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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Two Crisis Presidents

For the better part of the last year I have been researching a new book, on the entry of the United States into the Second World War. That project has involved reading virtually every public word uttered by President Roosevelt from the middle of 1940 until the end of 1941, and that has been an extraordinary experience. It has confirmed, to begin with, that FDR intuitively understood his place in history as defined by Strauss and Howe: again and again he compares the age through which the American people are living to the Revolutionary War and Civil War periods and draws analogies between them. The book will focus on foreign policy, but given the similarities between the 1930s and the present day, Roosevelt's speeches inevitably make one wonder whether President Obama, beginning at a similar point of departure, will be able to make similar ones eight years hence. FDR gave a particularly striking speech on November 1, 1940, in Brooklyn, at the end of his campaign against Wendell Willkie for a third term. He had done relatively little campaigning that fall, pleading the pressing business occasioned by the world crisis, and making a pledge never to travel more than twelve hours away from Washington by train, which he kept; but he made a flurry of addresses during the last week, of which this was probably the most notable. Here are some extensive excerpts.

Back in the 20's, in the years after the last World War, Americans worked and built many things, but few of our people then stopped to think why they were working and why they were building and whither they were tending.
Those were the days when prosperity was measured only by the stock ticker.
There were the factory workers forced to labor long hours at low wages in sweat-shop conditions. They could look forward to no security in their old age. They could look forward to no insurance during periods of unemployment.
There were the farmers of the Nation, overburdened with debt and with farm surpluses, their income vanishing, their farms threatened with foreclosure.
There were the natural resources of the land, being wasted-soil, forests, minerals and water power.
There were millions of workers, unable to organize to protect their livelihoods, unable to form trade unions.
There were the small businesses of the Nation, threatened by the monopolies of concentrated wealth.
The savings of the many were entrusted to supposedly great financiers, who were to lose those savings in fantastic adventures of giant holding companies and giant investment trusts.
The crash came as it had to come. And then for three years the American people waited and suffered. For three years the American Government did nothing to help.
In 1933, the American people began to bestir themselves. They had come to learn that inaction offered no escape from the problems of a troubled and changing world.
The American people determined then and there that what could not be done by individual effort could be done through joint effort; that what the industrial and financial leaders could not do, or would not do, a democratic Government could do and would do!
You all know the history of recovery, beginning in 1933, and progressing ever since.
Our economic system began again to function. Then came the suggestion from onopolistic finance that while the Government had done a good rescue job, the best thing it could do at that point was to forget all about it, and to turn the whole economic system back to Wall Street to run again.
But they little knew the temper of the American people. The New Deal was no mere rescue party to restore to a chosen few their old power over the people's savings, the people's labor, the people's lives.
We had seen social unrest at home and abroad— the frustrated hopes of common men and women, the apathy which is the forerunner of cynicism, the despair which dissolves civilization. What this Administration was determined to do was to save America from that frustration and from that despair.
We all remember how negligible was the opposition that this Administration met in the early days when it was cleaning up the wreckage, which had come from the era of speculation.
The bitter opposition from Republican leaders did not come until a little later. It came when this Administration made it clear that we were not merely salvaging a few things from the past, but that we were determined to make our system of private enterprise and private profit work more efficiently, more democratically, to fill the demands and needs of all the people of this land.
We understand the philosophy of those who offer resistance, of those who conduct a counter offensive against the American people's march of social progress. It is not an opposition which comes necessarily from wickedness—it is an opposition that comes from subconscious resistance to any measure that disturbs the position of privilege.
It is an unfortunate human failing that a full pocketbook often groans more loudly than an empty stomach.
I am, as you know, a firm believer in private enterprise and in private property. I am a firm believer in the American opportunity of men and women to rise in private enterprise.
But, of course, if private opportunity is to remain safe, average men and women must be able to have it as a part of their own individual satisfaction in life and their own stake in democracy.
With that in view, we have pushed ahead with social and economic reforms, determined that this period in American life should be written down as an heroic era—an era in which men fought not merely to preserve a past, but to build a future.
You and I have seen nations great and small go down in ruin, or get backed up against the wall, because the reactionary men who led them could not see the real danger that threatened. They were afraid of losing their own selfish privilege and power. They feared the legitimate forward surge of their own common people, more than they feared the menacing might of foreign dictators.
From them, we in the United States take warning.
Most Republican leaders in our own country for the last seven years have bitterly fought and blocked that forward surge of average men and women in their pursuit of happiness. And let us not be deluded that overnight those leaders have suddenly become the real friends of these average men and women.
Do you believe that the bulk of the money to finance this vast Republican campaign is being provided by people who have the interests of the common man at heart? You know, very few of us are that gullible.
Oh, they may say at election time that they approve the social gains and social objectives of the last seven years. But I say that these men have not yet proven that they even understand what these social gains or social objectives have been.
The people throughout this country know how many and how difficult were the battles that we have fought and won in the last seven years.
Do you want to abandon the protection of people's savings from fraudulent manipulators, the curbing of giant holding companies that despoiled investors and consumers alike, by delivering them into the hands of those who have fought those reforms?
Do you want to abandon the responsibility for the well-being of those who live and work on the farms of the Nation to those who fought against the farm program every inch of the way?
Do you want to abandon collective bargaining, the outlawing of child labor, the minimum wage, the time-and-a-half for overtime, the elimination of sweat-shop conditions, by turning them over to the proven enemies of labor?
Do you want to hamstring the old-age pension system, or unemployment insurance, or aid for children, or maternity welfare, or vocational training for the physically handicapped, or financial aid to the blind by delivering them into the hands of those who have fought and misrepresented those reforms?
Do you want to abandon slum clearance to those Republican leaders who have fought against every appropriation for decent housing?
Do you want to turn over your Government to those who failed to have confidence in the future of America and who now preach fear for the future of America? As an example of that doctrine of fear, certain insurance companies are now sending letters to their policyholders, warning them that if this Administration is retained in office, their policies will shrink in value.
That is just another form of things we have seen before, another form, for instance, of that pay-envelope campaign—that campaign of fear of the last week of 1936.
The fact is that the very existence of most of these insurance companies I speak of was saved by this Administration in 1933. They are today more solvent than they ever were before.
If there were a vestige of truth in these dangerous forebodings, the bonds of the United States Government would be selling at a very low price, instead of well above par. Why, it was only last week that the Treasury of the United States sold some one-year bonds, to pay for public housing—one hundred million dollars worth of them at an interest rate of only one-quarter of one per cent.
And I must not forget to mention that that bond issue was over-subscribed eighteen times. That certainly indicates the solidity of the credit of the United States. And if you need further proof, take a look at the statement of the Commonwealth and Southern System. There you will find that they have bought and hold twenty-one million dollars of United States Government bonds! [Willkie, FDR's opponent, was the lawyer for that system.]
Our program in the past, our program for the future, is, as you know, equality of economic opportunity. Such a program calls for many things. It requires an orderly settlement of industrial disputes not by those devoted to company unions, but by agencies alert to the requirements of labor and mindful of the responsibilities of industry.
This program entails old-age insurance and unemployment insurance, operating on an increasingly wider base, so that eventually it will include every man and woman in the country.
It makes available cheap credit to impoverished tenants, to consumers, and to small business. In fact, it has always seemed to me that our program starts with small business, so that it may grow and flourish.
It curbs the old predatory activities of high finance and monopoly practices.
It guarantees that our national resources are used for the benefit of the whole people—and not exploited for the benefit of a few.
It provides for the resettlement of farmers from marginal lands to richer lands, and for farm ownership for enslaved tenants.
Monopoly does not like this program. Certain types of high finance do not like it. Most of the American plutocracy do not like it.
But the vast majority of American business, the backbone of American business, continues to grow and flourish under it. For that business is interested in reasonable profits, not in promoters' tribute. That business is interested in freedom from monopolistic restraints and economic imperialism. That business knows that the farmers and the workers, the great mass of our citizens, have never asked for more than equality and fair play.

Roosevelt had such success politically and left such an enormous legacy behind because of his focus on essential principles, laid out, again and again, in the short paragraphs--often ladened with key statistics--that he loved. The latest cover story of Time argues that the current crisis may be good for us because it will restore many forms of discipline to American life--and that, in many ways, was what Roosevelt was talking about: the need to discipline the powerful, in particular, to open up rewards and opportunities for the many. President Obama obviously feels the same way. He faces a similarly negative Republican opposition--more negative, as I have pointed out, than FDR's was at the outset of his Administration. But his real problem, at this point, it seems to me, is in his own party and his own Administration.

Roosevelt and his contemporaries, the Missionary generation, had spent their young adulthood during the Progressive era, a liberal era politically. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had introduced the idea of government regulation of the economy into American political life, although their actual steps in that direction had been quite modest. The era of reaction against their efforts had lasted only eight years before the Crash of 1929. Roosevelt had a cadre of middle-aged reformers upon which to draw when he put the New Deal together.

Our own Awakening (about 1965-84) was very liberal socially, but politically it marked the shift from the Democratic majority created by FDR to the new Republican one created by Nixon and solidified by Reagan. There has been no serious effort to reform the economy on behalf of the less well off since the 1960s in the United States. And as a result, President Obama, whose instincts seem to be very good, is relying upon an economic team led by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, each of whom is deeply implicated in the economic changes of the last fifteen years or so, and neither of whom has shown much interest in fundamental reform. I am deeply troubled that the maverick economists that have kept older traditions alive--the Paul Krugmans, Joseph Stiglitzes, and James K. Galbraiths--unanimously feel that the Administration's rescue plans have not found the right path.

No President can move faster than history is ready for, and it may be, sadly, that further disasters will be necessary to discredit what has become the conventional wisdom. Both FDR and Lincoln frequently disappointed their more radical supporters in their first years in office. But sadly, the diseases of the last thity years have infected nearly our entire leadership class. The public is ready for a new one. The problem is to provide it.


Pat Larkey said...


This is useful historical perspective. As your preparation on FDR proceeds, please tell us more about the composition of FDR's circle of close advisors on the issues of that time most germane to our time. Then as now, there are complicated reasons in relationship and communication needs driving the selection of advisors and in driving the the adoption and execution of policies. There is some evidence that Obama is reading the three that you cite, listening to insiders like Romer and Volcker as well as Summers and Geithner, and reading Saez and Sen.

What factors, including close advisors, that led FDR to internment and severely restrictive jewish immigration?

Pat Larkey

Tom said...

Mr. Kaiser,

Crazed right-wing evangelical that I am, I was first drawn to your site to verify the contents of the now-famous email. While you and I will disagree - quite passionately, I suspect - on many points, I appreciate the obvious depth and breadth of knowledge and experience displayed in your "real" writing. Something tells me I will learn much by returning often.


A conservative Libertarian living quietly undercover in (gasp!) Burlington, Vermont

Anonymous said...

I don't know that your not saying this or not as I don't believe you covered it. But Viet Nam was a French Problem to begin with not a US.

pixlpixy said...

After receiving your misquoted article from a friend, I did as you asked, and hit 'Reply to All'. To wit:

"Well, those of you who know me KNEW I'd check this out, didn't you?

"According to Snopes AND David Kaiser his own self, this article isn't his. What prompted me to look was the author's claim that 'history is shouting to me from across the chasm of seven decades', but the man in the attached photo looks at least 10 years younger than that. I didn't find a picture of Kaiser on his own website, so can't even verify that IS Kaiser. But Kaiser does say on his bio page he's only 61. I didn't figure the guy in the photo had 'history shouting at him' 9 years before he was born, know what I mean?

"Anyway, check out the following 2 websites:

"Snopes traced the article back to someone known only as 'TPS':

"And David Kaiser asserts in the first paragraph of his own blog that he didn't write it, doesn't even agree with it. You can read a lengthy article on Kaiser's real opinions at:

"Again, I apologize to all for the 'correction', a habit I know only insults. But, as I've said repeatedly, to the constant ire of my closest friends, the Internet COULD be our most powerful tool since the printing press, if it weren't for its total disregard for historical and journalistic integrity.

"Under the First Amendment, opinions, like this article, SHOULD be fair game. However, without ANY controls on at least the source, innocent people not only get misquoted, but sometimes damaged. S"