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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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And yet, for all of their efforts, this powerful minority could not get Americans to forget their hard-won victories or the promise that encouraged them.  In fact, as Americans continued to make the 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.  They built new communities and new churches, schools, and civic associations.  They secured higher living standards for themselves and their families.  And they not only expanded social security, but also began to enact laws against racial and religious discrimination.  And when they were seriously challenged in the 1960s 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 healthcare for the elderly and poor, demanded equal rights for women, reformed the nation’s immigration law, expanded public education and the arts, pressed for greater regulation of corporate activity to protect the environment, workers, and consumers, and protested the Vietnam War did not regularly recite those freedoms.  But they were inspired and informed by the struggles and achievements of the President and people who first proclaimed, and fought for, them – and were most often called to act anew by veterans of that fight.

Undeniably, the “Age of Roosevelt” and the progressive pursuit of the Four Freedoms can seem a very long time ago.  But even now, after so many years of conservative political ascendancy and concerted class war from above – more than thirty years of deregulating corporate activity, reducing the taxes of the rich, assailing labor unions, shuttering industries, and neglecting the public infrastructure – the democratic legacy of that generation continues to nourish us.  We all live in the long, long shadow of those men and women, of what they did and what they afforded us.  And in the intervening decades, the Four Freedoms and what they encompass have actually broadened.  Pick any area of American life.  The consequences of that generation’s commitment to the promise of those freedoms are evident.  Moreover, our most volatile political and cultural contests often fall precisely along the fault lines of those freedoms. 

All of which renders it all the more remarkable that we do not honor those men and women for their progressive struggles and achievements.  That the right and conservative rich continue, as they always have, to work at delaying, containing, and rolling back that generation’s greatest democratic accomplishments is not remarkable.  But that liberals and leftists have lost their association with that generation is.  How is it that the most celebrated generation in American history is not remembered for its most enduring accomplishment and greatest gift to the nation, the embedding of FDR’s Four Freedoms in the very bedrock of American life?

Excerpted from THE FIGHT FOR THE FOUR FREEDOMS: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great by Harvey J. Kaye. Copyright 2014 by Harvey J. Kaye. Published by Simon & Schuster.

[i] Roosevelt, “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1933, in PPAFDR – Volume Two, The Year of Crisis, 1933, p. 11 and “’We are Fighting to Save a Great and Precious Form of Government for Ourselves and the World’ – Acceptance of the Renomination for the Presidency,” June 27, 1936, in PPAFDR – Volume Five, The People Approve 1936, p. 235.

[ii] Roosevelt, “The Annual Message to Congress,” January 6, 1941, in PPAFDR – 1940 Volume: War and Aid to Democracies, p. 663.