Bohdan Nahaylo: Ukraine needs a Roosevelt
Ukraine, at various stages in its development as a nation aspiring to freedom, has accentuated the need for the right leader. To deliver it, as the proponents of this cause saw it, to the promised land of independence and democracy.
For the great national poet of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko, who did so much in the 19th century to reawaken national feeling, it was George Washington.
Fifty or more years later, in Lemberg (Lviv), in western Ukraine under the relatively more liberal rule of the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, his worthy successor as poet and tribune, Ivan Franko, called for a latter-day Moses to lead Ukrainians out of the political wilderness.
Since then, depending on one’s politics and situation, other models, have been proposed. For the ultra-nationalists, placing the nation as understood by them above all else, these have included Spain’s General Francisco Franco, or Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet.
Some, who have advocated economic miracles occurring thanks to a ruthless strong political hand forcing them through, have used the example of Singapore, and more recently, China.
But two examples worthy of consideration in Ukraine’s case seem still to have passed unnoticed. Paradoxically, they are both from the superpower that Ukraine not only looks up to as an inspirational success story but relies on to help it withstand the aggression from its eastern neighbor, the rapacious and still militarily powerful, Russia.
I’m referring to the two Roosevelts – Theodore and Franklin – both giants, in their own way.
Unfortunately, even in this age of a supposed global village, social media, Google, and Wikipedia, the average American knows little about Europe and its history and realities, and vice versa. And Ukraine is no exception.
So, it’s worth recalling the basic pertinent facts about these two potential role models.
Yes, American history has given us Washingtons, Jeffersons, Lincolns, and even memorable Kennedys and Reagans. But the two Roosevelts appear to be particularly relevant for Ukraine and the challenges it has been facing during the last thirty years since it achieved independence.
Why? Because each of the Roosevelts identified, and had the courage to address, the major challenges of their time and thereby ensure a more propitious future for their vast and diverse giant of a state. They were prepared to take on formidable forces and entrenched interests and had the ability to get their rationale and messages across, to build a broad foundation of support.
Let’s look at them chronologically, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the 26th president of the US from 1901 to 1909, just as the country was entering the twentieth century and coming to terms with modernity.
A colorful figure, he was born a sickly child, but through willpower and self-discipline established himself as a macho figure, both as a cowboy cattle baron and a war leader active at the front in America’s war with Spain over Cuba.
Before becoming a reformist Republican politician, Teddy, as he was known (though he hated being called this). made it to Harvard, gained some legal education, and established himself as a historian, naturalist, and popular writer.
He is remembered for many achievements, but for our purposes it is his determined struggle against corruption and the American “oligarchs” of his day that is of primary interest.
Roosevelt’s anti-corruption efforts within the New York State assembly got him noticed and established his reputation as a principled champion of what he was to summarize as “a square deal for every man.” In other words, equality and responsibility of all before the law, regardless of their wealth and social standing.
In 1894 he applied this principle in practice in the role of New York City police commissioner, and later as governor of New York.
Roosevelt’s program of the “square deal” has been summarized as “honesty in public affairs, an equitable sharing of privilege and responsibility, and subordination of party and local concerns to the interest of the state at large.”
In 1891, while serving as vice president, his chief, William McKinley was assassinated, and Roosevelt found himself in the role of president.
McKinley’s assassin was an anarchist of Polish descent. He claimed he was drawing attention to the injustice in American society, whereby the rich had been allowed to create a plutocracy by exploiting the poor.
Roosevelt remains the youngest person to become US president. He was 42, the same age as Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky when he won the presidency by a landslide in 2019. The crusading American reformer was elected for a second term in 1904.
Roosevelt understood tough measures were needed. On taking over in Washington, he coined a legendary aphorism: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He summarized his political philosophy as: “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.”
Roosevelt set an early example of zero-tolerance of corruption and was firm about prosecuting misconduct in his administration.
“No man is above the law and no man is below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it,” he declared.
One of his chief objectives was to put an end to the excesses of large corporations, while simultaneously keeping radical movements in check.
Consequently, Roosevelt has gone down in history for, among other things, as a “trust buster.” He, however, preferred to depict himself as a trust regulator.
Big business was essential, in his view, but it could not be allowed to act in the form of monopolies operating outside the law with unchecked economic and political influence.
Roosevelt launched 44 antitrust suits, their targets ranging from oil to railroad giants.
For example, as a result of the momentum he generated in this regard, the Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil should be dismantled for violation of federal antitrust laws. Owned by John Davison Rockefeller Sr., the wealthiest American of all time and the richest person in modern history, it was broken up into 34 separate entities.
Of course, the question here, when considering the applicability of this example to Ukraine’s current situation, is how reliable the judiciary was then and is in today’s Ukrainian situation.
Theodore Roosevelt also deserves credit for in effect inventing the presidential press briefing. He understood the importance of reaching out to the public and getting his messages across.
His distant relative, the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until 1945, was able to build on the achievements of his predecessor. He also sought to maintain direct contact with the American people through the media. He introduced the “fireside chat” radio addresses and was the first American president to be televised.
But FDR, as was he was often referred by his initials, is best remembered for his New Deal policy to extricate the United States from the worse economic crisis in its history.
“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made,” he argued. This is precisely what Hitler was capitalizing on in Germany at that time.
On becoming governor of New York state in 1929, the year of the infamous Wall Street Crash, FDR began to develop and implement his strategy locally. At the same time, he cracked down on corruption among the police and judiciary, and on organized crime.
FDR’s New Deal platform won widespread support from the economically vulnerable and disenfranchised, and liberal intellectuals and he secured 57% of the popular vote in the presidential election of 1932.
In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR, employing a firm hands-on management style, further elaborated a program of measures designed to stimulate relief, recovery and reform. These were accompanied by major regulatory reforms related to finance, communications and labor.
After his re-election in 1936, FDR sought to break through the resistance to his liberal initiatives from the country’s conservative legal establishment, particularly the Supreme Court. A bipartisan conservative Coalition managed to block his attempts to further advance his programs.
Still, the road to recovery had been paved, the Democratic party re-energized with the injection of a concrete reformist strategy, and the face of American politics, economics and social policy transformed.
As a result, under FDR’s leadership, the United States was in a strong position to face the subsequent challenges of World War II – conflict on two fronts, with Japan in Asia and Nazi Germany in Europe – and to look forward to a prosperous future.
So, when examining the situation that Ukraine finds itself today, after 30 years of independence, achievements and squandered opportunities, the two Roosevelts offer worthy examples of what has been missing and what should be done.
Despite the odds against them, the two Roosevelts, managed to achieve much for the good of their country in almost the same relatively short period of fewer than 40 years. In reality, during the first seven to eight years that both were in office, and were able to make a difference before being stymied.
As FDR reminded us: “In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else all go down as one people.” On Aug. 24, this will be worth remembering.