On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just three months into his fourth term and only 63 years old, passed away in Warm Springs, Georgia. Asked to provide a short eulogy for nationwide broadcast, Pultizer Prize winning playwright Robert Sherwood, who had joined FDR’s White House team in 1940 and directed the Overseas Division of the Office of War Information in 1942-44, wrote: “To those of us who knew and loved the President … the greatest memory we hold today is the memory of his indomitable good humor—his indomitable courage—his love for our country, his faith in our country…” It was that love and that faith, Sherwood stated, which not only enabled Roosevelt to confront the crises of economic depression and war without fear or hesitation, but also made him “one with every man who has fought for our country.” Indeed, Sherwood said: “There wasn’t a moment … when he wasn’t spiritually on the front line with the men who were fighting for freedom.” And finally, after urging Americans to honor their fallen president by “pledging renewed and increased devotion to the country and cause which he served so valiantly and for which he gave his life,” Sherwood declared: “We do not surrender to Death, as we would not surrender to the Nazis or Japanese. We continue to stand up and fight for our country and our cause. We continue to fight for Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear.”
In the course of his twelve years as President, FDR had rallied Americans to fight the Great Depression and then Fascism. In the 1930s, he inspired, encouraged, and empowered them to redeem the nation’s promise and possibilities by taking up the labors and struggles of relief, recovery, reconstruction and reform known as the New Deal. Together, president and people severely tested each other, made mistakes and regrettable compromises, and suffered defeats and disappointments. But challenging each other to live up to their finest ideals, they ended up beating the Depression and advancing those ideals further than either had expected or even imagined possible.
Confronting fierce opposition from the right and conservative rich, they not only rejected authoritarianism, but also initiated revolutionary changes in American government and public life and radically extended American freedom, equality, and democracy. They subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, broadened and leveled the “We” in “We the People,” established a social security system, expanded the nation’s public infrastructure, improved the environment, cultivated the arts, refashioned popular culture, and—while much remained to be done—imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes, and aspirations.
Then, in January 1941, when Roosevelt knew that a generation’s “rendezvous with destiny” had arrived, he put into words—the words of the Four Freedoms—all that Americans had been striving for not just since 1933 but, no less, since 1776. And once again President and People mobilized.
To beat the Axis Powers—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan—they turned the United States into the Arsenal of Democracy and themselves into Citizen Soldiers, workers in the War Effort, and volunteers on the Home Front. But even as they did so, they continued to press for greater freedom, equality, and democracy. Once again, President and people severely tested each other, made terrible mistakes and regrettable compromises, and suffered tragic defeats and disappointments. And yet, once again, they not only took up the necessary fight, but also, as they had in the 1930s, compelled each other to enhance American democratic life in the process. Despite continuing conservative opposition, they expanded the labor, consumer, and civil-rights movements, subjected industry and the marketplace to greater public control, reduced inequality and poverty, and further transformed the “We” in “We the People.” Moreover, they embraced new initiatives—such as the GI Bill—to rebuild the nation, and expand freedom, equality, and democracy, at war’s end and they looked forward to making the Four Freedoms all the more real by enacting the social-democratic “Economic Bill of Rights” that FDR himself called for in 1944.
Roosevelt’s death shocked Americans. One Detroit woman exclaimed: “It doesn’t seem possible. It seems to me that he will be back on the radio tomorrow, reassuring us all that it was just a mistake.” And Pfc. Lester Rebuck, a medic with the 104th Infantry Division, told a journalist in Paris: “It was just like somebody socked me in the stomach when I wasn’t looking. I just couldn’t get it through my head he was really dead.”
The nation grieved. But the people Roosevelt had led for twelve years were not about to fall to pieces. His presidential legacy was not simply a personal one. It was also a democratic one. Sounding every bit the American that FDR himself had so admired, Private Rebuck quickly went on to say: “For my money, that guy was one of the greatest guys that ever lived. You can put him next to Lincoln or Washington or anybody.” Noting the diversity of the mourners who lined the funeral procession’s route through Washington, Nation columnist I.F. Stone reflected: “Somehow we pulled through before, and somehow we’ll pull through again. In part it was luck. In part it was Mr. Roosevelt’s leadership. In part it was the quality of the country and its people. I don’t know about the rest of the four freedoms, but one thing Mr. Roosevelt gave the United States in one crisis after another… was freedom from fear.” And the GI editors of Yank wrote, “If Franklin Roosevelt’s hopes and dreams are deep enough in the hearts and minds of the people, the people will make them come true.”
Just weeks after FDR’s passing, Hitler committed suicide and Nazi Germany surrendered. The struggle continued in Asia and the Pacific. But on May 8, Americans and their allies celebrated V-E Day. That same night, CBS broadcast On A Note of Triumph, a play that the great radio writer and producer Norman Corwin had prepared specifically for that long-awaited and hard-fought-for moment. Its opening lines clearly voiced the popular exultation:
So they’ve given up. They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse. Take a bow, G.I., Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon. This is It, kid, this is The Day, all the way from Newburyport to Vladivostok. You had it what it took and you gave it, and each of you has a hunk of rainbow‘round your helmet. Seems like free men have done it again.
Many more Americans were still to die in liberating the Philippines and in taking Okinawa and it looked like the struggle might go on for many months to come. But suddenly, on August 14, after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Imperial Japan, too, finally gave up. And on September 2, 1945, the war was officially over.
Soon—though not soon enough for all concerned—the troops started returning to America, and they were welcomed home as heroes. But they themselves knew otherwise.
Every son of a World War II combat veteran remembers the silence they met when, years later, they asked their fathers about “the war.” We all got the same response: “The real heroes never came home.”
Americans had sailed on every kind of warship from destroyers and aircraft carriers to submarines and minesweepers; they had flown bombers, fighters, and gliders; and they had driven tanks, trucks, and jeeps. They had built roads, bridges, buildings, and docks, hauled men and goods, and landed on and battled their way on foot, and many times on their bellies, through every imaginable—for many, previously unimaginable—landscape and climate. And they had tended the wounded and buried the dead. Not all saw combat, but many did, and the sacrifices were great—more than 400,000 never made it home and of those who did 800,000 had been wounded or injured. Many millions more had labored in factories, fields, shipyards, offices, and every mode of transport to produce and deliver the weapons and supplies to make victory possible. Here, too, the costs were tremendous—300,000 lost their lives on the job and 1,000,000 suffered some permanent disability.
Yes, the world needed radical reconstructing. Yes, the powers and profits of capital had grown. Yes, racism and segregation persisted. And yes, there were those both in and out of Congress who were eager not just to “file away the Four Freedoms with the Ten Commandments,” but also to erase any and all references to the idea of an Economic Bill of Rights and to halt, if not reverse, the democratic advances of the past twelve years.
Nevertheless, Americans had transcended the Great Depression, destroyed their enemies, and liberated millions. Moreover, they had done it all, contrary to the dire predictions of conservatives and isolationists, without turning their own democracy into a dictatorship. Indeed, against the ambitions and efforts of so many of the former, Americans had not only sustained the nation’s democratic life, but also continued to make the United States freer, more equal, and more democratic in the process. Regulating capital and the economy, they had made the commonwealth richer, and progressively transformed the “We” in “We the People.” Working people were better off, better organized, and all the more conscious of what they could accomplish. Blacks and Latinos, too, were better off, better organized, and more determined to lay claim to their rights as citizens. And women had stepped into every realm of public life and proved themselves indispensable to both winning the war and improving the state of the nation.
Our fathers and mothers and their generation have come down to us over time as the greatest generation and surely their achievement was as great as any generation of Americans. Nonetheless, the superlative justly attaches to them not because of the clarity of the evil they confronted, but because of the purpose with which they fought, bled, and died. An overwhelming percentage of adult Americans were swept up not just in four years of war, but in twelve years of struggle across fronts both foreign and domestic. Measuring their accomplishments in beachheads and battles won has become the easier work of later generations. However, the generation that actually engaged those struggles so successfully kept a different yardstick.
Mobilized by Roosevelt, the Americans of the New Deal and Second World War had fought, labored, and sacrificed in the name of democracy and the Four Freedoms. Those who died in the struggle could not speak. But their fellow citizens—especially the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who had fought alongside them—surely heard them. Given just one night to prepare a program for nationwide broadcast on the evening of the Japanese surrender, Corwin composed a “message of victory” titled simply 14 August. And he closed it with these words: “Remember them when July comes round… Remember them in the fall of the year… Remember them in the sleeting months …
They’re dead as clay for the rights of men,
For people the likes of you,
And they ask that we do not fail them again
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. These pages are drawn from his book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster), which appears in a paperback edition this month. Follow him on Twitter.