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FDR knew a thing or two, because he’d seen a thing or two

A new biography of our 32nd president (“Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Political Life,” by Robert Dallek), offers us a portrait of a statesman who devoted his life to his country and whose record of service can inspire and instruct us still.

In his fourth inaugural address, on Jan. 20, 1945, FDR summed up his decade-long battle with the isolationists and America Firsters of his era.  We have learned, he said, “that we must live as men, not ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”

Roosevelt’s answer to those who thought we could sit out World War II is quite pertinent to the issues of our day; he’d think climate-change deniers had their heads in the sand, for example, and would argue that the United States both contributed greatly to the problem and has a huge stake in helping redress it. 

‘We cannot live alone, at peace’

In that same inaugural speech, Roosevelt was making the case that the United States must continue to be engaged abroad to help prevent another disastrous conflagration: “We have learned lessons – at a fearful cost – and we shall profit from them. We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our well-being is dependent of other nations far away.”

Roosevelt was pleading for collective security rather than a go-it-alone or retreat-behind-the-moats approach. This concept became the basis for American leadership that ushered in a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for the United States and Canada as well as Europe. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), founded 70 years ago based on the commitment to collective security, has proven to be the most effective and respected political-military alliance in history; like the United Nations, NATO is essentially the realization of Roosevelt’s vision. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Photo by Leon Perskie
Franklin D. Roosevelt
NATO has its flaws, no doubt, among them the sometimes reluctance of individual members to contribute their fair share to the common defense. Critics who dwell on such shortcomings might also note that Europe has taken in millions of refugees and migrants in recent years, severely straining national budgets. Since NATO grew out of recognition that our security could not be separated from Europe’s — a core truth that has not changed — the focus might better be on improving performance, rather than denigrating a hugely successful project. 

Roosevelt on economics

Roosevelt, of course, was not only our great wartime leader, but also the man who guided us through the Great Depression. On domestic matters, too, he has much to teach us. In his second inaugural address, in 1937, he said, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. … 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 to those who have too little.”

We can well imagine what Roosevelt would think of “trickle down economics,” the fact that the richest 1 percent in our country have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, that a half million Americans are homeless and that tens of millions of our fellow citizens live in poverty.  The man whose New Deal helped pull America out of economic misery would have been aghast at such inequities and determined to help correct them. He believed it was the job of government to “provide for the common welfare,” as our Constitution prescribes. For him, government was a necessary and significant part of the solution, not, per President Ronald Reagan, ”the problem.”

Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, having exhausted himself in leading his country through some of the most perilous times in our history. Even while deathly ill, he braved severe war-time conditions to travel to Egypt, Iran and the USSR in pursuit of victory and peace. He put his country — not himself or his party or his ideology — first. Adolf Hitler, who died by suicide less than three weeks after Roosevelt’s death, showed a very different sort of example in leading his country and his Nazi party to disgrace and ruination.

Democracy and the rule of law

The cause: In his historic Gettysburg Address after one of the most decisive battles of our Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked Americans to dedicate themselves to the cause for which the fallen “gave their last full measure of devotion.” That cause was democracy, the rule of law and representative government. As Lincoln put it, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” 

This ideal, for which Roosevelt and Lincoln spoke so eloquently and fought so valiantly, is again being tested today, from within even more than from without. Whether this generation of Americans is up to the challenge — whether our nation can be true to the soaring vision of Lincoln and Roosevelt — remains an open question. 

Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He lives in Plymouth.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/27/2020 - 10:23 am.

    Amen, Mr. Virden. Current national leadership appears to know nothing about the ideals you mention, nor the conditions which helped create those ideals.

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/27/2020 - 12:27 pm.

    Interesting that Bernie Sanders is just an FDR liberal who relishes the antagonization he gets from industrialists/the wealthy/corporations, just as FDR did, while it is clear that corporate media and the leadership of both parties despise him even more than they do Trump, painting him as some kind of beyond-the-pale radical who would destroy the country and take away all our freedoms.

    • Submitted by David Markle on 01/27/2020 - 05:00 pm.

      I like many of Bernie’s positions, but I think he’s far too rigid and uncompromising to make a good president.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/28/2020 - 01:20 pm.

        What does America need then, in the face of climate change, species extinction, increasing plastics and chemicals in the water, eternal war, total surveillance, corporate, bank and billionaire capture of government, epidemics of homelessness, physical and mental ill health and drug addiction, mounting debt relative to growth and epic, expanding income inequality?

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/28/2020 - 04:26 am.

    With his pen, FDR signed executive order 9066, which imprisoned over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent. It was arguably the most shameful and racist executive action of the 20th century. It was finally acknowledged as such by President Reagan, who issued an apology and compensated the victims.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/28/2020 - 09:18 am.

      Nice try. The apology and compensation were part of the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which was signed by President Reagan. It wasn’t his effort alone.

      The bill was opposed by most Republicans in Congress.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/28/2020 - 10:36 am.

        I see you glossed right past FDR’s executive order. This is a column about FDR. What did he sign?

        The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 stated that government actions had been based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” as opposed to legitimate security concerns.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/28/2020 - 11:01 am.

          Yes, and it was a shameful thing, a horrible blot on FDR’s legacy. If there were such a thing as a posthumous court martial, the Army officers who fed him the false intelligence that he based the order on should be the first in line.

          As you note, the column is about FDR and not the heroic acts of St. Ronald of Burbank.He did not, contrary to what you implied earlier, right a historic wrong all on his lonesome. By the time he signed the law, his mental decline was already observable, so he may not have been aware of what he was being told to sign.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/28/2020 - 08:34 pm.

            Perhaps FDR was in mental decline when he signed that executive order. Under his leadership as Commander in Chief, the entire west coast was declared a “military zone”.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/28/2020 - 11:50 am.

    “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
    Looks like FDR had this in mind, not sure we see that in the senate or the WH right now.

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