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New Book on FDR Proves That America's Greatest Generation Was Our Most Progressive Generation

It's time to reclaim our rich democratic legacy.

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Together, President and people severely tested each other, made mistakes and regrettable compromises, and suffered defeats and disappointments.  Nevertheless, challenging each other to live up to their finest ideals, Roosevelt and his fellow citizens advanced them further than either had expected or even imagined possible.  Confronting fierce conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, they not only rejected authoritarianism, but also redeemed the nation’s historic purpose and promise by initiating revolutionary changes in American government and public life and radically extending 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, mobilized and 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 and refashioned popular culture, and – while much remained to be done – imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes, and aspirations.

Standing before the American people and their assembled representatives that early January day, the President surely believed their rendezvous with destiny had come.  He told them straightforwardly that Americans were now confronting a “moment unprecedented in the history of the United States” – “unprecedented” because never before had “American security been as seriously threatened from without.”  And he refused to appease those who threatened the nation’s safety or defer to isolationist arguments that the country could avoid war by constructing a “fortress America” behind which it might hide. [ii]

Referring to the Axis powers’ global ambitions, the President stated: “I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events beyond our borders.”  He knew the defense of the United States and everything for which it stood would soon require it to enter the war directly, but he did not then request a declaration of war.  At this moment, he called upon Congress and the people to turn the country into the “Arsenal of Democracy” and to enact a Lend-Lease program that would afford Great Britain and its allies the wherewithal to sustain their struggle against fascist Germany and Italy. [iii]

Yet Roosevelt did not leave it at that.  Counseling that “When the dictators are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part,” he warned against those few selfish citizens who “would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests” and enjoined that “We must all prepare to make the sacrifices that the emergency – almost as serious as war itself – demands.” 

However, convinced that Americans had to equip themselves with not only arms but also “the stamina and courage which come from unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending,” he neither called for giving up, nor for suspending, what the men and women of the Great Depression had recently struggled so hard to achieve.  Far from it.  Instead, he called for strengthening “democratic life in America” by actually enlarging their newly won “social economy,” citing as fundamentals “equality of opportunity for youth and others,” “jobs for those who can work,” “security for those who need it,” “the ending of special privileges for the few,” “the preservation of civil liberties for all…”  And he specifically proposed expanding the “coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance,” providing “opportunities for adequate medical care,” and creating a better system to assure “gainful employment” to all who needed it.

Finally, articulating Americans’ grandest ideals and strivings past and present, Roosevelt defined a cause and a generation: