On April 12, 1946—the first anniversary of the passing of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—the progressive writer and editor Max Lerner published a column titled simply “FDR: The People Remember.”In it, Lerner wrote: “A few days ago, when it had become clear that the whole nation would observe the first anniversary of FDR’s death … the New York Daily News [which had always hated FDR] published a griping editorial. Why, it asked, should Americans be observing both Roosevelt’s birthday and his death-day? Even for Washington and Lincoln one observance day was enough. Why should this fellow rate two?”
The answer,” Lerner replied, “is that the people remember in their own way.” And recalling how the late president had rallied Americans to fight, first, the Great Depression and, then, Fascism, Lerner spoke of how they might well be remembering their late president:
“They remember the collapse of an economy in 1929, the pathetic inaction of the men who boasted themselves the leaders of America, the Hoovervilles, the bread lines, the farmers’ riots, the bonus march, the battle of Anacostia Flats, the blank and fearful despair of the world’s greatest nation…
“They remember the crippled man to whom they turned for leadership … They remember his words: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ and the succession of crisis measures that came with the staccato authority of communiqués from a battlefield. They remember the hope that began surging back into their hearts, the sense that whatever mistakes might be made, America had found its greatness again.”
Lerner then spoke in equally moving terms of how they were probably recalling FDR’s wartime leadership:
“They remember the looming shadow of fascist power; the man who recognized the enemy for what it was, and sought against heartbreaking odds to educate a whole people out of their dream of peace and security to the awareness of danger…
“They remember the news of Pearl Harbor, the nation that overnight found itself knit together… the civilian who was their commander-in-chief and picked the generals who held in their hands the destinies of all the young Americans …
“They remember the day when the continental wall was breached, and we knew victory would be ours … And they remember the spring day when the news came that he would no longer be with them to lead their victories and shoulder part of their burdens …”
I cite Lerner’s column not to validate our own efforts at marking both Franklin Roosevelt’s birth on January 30 and his passing on April 12—but rather, I do so because of the question it poses to us who were not there in the 1930s and 1940s, to us who neither elected FDR to be president four times, nor served as “Soil Soldiers” in the CCC, GIs in the military, Rosie the Riveters in a war plant, nor, as volunteers with the Red Cross or USO, to us who have only heard the stories, read the books, and seen the movies.
That question is: “How and what do we remember of FDR?”—and for that matter—“How and what do we remember of the men and women whom we have come to call the Greatest Generation?”
Those of us who live in the long, long shadow of that president, of that generation, and of all that they accomplished: How and what do we remember?
It is a critical question, for as the political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams once observed, “A people’s memory sets the measure of its political freedom.”
Clearly, we do not fail to remember: We have erected two magnificent FDR memorials, one in Washington, D.C., and one in New York City. And we have built a great monument on the National Mall to those who fought in World War II.
And yet, for all of the memorials, books, films, documentaries, and public gatherings, we are failing to remember the most significant thing—arguably, the most democratic and inspiring thing—the very thing that we now most need to remember.
Now—when all that they fought for is under siege and we, too, find ourselves confronting forces that threaten the nation and all that it stands for—we are failing to remember what made FDR and the Greatest Generation truly great.
Yes, we remember that they rescued the United States from economic destruction in the Great Depression and defended it against Fascism in the Second World War. And yes, we remember that they went on to turn the nation into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth.
However, at the cost of not only their memory and legacy, but also our own shared possibilities, we are failing to remember that they did all of that—against fierce antidemocratic opposition and despite their own terrible faults and failings—by making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before in the process.
Indeed, we are forgetting what they themselves came to see all the more clearly in the course of saving the nation from economic ruin and political oblivion: that the only way to truly defend, secure, and sustain American democratic life is to progressively enhance it.
Franklin Roosevelt—who knew American history—who believed in America’s historic purpose and promise—and who had extraordinary confidence in his fellow citizens—came to know that truth even before they elected him their president. And he firmly believed that they knew it, too. In fact, he had learned about it not just from his reading of U.S. history, but also from his fellow Americans, especially, with Eleanor’s assistance, from working people, men and women, rural and urban, immigrant and native-born.
It was that knowledge, that belief, and that confidence, which gave him the strength and courage—in the face of the worst economic and social catastrophe in American history—to state in 1930, “There is no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation;” to call in the 1932 presidential campaign for not only a New Deal, but also a “new economic declaration of rights;” and to declare in 1935 that “Democracy is not a static thing … It is an everlasting march.”
Moreover, Roosevelt was right: His fellow Americans did recognize it, too—and they responded to his words and initiatives with energy, enthusiasm, and determination.
Together, President and People severely tested each other, made terrible mistakes and regrettable compromises, and suffered tragic defeats and disappointments. However, challenging each other to live up to their finest ideals and aspirations, they advanced them further than either had expected or even imagined possible.
They not only rejected authoritarianism. They also redeemed the nation’s promise by initiating revolutionary changes in American government and public life and radically extending American freedom, equality, and democracy.
Through a host of alphabet-soup agencies and associations—from the SEC, the CCC, and the WPA, to the CIO, the AYC, and the NAACP—they subjected big business to public account and regulation; empowered government to address the needs of working people and established a social security system; organized labor unions, consumer campaigns, and civil-rights groups and broadened and leveled the “We”in “We the People;” built schools, post offices, and parks, expanded the public infrastructure with new roads, bridges, and dams, and improved the American landscape and environment; cultivated the arts and refashioned popular culture; and in so doing, imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes, and aspirations.
All of which propelled the president—even as the Great Depression continued to haunt the nation and the armies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan threatened to overrun the world east and west—to not only profess that “I do not look upon these United States as a finished product. We are still in the making;” to not only declare that “A true patriotism urges us to build an even more substantial America where the good things of life may be shared by more of us, where the social injustices will not be encouraged to flourish;” and to not only proclaim that “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”It also propelled him to articulate Americans’ grandest strivings past and present in a promise of four fundamental freedoms.
In his 1941 State of the Union message—after rallying Americans to turn the United States into the “Arsenal of Democracy”and making it very clear that the defense of the nation called not for giving up what they had struggled so hard to achieve, but for strengthening “democratic life in America” by building upon those achievements—Roosevelt said, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: The first is freedom of speech and expression ... The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way …The third is freedom from want ... The fourth is freedom from fear …”
The vision was international. But Roosevelt rooted it firmly in American experience and aspiration. As he explained, “Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual, peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly, adjusting itself to changing conditions without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.”
And, as ever, Americans did not fail him or themselves.
In the name of democracy and the “Four Freedoms,” 16,000,00 of them were to put on uniforms and pursue a global struggle we would come to call the “Good War”—not for the character of the combat, but for the rightness of the cause and the unity of purpose in which the nation pursued it.
With their allies, Americans would storm beaches, slog through jungles, tramp across icy fields, sail through submarine-infested waters, fly missions over heavily fortified territories, and punch, push, claw, and ultimately power their way to victory.
At the same time, their fellow Americans would not only pray for their safe return, but also—in their tens of millions—go “All Out!”to provide the arms and materiel required for victory and to protect and improve what they were defending.
Once again, President and People were to test each other, make sorry mistakes and compromises, and suffer serious defeats and disappointments.
Yes, racism sorely marked the war effort—a racism that produced a Jim-Crow segregated military; a racism that interned Japanese Americans; a racism that instigated deadly urban riots.
Nevertheless, believing in the nation’s historic purpose and promise—and refusing to be defined by that racism—American people of color would serve heroically in every phase of the war effort.
And in all their diversity, Americans not only prevailed over their Nazi, Fascist and Imperial enemies, but also once again compelled each other to progressively enhance American democratic life in the process.
Conservatives and reactionaries did their damnedest to deny the promise of the Four Freedoms—to the point of even trying to deny overseas GIs the right to vote!
But despite that opposition, President and People expanded the labor, consumer, and civil-rights movements; subjected industry and the marketplace to greater public control; reduced inequality and poverty; and on every front of the war effort further transformed the meaning of the “We” in “We the People.”
Moreover, they looked forward to pursuing new liberal and social-democratic initiatives at war’s end: 83 percent of Americans wanted to expand Social Security to include national healthcare; 90 percent favored joint planning by “government, business, and labor …to do away with unemployment after the war;” 73 percent supported launching New-Deal-style public works projects to provide jobs after the war; and the same 73 percent favored a policy in which the federal government would actually “guarantee” a job to those needing one.
Empowered by those hopes and aspirations, Roosevelt proceeded to propose in his 1944 State of the Union Address that the nation enact not only a GI Bill of Rights for the homecoming veterans, but also a Second Bill of Rights—an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans—to make the promise of the Four Freedoms all the more real. As he presented it, this Second Bill of Rights would include the right to a job with a living wage; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to health care; the right to security in old age; and the right to a good education.
But it was not to happen—for as much as an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted it, a right-wing congressional coalition opposed it.
And yet that coalition could not block the enactment of the famous GI Bill—a massive social-democratic program that was to enable 12,000,000 veterans to progressively transform themselves and their country for the better.
President Roosevelt passed away on this day in 1945. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan surrendered in the months that followed. But the promise of the Four Freedoms did not expire. Even as the United States began to “take off” in an unprecedented economic expansion and enter into a “Cold War” struggle with the Soviet Union, most Americans set out to make that promise all the more real.
But not everyone. Conservatives, reactionaries, and corporate bosses had their own ambitions for postwar America—and they spared no expense in trying to secure them.
Still, for all of their efforts and expenditures, they could not get Americans to forget or forsake their hard-won victories or the promise that encouraged them. In fact, as Americans continued to make their nation ever stronger and more prosperous, they also pushed freedom, equality, and democracy forward.
Never as quickly or as completely as some wished, but always forward.
Picking up where they had left off in 1941, they built new communities, churches, schools, and civic associations; secured even higher living standards for themselves and their families; and—when they were seriously challenged in the ’60s to live up to the promise that so many of them had struggled to articulate and advance—they recommitted the nation to doing so.
The power of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms endured.
Those who marched for civil rights, campaigned to end poverty, organized public employee unions, pushed to enact health care for the elderly and poor, demanded equal rights for women, reformed the nation’s immigration law, expanded public education and the arts, pressed for regulating business and industry to protect the environment, workers, and consumers, and protested the Vietnam War, did not regularly recite those freedoms. But they were not only inspired and informed by the struggles and achievements of the President and the People who first proclaimed and fought for those Four Freedoms. They were also called to act anew by military and civilian veterans of that fight in the ’30s and ’40s—from Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, to labor leaders, civil rights activists, feminists, and environmentalists such as A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Jerry Wurf, Tony Mazzocchi, Cesar Chavez, Ella Baker, Betty Friedan, Rachel Carson, and Barry Commoner.
Undeniably, after more than 30 years of subordinating the public good to corporate priorities and private greed, of subjecting ourselves to widening inequality and intensifying insecurities, of denying our own democratic impulses and yearnings—and now especially, when our democratic rights are under constant assault—the “Age of Roosevelt” and the progressive pursuit of the Four Freedoms can seem a very long time ago.
But ask yourselves: Do we not embrace the promise of the Four Freedoms? Do we not feel the democratic impulse that our parents and grandparents passed on to us? And do we not yearn to do as they did: enable America to “find its ‘greatness’ again”?
Of course we do. And yet, we seem to have forgotten how to do it. So, we need to remember: We need to remember who we are.
We need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who—inspired and encouraged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—rescued the United States from economic destruction in the Great Depression and defended it against fascism and imperialism in the Second World War.
We need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who not only saved the nation from economic ruin and political oblivion, but also turned it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth.
And most of all, we need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who accomplished all of that by harnessing the powers of democratic government and making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.
But we need to do more than remember. And here I turn again to Max Lerner.
In July 1948, just two years and a bit after he penned “FDR: The People Remember,” Lerner wrote a column titled “The Waste of History.”
With the memory of the previous 15 years still fresh—but now worried about not just the rightwing political reaction he saw corrupting the nation, but also the failure of liberals and progressives to deal with it—he said, “The creative capacity itself seems to have gone out of American political life.”
Lerner was not about to give up his democratic hopes, for as he observed: “What we did once we can resume.”
But he seriously lamented what he saw happening. “The tragedy,” he observed, “lies in the waste of our experience, in the waiting while all the old blunders are committed over again.”
Happily, it would turn out that our parents and grandparents were not about to waste their history. Sadly, however, it looks like we are doing just that.
So, we need not simply to remember. We also need to act.
We need to do what President Roosevelt and our parents and grandparents did to defend, sustain, and secure American democratic life. We need to enhance it. Or as FDR put it back in 1930: We need to make America “fairly radical for a generation.”