Franklin Delano Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in the midst of the most destabilizing domestic crisis since the Civil War--the Great Depression. Like the Civil War, the Great Depression superseded the physical plane; it was a grim spiritual struggle which irrevocably changed the tenor of the American spirit. America's descent into the abyss of depression had begun to erode the American people's confidence in the institutions and practices that had hitherto sustained the nation and bolstered its citizenry's confidence in the face of adversity. Realizing this, FDR chose to confront the Depression "frankly and boldly," (note 1) treating it not as a purely economic phenomenon, but as an insidious enemy. In doing so, FDR established the dominant theme of his long tenure as president: "Since the beginning of our American history we have been engaged in change, in a perpetual, peaceful revolution, a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly, adjusting itself to changing conditions." (note 2)
Upon assuming office, FDR immediately sought to reaffirm America's confidence in the stability and viability of its native political institutions by striking a New Deal--"a sacred obligation"--between the government and the citizenry. (note 3) The New Deal was to be the agent through which individual Americans "reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals in a suddenly changed civilization," (note 4) through "a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife." (note 5) The American way of life could only survive its present peril if the citizenry and its elected officials worked in concert, "wisely and courageously... treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war" (note 6)
In essence, the New Deal was but a reaffirmation of one of the fundamental tenets of American democracy: "our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men." (note 7) Every aspect of the massive public works programs that the New Deal spawned, therefore, was designed to make Americans cognizant of their "individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America." (note 8) The New Deal not only put the unemployed to work, stimulating the national economy, but--just as importantly--proved to an uneasy populace that capitalism and democracy were dynamic enough to ensure that, "this great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper." (note 9) The alternative, Roosevelt repeatedly reminded America, was division, discord, and the end of democracy:
In every land there are always at work forces that drive men apart and forces that draw men together. In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people. (note 10)
The rhetoric of the New Deal was as crucial in achieving significant change in America as its programs themselves. Under the far less charismatic leadership of Herbert Hoover, America had sunk into a malaise of despair. The Hoover Administration's faith in the ultimate and eventual resiliency of the marketplace prevented it from developing a cohesive and overarching recovery plan, leading to the alienation of the populace from its governors. The failure of the federal government to respond immediately and effectively to the dire economic crisis into which the United States had plunged in 1929 was interpreted by the ordinary American as a callow abandonment of the people by its government, leaving him prey to the cruel vicissitudes of economic cycles.
Instead of asking "brother, can you spare a dime?" FDR appealed directly--through a combination of constant verbal coaxing and concrete recovery measures--to the do-it-yourself ethos of American history. "These dark days," Roosevelt promised the American people, "will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men." (note 11) By restoring America's faith in itself, FDR managed to instill in the average American a new confidence that "happy days" were indeed here again, before a single New Deal program had been enacted by Congress. Though economists and historians debate whether the New Deal itself succeeded in sparking America's eventual economic recovery, it was undeniably instrumental in sparking an equally important psychological recovery. Roosevelt was able to maintain his popularity--despite the persistence of extreme economic hardship throughout his first two terms--by successfully transforming the individual materialistic striving for self-preservation of millions of Americans into a communal ideological struggle for the preservation of democracy.
The Great Depression was not solely an American phenomenon--it was but part of a global economic slump. Whereas in America the New Deal had shown FDR that, "democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable," (note 12) the fate of democracy in Europe was quite different. While the United States struggled to arouse itself from its torpor, by drawing upon the "common discipline" (note 13) its history had instilled in its people, the overwhelming economic crisis awoke in Europe's nascent democracies ancient demons, which men such as Hitler and Mussolini effectively exploited exerting upon their populations an antithetical common discipline. While Hitler promised to bring to the world a "new order" at the barrel of a gun, FDR offered an alternative vision of a new order, one predicated upon hope, rather than fear, opportunity rather than enslavement, free expression rather than repression, and cooperation rather than domination. These fundamental freedoms-- guaranteed to Americans in the Constitution and embodied by the New Deal--Roosevelt now offered to the world as "the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy." (note 14)
The dismal failure of appeasement in the face of Hitler's naked aggression was popularly discounted by the overwhelming majority of Americans--outside of immigrant communities and leftist intellectual circles--as a purely European affair, which did not affect America's vital interests. The stunning success of blitzkrieg in 1939-1940, however, left Britain the sole surviving democracy in Europe. Despite the appalling civilian death tolls the Luftwaffe's nightly bombardment of Britain reaped, the majority of Americans stubbornly clung to their isolationist somnambulism, securely separated from the madness by an ocean. The challenge that Roosevelt faced, therefore, at the commencement of his third term, was to convince a reluctant republic that a threat to democracy elsewhere is a threat to democracy everywhere. "Enduring peace," FDR reminded the nation in 1941, "cannot be bought at the cost of other people's freedom." (note 15)
In his State of the Union address of January 1941, Roosevelt proposed an ambitious "lend-lease" program whereby the United States would become the arsenal of democracy by bolstering Britain against the Third Reich:
Let us say to the democracies: "We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. That is our purpose and our pledge." (note 16)
FDR's lend-lease programs ran contrary to the tenor of the American majority. The isolationist sentiment was then at its zenith, attracting enormous crowds to rallies where such "all-American" heroes such as Charles Lindburgh reminded Americans of "Washington's legacy." In his Farewell Address, Washington had cautioned his fellow citizens that:
Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves to artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. (note 17)
The global conflagration which erupted in 1939, however, FDR countered, was no mere territorial war, but an ideological struggle which struck at the very foundations of American democracy. Whilst America revelled in the same "detached and distant situation," in which Washington had left it, "the democratic way of life" was "being directly assailed in every part of the world." (note 18) Therefore, contrary to the dictates of the deified Washington, FDR chose to "interweave" America's destiny with that of Europe, "entangling" America's "peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, [and] Caprice." (note 19)
The economic benefits that a massive aid program such as lend-lease had on a still sluggish American economy cannot--from a purely pragmatic historical viewpoint--be overlooked. Nevertheless, Roosevelt's ability to transform the mundane into the metaphysical is the root of FDR's brilliance as a politician; an ability which enabled him to break the two term presidential precedent set by Washington. By elevating the lend-lease program into democracy's last stand against totalitarianism, Roosevelt set the tone for post-war American foreign policy. In the aftermath of WWII, cold-warriors would build upon the link Roosevelt forged between American democracy and the cause of democracy world-wide, to justify American intervention on foreign shores to counteract the spread--real and perceived--of communism.
The Great Depression was the forge in which the American spirit was tempered. The hardships suffered by ordinary Americans during the Depression--in Roosevelt's words--"toughened the fibre of our people, have renewed their faith and strengthened their devotion to the institutions we make ready to protect." (note 20) That the United States would inexorably be drawn into the cataclysmic conflict between fascism and freedom, Roosevelt never doubted. His aim in drawing the United States out of its carefully preserved neutrality by aiding Britain, and later the Soviet Union, was to ready the American people for the gathering storm.
Europe had fallen so suddenly and completely to the forces of fascism because its leaders had blinded themselves to the threat of fascism, choosing the pollyana path of appeasement over the pragmatic path of preparedness. Upon his election in 1932, Roosevelt had inherited a country which had similarly blinded itself to the perils of over-speculation and laissez-faire economics. The result had been chaos in the face of a sudden and dramatic economic collapse. By easing America into the anti-fascist fray through lend-lease, FDR was readying the United States to place "its destiny in the hands, heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God." (note 21)
The endnotes contain links to electronic versions of the primary documents that are the foundation of this essay. The hypertext versions of the source materials used in this exegesis are maintained by George M. Welling as part of The American Revolution: A HTML Project at the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands.
Plain ASCII text versions of the source materials used in this essay can be found at a number of etext archives. Many of the plain ASCII text links contained in the endnotes lead to documents maintained by the Internet Wiretap in a directory containing documents relating to World War II.
An American Exegesis
An Hypertext Experiment by
Gregory J. Rosmaita
copyright 1993, Gregory J. Rosmaita
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hypertext version copyright 1995,
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