Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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A sweeping, magisterial biography of the man generally considered the greatest president of the twentieth century, admired by Democrats and Republicans alike. Traitor to His Class sheds new light on FDR's formative years, his remarkable willingness to champion the concerns of the poor and disenfranchised, his combination of political genius, firm leadership, and matchless diplomacy in saving democracy in America during the Great Depression and the American cause of freedom in World War II.

Drawing on archival materials, public speeches, personal correspondence, and accounts by family and close associates, acclaimed bestselling historian and biographer H. W. Brands offers a compelling and intimate portrait of Roosevelt¡¯s life and career.

Brands explores the powerful influence of FDR¡¯s dominating mother and the often tense and always unusual partnership between FDR and his wife, Eleanor, and her indispensable contributions to his presidency. Most of all, the book traces in breathtaking detail FDR¡¯s revolutionary efforts with his New Deal legislation to transform the American political economy in order to save it, his forceful¡ªand cagey¡ªleadership before and during World War II, and his lasting legacy in creating the foundations of the postwar international order.

Traitor to His Class brilliantly captures the qualities that have made FDR a beloved figure to millions of Americans.

Exclusive Q&A with H.W. Brands and Jon Meacham

On the eve of the historic 2008 presidential election, we were fortunate to chat with historians H.W. Brands and Jon Meacham (author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House) on the similarities of their presidential subjects and how the legacies of FDR and Jackson continue to shape the political world we see today. One of Andrew Jackson's childhood friends once remarked that when they wrestled, "I could throw him three times out of four, but he never stayed throwed." How emblematic is this of Jackson's career?

Meacham: Utterly emblematic. Jackson was resilient, tough, and wily, rising from nothing to become the dominant political figure of the age. He was crushed by his loss in 1824, when, despite carrying the popular vote, he was defeated in the House of Representatives. But, tellingly, he began his campaign for 1828 almost immediately, on the way home to Tennessee. And he won the next time. What would Jackson think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

Meacham: I think they would have gotten along famously. It is difficult to imagine men from more starkly different backgrounds¡ªto take just one example, Jackson lost his mother early, and FDR was long shaped by his mother¡ªbut they both viewed the presidency the same way: they both believed they should be in it, wielding power on behalf of the masses against entrenched interests. How important was Jackson's legacy to FDR's Presidency?

Brands: Jackson was FDR¡¯s favorite president, and Jackson¡¯s presidency was the one Roosevelt initially modeled his own after. FDR saw Jackson as the champion of the ordinary people of America; he saw himself the same way. He compared Jackson¡¯s battle with the Bank of the United States to his own battle with entrenched economic interests. And just as Jackson had reveled in the enmity of the rich, so did Roosevelt. Although both were regarded as champions of the people, their backgrounds were drastically different. FDR hailed from a wealthy and politically-connected family, while Jackson was an orphaned son of immigrants. How did each manage to endear themselves to the voters of their day?

Meacham: Jackson was in many ways the first great popular candidate. He had ¡°Hickory Clubs,¡± and there were torchlit parades and barbecues¡ªlots and lots of barbecues. Jackson helped mastermind the means of campaigning that would become commonplace. He also intuitively understood the power of image, and kept a portrait painter, Ralph Earl, near to hand in the White House.

Brands: FDR combined noblesse oblige with felt concern for the plight of the poor. His polio had something to do with this¡ªit introduced him to personal suffering, and it also introduced him, in Georgia, where he went for rehabilitation, to poor farmers unlike any he had spent time with before. He came to know them and to feel the problems they faced. He took people in trouble seriously and communicated that seriousness to them.

Continue reading this Q&A

Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008: With Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, H.W. Brands penetrates the clenched grin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a masterful biography of one of America's most beloved leaders. Though born into the upper crust of society, FDR dedicated his career to fighting for the common good and the ideals of the American Dream. With the same exhaustive research familiar to fans of his biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson, Brands provides a portrait of an unflinching (and often recalcitrant) figure whose unshakable confidence inspired a beleaguered nation. FDR's path may have been unorthodox (evidenced by an unprecedented 12 years spent as commander-in-chief) and arguably illegal (the New Deal didn't always work well with the Constitution), but his shared goal of a stronger America at home and abroad endeared him to voters of varying backgrounds. "We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern," proclaimed Roosevelt in 1937. "The test of our progress 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." -- -Dave Callanan

Customer Reviews:

  • "A politician, not an ideologue"
    The literature about Franklin Delano Roosevelt is enormous, rivaling in sheer bulk that on Napoleon, Lincoln and Jesus Christ.

    Many of us can remember when any new book about FDR came with a built-in partisan agenda of either fulsome praise or furious denunciation. Many of those books came from people who had known and worked with Roosevelt. Only in fairly recent years have we reached the point where dispassionate historians can have their say, free from the whirring sound of grinding axes.

    H. W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas, has weighed in with a richly detailed and well-written 824-page biography that rates high marks among the many single-volume treatments still in print. His basic verdict is favorable, but he is careful to note FDR's failings, both personal and political. TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS is neither whitewash nor prosecutorial indictment.

    Roosevelt's well-known career trajectory is covered in workmanlike detail: New York state senator and later governor, assistant secretary of the navy, losing candidate for vice president in 1920, polio victim, and finally the only person in American history elected four times to the Presidency. The equally familiar details of his private life are also present: his difficult relationship with a domineering mother, his essentially loveless marriage to his cousin Eleanor (complicated, if more complication were needed, by his affair with Lucy Mercer), his wily political machinations in pursuit of self-advancement, his intense personal loyalty to trusted aides like Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins, and his careful manipulation of wartime relations with Churchill and Stalin, who may have been allies against the Nazis but were also leaders with agendas that did not always jibe with Roosevelt's wishes.

    Brands teases out of the historical record ample detail about Roosevelt's well-known tactic of putting two or three people to work on the same problem independently, so he could cherry-pick ideas from each and decide on his own approach. The author also illuminates FDR's ability to give petitioners the impression that he agreed with them while not really making any specific commitments to action. Brands deftly crafts a neutral way to describe this, dubbing FDR "artful" in preserving his "intellectual autonomy." He was, says Brands, "a politician, not an ideologue."

    The wide-ranging array of New Deal programs with which he fought against the Depression were, in Brands's phrase "extemporaneous and improvisatory," which seems a fair judgment. Some of them worked and some of them did not --- the most ill-advised being his effort to pack the Supreme Court with justices more in tune with his program after the Court had invalidated a large part of the New Deal as unconstitutional.

    Brands also reminds us of Roosevelt's constant need to protect himself against the powerful isolationist bloc in Congress, which opposed his every move toward war preparations right up to the moment of Pearl Harbor. FDR lacked the luxuries of Churchill's "unity government" or Stalin's iron-fisted dictatorship. Even today there are those who still claim that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance but let it happen as a means of getting the U.S. into World War II --- a claim that Brands dismisses as unfounded. He also quotes Roosevelt's candid assessment of the 1945 Yalta agreements with Stalin, a longtime focal point of conservative ire (and charges of treason). Roosevelt reported to Congress that they were "the best I could do," which is pretty close to the verdict commonly accepted today.

    When Roosevelt was gearing up to run for the Presidency in 1932, columnist Walter Lippmann famously dismissed him as "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President." This may well have been accurate --- but Brands, after an exhaustive examination of the record of FDR's 12-year Presidency, concludes that he rose brilliantly to the challenge.

    Can it be that history may repeat itself 76 years later? Stay tuned.

    --- Reviewed by Robert Finn ( info
  • Confident
    The latest book by historian H.W. Brands of the University of Texas is a flattering and readable biography of FDR titled, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I don't know if there's much new on these pages, but I can attest that I enjoyed thoroughly all that I read. FDR's irrepressible confidence exudes from most pages, and his wily craftiness when dealing with just about everyone adds to the joy of reading about this American president. Given the title, I expected a special focus in this book on the animosity of America's wealthy toward FDR. In many respects, that was a background item: he knew where he came from, and proceeded with confidence to do what he thought needed to be done, no matter how much opposition it created among the most privileged citizens. Brands does an excellent job in deconstructing the complicated relationship between Franklin and Eleanor, in expanding on how FDR's battle with polio strengthened him, and on the ways in which he drew out the skills of others to get done what could be done. I kept waiting for one of my favorite lines from an FDR speech to appear, but alas it did not. That line was when the patrician Roosevelt began his address to the Daughters of the American Revolution with the line, "Fellow immigrants..." I highly recommend Traitor to His Class to any reader interested in FDR, history, or the challenges of the mid-twentieth century.

    Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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  • A slightly sweet bio
    Brands presents a fairly balanced portrayal of FDR's life. A large portion of the book covers the two crises, The Great Depression and WWII.

    His coverage of FDR's polio is well done and captures the difficulties that FDR endured to the end of his life with this dreaded disease.

    The coverage of WWII details all the minefields, both domestic and international, that FDR had to navigate.

    My biggest problem is Brands light touch on 1)moral and character faults, and 2) deterimental effects of FDR's New Deal Policies.

    FDR's morale shortcomings are treated in the manner of everyone else was doing it. Brands, I think, fails to really show how these affected his policies.

    Brands also fails to show how some of our current problems have their roots in the New Deal.

    Overall, Brands gives the reader a good feel for FDR. The bio falls short in giving the consequences of the arrogant policies of FDR....more info
  • Probably the Best Single Volume Bio of FDR
    H.W. Brands does an amazing job of boiling down a very complex man and creating a highly readable and enjoyable biography of Franklin Roosevelt. Even now 75 years after he took office, he remains an often discussed person and his legacy while almost entirely seen as positive is still highly discussed. This book does a great job of explaining FDR's transformation from elitist snob into a passionate agent of change.

    Still the book does not pretend to ignore that FDR was perfect or that he was completely successful. While not becoming a hagiography, the book does give FDR much more praise for his success then squabbling over his failures. Also, Brands attempts to paint the man as he was rather than offer some pyscho history which is where many FDR bios go wrong. This is a long read at over 800 pages and yet it is well worth your time. ...more info
  • A Myopic Account of FDR
    H.W. Brands biography is more a political encomium to FDR than an objective appraisal of the man. In his zeal to portray Roosevelt in the best possible light, he ignores facts and events that dim the Roosevelt glow and leave one wondering whether this academic author is even aware of the many troubling aspects of FDR's 12-year tenure in the White House.

    There is little question that FDR was one of our greatest presidents and did a lot of good in leading the country through the Great Depression and to victory in World War II. But FDR also did a lot of unsavory things and any objective evaluation of the man must include at least a discussion of these failures. By avoiding such unpleasantries, Brands joins the ranks of Roosevelt's biographical palace guard - Schlesinger, Burns, Leuchtenberg, and Dallek, among others -- all of whose works appear in the short list of secondary sources that Prof. Brands cites as "especially useful." (p. 828).

    Brands' major myopia is a moral one, where he avoids in this 824-page tome any mention of Roosevelt's staggering moral shortcomings. FDR had an uncanny ability to simply ignore, and then laugh off, any "inconvenient truth" that did not suit his plans or course of action. He was an imperial president who professed to speak for the common man yet, as Brands points out, he was the "most powerful man in American history." (p. 648). But along with power comes many unflattering character traits and Prof. Brands seems to have avoided them all.

    The author either omits entirely virtually every negative aspect of FDR's life, or sugars them over as minor deficiencies. He makes no mention, for example, of FDR's use of government agencies to punish his political enemies (e.g., Samuel Insull, Andrew Mellon, Moses Annenberg). And though he does cover Roosevelt's affair with Lucy Mercer (a member of his household akin to a babysitter), an affair that Roosevelt conducted openly in Washington during periods of Eleanor's absence, while he was a public official (Assistant Secretary of the Navy), and while his wife struggled with five small children, Prof. Brands suggests that FDR's affair was just another example of rakish Washington society and seems to blame the entire thing on Eleanor for not enjoying sex (pp. 90-93).

    The most glaring omissions from Prof. Brands' biography relate principally to (1) Roosevelt's recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, (2) Roosevelt's affection for "Uncle Joe" during WWII, and his attempts to get to know him on a personal level, and (3) FDR's refusal to acknowledge the plain truth of Stalin's 1940 massacre of approximately 22,000 Polish officers, some of whose bodies were found in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in 1943.

    (1) Recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 - Prof. Brands' treatment of this topic appears on pages 438-41. He suggests that FDR's decision, which undid President Wilson's policy in effect since 1917, was based on economic and strategic factors. And these issues were discussed in some contemporaneous press accounts (see "Our Recognition of Russia: Arguments For And Against," The New York Times, July 16, 1933). But the Soviet Union had virtually no foreign exchange in the 1930s; purchasers from the Soviet Union needed loans from their own governments, and no substantial US trade ever developed with the Soviet Union after 1933 (Harold Jones, Crucible of Power: A History of U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1897 (Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) p. 144). Indeed, the very New York Times article that reported the recognition on Nov. 18, 1933 stated that the US Government would have to finance the sale of agricultural products to the Soviets. And the anticipated strategic benefits were so fanciful that, rather than working with the United States to promote peace in Europe, Stalin in 1939 crafted the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in which he and Hitler agreed to the shameless dismemberment of Poland and started World War II. It thus appears from the hindsight of history that Roosevelt's personal affinity for the Soviet experiment was the real motivator of recognition and that the proferred rationales of trade and strategy were mere ruses.

    Almost from the moment that he started his run for the presidency in 1932, Roosevelt planned to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union (The New York Times, July 26, 1932, p. 1, "Roosevelt Confers On Russian Policy"). But in the nine years between 1924, when the UK recognized the Soviet Union, and 1933, when FDR took office, Stalin and the Soviets had achieved a level of barbarity that was unequaled in human history. Certainly Roosevelt had access to information about the horrendous famines inflicted by the Soviets on Ukraine and Kazakhstan in the winter before he extended diplomatic recognition to Stalin in November 1933. Some stories of the raging famine were published in the West (Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow (New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1986) pp. 260-61). Richard Overy, a Soviet scholar, writes that in 1932-33 the famine in Kazakhstan alone took an estimated 1.7 million lives, almost half of its population (Russia's War (New York, Penguin Books 1997) p. 23). Another 7-10 million people were starved to death in Ukraine and southern Russia in the winter of 1932-33 (Donald Rayfield, Stalin and His Hangmen (New York, Random House, 2004) p. 191).

    These famines were not just unfortunate consequences of a bad harvest. They were planned and carried out as part of the collectivization program under Stalin's direction by the OGPU, the predecessor to the NKVD/KGB. Stalin decreed that the starving Ukraine was to be sealed off from the outside world, that no grain was allowed into Ukraine and no Ukrainians were allowed out (Christopher Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), p. 128). Why, immediately after such horrors, did FDR so enthusiastically embrace the Soviet Union? And why does Prof. Brands omit any reference to these inconvenient facts in his discussion of Roosevelt's decision to validate Stalin's regime in November 1933?

    Brands writes that the cagey and always political Roosevelt hesitated to recognize the Soviet Union -- not because the Soviets were the world's greatest mass murderers and were committed to the violent overthrow of the US government -- but because "American Catholics continued to fret that recognition would signal acquiescence in the suppression of religion in Russia." (439). The author then tells of Roosevelt's entertaining a Catholic prelate in the White House, who "couldn't resist" Roosevelt's charms, and promptly agreed not to further oppose recognition.

    What Prof. Brands does not reveal is that in January 1933, before FDR even took office, 800 professors and university presidents, people who were on the far left of the political spectrum, wrote an open letter to Roosevelt, which was published in The New York Times, urging him to recognize a regime in Moscow that was committed to the violent overthrow of all capitalist governments, including that of the United States (Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man (Kindle editon, 2008) 2427-28). Rexford Tugwell, a member of the original Brain Trust and one of FDR's closest advisors in 1933, attributes Roosevelt's decision to his liberal ideology:

    "Non-recognition had become absurd; it was, besides, attributed mostly to Republican reaction; liberals were apt to have certain sympathy with the Russian revolutionists who were at least trying to improve matters for their people even if in an abhorrent way, and this was a liberal administration." (Rexford G. Tugwell, The Democratic Roosevelt (Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Co., 1957), p. 438)

    "It was Walter Duranty," says a recent author, "more than any other individual, who persuaded Franklin Roosevelt of the wisdom of granting diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union." (Tim Tzouliadis, The Forsaken (New York, The Penguin Press, 2008). Duranty was the corrupt New York Times correspondent in Moscow from 1922 to 1936. He was a sycophant of the Soviet regime and it is now believed that he intentionally misrepresented the facts of the terror famines in the early 1930s in order to curry the favor of his Soviet hosts, who provided him with a lavish lifestyle in Moscow including the opium to which he was occasionally addicted as a result of an injury incurred in a train wreck (see the biography of Duranty, S.J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, The New York Times Man In Moscow (New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990). If learning that Roosevelt relied on Duranty for his knowledge of the Soviet Union is not enough to make one gag, consider that Duranty won a Pulitzer prize for the series of articles in 1931 stating that the rumors of widespread famine in the Soviet Union were mere myths, and consider that the Pulitzer Committee refused to revoke his prize in 2003.

    At Roosevelt's side in addition to Walter Duranty was William C. Bullitt, an intimate friend of the President and one-time husband of Louise Bryant, widow of John Reed, the pro-Soviet fanatic and author of "Ten Days That Shook The World." Bullitt set up the discussions that resulted in the agreement by which Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union. He was in contact with the Soviets before the November 1933 negotiations and was an ardent supporter of recognition (Cordell Hull, Memoirs ( New York, Macmillan Co., 1948), vol. I, p. 296).

    Stalin's collectivization program and his war against the Kulaks reached their peak between 1929-1933, just before Roosevelt's initiative. These were the horrors that Walter Duranty proclaimed to be myths. It is now universally accepted that the government of the Soviet Union, the very same government that Roosevelt was so anxious to recognize, intentionally and systematically either murdered outright or starved to death between 7 and 10 million people during this period. The works of Robert Conquest, Donald Rayfield, Catherine Merridale, Norman Davies, and Edward Radzinski, among a host of other scholars, confirm these facts. Prof. Rayfield writes (Stalin and His Hangmen (New York, Random House, 2004)):

    " . . . the number of excess deaths between 1930 and 1933 attributable to collectivization lies between a conservative 7.2 and a plausible 10.8 million." (p. 191)

    The number of estimated deaths varies among scholars. The Bolsheviks were none too anxious to document their murders. A recently published book (Gellately, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) p.235) cites estimates between 4 and 7 million. Montefiore (Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) p. 85) puts the dead at between 4 and 10 million. The point is not the exact number of millions of innocent souls who went to a tortured and terrible death at the hands of the Soviet regime. The point is that the number was in the millions and that this fact was known in the international community in 1933, and is accepted fact today.

    Prof. Rayfield says further that

    "The suffering that ensued has few parallels in human history; it can only be compared in scale and monstrosity with the African slave trade. But whereas the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese took 200 years to transport some 10 million souls into slavery, and kill about 2 million of them, Stalin matched that figure in a matter of four years." (p. 180)

    Prof. Rayfield concludes that civilized society had ceased to exist in the Soviet Union, and that the silence of the West is "a blot on our civilization." (p. 190) One has only to read a portion of Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow to appreciate the scale of the genocide. Yet Roosevelt knew nothing of this?

    In view of these staggering atrocities, many of which took place in the three years (1931-1933) immediately preceding Roosevelt's extending the hand of the United States to the Soviet regime in 1933, why does Prof. Brands make no mention of these atrocities in discussing Roosevelt's initiative? Further, having ignored what is now universally recognized as one of the worst acts of barbarism in human history, Prof. Brands applauds Roosevelt's personal handling of the negotiations (with Maxim Litvinov) of an agreement that was totally worthless and was ignored by the Soviet Union before the ink was dry. Prof. Brands seems proud that Roosevelt and his appointees were sympathetic to a government that murdered millions and ruled by terror?

    Mr. Roosevelt's first ambassador to the Soviet Union was Philadelphian William Bullitt, who eventually recognized the Soviets for what they were and repeatedly told Roosevelt as much (see Will Brownell & Richard N. Billings, So Close To Greatness: A Biography of William C. Bullitt (New York, Macmillan Publ. Co., 1987) pp. 184-86). Why does Brands make no mention of the fact that Roosevelt didn't want to hear such negative talk about Stalin and replaced Bullitt with the infamous Joseph Davies. Davies was a presidential friend and former golfing buddy, whose marriage to heiress and campaign contributor Marjorie Merriweather Post seems to have been his only qualification for the assignment. His devotion to the Soviet Union and Stalin during the worst periods of repression was unbounded.

    Upon his arrival in Moscow in early 1937, Davies attended one of the Stalin show trials then in progress. These political farces are now universally regarded as pure shams in which Stalin's victims were simply tortured until they confessed to the most ludicrous charges. Davies reported back to Roosevelt that these trials were fair and that the victims got what they deserved. See Nagorski, The Greatest Battle 144-47 (New York, Simon & Schuster 2007). Joseph Davies was a toady of the Soviet regime, who accepted on its face the Soviet propaganda during a period when the NKVD was arresting millions to be fed into the Soviet slave labor system (the Gulag), and executing hundreds of thousands of others. Davies professed to have seen none of it and extolled the virtues of Stalin and the Soviet system in a book, and later movie, Mission To Moscow, which was widely disseminated in the United States in the early 1940's.

    (2) Roosevelt's Affection For Stalin During WWII - throughout his biography Prof. Brands treats Joseph Stalin as just another political leader rather than the world's premier mass murderer. At one point, he is flippant about Stalin's murders, joking that during the war he didn't shoot as many of his subjects as in the 1930s because he needed them for the war effort (p. 777). Even if one were to give FDR the benefit of the doubt in 1933 as to the nature of the Soviet regime, in August 1939, its true colors certainly emerged when Stalin made a pact with Hitler, along with a secret protocol, revealed three weeks later, when the Soviets attacked the staggering Poland and took its half of the prostrate nation. At that point, even Roosevelt must have known who he might be dealing with. Did President Roosevelt know of Stalin's atrocities committed on the Polish people starting in September 1939 when he took his half of the spoils? Did he know that the tiny Baltic states were part of the Hitler-Stalin deal? Did he care that the mighty Red Army overran tiny Finland starting in November 1939? Does Prof. Brands know about these events? He writes as if he does not. Prof. Brands' discussion of the Soviet-Nazi pact (pp. 524-25) fails to make any observations about what the mere making of this agreement with a known monster should have told Roosevelt and his advisors about the Soviet Union and its leader, who the US was to partner with after June 22, 1941, and to whom the US gave billions of dollars in Lend-Lease materials during WWII.

    Given Stalin's achievement as the world's greatest mass murderer, responsible for tens of millions of deaths, it is mind numbing that FDR, the leader of the free world and the American democracy, would have wanted to meet "Uncle Joe" face to face and get to know him personally. When he finally had his wish at the Tehran conference in late 1943, Prof. Brands has Stalin saying that he personally interrogated German prisoners "and asked why they had butchered innocent women and children." (p. 738) Coming from Stalin, this observation has a cruel irony. But not to the author, who apparently found it noteworthy.

    (3) Katyn Forest Massacre - although there was some uncertainty regarding this in the 1940's, it is now beyond argument (the Soviets admitted it in the 1990's and Gorbachev actually produced a copy of Stalin's signed Order) that in the Spring of 1940 the Soviets summarily executed approximately 22,000 Polish officers arrested by the NKVD when Stalin took his half of Poland pursuant to his 1939 pact with Hitler. The helpless prisoners were held in three "special camps" in the Soviet Union and one-by-one shot to death by NKVD officers. The bodies from one of the camps were buried in a mass pit in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. The entire story is told on the CIA web site ( and in Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva & Wojciech Materski, eds., Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 2007). After they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazis discovered the Katyn Forest bodies, and announced the atrocity to the world. The Soviets promptly denied that they did it, and accused the Nazis. The issue soon turned into a political football since the most probable perpetrator was then an ally of the United States, one who Roosevelt affectionately referred to as "Uncle Joe."

    Pressed to resolve the issue, Roosevelt appointed his friend and advisor, George Earle, a former governor of Pennsylvania (1936-39) and at the time an officer in the US Navy, to investigate. Earle did so and concluded in a written report to the president that the murders had been carried out by the Soviets in 1940 when they controlled the area. Roosevelt, however, summarily rejected this conclusion, apparently on the basis of his "hunch" that Uncle Joe would not have done such a thing. Earle responded that he would publish his report, only to draw a written order from Roosevelt, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, forbidding Earle from doing so. Earle was then transferred to meaningless duty in Samoa for the remainder of the war.

    In January 1944, the Soviets were in possession of the area of the Katyn Forest and staged an event at the site for the benefit of the world press. In a cynical act unworthy of so great a man, Roosevelt arranged for Kathleen Harriman, the 25-year-old daughter of US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averill Harriman, to attend the staged event, and report to him. Kathleen did so, reviewed the evidence planted by the Soviets, and promptly reported her conclusion that the Nazis had done it. Roosevelt then accepted Kathleen's conclusions, and in the process rejected the reports of two US Army investigators, two American ambassadors, and British and Polish intelligence reports, as well as Governor Earle's report.

    After the war, the US Congress formed a bi-partisan committee to investigate this shameful episode in American history. After an exhaustive inquiry, the committee unanimously concluded that the NKVD had carried out this horrible crime on Stalin's personal order (House Report No. 2505 Concerning the Katyn Forest Massacre, 82nd Cong., 2nd Sess., Dec. 22, 1952). This is an appalling episode in American history demonstrating that Roosevelt had no qualms about rejecting clear facts relating to a horrible atrocity if they interfered with his agenda for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Why does Prof. Brands make no mention of this in his biography?

    President Roosevelt and his inner circle embraced Stalin with an enthusiasm that is inexplicable in view of Stalins's consistent history of mass murders, political purges, extermination of half the officer corps of the Red Army, attacks on his small and helpless neighbors, the arrest, deportation to Siberia, and murder of millions of Poles, Balts and Ukrainians, and the creation of a worldwide organization of espionage and subversion in the name of a pernicious ideology. It is hard to imagine that Roosevelt approved of all these things out of evil motives, but what was he thinking? Unfortunately, the author does not address any of these huge issues. In sum, Prof. Brands biography adds very little to the Roosevelt story and avoids almost all of the warts. If you want to read a sanitized history of FDR with a fairy tale beginning and end, this is the book for you.
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  • Traitor to His Class
    I purchased this book as a Christmas gift for my husband. He has been reading this gift since that day. His opinion is that it is very informative and interesting and will recommend it to anyone....more info
  • Excellent audio book
    I bought this audio book as a Christmas gift for myself. I've been listening to it as I commute to and from work and am thoroughly enjoying it. The reading is well done and the content is very good....more info
  • A Myopic Account of FDR
    H.W. Brands biography is a political biography of FDR during his historic presidency but doesn't pay enough attention to the profound impact of FDR's policies in the decades following his presidency. The New Deal brought unprecedented prosperity to the middle class and economic stability for decades. FDR's skillful foreign policy served America well to win World War Two over Hitler and then make USA the great superpower power for freedom in the second half of the 20th Century. Brands does not go in detail in the decades following FDR's death or cover the disasters caused by Ronald Reagan (written with mocking sarcasm of another review.)

    Reagan, even though he idolized FDR, weakened the regulations of the New Deal in the 1980s, leading to the S&L crisis of the 1980 (costing taxpayers billions), huge deficits, a shrinking middle class, and then the economic collapse of 2008.

    Reagan, even though he emulated FDR's foreign policies in many ways, vigorously supported both Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Talliban Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, and the repressive regimes in the Middle East when Reagan knew what these forces of terror and repression were like. This leaves one wondering whether this author is even aware of the many troubling aspects of the damage that Reagan did to the country by weakening FDR's great work.

    There is little question that FDR was one of our greatest presidents and did a lot of good in leading the country through the Great Depression, to victory in World War II, and then decades of prosperity and a strong U.S. foreign policy. But brands makes no mention of the assault on the New Deal that caused the 2008 economic collapse. Ronald Reagan did a lot of unsavory things, such as appointing many lobbyists to government positons, overruling safety regulations and pollutions standards, causing numerous scandals in the Reagan presidency. Any objective evaluation of the FDR must include at least a discussion of these attacks by conservatives leading to scandals and economic collapse in 2008. By avoiding such unpleasantries.

    Brands' major myopia is a moral one, where he avoids in this 824-page tome any mention of Reagan's staggering moral shortcomings, such as appointing a corporate lobbyist director of the EPA that refused to enforce the rules and then resigned in a scandal, appointing a corporate lobbyist to overrule the government scientists who said the Ford Explorer should be recalled due to rollovers, leading to many deaths. The sharp increase in pollution and children's asthma under Reagan. The raiding of the Treasury by massive tax cuts to the rich and overlooking tax dodging. Reagan began his presidency with a rac-ist kick-off in Philadelphia, Mississippi where civil rights workers in the 1960 were horrifically murdered. Reagan had an uncanny ability to simply ignore, and then laugh off, any "inconvenient truth" that did not suit his plans or course of action. Reagan was a likable president who professed to speak for the common man yet waged war on the middle class and acceptable morals.

    The author either omits entirely virtually every negative aspect of Reagan's life. He makes no mention, for example, of Reagan's being very active with women after his first divorce, so much so that he once woke up with a woman he did not know. Reagan used government agencies to funnel money to his greedy supporters, and Reagan even strongly opposed any efforts to send Apartheid in South Africa. Reagan punished his political enemies through building up forces of greed and exploitation.

    The most glaring omissions from Prof. Brands' biography relate principally to Reagan's generous support of Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East and Saddam Hussein, including arms that were later used to kill many Americans and the creation of the murderous groups that caused 9-11. Reagan had a very fond affection for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Brands refuses to acknowledge the damage that Reagan caused against America's self-defense, so successfully protected by FDR but later hurt due to Reagan's support of Islamic terrorists and Saddam Hussein. Reagan must have known the plain truth of the horrific crimes caused by Islamic terror against their own people and against America, and the forcing of women in much of the Middle East to lead degrading lives as property, covered from head to toe.

    Reagan strongly supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, giving those radicals the weapons later used to wage a horrific reign of terror. He also gave Saddam Hussein's Iraq American support because Iran was the enemy of the USA, even though Reagan know what a tyrant Hussein was. These weapons later killed Americans.
    Reagan also was a strong supporter of communist china, implementing policies that greatly increased the wealth and power of the communists in China despite the fact that Reagan must have known of the millions of people killed by communists in China. Reagan also became a lovie friend of Gorbechev and as he acknowledged himself, tried to negotiate with the tyrants that came before his pal Gorbechev. It thus appears from the hindsight of history that Reagan's personal affinity for communists in China and Islamic Terrorists in the USA, combined with greedy support for weaking the economic regulations in America, led to the mess we are in today because of Reagan.

    Almost from the moment that he started his run for the presidency, Reagan tried to aid the terrorists in the Middle East. With Reagan's help, they achieved a level of barbarity that was unequaled in human history. Certainly Reagan had access to information about the horrendous reigns of terror these people would be capable of, brutally suppressing their own people and then attaching United States on 9-11. And Reagan seems to have had a long-range vision of a partnership between the American Capitalists and the commies in China.

    Horrific famines in China because of the communists carried out as part of the collectivization program under Mao, and Reagan must have known that as embraces commies in China with his free trade policies towards the China commies.

    Our current situation - attacks by Islamic terrorists created by Reagan, Americans killed in Iraq by equipment bought by Reagan, the economic collapse due to Reagan's attach on regulations and love of the commie-capitalist partnership - was caused by Reagan's assault of the many decades of FDR's prosperity and good foreign policy that served America so well under Reagan's well caused this.
    ...more info
  • The best thing that could have happened to us!
    Brand's latest book is among his best. Told in crisp straight forward
    prose the book begins with the personal life of FDR, his mother and his marriage to Eleanor and his affair with Lucy Mercer and the impact that had on his marriage and personal life. The tragedy of polio came upon the young handsome man many considered a lightweight who became consumed by the burdens of the Presidency. Brands book begins with the personal and then in the early 1930s becomes almost a play by play of issues, solutions, failures, as FDR journey's from foremost domestic President to war time President. It is amazing that today his impact, for good or ill, is still debated mostly by those on the right of the political spectrum who see nothing but a shameful legacy. FDR found unacceptable the lassie fair doctrine that sees a world view where the "market" cures all economic ills even if it extracts a human pain as the market adjusts. FDR was an economic pragmatist who indeed saved the market and capitalist system by his understanding that government had to protect and serve the people. The market worked well in theory but FDR understood that market theory depends on "perfect knowledge" which was something the right never talked about if it ever fully understood. The right of the political spectrum in FDR's time was both within his own party in the south and with the Republican free market types. (A conservative Republican party that looks and reacts much the way today's Republicans do.) The idea that FDR was a traitor to his class never really comes into the book until the last where Brands comments, "In the generation that followed, as the American economy continues to thrive and as benefits of American's material fortune rained down on the wealthy even more than on persons of moderate means, the objective and honest of those had once denounced Roosevelt for class betrayal recognized that, in a decade rife with fascists, militarists, and communists abroad and irresponsible demagogues at home, he was the best thing that could have happened to them." I have read only one biography of FDR so it is impossible for me to compare and contrast which might be the best or most comprehensive. All I can say is that Brands has done himself proud with this volume which may be his best work yet....more info
  • an attempt to capitalize on the times
    Don't waste your time. Spend a little more of it to read Conrad Black's better effort....more info
  • Is it necessary?
    I'm not sure if we another book on FDR. No new ground is truly broken here, though it is always enjoyable to read about out greatest president....more info
  • Outstanding FDR Biography
    H.W.Brands new biography of FDR is truly outstanding. Having read several of his books, he remains one of the most readable historians of our day. It is a clear picture of not only FDR and Eleanor's life, it gives a marvelous understanding of the times in which he lived not too dissimilar to ours today. I highly recommend it to those interested in not forgetting the past and how it might impact today....more info
  • This Settles It- Brands Is Great
    Iv'e always been a little doubtful as to whether H.W.Brands is a great popular historian. The guy is a writing machine and his work touches every era of American history. However, Traitor to His Class resolves the issue. Not only is it the best biography of FDR, it is a better history of the depression and WWII than many acclaimed books in those fields. Some historians can't help but treat each event separately; Brands' treatment has a wholistic feel that never lets you forget the urgency of the sick economy or the rapacity of the Axis. The emphasis he imparts to various episodes strike me as both well measured and well said. There are no new insights, but there are observations from characters not usually quoted and excerpts from FDR speeches rarely heard.

    This book is especially revealing at this point in time. As I write, the economy is retracting, a depression is feared and the Bush administration is fumbling its recessitation. Much of the current political commentary is a rehash from Herbert Hoover's time. Brands' book makes you realize how far starboard this nation has drifted in the last 40 years and how little we have learned from the past....more info
  • Not Who You Think He Is
    Well Written History of someone we all think we know but don't. Gives his single minded focus new meaning. Fascinating tale of how he became our wartime president and how he developed his skills. As much a tale of those he encountered around hm and how they contributed to who became....more info
  • Born to Lead
    This is an excellent book: scholarly, insightful, entertaining. One can't help but admire the courageous leader who guided us through the Great Depression and the greatest war in history. FDR overcame polio, which gave him an inner strength and a deeper sensitivity to others. He fought hard for the rights of the average guy, though he certainly never was one. Whether during the depths of the depression or the darkest days of the war, Franklin Roosevelt exuded a genuine confidence which helped to reassure the people of the U.S. He was a natural leader.

    It's kind of sad that FDR had no close friends--no one he could speak with on intimate terms--not even his wife and children. But it was perhaps this trait that allowed him to focus completely on the task at hand. He loved being President.

    H.W.Brands obviously has a great amount of admiration for FDR. My only criticism of the book is that this admiration sometimes borders on worship. FDR wasn't perfect. He had flaws. He would lie, manipulate, and cheat to get his way. Harry Truman once said that one thing he learned about FDR in their short tenure together was that"He lies"--to anyone and everyone if it suited his needs. Brands touches on this a bit, but he never satisfactorily explores this side of FDR. It's an important part of Roosevelt's personality, and it is the main reason why a number of Americans hated him (in my grandparent's house, you weren't even allowed to mention his name).

    I was also somewhat disappointed that Brands didn't deal with Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbianism. He quotes from letters of hers and her friends that seem to indicate there was something more than friendship between them, but he offers no commentary.

    This is an excellent biography, nonetheless, and H.W.Brands must certainly be ranked among our country's elite historians. ...more info