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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 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.

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.”

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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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