Ken Burns got FDR and Josephus Daniels' relationship wrong

Published September 28, 2014

by Rob Christensen, News and Observer, September 27, 2014.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt, the rich, arrogant New Yorker, first met the only boss he would ever have, Raleigh’s Josephus Daniels, he was not impressed.

“When I first knew him,” FDR wrote, “he was the funniest looking hillbilly I had ever seen.”

As assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR would often take a dismissive attitude toward Daniels, his superior. FDR would make fun of Daniels’ old-style clothes, his teetotaling ways, his backwoods Methodism, and would suggest that he was really running the Navy, not the old man.

Unfortunately, that is the viewpoint adopted by Ken Burns in his otherwise praiseworthy series, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” that aired this month on PBS.

As a result, the documentary provides an unbalanced view of the Roosevelt/Daniels relationship, says Lee Craig, an economics historian at N.C. State University, who recently wrote a splendid biography, “Josephus Daniels, His Life and Times.”

Daniels, the editor/owner of The News and Observer, was appointed secretary of the Navy in 1913 as a reward for helping elect Woodrow Wilson president. (The Daniels family owned The N&O until 1995.)

A mentor’s role

It was Daniels who picked FDR, a Democratic New York state legislator who was the cousin of former President Theodore Roosevelt, and offered him the job as his assistant, despite the reservations of some that FDR would try to take over the department.

But Daniels felt secure enough to have a famous, high-powered assistant, writes Craig. “A chief who fears that an assistant will outrank him is not fit to be chief,” Daniels once wrote.

Craig said the documentary producers based their view of Daniels on FDR’s negative comments that undercut his boss. But the documentary largely ignored FDR’s later remarks about how Daniels taught him to negotiate the treacherous politics of Washington, which were dominated by Southern committee chairmen.

Years later, referring to Daniels, FDR told Rexford G. Tugwell, “Rex, this is a man who taught me a lot that I needed to know.” For the rest of his life, FDR would refer to Daniels as “chief,” while Daniels referred to FDR as “Franklin.” When elected president, FDR would appoint Daniels ambassador to Mexico.

“The producers chose to play up the tensions in their relationship, FDR’s and Josephus Daniels’ relationship, rather than the role of mentor and mentee,” Craig said. “Later in life FDR clearly recognized that.”

Wept at WWI

The documentary, Craig said, also glossed over the significant policy differences regarding the U.S. entry into World War I.

FDR and former President Theodore Roosevelt both strongly supported U.S. entry into the war on the side of Great Britain. The documentary emphasizes Germany’s neutrality violations, particularly its submarine warfare, Craig said. But it ignores England’s violation of international law – its blockade of Germany – and FDR’s proposal to lay land mines, which were also illegal.

Daniels took a more evenhanded approach between England and Germany and was much more reluctant for America to enter World War I, Craig said. The documentary portrays that as weakness, and notes that Daniels wept when he finally decided to support the war.

But FDR and Teddy Roosevelt might have wept as well if they knew what World War I would bring – the rise of Nazi Germany, communist Russia, and a torn Middle East that has yet to mend, not to mention the loss of millions of young lives.