The best books to understand why FDR was the greatest American president

Iwan W. Morgan Author Of FDR: Transforming the Presidency and Renewing America
By Iwan W. Morgan

Who am I?

I consider FDR the greatest of all presidents for leading America with distinction in the domestic crisis of the Great Depression and the foreign crisis of World War 2 and creating the modern presidency that survives today in the essential form he established. I have written books on Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan during fifty years as a US history professor in UK universities. I always intended to write a book about how FDR reinvented the presidency that these Republicans inherited, something I finally did in ‘retirement’. My five chosen books explain the challenging times he faced and the leadership skills he displayed in meeting them.     


I wrote...

FDR: Transforming the Presidency and Renewing America

By Iwan W. Morgan,

Book cover of FDR: Transforming the Presidency and Renewing America

What is my book about?

FDR transformed the presidency into an institution of domestic and international leadership, providing a model against which every successor was measured. My book is unique in focusing on the leadership skills he displayed as domestic reformer in the 1930s and as wartime commander-in-chief. It explains how he enhanced the presidency’s governing capacity, promoted a constitutional revolution, forged a new intimacy between Americans and their president through his genius for political communication, and transformed the Democrats from minority to majority party. It further demonstrates his strategic and organizational leadership during America’s greatest foreign war, his role in holding together the US-UK-Soviet Grand Alliance, and his pioneering development of the national-security presidency. Given this range of accomplishments, FDR merits recognition as America’s greatest president.

The books I picked & why

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Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

By David M. Kennedy,

Book cover of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

Why this book?

This Pulitzer Prize-winning study is the best single-volume history of America in the Age of FDR.  Meticulously researched, ambitiously conceived, and vividly written, it crafts superb portraits of the presidencies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kennedy offers a balanced assessment of FDR’s New Deal, concluding that his reforms enhanced the socio-economic security of millions of Americans despite their overall failure in the 1930s to achieve economic recovery, which would only come about through the crucible of war in the early 1940s. However, the real heroes of the book are the American people for their resilience and resolve in the face of the Great Depression and World War 2, the two greatest challenges the United States faced in the twentieth century.  


The People and the President: America's Conversation With FDR

By Lawrence W. Levine (editor), Cornelia R. Levine (editor),

Book cover of The People and the President: America's Conversation With FDR

Why this book?

This remarkable volume offers a selection from the millions of letters that ordinary men and women sent FDR in response to his radio Fireside Chats. Roosevelt used these talks to explain his policies to the American people, many of whom wrote him in return (for the cost of a 3-cent postage stamp) to communicate their thoughts about his presidency and the state of the nation during the depression and war years. Their letters reveal the multiple images that Americans had of FDR: friend, neighbor, trusted leader, protector—or, far less often, violator of the Constitution, enemy of sound economics, warmonger. They provide a timely reminder for our own times of the presidency’s capacity for civic education and the importance of dialogue between leaders and citizens.


Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

By Jeff Shesol,

Book cover of Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

Why this book?

This is a fascinating account of FDR’s confrontation with the Supreme Court after it struck down many New Deal measures as unconstitutional expansions of federal authority. In response, he proposed a court-packing bill enabling him to appoint additional justices supportive of his policies, but this got nowhere in Congress because it threatened the constitutional separation of the powers. Nevertheless, Roosevelt still emerged victorious from the imbroglio. Wary of political backlash if it continuously opposed a popular president, the Supreme Court changed course to accept the New Deal once FDR abandoned efforts to pack it. This outcome preserved the judicial branch as a separate arm of the US government while upholding the ideal of a living Constitution whose interpretation changed with the times to make America’s democracy workable. 


A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II

By Maury Klein,

Book cover of A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II

Why this book?

This is a vivid retelling of the US production miracles that enabled America and its Allies to win World War 2. Instead of overwhelming readers with dry numbers, the book comes alive by focusing on the human dimension. Klein credits FDR for understanding that the US had to become the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ to win the war, while lionizing innovative industrialists and engineers who turned this vision into reality and the federal officials who cleared the way for their operations to succeed. He also highlights the struggles of the millions who endured disruption and discomfort in migrating to undertake war work far from their home regions. This is essential reading to understand the home front in America’s greatest foreign war. 


American Warlords: How Roosevelt's High Command Led America to Victory in World War II

By Jonathan W. Jordan,

Book cover of American Warlords: How Roosevelt's High Command Led America to Victory in World War II

Why this book?

This is an intimate account of the collaboration between the quartet who led America to victory in World War II: FDR, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, and Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet Admiral Ernest King. The four sometimes disagreed: the military men initially worried that FDR sought to shape war strategy for political purposes; the president overruled their preference for an Anglo-American invasion of Nazi-occupied France in 1943, something he considered premature. Far more often, the quartet set aside personal, political, and professional differences to pull the nation through its darkest days of the twentieth century. Superbly researched and written, this book offers illuminating commentary on how wars are won.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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