On the Campaign Trail, a Month Before Being Elected President, Franklin Roosevelt Urges An Old Friend Always to Be Frank With Him

“Please be honest with me whenever you have any criticism to make.”.

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He is so busy, “Things are moving too rapidly…”

Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination for President by the Democratic Convention in Chicago in July 1932 led to one of the momentous campaigns in American political history. Saddled with responsibility for the Depression, President Hoover would have been vulnerable to almost any opponent in 1932. ...

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On the Campaign Trail, a Month Before Being Elected President, Franklin Roosevelt Urges An Old Friend Always to Be Frank With Him

“Please be honest with me whenever you have any criticism to make.”.

He is so busy, “Things are moving too rapidly…”

Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination for President by the Democratic Convention in Chicago in July 1932 led to one of the momentous campaigns in American political history. Saddled with responsibility for the Depression, President Hoover would have been vulnerable to almost any opponent in 1932.  FDR’s advisors were unanimous in urging him to play it safe and wage a front porch campaign; his running mate, John Nance Garner, told him, “All you have got to do is stay alive until election day.”

But from his first political venture in upstate New York, FDR had personally exulted in active campaigning, and was not one to shirk a fight and seek safety. In 1932 he felt the times and the mood of the country required no less than an energetic, forthright campaign. Accordingly he campaigned the length and breadth of the land, carrying his message into 41 states and making a score of major addresses as well as hundreds of whistle-stop appearances.  It was the most active presidential campaign to that time.

Commander George C. Sweet was a U.S. Navy officer significant in promoting the early use of aircraft by the Navy. In September 1908, then-Lieutenant Sweet, serving as a Naval observer, reported favorably on the Wright Brothers airplane demonstration at Fort Meyer, near Washington, D.C. In 1909 Sweet was taken up with the Wright Brothers first Army flyer, becoming the first Navy officer to travel in an airplane. Sweet was then assigned to the Navy’s school for airplane instruction, and was thereafter a Navy engineer in Washington, specializing in steam engines. In early 1919 Sweet was named assistant to the Naval Attache at the American embassy in Paris, a particularly plum posting as the peace conference to end World War I was being carried on in Versailles.

Franklin D. Roosevelt followed in his cousin’s footsteps to fame by serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920. He was a prime advocate of naval aviation, and against strong opposition is credited with preserving the Navy’s air arm from demobilization after World War I. He surely met Sweet in his capacity of promoting naval aviation. Roosevelt was called to Paris to join President Wilson at the Versailles Conference in January 1919. According to the Sweet descendants, FDR and Commander Sweet forged a friendship onboard ship, clearly indicating that the two men were passengers on the USS George Washington together in 1919, though whether on the sailing in January or return in July (or both) is not known.

Roosevelt was a careful man, aware that his statements must be made guardedly to avoid giving aid and opportunity to his political enemies. His public correspondence was generally drafted by aides, and was measured, serious, deliberate and discreet. However, the private FDR was outgoing, humorous and frank, the life of the party, and when he corresponded with those he could trust, this side could show through. Sweet was such a man, and his letters to Sweet are in FDR’s own voice, and filled with humor and interesting allusions. We recently obtained, directly from the Sweet descendants, the entirety of FDR’s letters to Sweet. Their closeness carried on through the 1920s and 1930s, only ceasing when the cares and tribulations of FDR in World War II, and his ill health, forced him to dramatically cut back his personal correspondence.

On October 10, FDR was preparing for a radio address to the nation during which he would say that under his administration, the Federal government would take an active role in relief efforts: “I am very certain that the obligation extends beyond the States and to the Federal Government itself if and when it becomes apparent that States and communities are unable to take care of the necessary relief work.” On that day he paused to write Sweet.

Typed letter signed, on Executive Mansion letterhead, Albany, NY, October 10, 1932, to Sweet, saying how busy he is, and indicating that regardless of attaining the highest office in the land, Sweet should always speak to him frankly. “I have had to read your letter serially, but then that was the manner in which you wrote it. I can assure you, however, that it did not take me a month to get through it, even though it took you a month to compose it! Seriously, I am very sorry to hear that illness and similar difficulties have troubled you during the last few weeks. It was very good of you to carry me on your mind in view of your own aches and pains. I hope that these have by now subsided and that you were feeling quite yourself again.

“Things are moving too rapidly, I am sorry to say, for me to stop and talk over with you on paper the various events of the last few weeks. I am delighted to know that you liked my speeches so much, but I am afraid you are rather prejudiced in my favor. Please be honest with me whenever you have any criticism to make. If I had time to think about business matters these days, I should not dare to indulge in any widening of my present financial interests. What you describe sounds perfectly fascinating and I hope that it will work out as well as you anticipate. Tell that mother of yours not to interfere with your letter writing proclivities. I am sure, however, that secretly she regards your comments as of the most vital importance and is sure that I should follow what you say in every particular. And I don’t think she is so far wrong!”

This is the first letter of Roosevelt we can recall seeing in which, on the verge of the presidency, he urges someone to keep telling him the truth regardless. It reveals an excellent personality trait, and says a lot about the man. FDR was not looking for sycophants.

On November 8, Roosevelt won 42 of 48 states, an electoral vote margin of 472 to 59, and a popular vote of 22.8 million to Hoover’s 15.7 million. He became the 32nd President of the United States.

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