Roosevelt's Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party

by Susan Dunn




-The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010; Illustrated

Winner of the Adams Prize, awarded by the Society for History in the Federal Government:

Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History

In his first term in office, Franklin Roosevelt helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression with his landmark programs. In November 1936, every state except Maine and Vermont voted enthusiastically for his reelection. But then the political winds shifted. Not only did the Supreme Court block some of his transformational experiments, but he also faced serious opposition within his own party. Conservative Democrats such as Senators Walter George of Georgia and Millard Tydings of Maryland allied themselves with Republicans to vote down New Deal bills.

Susan Dunn tells the dramatic story of FDR’s unprecedented battle to drive his foes out of his party by intervening in Democratic primaries and backing liberal challengers to conservative incumbents. Reporters branded his tactic a “purge”—and the inflammatory label stuck. Roosevelt spent the summer months of 1938 campaigning across the country, defending his progressive policies and lashing out at conservatives. Despite his efforts, the Democrats took a beating in the midterm elections.

The purge stemmed not only from FDR’s commitment to the New Deal but also from his conviction that the nation needed two responsible political parties, one liberal, the other conservative. Although the purge failed, at great political cost to the president, it heralded the realignment of political parties that would take place in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. By the end of the century, the irreconcilable tensions within the Democratic Party had exploded, and the once solidly Democratic South was solid no more. It had taken sixty years to resolve the tangled problems to which FDR devoted one frantic, memorable summer.

Read Peter Baker's New York Times article about Roosevelt's Purge, October 22, 2017

Read the Review in Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2010

Watch Susan Dunn discussing Roosevelt's Purge on C-Span, June 18, 2011

Watch the Youtube video about the book jacket, 2010

Read the Review in Publishers Weekly, October 2010

Read the Review in The American Prospect, November 2010

Read David Shribman's column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November, 2011

Read the Column in the Dallas Morning News, October 2010

Read the Review in the Journal of American History,
October 2011

 Roosevelt's Purge praised in the Washington Post.
March 24, 2017

Read Column in the Daily Beast on Roosevelt's Purge,
August 18, 2017

"In 1938, when FDR tried to 'purge' conservative members of Congress who were running for reelection, he also hoped to transform the Democratic Party into a more progressive force for change. Dunn's beautifully written, deeply researched book shows how and why he failed to do so. Her history of this pivotal failure has lessons for those in our own time who might wish to do the same."
--James. T. Patterson, author of Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974

"Dunn has brilliantly recreated a fascinating episode in America's past. In the most authoritative, absorbing, and deeply researched account we now have of Roosevelt's intriguing and little-understood battle to remake the Democrats into a more consistently ideological party, Dunn shows how a master politician sought to break the deadlocks of his own time, suggesting many lessons that deserve our urgent attention today."
--Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage and The Conquerors

"How the most masterful presidential politician of the last century badly miscalculated in his bid to impose discipline on his party makes for a richly detailed and riveting narrative in Dunn's superb new book. Hers is a resonant tale for today--a sharp reminder of the ideological and regional barriers confronting any president who harbors the ambition to transform American politics." 
--Bruce Miroff, author of The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party

"Dunn portrays one of the most dramatic episodes in the development of the American party system. FDR's assault on conservative Democrats in the midterm elections initiated changes that would eventually transform the Democratic Party--and American politics. This engagingly written book is must reading for those who wish to probe the deep roots of contemporary partisan rancor."
--Sidney M. Milkis, author of The President and the Parties