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

As America struggles with mortal threats to democracy and a deeply unbalanced society, author Harvey Kaye, Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, mines the amazing legacy of Franklin Roosevelt to show the pathway to a more progressive future. In his brand-new book, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster Hardcover) Kaye offers up rich storytelling and a formidable command of history to remind us that with vision and bold action, we have overcome grave challenges in the past — and there is no reason why we can't do it again. Here's an excerpt of Kaye's must-read book for progressives.


We need to remember.  We need to remember what conservatives have never wanted us to remember and what liberals have all too often forgotten. 

Now, after more than thirty years of subordinating the public good to corporate priorities and private greed, of subjecting ourselves to widening inequality and intensifying insecurities, and of denying our own democratic impulses and yearnings, 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 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 – in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, and despite their own faults and failings – by making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.

Now, when all that they fought for is under siege and we too find ourselves confronting crises and forces that threaten the nation and all that it stands for, we need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the most progressive generation in American history.  We are the children of the men and women who articulated, fought for, and endowed us with the promise of the Four Freedoms.

On the afternoon of January 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went up to Capitol Hill to deliver his Annual Message to Congress.  Just weeks earlier, he had defeated Republican Wendell Willkie at the polls and won reelection to an unprecedented third term.  But Roosevelt now faced a far bigger challenge, one even more daunting than those he confronted in his first and second terms.  Still stalked by the Great Depression, the United States was also increasingly threatened by the Axis powers – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan.  And with war already raging east and west, Americans had yet to agree about how to respond to the danger.  The President, however, did not falter.  He not only proceeded to propose measures to address the emergency.  He also gave dramatic new meaning to All men are created equal… Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… We the People of the United States… A new birth of freedom… AND Government of the people, by the people, for the people…

FDR knew about crises.  But he knew as well what Americans could accomplish, even in the darkest of times.  Born in 1882, he had grown up privileged, the son of New York Hudson River gentry.  Yet long before becoming President, he had suffered serious defeats and setbacks, none more devastating than contracting polio in 1921 at the age of thirty-nine.  The disease had left him permanently unable to stand up or walk without assistance.  However, supported by his wife, Eleanor, and other family members and friends, he had risen above the paralysis to become the most dynamic political figure in the United States.  Moreover, his experiences and encounters in the course of doing so had reaffirmed and deepened his already powerful faith and confidence in God, in himself, and in his fellow citizens – all of which had enabled him, in the face of the worst economic and social catastrophes in the nation’s history, to defiantly state that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and to go on to proclaim, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”  Armed with this faith and confidence, and propelled by the popular energies that his words and actions elicited, he determinedly pursued the initiatives of relief, recovery, reconstruction, and reform known as the New Deal.[i]

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:

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 – everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.[iv]

Isolationists denounced the President’s call to turn the United States into the “Arsenal of Democracy” and conservatives rejected his expansive democratic vision.  But most Americans responded otherwise.  They backed the call to action, affirmed the promise pronounced, and in the wake of Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, made “Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear” the nation’s war aims.

In the name of democracy and the “Four Freedoms,” 16 million Americans would 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, they 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 citizens would not only pray for them to return safe and sound, but also go “All Out!” both to provide the arms and materiel required for victory and to protect and improve what those millions were defending.

President and people once again were to test each other, make mistakes and compromises, and suffer defeats and disappointments.  Nonetheless, they not only prevailed over their enemies, but also, as before, compelled each other to enhance American democratic life in the process.  Despite continuing antidemocratic opposition, Americans 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 to expand freedom, equality, and democracy at war’s end.

Roosevelt passed away in April 1945.  Germany and Japan surrendered in the months that followed (Italy had done so in 1943).  And yet 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 all Americans.  Not everyone wanted to enhance American democratic life.  Conservatives, reactionaries, and corporate bosses had their own ideas for postwar America.  Determined as ever to reverse the progressive accomplishments of the Roosevelt years and cancel out the promise of the Four Freedoms, they set themselves anew to suppressing if not extinguishing Americans’ democratic aspirations and energies.  And they enjoyed successes.  By the early 1950s, they had tamed liberals, marginalized progressives and radicals, and stymied the democratic campaigns of labor and the civil rights movement – not to mention effectively effaced FDR’s Four Freedoms from public debate.

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.

[iii] Roosevelt first introduced the idea of America as the “Arsenal of Democracy” in a fireside chat radio broadcast on December 29, 1940 (“There Can Be No Appeasement With Ruthlessness…  We Must Be the Great Arsenal of Democracy,” PPAFDR – 1940 Volume, pp. 633-44).

[iv] Ibid., pp. 664-72 (italics added).


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