would surely have been pleased to see a polarized political landscape inhabited by parties with mostly coherent ideological messages" because this gave the people a real choice when voting (p. 272). While Dunn thinks she has something here, it seems more likely that Roosevelt would have lamented the legislative stalemate, public name-calling, and Republican-Tea Party emphasis on small, weak government spawned by modern circumstances. Progress for the nation and its people may well be better attained through old-fashioned wheeling and dealing, and legitimate give-and-take, at which FDR excelled and which was his normal practice, [End Page 123] than by interaction between two ideologically inspired political parties constantly at war with each other.

Richard E. Holl

Richard E. Holl is professor of history at Hazard Community and Technical College in Hazard, Kentucky. He is also the author of From the Boardroom...